With the fall marathon season popping off from the streets of Berlin to Vilnius to New York, hundreds of thousands antsy and seasoned runners will toe the line and run a marathon.
The first thing you have to consider is why you'd like to run and finish (that's the hard part) the marathon. Is it the fact that you love to run? Love to spring lightly on your feet in the cool dawn breeze? Or is it just a life goal to beat your friends at some bet? Maybe you want to prove to yourself that you can stick to your training regimen and improve your health for good!
Whatever your reason, choosing to run a marathon is step one towards the finish line. But there are so many more to take in order to cross that line...
In this article, I'll outline my ideas of what it takes to train for and finish your marathon. Most of this advice is tailored towards people who have not yet finished a marathon. Let’s start from the general idea of how to train for a marathon and then get down to the details of your marathon training plan.
Running a marathon is all about consistency. No matter your current level of fitness, you will need consistent training to finish a full twenty six point two miles in (relative) comfort.
If you're not a very active person, the gains can take a while to set in. To get from the couch to marathon, you should decide straight away to a year long commitment.
Doing this will give you the best chance to avoid injuries as you gradually and safely build up your daily mileage. REMEMBER! It takes you tendons and joints much much longer to adapt than it takes your muscles to become stronger.
Of course, if you are naturally athletic or are already a fairly active person from some other sports activity, you could muscle through a marathon fairly soon after just a few months of 'lucky' injury free running. But honestly, it's not worth the risk.
Hit the road — Shoes
If you're not already a runner, just go to a local store and let them guide you through the fitting process. This should be a REAL running store that focuses on shoes just for runners. Don't be tempted by closeout prices you see online or on Amazon. Once you have some miles in your legs and know your shoe preferences, you can save some money by shopping online.
But for your first pair, it's best to trust experienced staff at the shop. Usually running store employees work there because they also love running and helping people run in the most appropriate shoes for them.
The selection and variety of marathon shoes has grown exponentially as more and more amatuer and recreational runners fall in love with this simple and healthy sport.
Don't get distracted by the pair with your favorite colors, get the ones that fit your foot shape and running style most.
It's time to hit the ground running
Remember that your goal is a long way away and the most important part of every run is not running as fast as you can that day but rather being able to train the next day and the next and the next. The golden rule is never do something today that will compromise your run tomorrow!
There are a ton of training plans out there to choose from but I would say from personal experience that the most important part of the first three months is just making sure that you get three or four runs in a week.
During this initial time you can not worry about taking walking breaks, meeting a certain pace, or having the odd slow day. It's also IMPERATIVE to have a good long warmup and cool-down.
One of the most important aspects of injury prevention for all marathon runners is developing a strong and supportive core. Your back, abs, hips and glutes are all imperative to keeping good running form over long distances and keeping you from being sidelined by a common injury. Spending a few minutes warming up and dedicating 15-20 minutes to a core workout post-run will do wonders for your training.
While not the flashiest workout video, the core routine outlined below it ideal for new and experienced runners:
What else do you need to start running?
I’m fairly minimalist when it comes to gear. Of course it depends on the time of year but a good tech t-shirt and and decent pair of running shorts are all I consider really necessary to get out the door. Of course, big shops like REI have rows and rows of gear that they will sell you as necessary to run. Start running first, then see what else you ‘need’.
Most cities around the world have running clubs anything from multiple runs a week to casual monthly meet-ups. These groups will help you meet more runners and most importantly give you a fun source of inspiration to keep your running consistent.
If you fall behind or miss a few runs in a week, don't let it get you down. Assuming the race you want to run is a significant distance down the road, you can get back at it in no time. Remember not to try to 'make up' mileage after a week of missed runs, it's not a good idea from a training perspective and it can actually cause your joints unnecessary stress that could lead to new injuries.
What will it feel like?
Depending on how active you are, the first few weeks as a runner can involve some significant soreness from your calves specifically. Be sure not to over-stress them though and always listen to your body.
That does not mean lounge in bed if you feel a bit sore. Your muscles will loosen up after just a kilometer and you'll be feeling great just being out in fresh air. In the early weeks of running, make sure you pay special attention to your achilles tendons as these can often become inflamed among new runners. If you have particularly tight calf muscles, they can put even more strain on the achilles. In this case, buy a foam roller and using it regularly after your runs in order to loosen up.
As with all sports, good nutrition and proper recovery is key to your running progress over time.
Core Components of Successful Marathon Training
- Endurance Base: Known as base mileage among most runners, this is the aerobic and physiological capacity you’ve been improving since you started running.
- Recovery and Diet: These two things are absolutely critical to reaching the starting (and finishing) line strong!
- Specificity: Your marathon training plan should prepare you specifically for executing your 42 km on race day to the best of your ability
- Speed Work: While less of your training time will be dedicated to these higher-paced runs, they are definitely important to your progress as a runner.
This is the base level physiological capability that you build up in order to finish long endurance events like marathon running. It takes the body many months to improve. The great news is the most rapid improvements happen early on — especially if you are just beginning to exercise regularly after being relatively sedentary.
What happens is your body adapts quickly to delivering fresh oxygen to your working muscles. This improves everything from heart health to lung function to vascular circulation.
