Completing a marathon is serious business requiring serious preparation. The best approach is to become a student of the sport by seeking guidance from many sources. The goal of “Your First Marathon and Beyond” isn’t necessarily to mirror my strategy, but to provide the tools necessary for you to develop your own plan of attack that will work best for you without making it over-complicated.
Although I’ve competed at a high level in four different demanding sports and served for five years in the United States Marine Corps I never embraced running like I should have. It wasn’t until middle-age that I began running for the sake of running by joining the marathon team of an organization that serves injured Veterans and families.
I went from non-runner to marathon in 6 months; a strategy that I’d encourage you to avoid. Spending time in the bathtub in the fetal position does not define good training. They say that smart people learn from their mistakes and geniuses learn from the mistakes of others so reading “Your First Marathon and Beyond” will automatically put you in the “genius” category.
It subsequently took me five marathons to work out the bugs and internalize all aspects of proper preparation and Race Day performance. Through the following chapters we’ll discuss every piece of the puzzle to profoundly accelerate the learning process as it applies to the new marathon runner with a heavy emphasis on keeping it simple.
Outstanding advice is available from the world-class athletes who have competed at the highest levels and I highly recommend that you seek them out. What you’ll find here are the finer points of initiating your entrance into the marathon world that are often overlooked by those with enormous natural talent, phenomenal accomplishments and who probably never were where the rest of us are.
The final three chapters are previously written pieces that will hopefully capture the essence of why some of us run. Your reasons will vary, but I thought it a good way to get in the spirit as we get to work, dramatically improve our health and enjoy all of the rewards of marathon training and competition.
Unless you get lucky, finding the best shoe for you will be a journey; and possibly a long one. Have no fear, though, since you’re far from alone.
My strongest recommendation is to visit your local running store and ask that they do the best job possible identifying your perfect running shoe. The primary variables are to what degree you pronate or supinate (or remain neutral), level of desired cushion and how you run. You want a shoe that helps to keep your foot in the proper biomechanical position which, in turn, works its way up to every joint helping to keep them, too, in proper position (including the spine).
You might consider visiting a podiatrist to identify your foot type who might also make some great recommendations. Family physicians specializing in sports medicine will often have tremendous experience with marathon runners and are almost always athletes themselves as are some of the remarkable chiropractors who treat and consult with runners.
Through it all, though, you are ultimately responsible so take what you learn from an expert as your starting point. It’s a great idea to visit review sites on the internet to stay current, increase your knowledge and simply to see what others have to say about a particular shoe that you might be interested in.
The factor that takes the complication out of the equation is to not stress over shoe selection and understand that it might take a while to get it right. Getting close is good enough for now. Over time you’ll continue to learn more about your needs and what shoe best addresses them.
For example, I’m a 14 4E 200 pound forefoot/midfoot striker who likes a lot of cushion (even though my heel barely touches the ground). Took me about 6 years to figure that out and identify the two shoes that hit the nail on the head with a heavily cushioned neutral shoe that comes in extra-wide widths.
For now just do your best and go out and run. Agonizing over anything is inconsistent with anything having anything to do with running so certainly don’t start now. And there’s always that chance that you’ll get it right with the first try. Just be keenly aware that for a proper running shoe fit you may have to go a size up or even 2 sizes up in some cases.
Proper technique is also a personal endeavor, but there are some universal principles to discuss. Observing the most successful runners and studying many a gait analysis reveals a mid-foot strike with a slight forward lean as the most common approach. Keep your head up, everything straight and upright (pointing forward with your hips) and land as softly as possible with every step.
Keep your feet underneath without over-striding. Try to run uphill as effortlessly as possible without pushing too hard. Pushing uphill early on will likely rear its ugly head in the later miles. And then try to just glide downhill, as well, maintaining good form throughout.
The above is a general guide. Some of the best runners land on their heel which throws everything just presented out of the window. Rule #1 is that we’re all individuals with different biomechanics. The best way to identify your perfect stride is to not worry about it, relax as much as possible and let it fall into place (while maintaining the basics of good technique).
The rules of landing softly and keeping everything straight and smooth are universal. From there the rest is up to you. As with anything else I would encourage you to view a number of videos on running technique. Take anything you see with a grain of salt, use what applies to you and discard the rest. You’ll find, too, that some advice is just plain wrong so keep that in mind as well.
