You bit the bullet. You took the plunge. You signed up for a marathon. Whether it's your first or your 50th, you've got several months of training ahead of you. Even if you've done it before (perhaps especially if you've done it before!), marathon training can be daunting.
Which workouts should you include in your training schedule? What's the best way to stay fueled up and hydrated on long runs? How do you prevent injury? What happens if you hit a mental or physical snag? How do you handle conflicting training advice? What are the best ways to stay motivated?
Find the answers you're looking for with these top 10 marathon training tips. First, let's talk about your training schedule.
Schedule Your Success
Marathon training is a big commitment. You can expect to spend 10 hours a week in training, possibly more. Training is mentally, physically and emotionally demanding, and it's critical to choose a schedule that helps you achieve your goals without affecting your lifestyle.
If you have a particularly busy lifestyle, or if you aren't looking to break any world records, Runnersworld.com columnist Jenny Hadfield, author of Marathoning for Mortals, says a training schedule with three runs per week might do the trick. With this type of schedule, you would do one easy run, one tempo (faster) run and one long run per week. On two to three of your non-running days, you should do some cross training, such as biking, swimming or strength training. Remember to always leave at least one or two rest days in your schedule.
If you're trying to improve your time, or if you prefer running over cross-training, a schedule that includes four runs per week might be the way to go. Hadfield suggests a tempo run, a short easy run, a moderately longer easy run and a long run. On two of your non-running days, strength train or cross-train, and make sure you leave one day entirely free for rest [source: Hadfield].
There are a ton of free or fee-based marathon schedule planners online. Once you've picked the schedule that suits your style, it's time to think about how to stay hydrated while you sweat. We tackle that subject in the next section.
Wear Your Water
The sports drink industry is quick to point out the benefits of carb-loaded, electrolyte-replenishing thirst quenchers, but plain old water also has a long history of staving off dehydration. Your individual tastes, the length of your run and the weather conditions where you're running should dictate which form of hydration will work best for you. For shorter runs, a simple bottle of water should do the trick. If you're running for more than an hour, or in particularly hot or humid weather, consider switching to sports drinks, which contain carbohydrates for energy and electrolytes to bolster hydration.
Once you've settled on your beverage of choice, you need to figure out how to transport it while you run. For shorter runs, you can simply carry your water or sports drink with you. For longer runs, consider wearing your water. Hydration belts have elastic loops that hold several small refillable bottles. Hydration backpacks contain a refillable rubber bladder with a tube that loops over your shoulder, letting you to sip on the go.
Sometimes even sports drinks aren't enough to keep your body properly fueled. In the next section, we talk about loading up on carbs before, during and after the race.
Food for Feet
Science suggests that if runners fuel up their muscles and liver with glycogen before a big race, they won't tire out as quickly. Sports dietician Leslie Bonci suggests eating .45 grams (.02 ounces) of carbohydrates, about the equivalent of half a bagel with a tablespoon of jam, one hour before a long run. If eating before you run gives you a grumpy stomach, try drinking a 16-ounce (.47-liter) sports drink about 5 minutes before you head out.
To keep your body full of energy during your long runs, mix up the types of carbs you ingest. A mix of glucose, fructose and sucrose will improve the rate of carbohydrate absorption and help you feel the effects faster [source: Bonci]. Sports beans (or plain old jelly beans,) handfuls of nuts or raisins, and specially formulated gels (Accel, Gu) are easy to transport in pockets. Before you stuff a fanny pack with candy, however, Bonci also advises that "less is more" when it comes to carb-loading during a run.
For better recovery after your long runs, try to eat a small snack immediately after you finish running. The other half of your pre-run bagel or a handful of almonds should do the trick.
Before you plop down on your couch to munch your way to recovery, however, you should attend to another post-run ritual. Our next tip is all about stretching.
Stretch It Out
Thinking back to grade school calisthenics, where toe touches, windmills and torso twists ruled the day, it's hard to imagine that the subject of stretching could spawn debate. However, research seems to show that stretching, especially static stretching (holding muscles past the point of tension for twenty or more seconds), may actually make athletes more prone to injury [source: Burfoot].
