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How To Run A Marathon

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Running has always been hard for me.  I’m not one of those people that can easily get off the couch and start running seamlessly.  I have always held runners on the highest pedestal because it’s hard.  Sure, there are those that it comes easy for and look like an antelope gliding down the road, but for the majority of people, it takes dedication, perseverance and a lot of heart to keep logging mileage.

I remember the first time I realized that I wanted to step outside my comfort zone and instead of idolizing marathon and ironman finishers, I wanted to be one of them.  Some people call me a masochist, but I love to push myself to the edge and see just what I’m made of in lots of types of situations.  I’d like to think most marathoners have that in common with me.  I was 22 years old volunteering for a school project at Ironman Arizona.  I never really knew what that event was until that day.  I also have never felt more inspired and compelled to do something in my life.  Now, I haven’t even attempted a triathlon yet, but I have run 4 marathons to date.  Runners and triathletes are some of the most spirited people in society.  Their athletic events are like no other – they are average people who have dedicated themselves to training for an event for months and you get to watch them shine.  This is where my enthusiasm to running was born.  I found myself through running.

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Where Do I Start?

This is a tricky question – yet so easy – start running! There are hundreds of methods to begin marathon training and I’m here to share the way I began, my trials and tribulations and what I did right and what I wish I had done differently.

When I decided that I was going to start running, I knew that a running group was the way to go for me.  I had no idea how to run further than 1 mile without being completely out of breath and having a strong urge to walk.  I didn’t know how to get my endurance to increase and my strength to carry me for this type of workout.  I wasn’t out of shape, but I was in no running shape either.  My first piece of advice when you want to start running is to join a running group with novice runners.  If you look on meetup, google or ask your local running store, there will be a plethora of running groups.  Some are free, some are for charity and some offer a more structured plan with a leader or coach for a cost.  It is up to you to decide what your needs are to make your decision.

I joined 1st Marathon, a running group in Tempe, AZ.  This group has several locations in the Phoenix metro area with a broad range of runners.  I met them in a park one Saturday morning at 6 am to start my running program.  I was 22 years old and was probably the youngest one there.  There was a coach and a plan for mileage based on training for the Rock n’ Roll Arizona marathon or ½ marathon.  We were running 3 miles that day.  I had never run more than 1 mile, so that seemed far to me.  I was wearing cotton capri pants and a cotton tank top with shoes that definitely weren’t the proper running shoes for me.  I made it through that run that day, but not easily.  It was August in Arizona and I was drenched in sweat and everything hurt on me, but I felt accomplished.  I knew at this point that I wanted to push myself and become better at this because there was nothing better than a runner’s high.

I continued to up my mileage by one mile per week for several weeks until I had horrible shin splints and I couldn’t go anymore and was forced to slow the mileage increases after I completed a half marathon.  I did learn a valuable lesson however: In order to lessen the chance of getting injured, build a base.

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Build a Base

This is highly individualized based on current fitness levels, the distance of the race you are desiring and your body and how prone to injury you are.  Like I said, I had no base built whatsoever and I wanted to run at least a ½ marathon but I didn’t have a clear view on whether I wanted to stop with the ½ marathon or push to do the marathon that January.  My advice is to be able to run at least 4 miles comfortably if you want to train for a marathon that is six months out.  For all of my marathons, I was able to do this and my training went fairly smoothly.  In order to build up to the 4 miles, you can always look up a couch to 5k program or go to Hal Higdon’s website for training plans.

Commit to a Race

There is a debate in my mind on which should come first between building a base and committing to a race.  Once you commit to a race, that is your motivation for your whole training “season.” You push through your runs with the end result in mind.  It depends on the type of person you are.  If you need extra motivation to run, then do this part first!  Once you have committed to a race, make sure you have adequate time for training.  I recommend 6 months for novice first time marathoners.  Even for my 4th marathon, I gave myself 4 months and that was just 5 months after my previous marathon.  I like to build mileage slowly and that’s the time frame I need.