To summarize - be so relaxed that even your eyeballs are relaxed (with the help of sunglasses on sunny days). From there everything else will follow to include “falling into” your natural stride (while being mindful of the basics). Hips pointing forward, pumping the arms back and forth on a straight and consistent plane and periodically reassessing your level of relaxation (especially in the shoulders) and adjusting accordingly will ensure proper alignment of all of your structures starting with the bottom of your feet and working up to the top of your head.
Additionally, I try to maintain a very slight activation of the center of balance of my body which is in the lower abdomen. That sort of keeps the body functioning as one single well-balanced unit vs. a bunch of limbs flying through space; if that makes sense.
We now enter the arena of the most commonly asked question - What program should I select? Since this guide focuses on the new marathoner I’d simply recommend seeking out the guidance of sites like HalHigdon.com, coolrunning.com, etc. These suggest novice/beginner plans founded on decades of experience and are a tremendous resource.
Don’t spend too much time in front of the computer. Pick a plan that jumps out and get started. You’ll be infinitely more productive by going out to run vs. agonizing over a plan. The goal of a plan is to provide structure and guidance, but none are written in stone.
There’s almost no way to go wrong if you select one of these programs and follow it to the best of your ability making adjustments and taking extra days off as needed. Outside of that strategy, though, there are a few ways to go wrong:
Mistake #1 is to have not built a good foundation of fitness prior to starting your marathon training program. If running in a fall marathon, for example, you will want to spend the entire winter and spring months running at least 3 to 8 miles 3 or 4 times per week.
I would strongly suggest that if you’re not doing that you’re not ready to begin marathon training. The primary goal is to complete the race, but you don’t want to needlessly suffer. Pre-plan training is critical with safety and good health being at the very top of the list. Taking time off is necessary, but marathon training is more of a consistent year round endeavor than not.
Mistake #2 is to feel the need to make up missed days. If/when you miss a run just let it go, move on and get back on track. Listen to your body as it will tell you when you need extra rest (to include when sick, injured or feel an injury brewing).
I spend the winter months just going out to run 3 or 4 days/week (with our local club’s Sunday races through the snow and ice being a highlight of the year). I use that time to build up to my spring plan which is to continue the theme of “just going out to run” including periodic trail runs and speed training at the track.
After trying several plans (all of which were great learning experiences) I’ve gravitated towards the one from marathon superstar Pete Pfitzinger that tops out with a 55 mile week. It and his more aggressive plans are outlined in his outstanding book “Advanced Marathoning” which I’d enthusiastically recommend to anyone.
I chose his abbreviated 12 week plan and stretched it out over 15 weeks by adding rest days. Being in my 50’s and not an overly accomplished runner requires more rest than some. Not only is it important to ensure proper recover, but to also alternate hard days with easy ones (which helps to ensure proper recovery).
Everyone’s different so ultimately only you can develop the “perfect” plan (often with the help of others of course) and adding a week or 2 (or more) to any program is often not a bad idea for any mortal to consider.
Pete Pfitzinger’s plans really jumped out and grabbed my attention although I still like the Hal Higdon programs as a great choice for the beginner (even though some consider them to be too conservative). Another approach is presented in the Hanson plans that top out at 16 miles as the longest run, but offers very little rest during the week. It’s almost like one long 18 week run teaching you how to run on constantly tired legs. Another, the FIRST Program, suggests 3 varied runs per week plus 2 hard cross training sessions.
And yet another, which I like a lot, is to build up to 8 miles on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday or Saturday and 16 on Sunday. Tuesday and Thursday would be a tempo run with 4 faster miles in the middle (or towards the end). Friday or Saturday is also an 8-miler with a faster 1 or 2 minutes at or near the end of each mile (or even 8 100-meter “slow sprints” spread throughout).
And then you would ideally do about 10 or more 16 mile Sundays in a row before tapering to 8 miles the Sunday before the race. The last week might conclude with 6 miles on Tuesday, 4 on Thursday and 2 on Friday and pretty sure that this will be my plan the next time strictly based on its simplicity.
Some programs use running while tired as a strategy to simulate the later miles. I generally favor recovery and variety, but many do have great success using 6 days/week programs. Again, it’s all about personal preference, individual needs and whether you’re normal or a superhuman.
It’s often a great idea to mix up the type of terrain to include dirt paths, trails and hills. This will add strength and promote overall health and balance, but be mindful to try to work on pacing regardless of conditions or environment. Anything not “marathon training” specific in moderation is likely beneficial, but do concentrate the majority of your training on terrain similar to the race course.
