Training for your first marathon: practical tips to get you to the start line

raceexpoSo you registered for a marathon! Scary and exciting! In this post I’ll share some practical tips and tricks to get you through your training. After all, there is nothing a marathon runner likes to do more, than share advice with others running their first marathon (something you will soon find out, if you have not already).

1. Find a training plan that works for you

TrainingPlanA quick Google search will return a number of different marathon training plans. Hal Higdon, Hanson, etc… You can train for a marathon using any of these plans. Here’s a few things to consider when picking a plan.

  • How many weeks do I need to train? Most marathon training plans are 16 weeks long, if you have a good running base (can you go out the door tomorrow and run 15 km/10miles without being completely dead?) you can manage with a 12 week plan. For your first marathon I would recommend a 16 week plan so you can build up the mileage more gradually, but if you are reading this and your marathon ins 13 weeks away, then go find a 12 week plan and get going!
  • How many days a week will you realistically run? I’d recommend trying to run at least 4X a week if training for a marathon. You can train for a marathon with a 3x week plan, but it’ll be easier race day if you can manage 4 days a week. If you are looking to have a strong race you might have a 5X or 6X a week plan. The pros sometimes follow 9 day plans and run 8 days out of 9!
  • Is your marathon hilly? If so you probably want a training plan that includes hill training once a week. That said, I know there are many marathon runners who do not do any hill training because they have hills on their long runs and mid-week runs.
  • Do you want to finish strong? or just finish? If you don’t care if you end up walking for part of the race, then you are fine using a ‘beginner’ training plan. If you are going out for a Boston Qualifying time in your first marathon, then you want a training plan labelled ‘intermediate’ or ‘advanced’.

2. Respect the long run

Of course how long should your longest run be? There are many schools of thought on this. The default is 20 miles/32 km. There are training plans that take you up to 22 miles or 34/36 km. The Hanson plan peaks at 16 miles for the long run, but has you running more mileage on your mid-week runs so the total weekly mileage is similar.

I know runners who had great marathon races with each of the above.

The theory is you never run the full distance before race day because it takes so long to recover. Well given the world of ultra running, and people like Yuki Kawauchi even that is debatable. But for your first marathon, suffice to say you do NOT need to run the full 42 km/26 miles before race day.

Running a 20-22 mile (30-34 km) run does help build your confidence, it helps you believe you can complete the marathon distance.  Even so, most marathon runners are exhausted at the end of their first 20 mile run and can’t help but wonder “how on earth will I run an additional 6 miles/10km on race day!”  Answer: You will be rested and ready, trust in your training!!! I know you don’t believe it when you are dragging yourself through that last mile, but this is how 98% of marathoners train, and pretty much all of us felt like that after our first 20 miler. I know I did!

slowdownAnother common mistake runners make is to run too fast on the long runs. The goal on your long run is to train your body to run for a longer period of time. If you run your long runs at your goal marathon pace you are missing part of the goal. You need to train your body to run for a certain amount of time in addition to a certain amount of distance. Your long runs should be 1 to 1 and a half minutes per mile slower or 45 seconds to 60 seconds slower per km than your planned pace on race day.

If you are one of those lucky people who feels really good on your long runs, and find yourself wanting to run them faster,  try running your marathon pace for the last 3 miles/5 km of a long run. Just to teach your legs how to run at race pace when they are tired.

3. Respect the rest day

Cat nappingHey I’m going to try and get a Boston Qualifier on this marathon, I don’t need a rest day. Yes you do! When you do a hard workout you are tearing your muscles and they are rebuilding stronger! But they need rest to rebuild. Talk to any serious body builder about their workout schedule, they always give the muscles time to rebuild. Give yourself one day a week, or if you are that gung ho follow a 9 day plan and rest once every 9 days instead of once every 7. But that rest day is a REST day, no cross training, no hopping on the bike, or just hitting the gym for a little cross-fit. I know many of you are reading this and going, who in their right mind would trade a rest day for another workout.  Trust me those people are out there, you know who you are!