There is also great debate on when to sign up for the marathon.  There are always the early bird special signup rates that are much cheaper than the day of sign up fees.  The problem I have with signing up too far in advance is that from time to time everyone inevitably has a race they were targeting that they are unable to run in due to injury, illness, time commitments, or other events getting in the way.  My husband is notorious for doing this – he’ll be gung ho on a race and then 9 months later, he realizes that the race isn’t going to happen and we’re out the money.   I like to sign up a month or two before the race when you have a good feel how your training is going and that you can for sure get to the starting line.

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Finding a Running Coach

This one isn’t exactly necessary but it’s strongly advised (and in my book, it’s necessary).  It doesn’t have to be an expensive running coach; a running group will work too.  However, there are lots of options for very affordable running coaches out there.  My husband was targeting the Ventura Marathon in September and he had Jason Fitzgerald of Strength Running write him a plan, give him exercises he should be doing and provide support for him throughout.

I joined a running group for two of the four marathons I completed that had coaches that ran the group.  I can’t tell you how many times I emailed my first running coach about question after question.  She was such great support!

Local running stores often have very knowledgeable employees about running.  They are not a substitute for a coach, but a lot of times you can ask them questions too.

Trust me, find someone who is more knowledgeable than you about running (and you agree with their approach) and hold them tight!

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Running Partners

Running partners are invaluable too, especially at the beginning of your running journey.  They can be found through meetup.com, local running stores, and running groups if you don’t already have a buddy that runs or wants to start running.

When you run with someone, make sure they are somewhere in the vicinity of your pace.  It’s always good to run with someone that is slightly faster than you especially for shorter mid-week runs, but make sure you aren’t killing yourself to keep up with them because then you can lose your motivation and love for running as well as your running form suffers and injury can occur.

That’s the good thing about running; it’s an individual sport.  You are competing against yourself for better times not the people around you really especially if you aren’t doing it competitively.  I’m not a very competitive person by nature and my first goal with running was always to just finish the run or race.  As I had more experience running, I started to think about pace more and try to PR (personal record) races.

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Diet

A lot of people think that runners are able to eat whatever they want because running burns so many calories (myself included at the beginning).  Unfortunately, this is a myth!  Even long runs don’t give you a free pass for the all-you-can-eat buffet.  Running requires fuel for you to get the most bang for your buck and feel your best.

Everyone is different, so their dietary needs are individualized too.  Here are a few guidelines I use when training for a marathon:

  • Eat high “nutrient dense fruits and vegetables to obtain antioxidants

  • Eat high quality protein (approximately 1 gram/lb. of body weight) to help build immune system cells and rebuild muscles.

  • Eat high quality nuts, seeds, and cold pressed oils to obtain essential fatty acids.

  • Use a high quality electrolyte replacement drink after long runs and on hot days.

  • Avoid sugar because it leads to inflammation.

  • Avoid alcohol due to it’s dehydrating effects.

Most people have heard of carbohydrate loading as a way to store energy for use for a long run the next day.  This is often overdone by runners.  The role of carbohydrates loading to to delay muscle glycogen depletion.  This depletion can be the limiting factor in the completion of intense, long-duration runs.  The depletion actually does not occur unless you are exercising for 75% of more for over 90 minutes), which is an unlikely intensity.  Most training sessions occur at an intensity of 50-65% in which most energy expenditure is still coming from fat.

The night before a long run or marathon, make sure to eat an adequate, balanced meal and drink lots of water.

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Cross Training

When training for a marathon, I think it’s important to do more than just run.  Pounding pavement can be hard on the body.  I usually run 4 times during the week, cross train once and have 2 rest days surrounding the long run.  This is the plan that works best for me.

I like to run on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays with cross training on Wednesdays.  Cross training can be an active recovery day for the day.  Examples of cross training exercises I do are: walking, elliptical, stair master, swimming, spinning or biking, or an exercise class at the gym.

