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10 Tips for Beginning Marathoners

by Turner Wright Nov 17, 2008
First of all, you should know: each and every one of you is crazy. Every last one. Don’t let anyone tell you any differently.

WHAT OTHER EXPLANATION could you give for running over 42km in a single stint? Every runner in the history of time has had at least one race where he questions his sanity at the starting line.

For those who stay in the game, these are constant feelings. No matter how accustomed you grow to the mileage, no matter how much energy you seem to have down the road, it will always come back to you, standing cold and wet in the mud between two cheaply constructed barriers surrounded by thousands of scantily dressed, muscle-clad runners.

We live for this.

If you’re thinking about joining the club, here are a few tips to get you started:

1. “The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials”

…You don’t become a runner by winning a morning workout. The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials. How could he make them understand?

You’re not going to just be running 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers. No, far more than that. For the months before, you’re going to slowly increase your distance during long runs, your speed during interval workouts, and your muscle mass with weight training. 26.2, daunting as it may sound to a beginner, has hundreds of miles that come before it.

2. Getting started

Set a goal time. You can change it depending on how your training proceeds – you might even decide to settle for a half-marathon finish – but set a goal. Do you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon, or just finish so you can say “I DID IT!!”?

You might even decide to do a half marathon instead of a full, but either way, set a goal.

3. Avoiding stress fractures

You don’t have to take a nasty fall to break a bone. Stress fractures are caused by repeated loading on the bones and usually occur in the legs. Think of your muscles as the shock absorbers on your car; without proper training, the shocks don’t function properly and the stress is forcibly absorbed by the only thing available – the bones.

As a result, it’s a very good idea to only increase your weekly mileage by 10%. Starting out doing 10 miles/week? Next week you can do 11.

There are other considerations as well, from the surface you’re training on – concrete or trail running – to the support provided by footwear.

If you do want to try and reduce the stress on your legs, consider aquajogging: a way of running underwater that effectively exercises the legs without providing any impact forces. You should also try to avoid everything but the high-end treadmills, as many increase the stress on your legs and knees.

4. More than leg motion

Although it’s certainly possible to finish a marathon after months of straight running, it’s also a good idea to combine those miles with other cardio and anaerobic workouts:

  • Swimming is great for building stamina and lung efficiency. It also brings you one step closer to training for a triathlon.
  • Weight training is kind of necessary, in my humble opinion. Doing squats and intensive exercises will improve your leg muscle and overall performance.
  • There are many schools of thought here: running and yoga, running and tai chi. See what feels right to you.
5. Set a timeline

You can do the math yourself, depending on your starting weekly mileage (i.e., how long will it take you to get up to 20+ mile runs by adding 10% weekly?), but if you’re used to going a few miles and have a little racing experience, 4-5 months of training should be sufficient. Six months would be ideal.

Don’t fool yourself; training up to do that kind of distance is going to be a major time commitment. You’ll reach the point where you need two hours or more to do your daily run, and that doesn’t include time for weight training and everything else.

I nearly failed my fall semester at university because I was reaching the end of my training and topping 50 miles/week.

6. Nutrition

Two simple rules:

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeinated beverages.
  • Hydrate.

Other than that, generic nutritional advice will do: be smart, eat fresh fruit, avoid fatty foods, and get some quality protein into your system.

Once you start going 10+ miles/day, you can pretty much eat anything you want without consequence. Just like a pregnant woman supporting some strange cravings, you should listen to what your body is telling you to ingest.

7. The long run

There’s an ongoing debate among marathon runners: what should your longest run be before the race? 20-22 miles, or something more conservative?

For my first marathon, the 2005 Austin Freescale, my long run was up to 20 miles, and I had competed in a 30K six weeks prior to race day. I must admit, I wasn’t thrilled with the time it took my legs to fully recover from that three-hour run, but I did feel so much more prepared for the actual distance, knowing, if nothing else, I could finish 20/26ths of the race.

Before the 2006 Boston Marathon, I kept my long run down to 16 miles. Although I was confident I could finish, part of that was due to my prior marathon experience. I did manage to finish with a semi-decent time, 3:04:46, but my leg muscles were on fire after the race, and I attributed that to improper training: I should have pushed myself and just accepted a few days of recovery.

The bottom line? It’s different for each person. Ask trainers, listen to your body, and consider how much time you have to run.

8. Keeping pace

Maintaining the pace you’re most comfortable with and keeping the time you want are difficult tasks, which is why training groups and stopwatches were invented.

During the race, depending on the size, there might be a few assigned pace leaders, their respective finish times pinned to their backs. Follow them if need be, or in the footsteps of your experienced friend who is known for keeping his pace consistent.

9. During the race

Hydrate and eat a protein-packed meal before your race. After that gun goes off and your brain turns to Swiss cheese when you think about the reality that you actually have to run this thing now, you can start to consider strategy.

Try to avoid the Poweraid or sugary drinks provided along the course; although you will have to stop and get some water eventually, energy drinks typically give you a large drain when running before any noticeable results surface.

The wall. The wall is the point at which your brain and your legs are screaming for you to stop performing such arduous tasks as moving one foot in front of the other. After the wall, the only thing propelling you is sheer determination.

We’re past logic and reason. The only thing left is force of will. “Chuck Norris wouldn’t stop,” said a sign before the 20-mile mark in Boston.

10. Pain

I’ve never really subscribed to the philosophy of “no pain, no gain” when it comes to distance running.

As long as you build up your distance properly, take the time to stretch before and after workouts, and do whatever is necessary when you need to cool down – massages, short runs, striders, stretching, walking in a circle – you should not have to go through the excruciating pain one might associate with running from Marathon to Athens.

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