Dynamic stretching, which uses controlled movement to improve range of motion, increase heart rate and loosen up muscles, seems to be a better alternative. Runnersworld.com has video of a good run-specific dynamic stretching routine, which includes:
- Butt kicks. Kick your heel up and try to get it to touch your rear as you walk. Repeat 10 times.
- Toy soldier. Walk forward kicking each leg straight out front of your body like a goose-stepping soldier. Do 10 reps on each leg.
- Pike stretch. Drop to the ground in the pike position (like doing a push-up, but your rear is high in the air) and gently press the heel of your right foot into the ground using the toe of your left foot. Repeat 10 times for each side.
Once you're stretched out, it's time to put one foot in front of the other and get moving. If you find yourself adding extra stretches just to postpone your run for a few more moments, our next tip offers ways to psyche yourself up.
Psyche Yourself Up
Today is not your day. Maybe work is making you crazy. Maybe you step out of the door only to be blasted by blistering heat and choking humidity. Or it could be the reverse: foul rain and freezing temperatures. Maybe you had a terrible run yesterday and you're afraid that a repeat experience will drive you to run your bib number and training schedule through the nearest shredder.
It's easy to psych yourself out. You tell yourself you'll skip today and catch up later in the week. Before you know it, you've missed a week's worth of crucial training.
Running a marathon is a classic test of physical endurance, but it's also an immense mental challenge. On days when you're your own worst enemy, a personal mantra can help. Picture that medal, cool and solid, against your chest.
In a perfect world, the pep talk you've given yourself will send you shooting off on your run like a cannon. If you still find yourself struggling with negative thoughts, however, our next training tip offers a few tricks that will help you go the distance.
You Better Believe It
You made it out the door for your midweek run, but your feet are dragging. Your legs feel like lead. For no reason, your regular route somehow feels impossible. "I can't even run 6 miles," you find yourself thinking. "How will I ever run 26?"
Before you go down that rabbit hole, remember that hundreds of thousands of people finish marathons each year. The number has nearly doubled in the past decade alone [source: Regenold]. Most of these people are average Joes, not elite athletes. If they can do it, you better believe you can, too.
When negative thinking threatens to derail you in the middle of a run, something as simple as counting your footsteps can distract your inner naysayer. Try to guess how many steps it will take to get to the next lamppost or the end of the block.
Believe you can do it, and there will be no stopping you -- not even when you have to sort through conflicting and confusing training advice. We chase down that topic in the next section.
Don't Get Overwhelmed with Advice
Once word gets out that you're training for a marathon, you won't believe how many runners will seek you out to talk shop. Suddenly, everyone who's ever run a 5K will overwhelm you with running advice.
"Forget long, slow distance," your CrossFitting coworker will declare, "What you need are intense, short-burst workouts." Your friend Tim, a veteran marathoner, will advise you to add hill workouts and speed drills to your trainings schedule. Even your brother will suggest you switch to a new brand of running shoe.
You yourself will likely be spending a lot of free time perusing online running resources and magazines. Immersing yourself in the world of running is a great way to stay motivated. But you should take care not to switch up your training schedule with every newfangled workout you run across. You set your goals in the beginning when you selected your schedule. Now is the time to trust the process. Throwing too many new drills into the mix can result in overtraining, which is the quickest route to injury. We talk about overtraining in the next section.
When you're focused on goal -- a personal best, an improved split time or a marathon under 3 hours -- it's all too easy to overtrain. You tell yourself, "My splits were 10 seconds off pace on my last long run; maybe if I run double the number of hills this week, I can improve my speed." If negative thinking can turn your mind against you, too much training combined with too little rest can turn your body against you. Don't wait until you roll your ankle or limp home on a stress fracture to conclude that you might be overdoing it.
There are over 130 physiological signs of overtraining, including elevated heart rate and colds that linger [source: Aschwanden]. Since you probably don't plan on taking daily blood samples, another way to monitor your health is to give yourself an attitude check. Are you unusually grumpy or short-tempered? If so, you might be overtraining.
In Marathon training, what you do when you aren't running can be just as important as the workouts themselves. Your body needs plenty of sleep and quality nutrition in order to recover properly. If you don't honor the rest and taper days on your schedule, you might end up injured and unable to complete your race.