Strength training is also very important when training for a marathon.  I like to strength train 2-3 times per week with an aerobic warm-up for 5-10 minutes and then a cooldown walk followed by some stretching and foam rolling.  Each workout lasts about 45 minutes.

I do each body part one time per week.  An example of this might be:

DAY 1: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps

DAY 2: Back, Biceps, Traps

DAY 3: Legs and Core

Stretching, yoga, and foam rolling are an important part of marathon training.  I promise you that you’ll get tight muscles here and there.  They are uncomfortable, but making sure you are taking care of your muscles will help prevent further injury by keeping them loose.  My husband and I are huge fans of the trigger point foam rollers.  It’s painful, but just breathe through it and you’ll feel your muscles release the tension.

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Sample Training Program

There are about 101 ways to train to complete a marathon with a big range in the frequencies and distances of the runs.  This part of training for a marathon is a little bit about trial and error.  Some people are able to run 22 training miles and feel great and others have their longest distance at 16 miles.  It all depends on how your body handles long runs.  Personally, I have found my sweet distance is 18 miles 3 weeks out for my longest run.  I ran 20 miles 2 weeks before my first marathon and my hip was bothering me and that run only exacerbated the pain, so I was on the starting line with tight hips and had to battle that nearly the entire 26.2 miles.

Here is an example progressive training plan for long runs:

Week

Long Run Distance

1

2 miles

2

3 miles

3

4 miles

4

5 miles

5

6 miles

6

7 miles

7

8 miles

8

9 miles

9

10 miles

10

11 miles

11

12 miles

12

13.1 miles (½ Marathon)

13

15 miles

14

16 miles

15

17 miles

16

½ Marathon

17

18 miles

18

20 miles

19

11 miles

20

10 miles

21

6 miles

22

RACE DAY!

 

This is one way of training for a marathon.  There are some ways to alter the schedule and be fine.  If you need to cut the training plan shorter than 22 weeks, you can jump 2 miles further than the previous week if you finished the previous week’s run feeling okay.  The main thing is to listen to your body.

You can follow this plan if you are training for a ½ marathon as well by doing each mileage for 2 weeks in a row instead of building up each week.

You can do your 3-4 mid-week runs based on either time or distance.  After the first couple weeks where the mileage is lower I like to do the following mid-week runs:

MONDAY: 4 miles

TUESDAY: 5-6 miles

WEDNESDAY: Cross Train

THURSDAY: 4-5 miles

FRIDAY: Rest; yoga and stretching

SATURDAY: Long run

SUNDAY: Rest; yoga and stretching

Like I said earlier, I add some strength training to the shorter run days during the week.

This plan is designed to get novice runners in shape to finish a marathon without requiring too much of a time commitment.  Like I also said earlier, depending on your goal, you might need to add mileage during the week.

When people start running, sometimes they think that the more they run, the better they will be.  Unfortunately, this is a myth for many people.  Junk miles are considered miles that are run that are not on the training plan.  These miles will just wear you down making you more prone to injury.  They will not help the situation!  Stay away from running junk miles!

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Falling Off The Horse

Everyone has weeks during their training where they are traveling, having an off week, are extremely busy, have holidays or are sick or injured.  Don’t beat yourself up about these weeks.  Get the mileage in that you are able to and get back with it the following week.  As long as this doesn’t happen very frequently, you’ll be fine and can get back on the training schedule pretty seamlessly.

You will have good runs and bad runs.  It is the bad runs that you push through that will make you the better runner!  It teaches you to mentally get through hard times in a race and will prepare you for those times.  Don’t dwell on the bad runs – get through them and look forward to the next one because it will be better.

With that said, when you are marathon training, this becomes a big aspect of your life.  There are going to be happy hours and other social functions that get in the way of your training and you are going to have to miss them.  Friday nights are no longer for drinking at the bar and staying up late; you must get the proper fuel in and get a good nights sleep to prepare for your long run.  I was in college the first time I started training and there were lots of Friday nights, I was either the DD or just stayed home altogether.  When you are traveling, make the best of the situation.  Running is a great way to see the city!  Some days might require early wakeups or late nights to get a run in.  You must prioritize your life before making the commitment to train!