Trails and hills promote strength, but may also slow you down and make it difficult to maintain a steady pace necessary for proper marathon training. Just strike a balance, be aware of your goals and try to replicate race conditions to the best of your ability throughout the training cycle.
Some might be critical of speed training and they do make a point. You really want to hone in on pace training during your marathon training cycle, but I’m still a big fan of speed training. I’ll continue to encourage variety to promote overall health and athleticism. Speed training develops speed and strength in a way that offers many benefits to profoundly complement your foundational workouts and you can still maintain a pace on your recovery laps.
In my opinion, the most important factor regardless of program is to be aware of your marathon pacing during your training. A particular run might be slower than pace, tempo, faster than pace, speed or trail, but still maintain some sort of pace that will simulate your upcoming 26.2 mile race.
I’ll end most runs with a few drills of running sideways while alternating crossing the legs in front and in back and jumping knee thrusts plus a few toe raises off of a curb.
Some plans leave no room for cross training, but I’m a big fan of bike riding once or twice a week for 30 to 60 minutes. Like strength training, cross training balances the musculoskeletal system and it can be almost any athletic activity or training modality.
The last word on plan selection is that it’s an evolution from marathon to marathon where you’ll make changes until you’ve arrived at perfection. Then, once there, you’ll continue to learn and evolve to new levels.
Most potential issues with balancing the marathon lifestyle are often addressed by running early in the morning. Running your shorter distances later in the day is often necessary, but completing the long Sunday run early in the morning will minimize the chance of it cutting into family (and other) time with the added benefit of simulating the early morning start of most marathons.
Almost everyone is impressed and is pulling for you, but they still don’t really get it and probably don’t care all that much. My own family gets a little concerned from time to time, but I have caught my wife secretly bragging to others about her marathon running husband. She continues to deny that she said anything, but I have witnesses.
Part of the problem with the beginning marathon runner and family members is that training is difficult and they tend to harp on the early challenges a bit while overlooking the successes (that increase over time). Understand that you’re better able to manage the challenges with experience so just continue onward and don’t look back.
The reward of the marathon lifestyle is a healthy lifestyle. You’re leading by example spreading good habits and good health to others.
It still can be a challenge to balance all commitments, but it wouldn’t be a marathon if it was easy. Just do your best, make family and work a higher priority than training by periodically rearranging your training schedule and just do your thing without too much fanfare and minimizing conflict as much as possible.
Through it all consider taking a periodic day off if you’re simply too tired to the point of it affecting other areas of your life. You might also consider getting to bed earlier, reviewing your diet or even reassessing your training plan.
The only thing that’s written into stone is your family and professional commitments. Ideally, marathon training will enhance family and work as you effectively move forward being awesome in all areas with each complementing the others.
Strength training is critical, often overlooked and a lot easier than you might think. The goal is to complement running and it doesn’t take much to balance out the musculoskeletal system (with benefits that are infinite with minimal investment).
My areas of greatest concern were with the connective tissues in front of my hips that felt as though they were fraying away from the bone starting around mile 15 or so. The pain was unbearable and completely eliminated with strength training.
Some will point you to weight training. While they’re not wrong, I personally find that weight training takes away too much of the energy that I need for running. All I need are a chin up bar, adjustable dumbbells, a few kettlebells, an elastic resistance band and a stability ball.
My recommendation is to pick a plan designed for runners whether it’s mine or one that you find online or in a magazine and evolve with it as you hone in on your own needs. I strongly believe in treating the entire body as every part is connected. So, for example, if you have patellar tendonitis you would still pursue a full body routine and not just quad/hamstring exercises.
Without further ado, my own evolution (which will certainly continue to evolve) has me at this current point. Anything that doesn’t readily make sense can be found in any number of YouTube videos with most variations of each not being incorrect:
2. Kettlebell Squat and Press
3. Push Ups on Fist
4. Pull Ups
5. Resistance Band Knee Thrust
6. Dumbbell Rowing
8. Single Leg Deadlift
9. Jack Knife
10. Lower Body Twist
11. Bird Dog
12. Stability Ball Hip Extension
I box for 5+ minutes to warm-up and then go right into one complete set of strength training. Sometimes it’s all at full intensity and often it isn’t. Again, the main focus is running. Strength training is just a complement to eliminate any weakness/imbalance.