Next up, we talk about the hallmark of marathon training: the long run.
Dig the Long Run
As you edge closer to race day, your weekly long run will get even longer. At the height of training, you'll run somewhere between 20 and 26 miles. There are several schools of thought on the long run. Some trainers, such as Hal Higdon, believe that a maximum long run of 20 miles will carry you through the full 26.2 distance on race day. Higdon says, "I consider the distance between 20 and 26 miles to be sacred ground, thus you are only allowed to step into it with a race number on your chest." [source: Active.com]. Other trainers, such as Jeff Galloway, firmly believe you should run the full distance in training. Both types of training have produced excellent marathoners.
The one thing most marathon trainers can agree on is that the long run is the single most essential component of the training schedule. Long runs train the heart to endure distance, teach the body to burn fat as fuel, and recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers to support the slow-twitch fibers necessary for distance running [source: Eyestone]. Long runs also help runners build the psychological skills necessary to conquer boredom, burnout and negative thinking.
Long runs also help teach the most essential marathon survival skill: pacing. Read on to find out how.
Short, easy runs teach you how to maintain a pace and finish in a consistent time. Tempo (faster) runs encourage you to push your pace and run a little harder than is comfortable in order to improve your speed. Long runs show you how to slow down your pace and conserve your energy so you don't run out of steam halfway through.
When race day comes with its fanfares and thrills, all that careful training sometimes flies out the window. The field is thronging around you; spectators are cheering wildly. You can hear your own heart beat. Even elite runners with years of training and experience can fall prey to race day jitters and pace problems.
When the starting gun cracks through your race day morning and the runners around you surge forward, remember above all else to pace yourself. Those guys breaking free from the pack at mile 2 may be on their knees by mile 24. Imagine yourself waving merrily as you pass them by.
You've trained hard, and you've trained well. On race day, all you have to do is trust your training and not let all the excitement get the best of you. There will be plenty of cause for celebration at the finish line.
Before you train for your first marathon, you'll need some information. Visit HowStuffWorks to learn how to train for your first marathon.
- 10 Training Tips for a 5K
- 10 Training Tips for a 10K
- Top 5 Tips for Creative Run Workouts
- How to Train for Your First 5K
- How to Train for Your First Marathon
- How to Avoid Overtraining in Running
- Can I run when I have a cold?
- Does running reduce stress?
- Does running fight depression?
- How many calories does running burn?
- Aschwanden, Christie. "Are You Overtraining?" Runner's World. Oct. 16, 2007. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-238-267--12200-0,00.html
- Bonci, Leslie J. "Fueling For Distance: When and What." Runner's World. April 3, 2010. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://askthesportsdietitian.runnersworld.com/2010/04/fueling-for-distance-when-and-what.html
- Burfoot, Amby. "Does Stretching Prevent Injury?" Runner's World. August 2004. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-241-287--7001-0,00.html
- Eyestone, Ed. "The Long View." Runner's World. September, 2010. (08.03.10)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-238-244--13613-0,00.html
- Fitzgerald, Matt. "Flexibility Training." Runner's World. August 2004. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-241-287--7422-0,00.html
- Galloway, Jeff. "Marathon: You can do it." Shelter Publications. 2010. (Aug. 3, 2010)
- Hadfield, Jenny. "Marathon Training + Strength Training Recipes." Runner's World. Aug. 6, 2007. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://askcoachjenny.runnersworld.com/2007/08/marathon-training-strength-training-recipes.html
- "Marathon FAQ with Hal Higdon." Active.com. 2010. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.active.com/running/Articles/Marathon_FAQ_with_Hal_Higdon__part_2.htm
- Kimball, Nikki. "A Dynamic Stretching Routine." Runnersworld.com [Video.] March, 2010. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/0,7120,s6-241-287--13442-0,00.html
- Regenold, Stephen. "Ultrafit: In It for the Long Run." Star Tribune. Oct. 2, 2007. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.startribune.com/lifestyle/health/11345306.html
- Shea, Sarah Bowen. "Carbs on the Run." Runner's World. Aug. 14, 2008. (Aug. 3, 2010)http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-242-301--12826-0,00.html