In the marathon origin story, Pheidippides runs from Marathon to Athens to deliver a message of victory and then promptly dies. We’ve come a long way since 490 BC, and today most people run marathons to compete, challenge themselves physically or raise money for charity — and they rarely kick the bucket at the end. But they’re sometimes in a world of hurt, because running 26.2 miles is a feat, and doing it can be taxing on the body.
But with the right training anyone can do it. Looking to join the club? We’ve got some tips, tricks and advice from experts to get you most of the way there. You’ve still got to run the damn thing.
Setting Goals, Hatching a Plan
Aside from forward motion, the most important piece of the marathon training puzzle is outlining goals and hatching a plan. For starters, sign up for a race five or six months down the road, a year if you’re a total stranger to running. Now you’ve got a deadline. It’s real. Nobody trains for a theoretical race, and knowing you’ll have to lace up on a specific date is good motivation for getting up early or swapping drinks at the bar for an after-work run. The next step is to choose a plan; rather than reinvent the wheel we suggest checking out the plans at Runner’s World, Hal Higdon, the Boston Athletic Association or Ben Greenfield’s Marathon Dominator.
“Don’t put too much emphasis on long runs. The total amount of running you do each week is more important than the length of your longest run. You’ll be better off if your hardest week of training includes 45 miles of total running and a long run of 17 miles than you will if it includes 39 miles and a long run of 20 miles.” mattfitzgerald.org
“Training for a marathon without a plan is like driving cross-country without a map or navigation”, Matt Fitzgerald, author of The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Training, says. “The best marathon plans are those that are devised for recreational runners by coaches who also train professional runners, such as the plans in the book Hansons Marathon Method.”
If you’re looking for more hands-on coaching, local running clubs usually have coaches that can help draft a plan. The one important concept to understand and embrace is periodization, which is the sequencing of workouts of varying volume and intensity, culminating in your final event. All good plans should incorporate it, and the alternative — just gradually building distance — is less effective.
Running has always caused injuries, and even if minimalist shoes can encourage a more natural stride with less pounding on the heels, this won’t change. Common running injuries are of the chronic, repetitive variety (rather than acute) and involve the lower extremities: plantar fasciitis, achilles tendonitis, stress fractures, patellofemoral pain and iliotibial band syndrome (we’ve covered them in the Road to Ironman). But that doesn’t mean that injury is inevitable.
“If anything, I’m a preacher of the anti-hack. The little tricks and tips sometimes can produce a marginal benefit. But more often than not, I see runners that take those things too far or treat them as replacements for the methodical build-up that is marathon training. If anything, I’d recommend learning to recover better. Your body makes training adaptations to run longer and faster. But those adaptations occur during recovery, not during running. So if you want to adapt faster, then recover better. Go easy on your easy days, get a full night’s sleep and eat balanced meals — those are the best ways to help your body adapt faster.” newyorkharriers.com
“In general terms, the root cause of many of these problems is overuse and poor strength”, Joe Arencibia, RRCA Certified Coach of the New York Harriers, says. “Overuse can usually be prevented by building up your training at a smart rate. The latter is managed with good cross-training. (That said, everyone’s body is different. You could also have some old injuries or unique conditions that make injury more likely.) The other thing I recommend is to rotate through two or three different kinds of running shoes regularly. I believe it keeps your body from relying too much on the specific geometry of one shoe and forces you to better train your body’s natural stabilizing mechanisms.”
In our experience, a contributing factor to injury is, if not laziness, failing to properly support running with other fitness and lifestyle decisions. Stretching after every run is essential. Cross-training and a regular yoga routine can build muscle to support correct posture over long miles and increase your awareness of pain and where it’s coming from. The challenge with all of this is that it increases training time — but if you’re going to commit half a year or more for a single race, better to be strong and healthy than limp through it.