A strength training session is performed 1 to 3 times per week depending on how I feel and may or may not be on a “running” day. The options are endless and it’s always a great idea to include variety (for all the obvious reasons). I use the above exercises as my foundation and periodically alternate them with something new that I’ll find online or in a magazine. I view strength training as a form of cross training, but more specific cross training is also encouraged to further balance out the leg muscles and connective tissues and provide an occasional break from and/or complement to running.
It is essential to perform all strength training slowly and deliberately with impeccable form and control. I’ll also typically end with sets of straight and bent single leg toe raises, both leg toe raises, walking on your toes and jumping/alternating lunges.
I’ll generally start the session with some basic active stretching and then conclude with some gentle stretch/hold “static” stretching. Each run is also initiated with some active stretching (smoothly swinging the legs in both directions, forward and sideways jumping jacks, etc.) and ends with static.
Active stretching warms you up preparing you for activity while static stretching requires a fully warmed up muscle for the desired effect of permanent tissue elongation. Static stretching must be gentle and completely free of pain. Your body responds to pain by contracting which will actually produce a result opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.
In my opinion, the premier expert on stretching is karate world champion Bill Wallace and viewing his 3 part “How to Advanced Stretching” series will introduce you to the concepts that any athlete would greatly benefit from. You can then, if you like, do further research for some more “running” specific stretches that you might make part of a consistent routine.
I’ll also occasionally break out the foam roller. Without getting too into it I’d suggest finding a few online videos to learn more about foam rolling. The main precautions are to avoid the low back, focus on excellent form and go slow. Some will warn against rolling on the side of the leg between the knee and hip for a few different reasons, but I’d put my faith in those who are known entities like videos from “running” magazines and sports medicine physicians who specialize with runners.
Nutrition is yet another area to not overcomplicate. A good plan is simply to follow the basics of including all of the food groups, eating a great daily breakfast and keeping a lid on overdoing the junk food.
My only rule beyond that is in trying to keep it light after dinner. Some of the biggest “weight gain violations” come from eating too closely to bedtime. Extra pounds are more weight to lug around for 26 miles, but don’t get too hung up on diet. Just be sensible and strategic in your choices and meal times and do your best to include “superfoods” like avocados and sweet potatoes.
I generally have a small bowl of oatmeal and a banana before the long Sunday run and try to give it at least an hour to digest.
You must hydrate during the long runs and I do so with a backpack. There are many great choices and almost no bad ones. Some get by with a hydration belt, but I need as much water as I can get.
You must also use some sort of electrolyte formula during your long runs and most will experiment with different fuels (whether in gel form or powder mixed with water).
Water is also important for your shorter runs and definitely for the mid-distance runs like those over 6 miles. I’ll usually add an electrolyte of some sort for runs 8 miles and above, but fueling normally isn’t necessary except for the official Sunday long run and, of course, the marathon.
It’s important, too, to eat properly after each long run to restore your body and aid in recovery. Proper foods are just the usual non-processed items that you’re already aware of - nothing exotic.
The week of the marathon is nothing overly out of the ordinary. I just follow the common advice of pouring on the vegetables and pasta. Many will get more scientific than that, but my preference is simplicity so I just stuff my face with a wide variety of those foods.
Race Day diet and fueling also need not be complicated, but is enormously important to get it right. It’s important (as with any advice) to remember that you’re an individual with individual needs that are often different from those of others. Also, don’t try anything new on Race Day.
My personal Race Day plan is a finely honed strategy discovered through much error & error. I eat a good breakfast 3 hours before the start with a small amount of oatmeal, banana, peanut butter sandwich and a muffin with a good amount of water. I’ll normally bring this with me to the hotel already prepared since I eat it at 5AM and it can be hit or miss to rely on the hotel restaurant (usually miss).
Leave enough time for digestion so your system can concentrate on running during the race and not on digesting breakfast.
The start area is littered with porta-potties so do make use of them including right before the race begins (and do you best prior to leaving the hotel or home).
I’ve been making a homemade gel of UCAN (as discussed on the UCAN website) and put it into a few soft flasks. Other companies have similar products or you may prefer (or include) any one of a number of gels. I just find that UCAN and products like it do a great job at keeping the muscles fed in the critical later miles.
I’d typically begin with a packet’s worth of UCAN (mixed with water) 30-45 minutes before the start and then another packet at mile 10 and then another at mile 17 (slowly ingested over the course of 5+ minutes). I complement this with a Salt Stick tablet every 3 miles (for electrolyte intake). Combining this fueling and electrolyte strategy is my most recent best effort to maintain stable blood sugar while warding off the common phenomena of debilitating depletion.