For the rest of us, enjoy your rest day! A guilt free day (or 2 depending on your plan)  to look forward to with no run, no cross training, nothing, put your feet up, sit on the patio and enjoy!

4. Practice your race day nutrition

You can run a half marathon with nothing but water. Heck some people can run a half marathon without water ( not recommended mind you). Marathon runners typically take some sort of nutrition during their race. You should consider including BOTH of the following in your running nutrition plan:

Electrolyte drinks

nuun tabletsGatorade/Nuun type drinks provide you with electrolytes during your run. When you sweat you lose more than just water. These drinks are designed to help replace what you lose in sweat. They usually come in a tablet or powder form. You mix them with water and bring them with you to drink on the run. If you aren’t sure which brand to try, consider looking up the brand that is provided on the race course for your marathon. It would be great if you could didn’t need to carry your own with you on race day. Gatorade tends to be more syrupy than Nuun. Nuun tends to be more fizzy.  Some flavours contain caffeine (there’s a theory that caffeine can help you on race day) If your stomach reacts to caffeine, a particular brand or flavour you want to know that BEFORE race day! There’s a decent article here on Electrolyte replacement for Marathon training.

Gels/Chomps

Tap Endurance GelElectrolytes replace your sweat, but how do you replenish some of the energy you burn off during the run. You need to keep your muscles fueled! This is where the Gels/Chews/Chomps/etc… fit in. There are gels which come in little packets coming in every flavour imaginable! (Fruit Smoothie, ChocolateMaple syrup, French toast?). Different brands will have a different texture. Chomps/Bloks tend to be more like a gummy bear in texture. Like the gels they come in a variety of flavours. Some runners find it easier to use the chewy nutrition options, swallowing gels mid-run takes a little getting used to. Though I will say if you use the chewy ones on a cold winter run they take forever to soften up and you can spend two miles trying to get all the gummy stuff off your teeth 😉

You really have to try them to find something that works for you. DO NOT try something new on race day. That is not the time to find out that the new lime margarita chews in your race kit give you stomach cramps.

What about Salt tablets?

Salt-ShakerThis is a fairly controversial question, most of my marathon friends do not take salt, but there are some arguments for taking it in moderation. There is a Runner’s world article “Pass the Salt” that discusses it.  The theory is if you get a lot of cramping (multiple muscles not just one cramp in your side, or one cramp in your calf) that can be caused by lack of salt. I only had one marathon where I think I would have benefitted from a salt tablet and that was my 2016 Grandma’s marathon which was unusually hot. I definitely crave salt after a marathon, but Grandma’s was the first race where I think it might have helped mid-race, and I was actually fighting cramps for about 6 miles despite taking gels and Gatorade.

5. So chafing is a thing

body-gllideHaven’t experienced chafing yet?  Well as those long runs get longer, that will likely change. One day you will hop in the shower after a run and yowsa once that water hits you, you’ll know!  Consider it a rite of passage 😉

If you are a guy you want

If you are a girl you want

A good fitting running bra! Okay a few notes on this if you haven’t done a serious shop for your running bra yet.  What is a good fit is different for everyone, so you have to try on several to find what works for you. A few things to consider. Go to a running or fitness store. Ask for help with the fitting. Trying on sports brass is a bit like jeans shopping or swimsuit shopping, it’s going to take a while to figure out what fits you properly, so be prepared to spend a solid hour trying things on. It’s worth it to find something that fits well.

  • For marathon training, you want a bra designed for maximum support (i.e. minimum bounce)
  • I prefer the bras that have a clip on the back because they are easier to remove when I am tired and sweaty at the end of a run.
  • How do I put this, well I guess I just say it, if you wear a light tank top or shirt and you get sweaty or rained on during your run, there will be nipple bumps showing through your shirt. Some bras have firmer or more padded fabric in the front so you don’t have to worry about what shows up in your race photos.
  • If you will spend a decent amount of time training in heat and humidity, you may want to purchase a running bra you feel comfortable wearing without a shirt. Even if you will never run without a shirt, it’s nice to have a bra that you don’t feel is too revealing if you want to change into a dry shirt at the end of a run. Not usually a problem since most swimsuits are more revealing than a running bra.