Aside from these noticeable physical changes, you can expect more benefits in the form of improved mood, better sleep, lower cholesterol and much more. After a few months of consistent exercise from 7-10 hours per week, you can expect some great transformations to your figure as well!
The key of base training is to prepare your body for the harder workouts that come later in your 'real' marathon training program. So it's also a great time to try some shorter races just for fun and see what the race day environment is all about.
Luckily, there are plethora of 5-21 kilometer races throughout the year in many cities to join in and, even better, many of them raise money for a great cause like cancer research so you can feel good about signing up. It's also a great way to meet new training partners. Runners are a quite friendly crowd so chat with people about your goal of running a marathon and you'll be sure to get support from more experienced runners.
During base training, you should become comfortable with running around three to four times per week. As long as you get out for 40 minutes to an hour each time, your body will be well on it's way to adapting to the positive stresses of running. Build your weekly distances up gradually and don’t make the mistake ramping up the distances too quickly — known as ‘too much, too soon’ in the running world.
Recovery and Diet
One thing that often comes as a surprise to new runners is the pesky fact that they often do not lose the amount of weight they expect when training for a marathon. I'll get into the details of that shortly but the truth is your best performance will be backed by adequate recovery and a diet that is well-balanced.
First let's talk about why recovery is so important. At the basic physiological level, marathon training is simply applying repeated stress to your body over time. Adaptation of your body comes in the periods of time between those stresses (runs or any workouts).
It's vital to establish healthy and successful recovery routines to get the most out of your marathon training plan. The guidelines are generally the same across the board. Sleep well, use a foam roller regularly, and put your feet up (literally) after a hard workout.
A large number of runners are the morning types. I've never been that kind of runner but for most this works as a good reward mechanism. Get the run done early and then go on about your day happily knowing that you crossed that workout off your calendar straight away.
Doing this also gives you a stronger incentive to get to bed early and get a sound night's sleep.
Diet is an integral part of recovery and it starts right after your training! Be sure to eat and hydrate quickly after you finish a run or workout and get a good ratio of high-quality carbohydrates, proteins and fats to be sure your muscles can rebuild quickly and store the energy you'll need to make your next run even better.
Diet is also a highly individual but for this post I’ll keep my recommendations simple. Eat real, less-processed foods with a high percentage of vegetables, complex carbohydrates, proteins and healthy fats. I plan to write a more detailed article on optimal fueling for runners later.
Once you ramp up your mileage and get into the meat of your marathon training, you’ll be ready to eat just about everything at just about any hour of the day. So keep your kitchen stocked with healthy options or else you may be shocked in the morning to see what you’ve devoured as a midnight snack!
Your end goal is to finish the marathon feeling good about your performance! That will require from 3-6 hours of running at a steady pace depending on your fitness level. So it follows that most of your day to day running workouts will fall close to this 'easy' sustainable pace.
Known as the theory of specificity, it has become more and more popular after the rise of the Hanson's marathon training guide. While it sounds logical enough, for a long time runners did a grand majority of training at a pace that was significantly slower than marathon pace.
As a beginning runner, you should definitely be sticking to 'easy' paces for the over 80% of your running time per week. So what is easy for you? When you're running along you should be able to speak, out loud, in full sentences without losing your breath. If you can't get more than a few words out at a time, you're going too fast.
How to practice your marathon race pace
- First you can start dabbling with mid-week 'tempo' runs that involve 8-10 km of sustained goal pace, or slightly faster than your 'easy' everyday run pace. These runs will prime your body for race day and give you a reality check on what you can achieve in the marathon.
- Practice races from the 10k to half-marathon are a great place to dial in pacing and see where you stand. It goes without mentioning that if you try to run a half-marathon at your target marathon pace and fall apart in the last few kms then trying to hold onto that pace for a full marathon will be a recipe for disaster.
In addition to adapting your body specifically for the pace of your marathon run, these two ancillary components of your overall training load are key to becoming a fitter, stronger and resilient runner.
Most trainers and coaches warn new runners from diving into serious speed work too soon after they start running. And rightfully so, running too much at higher paces adds significant stress to your tendons and joints as they are still trying to adapt to a regular running routine.
So what SHOULD you do as a beginner?
Most coaches agree that starting with small amounts of higher-speed running can give you faster fitness gains. Here are a few ways to ease faster running into your weekly marathon training routine:
- Hills are a great way to get stronger faster, no matter what level runner you are. If you can do some of your regular distance on hilly trails then you will notice yourself improving more quickly and also reduce your chances of injury.
- Fast finish runs are a great way to put some pep in your pacing come race day. Once or twice a week you can gradually increase the speed of the last km or two of your run so that you finish at more of a 5-10k race pace.
- Fartlek runs have a funny name but can really break the boredom of daily runs. During a regular 6-10 km run, throw in a minute or so of higher paced running. These can be random challenges dictated by physical objects along your way or just a gradually harder effort to crest a hill. Throw 4-5 into one of your weekly runs and spice things up.
Now You’re Ready!
When you see your friends posting pics from this fall marathon season and feel that urge to run, I hope this article will give you the tools you need to get off on the right foot.
Let me know:
- Have you ever wanted to run a marathon?
- What kind of running topics do you want to learn more about?