Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Your First Marathon


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” 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.
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” 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.

Shoe Selection

Finding the "best" shoe for you will be a journey; and possibly a long one that might never end.  Have no fear, though, since that's not a bad thing.
My strongest recommendation is to visit your local running store to see what fits properly and is comfortable.  Sometimes we get way too caught up on pronation, supination and what support is required to address those, but pronation and supination are natural phenomena that usually need no addressing.  If there's a problem it's probably more about strength and technique and less about buying something off-the-shelf.
The factor that takes the complication out of the equation is to not stress over shoe selection and strive for comfort and proper fit.  Just be aware that for a proper running shoe fit you may have to go a size up so don't necessarily have a particular sized fixed in your head.       
               Many experts suggest that a neutral shoe is "best" for most and that good running technique is infinitely more important than shoe selection.  Pronation and supination often get a bad rap, but are essential components of proper function.
               It's also universally suggested to rotate 2 different shoes sort of as a form of cross-training; kind of, and just keep trying out new shoes forever and not worry too much about it.

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.

The Plan

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.  The goal of a plan is to provide structure and guidance, but none are written in stone or are "perfect".  You just need to follow the universal rules of the long run, pace, gradual increases, recovery and strength training.
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 5 miles a few times per week plus an 8 to 10+ mile long run on the weekend. 
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.
Everyone’s different so ultimately only you can develop the “perfect” plan (often with the help of others of course) and modifying almost any program to suit your needs/challenges - like stretching a program out a bit if you feel like you need more rest days.
                An enthusiastically recommended book is "Advanced Marathoning" by Pete Pfitzinger which offers a lot of insight and a few more aggressive plans.  Two other highly respected resources with very widely used programs are at www.halhigdon.com and www.coolrunning.com
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.
               The FIRST Program offers 3 varied runs per week plus 2 45-minute cross training sessions; although some who like the thought of this might also look at the 24 week Higdon Marathon 3 Program.  Here it (the Hal Higdon one) is with an extra day in the gym (see Strength/Cross Training below) -

                 The "easiest" one from "Advanced Marathoning" which is still pretty aggressive, but stretching it out from 18 weeks to 23 -

               This one keeps it really simple by running 3 different 8-milers each week building up to 10 16-mile Sunday runs (which a friend of mine did to a 2:48 finish) -

               Another that looks really great is the Intermediate one from a recent issue of Runners World -


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.  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, intervals, faster than pace, speed or trail, but still maintain some sort of pace that will simulate your upcoming 26.2 mile race.  And it's also critical to alternate the intensity of your runs often based on listening to your body and then doing what it tells you.
               Many do harp on making your long Saturday or Sunday run long and slow, but some consider "long and slow" consistent with a goal of finishing vs. "marathon pace" (for the long weekend run) with a goal of maximizing your potential.  Most seem to say "long and slow" to build up the capillaries, etc. so it's possibly not terribly wrong to say both.  Maybe long and slow more often than not with an occasional marathon pace long run.
Plan selection is an evolution from marathon to marathon where you’ll make changes and continue to learn and develop.  Being competitive is a different goal than running-a-good-race so be realistic and honest with your goals and prepare consistent with that theme.
                You just need to properly prepare for this monster of a distance regardless of your goal and be at a certain level of preparation even before preparing.

Family, Work and Other Commitments

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/Cross Training

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.
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 constantly 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.

                  Home Workout:
                - Calf Raises
                - Bridge, Resistance Band Knee
                - Squats
                - Pull UPs
                - Split Squats
                - Single Leg Squats with Reach
                - Exercise Ball Pass

                  In the Gym:
 - Rope Jumping - 5 minutes  View and Purchase on Amazon
                - Boxing - 5 minutes
                - Calf Walk
                - Sled
                - Tire
                - Hyperextensions
                - Dumbbell Bench Press
                - Plank Rowing
                - Kettlebell Swings
                - Paloff Press
                - Swimming - 40 x25 meters  View and Purchase Goggles on Amazon

Again, the main focus is running with strength training just a complement for minimizing any weakness/imbalance.  It's important to warm up and use impeccably perfect form.  I tend to shy away from harsh (on the joints and back) plyometrics and stick with slow, deliberate movements.  I do, however, place a very high importance on strength training and tend to alternate running on one day with strength on the next.
This may lead to questions about cross training.  One has to run to get better at running and strength training can be considered cross training, but rope jumping, boxing and swimming are my favorites and I include them all during strength training.
The great "active" vs. "static" stretching debate rages on, but I like and use both.  Active stretching (swinging your legs, rotating hips, etc.) warms you up 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.  So, with that, I use active stretching as part of my warm-up prior to activity and proper/very gentle static stretching after a workout (and often stretch as it's own separate stretching session after a brief warm-up).
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.  And I'm finding that I'm becoming more susceptible to injury with age so proper stretching is becoming a much more regular part of my daily routine (to include prolonged sessions of just stretching).  
I’ll also break out the foam roller a lot.  Without getting too into it I’d suggest finding a few online videos to learn more about foam rolling.  Foam rolling breaks up scar tissue, increases circulation and promotes healing.  Stay towards the middle of a muscle group and avoid tendon insertion points and bony areas (and don't make it overly painful).  I generally get my calves (at different angles), IT band (but not all the way or down - staying away from the insertion point at the joints), hamstrings, quads, upper back and butt.
               The main precautions are to avoid the low back, focus on excellent form and go slow.