Other chafing considerations for female runners

  • You may need something extra under the bra strap across the chest, a well placed blister band-aid can apparently help (I have had chafing issues there at EVERY marathon no matter what I try, but I haven’t tried the blister band aid yet, off to buy some this week)
  • As far as undies go… well honestly, many female runners go commando to reduce chafing, but you can buy running undies for women as well.

Regardless of gender you want some Body Glide, or equivalent (fyi no difference at all between the Body Glide for her in the pink container vs the blue container, so buy whichever is cheaper or comes in the bigger container).  Put it wherever you need it! Anywhere that gets red after a long run, or is getting blisters. I put it on my feet, on my toes, on my upper arms where they rub against a tank top, and anywhere else I have noticed friction after a run. I don’t do this for every run, just for my long runs and race day. Hot weather runs cause more chafing than cold weather runs.

Some shorts chafe more than others, you might want to switch to better running socks to wick away the sweat and moisture more as well (SmartWool, Feetures).

Figure out what clothing is best for you on your training runs. DO NOT try out new gear on race day! That is not the day to find out those new shorts or new socks cause chafing or blisters.

6. Cross-training?

You can complete a marathon without doing any cross-training at all. You can follow a marathon training plan, and finish your marathon. *IF* you get addicted to the marathon distance and plan to train for more marathons, you should definitely do some cross-training.

Common Running Injuries

Marathon running is tough on the body, you work out the same muscles over and over again. If you have any weak points in your body, you will find out on marathon day. Some people finish the race bent over because their core muscles are their weak point. I used to have trouble lifting my leg after a marathon because my adductor muscles were a weak point. Weak glutes can result in your hamstrings overcompensating when you run pulling on your lower back giving you back pain and stiffness. Weak hips can cause IT Band issues around your knees.  Shall I go on? I’m not trying to scare you, it’s simply a reality that when you do one activity (in this case running) a lot you build the same muscles, a lot. Over time this creates an imbalance and causes stiffness and injuries.

If you don’t do cross-training you will end up in physio sooner rather than later. You simply cannot keep working the same muscle groups over and over as much as you do when training and running marathons without finding a weak spot or reaching an imbalance that causes an injury.  There is an expression in marathons, half the battle is won if you reach the start line healthy!  Many, many a marathon runner, has had to give up their bib because they did not take care of the rest of their body during marathon training. Youc an likely get through your first without an injury, but if you decide to keep going, figure out a plan for cross-training!  Since I started consistently cross-training (strength and mobility) I have run 5 marathons without a single trip to physio or massage therapy.  Before that I used to go to my physio once a month to tackle knee and/or hamstring issues and/or achilles pain and/or plantar fasciitis.

What sort of cross-training is best for marathon runners?

There are basically two approaches to cross-training.

Strength

Activities that stkettle bellsrengthen your muscles, don’t just focus on the glutes and hamstrings, make sure you work out other muscles groups as well: core, glutes & hips are three of the biggies too often ignored by runners and can cause issues. Over the years I have done everything from kick-boxing, to Tae Kwon Do, kettle bells, to power yoga, to weight training, to HIIT/Tabata classes. Honestly at this point I just do whatever is convenient for me at a local gym, give me a good cardio or strength workout and keeps me motivated.

Mobility/flexibility

yoga for runners bookActivities that help you loosen up those tight muscles such as a martial arts, yoga, or just going for a massage. When I did kick boxing and Tae Kwon Do I found that helped (in particular those both involve a lot of kicking which was great for loosening up my hips and legs). These days I do yoga and yoga tune-up. Yoga tune-up, sometimes called mobility or myofascial yoga, is totally different from normal yoga, it’s basically a guided rolling class, where you roll out your muscles on balls and foam rollers. Again, its a question of finding something that fits into your schedule and your routine.