Most of the conventional wisdom about nutrition is wrong. Well, not exactly; if conventional wisdom is to eat healthy, nutrient-dense foods, then it’s spot on. But eating big bowls of pasta before a race and drinking sugary sports drinks is certainly dated. Instead, more athletes are focusing on eating whole foods and bringing the wisdom from their daily diet into race day, rather than switching to supplements, which will certainly get you through the race but may not be great for your body in the long run.
Top off with water, blend and bottle.
Alternatively, Greenfield suggests making a slurry of chia seeds, water, and lemon or Stevia for flavor. bengreenfieldfitness.com
“The most important thing is that you figure out how to fuel your body with the thousands of calories you’re going to use for training without actually destroying your gut or your metabolism”, says author, nutritionist and personal trainer Ben Greenfield. “For that it comes down to choosing foods that are nutrient-dense and calorie-dense.” He suggests foods like eggs, grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, bone broth, shellfish, coconut milk and avocados.
During the marathon or a long training run, you’ll want to fuel on more than water. One option is to rely on nutritional supplements, of which there are many, from energy gels that give you a quick boost of carbs to more complex formulas that also include protein, electrolytes and amino acids. Greenfield suggests avoiding most of the products marketed to long-distance athletes and instead teaching the body to tap into fat stores. “You’ve got 1,500 to 2,000 calories of storage carbohydrates,” he says.
“Even the leanest athlete on the planet has 30,000-40,000 calories of storage fat. The way you train your body to tap into that fat is (1) avoid eating tons of sugars apart from your training, (2) train your body not to be snacking constantly, (I eat three meals per day) and schedule 12 hours of not eating per day (e.g., 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.), and (3) at least one or two times I’ll go out and do a workout in a fasted state to train my body how to tap into its own fat for fuel.”
Choosing the right race really comes down to personal preference, but it’s worth noting that in a long distance race like a marathon little things tend to add up over time. A flat race like the Chicago marathon will be significantly easier than the Pikes Peak marathon, which has nearly 8,000 feet of elevation gain. Needless to say, first timers should probably opt for a flat course.
“I tend to like really big marathons and really small marathons”, Greg McMillan, of McMillan Running, says. “The big ones are a spectacle and must be enjoyed at some point in your running career. But, big ones are, well, big, so there can be more stress before, during and after the race. Heck, just lining up can be a nightmare when 40,000 people are trying to all cue up! Small ones avoid this and offer much more ease lining up and at the finish area. Of course, there are fewer people to run with along the course, but it’s always fun to experience both ends of the marathon spectrum.”
The great thing about running is that you need barely more than the shoes on your feet to get started. Of course, there are plenty of additions to your running kit and amenities to make the experience more pleasant. At a minimum, we suggest a good pair of running shoes, shorts and a shirt that wick moisture and dry quickly, sunglasses to shield your eyes from weather and debris, a hydration pack for long runs and BodyGlide to prevent chafing. Check out our running section for gear-related updates.
A Few Rules
Getting out of bed for a run at 5 a.m. gets easier the more you do it. Just kidding. But coffee helps.
You’re going to feel bad all day if you don’t get up for that run. You’ll feel like a champ if you do.
Compression gear is a great recovery tool. That doesn’t mean you should wear it to gear expo the day before the race.
Your gastrointestinal issues and bowel movements will become increasingly interesting to you the more you train. Resist the urge to tell your friends.
Join a running club. You’re going to see less of your friends, especially when you start talking about your GI issues.
GU may be portable, but it’s no substitute for lunch on a work day.
The lanky guy who shows up to the race wearing old tennis shoes, a long beard and very short shorts is probably going to beat you.
Hey, running shorts are meant to be short.
Once in a while, run without a watch, on a new trail, with no plans for the afternoon.
You just ran 26.2 miles. Not many people can do that. Go out and get a beer. Get us one, too, Mr. I’m So Fit.
Sequels tend to suck (Caddyshack II, I’m looking at you), and when they’ve got 26.2 miles of pavement in them, the suck-potential goes exponentially up. After my second marathon, I came up with some advice to my former self, who was still prepping for his first. You can listen in. Read this story