Nutrition, Fueling and Hydration

Nutrition is yet another area to not over-complicate.  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 (or nothing) 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.  And I use a hydration belt for mid-distance runs.
You must also use some sort of electrolyte formula during your long runs (and shorter ones too if it's hot out and/or if you're big and sweaty) and most will experiment with different fuels (whether in gel form or powder mixed with water).
Water is also important for your shorter runs (especially in the heat of summer) and definitely for the mid-distance runs like those over 6 miles.  I’ll usually add a Salt Stick electrolyte tablet or 2 for runs 5 miles and up (when it's hot out), but fueling normally isn’t necessary except for the official weekend 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.
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 and an egg white with a good amount of water (and a Salt Stick tablet - one with breakfast and one the night before).  I’ll normally bring this with me to the hotel already prepared since I eat it at 5AM (for an 8AM start) and it can be hit or miss to rely on the hotel restaurant (usually miss).  And then I top it off with slowly drinking 2 scoops of UCAN.
Leave enough time for digestion so your system can concentrate on running during the race and not on digesting breakfast.  It's critical to start a marathon with an empty stomach.
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).
Note that everyone’s different and that one’s needs and education evolve over time.  I’ve been using 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 the weekend long run to refine your Race Day fueling strategy which, for me, is a scoop of Tailwind per 4 miles.
                For the race I put 6 scoops of Tailwind as a concentrated mixture in a 2-bottle hydration belt and the water offered on the course (2 or 3 cups per water stop); taking a periodic squirt of Tailwind.  I also have another 1.5 scoops of UCAN mixed into a 150ml soft flask that I'll take around miles 10, 15 and 20.  If you use a hydration belt just make sure it's worn properly so you don't wear a hole into your abdomen.  Next time, though, I think I'm going to try to go with putting the Tailwind into a 2nd soft flask (both in a belt with a zippered compartment) as a highly concentrated mixture and just grab all the water I can at every water stop. 
You’ll likely have a choice of water or Gatorade.  I stick with water due to the use of Tailwind and just try to listen to my body to tell me how much to drink (which is usually 2 or 3 cups at every water station as noted above).
I’ll mention medications and suggest 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.
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 and properly care for injuries if/when they happen.
                Speaking of injuries - seeking the guidance of a medical professional is going to typically be better than from me, but I do tend to do a very easy walk/run once able rather than completely rest until healed and then jump back in where I think I should be.  Of course, the goal is to not get injured in the first place (with proper warm ups, stretching, strength training and common sense), but sometimes that calf gives out for no apparent reason, for example, or some other calamity.
                Might as well include safety with "Health" and mention to be very aware of safety out there.  If you run in the morning or at night with a headlamp just be aware that you might startle drivers or other pedestrians so common sense rules.  Also, I'm a very big proponent of giving cars the right of way regardless of what the laws are.  They're a lot bigger than me and becoming part of their bumper isn't an option even if I'm in the right.
                To go several steps further - twice in the past 3 years a driver felt it necessary to take aim at me while running way off in the shoulder so there's that.  Both times I ran after them with fire coming out of my eyeballs and they sped away in both cases.  That's why I generally reserve music for when on the treadmill only.  Total 360 degree awareness is critical 100% of the time.
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.

Race Day Checklist (in no particular order) 

- cell phone/charger
- toiletries
- sunscreen
- anti chafing
- breakfast
- travel day lunch/snacks
- a paper towel to keep in your pocket in case you need it
- lip moisturizer
- sunglasses
- running shoes
- water bottles
- confirmation paperwork/ID or bib (if mailed)/safety pins
- maps and any directions you may need
- hotel info
- travel materials
- camera
- plastic bag for dirty clothes
- fuel
- belt - View and Purchase on Amazon
- soft flasks - View and Purchase on Amazon
- hydration system (if used) - be sure to wear properly to not create a wound
- nipple guards (for guys)
- throw-away sweats
- clothes for the weekend
- race shorts, shirt, socks, underwear
- hat/gloves
- rain gear
- hand warmers - View and Purchase on Amazon
- be very careful of carrying anything in your pockets - it'll likely wear a hole in your leg

Race Day

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). 
                Speaking of the day before - I think it's a really good idea to not walk around too much and to not do a light run.  Many will disagree and they're not wrong, but I just feel the need to get as much rest as possible the day before.
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.
                And do your best in the bathroom before leaving the hotel and be prepared to hit the porta potties a few times before the race starts (to include like a minute before the start - it'll likely take a while to get to the Starting Line anyway so no need to be overly rushed with the call of nature).
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.  Many suggest to take it easy for the first 13 miles, pick it up a little if you feel really good and then drop the hammer down at 20 if you can.
                And then once across the Finish Line make sure you fully rehydrate and eat good quality foods.  
Good luck and if I can leave you with one additional item it would be to remain positive no matter what.  Training's gonna get tough and so is the race.  Just stay positive and behold the power of the mind.  Even if you don't feel like it just fake a good attitude and it'll come (or won't leave in the first place).  This may, in fact, be the most important training/Race Day tool.

"In Search of the Wholey Sale":

My 2018 Marine Corps Marathon Fundraiser in Support of
The Travis Manion Foundation -