7. Don’t freak out over a missed run

oops signLife happens, even when you are training for a marathon. Generally speaking if you miss a run because you are sick or travelling, let it go, pick up with the next run on your training plan. If you are travelling and can get your long run in a day earlier or day later that’s better than missing a run.  Some runs are more significant than others. The long run on the weekend and the longest weekday runs are probably the most important because those are the runs that build up your strength and mileage for race day.

All that said, I almost never get all my longs runs in when training for a marathon. Inevitably something messes up my training and I miss a run or two. If you miss multiple runs multiple weels, well, you may need adjust your expectations on race day.

DO NOT move your training plan back a week to make up for a week vacation. One thing you will notice: All training plans taper to lower mileage the last two weeks before the race. That taper is very important. Once your marathon is two weeks away, there is nothing you can do to run that marathon faster or stronger except take it easy and rest. If you try to add extra runs, extra speed or extra hills in those last two weeks the only thing you can do is potentially hurt yourself or tire yourself out. You want to feel restless, you want to find yourself at the start line with legs saying, oh good finally a run, let’s do this!

8 Accept that some training days are better than others

snailSome days you get out there and the training goes great, you feel good, you may have a target pace and you keep that pace. Other days you get out there and you are slogging from the first step and it doesn’t get easier. There are weeks where you find yourself really struggling to get in the miles and you are running slower than ever! This is normal! You have been pushing your body for weeks on end, at some point your body says, hey this is hard! Run slower if you have to, walk a bit if you have to, just know that even though the runs are slow you are improving. You will find your speed and energy again for the race.

9. Embrace the suck

Tired runner on a hillAt some point in one of your training runs, it will suck. You will be tired, or hot, or cold, or wet, or your legs will hurt, or you will reach a hill and be exhausted.  This is a chance to mentally practice for race day. There will come a point on race day which will suck, and you will be tired and you will want to walk or stop. So every time you hit a moment like that in your training and you manage to get through it, give yourself a gold star! Ask yourself if this happened at Mile 24 /km 38 on race day would I still finish! Yes I would! I can do this! This is my chance to practice working through the tough parts. Find a mantra, a thought, a tune to listen to, that gets you through those moments. Training is a chance to practice building mental strength as well as physical strength.

10. Figure out what will get you out the door

At some point during your marathon training, life will give you convenient excuses to skip your run. For example, as I type this, there is an extreme heat warning, yet I am supposed to do hills today. I did my long run yesterday and I did a 5 km race Saturday, I could skip this ‘one’ hill run right? I could, but I also missed two runs last weekend because I was travelling for a wedding. As my friend Christopher once told me “There is always an excuse to not run.” The challenge is to know when to use that excuse (e.g. you have the flu!), and when to tell yourself, “well that just means it’s a bigger achievement to get the run done today!”

What will get you out the door on those days when you have a convenient excuse to skip the run? Do you need to bribe yourself? Do you have a favorite podcast or playlist? Do you have a training partner? Is there a local running group you can join?  If you are running a local marathon there may be a running group that has a clinic specifically for people running your marathon! Would it help if you tracked each run completed and each run missed? You may need to experiment to figure out what gets you out the door.

When I first got back into running, my friend, Christopher and I had a bet. if either of us did not get in at least x runs a week we owed the other person dinner. We were  competitive enough that got us out the door on days we felt like skipping. I do maintain  a spreadsheet with my running schedule and I mark each run as green (completed), red (missed), or yellow (altered to be shorter or easier).  When I see a week with a lot of red, the next week I am motivated to get back to green!  I joined a running group that does speed work together.  The friendly peer pressure gets me through the full workout, if everyone else is tired and they are doing that last mile repeat, why am I quitting early? Having company on long runs can be a blessing as well. My first two marathons I did my long runs alone, but now I have a have a group of runners I meet for long runs. Those runners have become friends. I look forward to catching up with my long run buddies and swapping stories on everything, and I do mean everything! When you run 14-22 miles week after week with the same group of people you have lots of time to catch up.