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Tapering

In my opinion, this is the best part of marathon training.  It’s the end of a grueling running schedule and your mind and body are as ready for the big day as they are ever going to be.  After the longest long run, most people begin what is called tapering.  Tapering is designed to let the body “rest” and get fueled back up for the big day.

In my sample training plan, you will taper for 2 weeks.  The mid-week runs stay about the same two weeks out and then they drastically decrease in both intensity and distance.  The week of the event you might run a couple 3 milers and a 5 miler.  As for long runs, I suggest running 6 miles the week before the event and 10 miles 2 weeks before the event.

This is when you really want to foam roll, stretch, get a massage or whatever you feel will help you perform the best.  With that said, now is not the time to start doing new things.  Keep doing what you’ve been doing through all your practice runs.  Remember to drink lots of water during this time and eat nutritious, whole sources of carbohydrates, proteins and fats.  Sugar just leads to inflammation, so it’s best avoided.

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Pre-Race Night

This is the night you want to follow the exact routine you’ve been doing before all your long runs.  Don’t go eat something that you have never eaten the night before a long run.  By now you should know what makes your stomach feel good and what you need to eat in order to perform your best.  A lot of races have pasta dinners the night before races and if you practiced this way, that’s fine, but as I mentioned earlier, carb loading in these quantities is really not necessary.

Make you have all your clothes laid out making a mental checklist of everything you want to have with you.  Make sure you have warmer clothes for the start of the race (if necessary) and you can throw them off in the first few miles.  Get your gear check bag together with your name on it and put all the items that go in it in there now.  Don’t hassle with these things in the morning.

Here is a list of gear that I have laid of the night before a marathon.

Double and triple check to make sure you won’t be scrambling in the morning.  Nothing is worse than feeling unprepared as far as gear goes the morning of the race.

Make sure to set a few alarms to ensure you won’t sleep through the race!

Go to bed envisioning your race.  Think about how good your body is going to feel and imagine each mile being easy and yourself running like the wind.  The mind is a powerful tool.

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Race Day Morning

This is where you should go into auto-pilot because you have done all your preparation the night before.

Eat the food you have eaten for the weeks of training runs prior to race day.

Arrive to the starting line earlier than you think is necessary.  Race day traffic is crazier than some can imagine, especially if you are doing a large running event.

When you get to the start line area, get in line for the bathroom (even if you don’t have to go).  Race jitters always get the best of people and those lines are looooong for the bathrooms the closer you get to start time.  No one wants to feel hurried and sprint to the start line to start the race.  It will impact your entire run.

Get into your corral and stretch, breathe and envision your race!

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Race Time

It’s race time!  Remember to pace yourself.  You will have the energy of thousands of people so you’ll feel like you can run faster than the speed of light.  Remember that you have 26.2 miles to go and go with what you have been doing in practice.  There are a number of theories on how to race, but you have practiced those in training.  If you have been doing negative splits, then stick with it; if not, then don’t attempt it on race day.

If you are going to be running with a pacer for a certain time, they are great! However, remember that they are human and can get a little off track with the pace.  I remember trying to stay with a pacer at my 3rd marathon and I thought I was doing pretty well, but I wasn’t checking the time very often because I was running with him.  Unbeknownst to me, he started going significantly faster for the last 6-7 miles because they had been going too slow for the previous 19-20 miles.  I couldn’t push myself at that pace this far in, so I missed my time.  Moral of the story – if you care about your time, make sure you are checking time too!

There are going to be good parts and bad parts of any marathon.  When you’re out there, think to yourself that only 1% of the population has completed this and be proud that you’re out there.  Try to remain positive and take in all the energy from the crowd, support and other runners!  It is difficult, but it’s truly a lot of fun too!