Note that everyone’s different and that one’s needs and education evolve over time. With that, I’ve been experimenting with Tailwind Nutrition powder which is a combined carbohydrate/electrolyte. So far so good, but there’s endless options and your perfect formula and delivery will only come from educating yourself to the best of your ability and always being open to change. Do use every weekend long run to refine your Race Day fueling strategy which now has me trying a scoop of Tailwind per 4 miles mixed directly into my hydration pack.
On Race Day I’ll likely do a scoop before the start and then 8 scoops in my pack. I’ll also grab some water at every stop and carry an extra scoop or two in a plastic bag just in case.
Most will find that there’s enough water on the course and would prefer to not be weighed down, but if you’re large and sweaty, drink more than most and/or it’s hot out you might consider your hydration pack or belt to complement what’s offered by race personnel. You’ll likely have a choice of water or Gatorade. I generally stick with water due to the use of Salt Stick tablets or Tailwind and, being large and sweaty, do currently use my hydration pack during a marathon.
I’ll mention medications here and just say that any drug that suppresses the pain mechanisms should be avoided (except for after a run or race if you feel the need to calm down some inflammation). You’ll need to know if something is causing pain and address its source by adjusting in some way or seeking medical care.
I experienced a very violent and traumatic hip injury in 1990 and had the good fortune of the care of a world-class surgeon, but still experienced constant mild pain ever since. That pain disappeared once I adopted the “running” lifestyle. Also, the common onset of high cholesterol appeared at mid-life which suddenly became normal with the introduction of regular running.
My editor, mentor, fellow Marine, veteran marathoner and ultra-marathon racer was on a variety of health-related medications which are all now a thing of the past once entering into the world of serious running.
The benefits to your health of running probably aren’t fully known or understood, but are very real. It’s an obvious result, but can’t be overstated. There’s simply no down side. Just be sensible, don’t run when injured, properly care for injuries if/when they happen and enjoy all of it.
Many studies reveal that there’s an electrical impulse in a healthy joint that is caused by activity implying that activity creates this impulse that keeps the joint healthy. Correspondingly, the vast majority of joint replacements are performed on patients who aren’t active. Companies even develop products that try to replicate these impulses, with varying degrees of success, but nothing compares with the real thing.
That probably covers it other than to say to proceed with common sense, sensible goals and strategies and constant learning/listening to your body. Build slowly into anything, get all the rest you need and live long & prosper.
We already discussed Race Day nutrition and will now suggest some strategies. I’ll avoid the obvious, but it’s not a bad idea to lay everything out the night before. Try to know the course, even if only from the online course map, and exactly where the start is (along with any pre-start logistics).
If it’s cold you might want to bring along some inexpensive sweats to discard once the race starts. You’ll heat up pretty quickly so shorts and your race shirt should do the trick even if it’s pretty cold out.
The other piece of remarkably critical gear (also important on your long runs) is nipple protection if you’re a male. I use a cut out piece of mole skin from any pharmacy and it just gets horrible if not used. Some companies make specific products and some will use Band-Aids. Just use something or you risk a catastrophe.
The only other item that I use and usually only on Race Day is some sort of anti-chafing balm between the legs and on the sides. I don’t find this to be critical, but it can’t hurt and does help a little; and often more so with others.
Just 2 more things and then I’ll see you at the Finish Line:
If you’re so inclined you might like to join a pace group and then stick with them from start to finish if possible. Don’t be overly aggressive in predicting your time and they’re usually in 15 minute increments. 5 hours is a great time for your first marathon so maybe use that as a median and go up or down from there in your prediction and pace group selection.
The second thing is to start slow and stay that way. No matter how good you feel you must maintain your self-control. 26 miles is a long distance, but made much longer if you go out too fast and push too hard. Also, starting slow gives you a great opportunity to properly warm up as you develop into a nice stride.
Constantly think of relaxation, energy conservation and impeccable form maintained throughout and landing softly. This, after all, is a marathon. You will be running a lot more slowly if you have nothing left for the later miles. And if (maybe when) you “hit the wall” just stay relaxed and composed and that Finish Line will eventually appear. The energy lift from the crowd in the final stretch will be unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.
I wish you the very best of luck as you complete your first marathon. You’ve done the work and are among the elite.