It may take a while to find the right running group, or within your running group and community people who are compatible running partners for your long runs. Things to consider include

  • What pace do they run? If they are slower than you, you could always run their pace for the first part of the run, and then pick up the pace and run alone for the last x miles. Nothing wrong with practicing a negative split. If they are faster than you, do you know the route well enough to make sure that if you can’t keep up you won’t get lost running on your own?
  • How far are they running? If they are running less than you do you want to go out early and get the extra miles in ahead of time and finish your run with them or do you want to add on miles at the end? If you have a shorter run is it an out and back route so you can just turnaround earlier or are they running a loop which will require you to find a creative shortcut to reduce the mileage.
  • Do they do a walk/run or a continuous run? It is very hard to walk run with a running group, or run continuous with a walk/run group. The two styles are not really compatible
  • Do they stop for water breaks and bathroom breaks? When I ran alone I took my gels and water without stopping. My current long run partners stops every 5 miles /8 km or so for water and gels. This took a slight adjustment for me, but it does not affect how I race. They will also stop and wait or detour as needed for anyone who needs a bathroom break! As fellow runners we are all sympathetic to that particular need!
  • How do you know where and when to meet? Some running groups post the long run plans to Facebook. The Seattle Green Lake Runners use Meetup to post the long run routes and start times. The Ottawa K2J runners don’t have a formal long run, so various runners within the group just use email: one person emails a suggested time and departure point, the others respond with their distances and by the weekend we know who is coming when. That works well, but sometimes a new runner joins and we accidentally forget to include them on the email thread, so it’s not a perfect system.

11. Get the right shoes

pile of running shoesGo to a good running store and find out which shoes are right for you… neutral?  mild stability? moderate stability? Which brand fits your foot best? some have a larger toe box than others, some are better for a narrower foot or higher arch. You can run a 10 km or a half marathon on a shoe that isn’t quite right, but as the miles build up the wrong shoe is more likely to cause injury. Do you need orthotics?

Some running stores will do a gait analysis in store and have treadmills so you can try out the shoes then and there, or allow you to take home shoes to try on your treadmill so you can see which feel best. I actually went to a local foot clinic to get a professional gait analysis and recommendations for shoes.  It cost about $150 but if that saves me buying the wrong pair of running shoes or one visit to physio it’s pretty much paid for itself!  At least now if I do get an injury I am confident it’s not because of my shoes.

FYI – A pair of running shoes will typically last for about 500 km of running before they should replaced.

DO NOT try a brand new pair of running shoes on race day!

Are you noticing a trend here about NOT trying new things on race day 🙂 Yeah that’s not an accident 😉

12. Find inspiration in others

Spirit of the marathon movie posterOkay I guess I have 11 tips. The marathon is part physical and part mental. You will get bored on race day, you will reach a point on race day where you think to yourself, why am I doing this, this sucks. But you can get through it!

There are lots of running podcasts, movies, and books you can read to get yourself motivated. My friend Christopher introduced me to the movie Spirit of the Marathon, a great way to get motivated the day or week before your race (I am getting all choked up just watching the trailer just now). Deena Kastor’s “Let your Mind Run” is a great read on the power of positive thinking to get you through training and race day. Meb Keflezighi’s 26 marathons reminds us that even the best marathon runners have setbacks, make mistakes, and have good and bad days. Or you can watch  Where Dreams Go To Die and suddenly a marathon doesn’t seem quite so insane in comparison, however much you are hurting race day, it’s nothing compared to what the Barkley runners go through!  That doesn’t make finish our marathon any less of an achievement. Take pride in knowing that the moment you cross that finish line on race day you get to say:

I AM A MARATHONER!

If you found this post helpful, check out the rest of my running related posts including marathon race reports

 

 

 

 

 

4 responses to this post.

  1. Great tips, Sue. Makes me wish I could do it all again! I miss all that pain and suffering; you feel so satisfied afterwards!!

    Reply

    • So true! You go through so many emotions in that last mile (not to mention the first 25.2) and the 24-48 hours post marathon. You ALWAYS finish with a sense of accomplishment no matter how fast/slow and regardless. Especially on the first marathon! But still true on the 10th marathon!

      Reply

  2. Love this. Super comprehensive, practical tips. Thank you!!!

    Reply

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