When the going gets tough, break the race into shorter goals.  I know that when I hit mile 18-20, things get hard and I want to start walking.  In general, I usually walk through the water stations from the early part of the race.  This helps me to break it down from the get go.  Other people try to run through the whole thing.  It’s your decision and you have to find what works for you.  When you feel like you are unable to run anymore, you can do 1 of 2 things.  Number one being, walk for an allotted amount of time like 1-2 minutes.  After that time is up, make yourself run again.  Number two, pick an object in front of you and tell yourself you’re going to make it to there and keep doing this until the end.  I usually have to combine these two things to make it work for myself from about mile 22 to the end.

I made the mistake of walking too much too long in my first marathon and I could never really get going again.  My joints and muscles stiffened up more than they were and I lost all motivation to keep running.  This is not a good thing.  Marathoners have lots of motivation, so carry on and finish strong!

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Gear

Shoes

Before starting to train for a marathon, everyone should go to their local running store and get a gait analysis in order to get fit for the proper shoe.  Everyone underestimates how important this fact is.  If you are running in a shoe that doesn’t fit your gait, you are increasing your risk for injury significantly.

There are several types of shoes out there – stability, neutral, minimalist, trail, and flexible.  You just need to try a few pairs out.  Typically running stores will let you run on a treadmill in the store for however long you want and some stores will even let you try them out on a real run and you can bring them back if you don’t like them.

My husband runs with minimalist shoes and he runs in the Inov8 shoes.  I have run in several different types of shoes.  I really like the Brooks Adrenaline GTS 13 for stability.  I like to run in the Nike Free 2.0 for a more minimalist shoe with a lower drop.

Fuel and Hydration Systems

There are also several ways to hydrate on a run – you have to try a few to figure out which kind you like.

Here are a few different types to look into:

Camelback Marathoner Hydration Vest

Nathan Quickdraw Plus Handheld Bottle Carrier

Fuel Belt Wachusett Belt

Ultimate Direction Access Waist Pack

I know runners that use all of these – it’s a matter of personal preference.  My husband and I use the Nathan Quickdraw Plus Handheld Bottle Carrier because we don’t like things around our waists, but it doesn’t bother some people and they would rather have free hands.  Just make sure you are hydrating properly during a run or you’ll pay for it.

If you hate carrying hydration systems, you can also plan your run in parks where there are drinking fountains and/or “plant” sealed plastic bottled water along the course so you’ll have some when you get to certain points.

Fuel

There are hundreds of types of gu, gels and recovery drinks available on the marketplace. I typically use ones that contain caffeine during my runs.  This is important to practice during training runs.  See how many you need and at what miles.  Stick to this on race day.  Here are a few that I like:

Gu Roctane

Clif Shot Bloks

Hammer Gels

Cytomax

Honey Stinger Gel

Clothing

Make sure you are wearing moisture wicking fabrics when you run – it’s so important to avoid chafing.

Believe it or not, socks are really important in running.  There are compression socks that are helpful for muscles, but there are also socks that are very cushiony.

I like to run in the Balega Hidden Comfort Tab Running Sock.  They are very comfortable, don’t slide down and provide lots of cushion.

The Zensah Compression Arm Sleeves are also really nice for colder days that you don’t want to wear bulky long sleeves.  They will keep blood flowing to your muscles, keeping them warm and loose so you can perform your best.

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Summary

There is a lot to consider when training for a marathon, but with the help of a running group, it shouldn’t be as daunting.  Remember to take each week at a time and then further break that down into each run at a time.  Try not to become overwhelmed by the distances.  You will get there with consistent training!

If you have any further questions, I would love to assist you in any way I can by emailing me at alidamron @ gmail

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My name is Ali Damron & this is my home for sharing my chaotic motherhood lifestyle, attempts at newfound recipes, & how I stay fit out here in Denver, Colorado. Thanks for stopping by!



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