By Laura Bollinger, Registered Dietitian with Christian Care Ministry
It’s early in the morning. The air is brisk and there is a hum of people talking excitedly. With nervous energy abounding, laces are tightened and double knotted, hydration packs and energy bars are checked, watches beep, and playlists start. There is an electric energy buzzing through the crowd and everyone is hoping for one last bathroom break.
This is the start of a marathon.
On Monday April 16th one of the most prestigious road races in the world, the Boston Marathon, will kick off for the 122nd time. It is the longest running annual marathon in the world, attracting 30,000 runners from around the globe who are eligible to run based on meeting the qualifying times for their age and gender. While many marathons start and end in essentially the same place, the Boston Marathon is a point-to-point race starting in Hopkinton and finishing in Boston. Roughly one million spectators gather along the 26.2 mile route to encourage runners in their quest.
You might be wondering what this has to do with you.
While running a full marathon is not for everyone, setting big audacious goals is. We all need things in our lives that motivate and challenge us, and for some that’s training for a marathon. According to Running USA’s Marathon Report, in 2016 more than 500,000 people finished marathons in the U.S.
If you’ve always dreamed of doing a marathon but running isn’t for you, you’re in luck! Many marathon finishers walk or do a combination of walking and running to complete the 26.2 miles. While this might sound easier, it still requires diligent training. Most of us are not used to walking or running that kind of distance in a single day, and without proper preparation we can easily injure ourselves.
Type “marathon training plan” in your web browser and you will find a plethora of training plans. If this is your first marathon, pick a plan that is designed for beginners. If you have done several, then choose a more advanced plan that will better suit your needs. Plans range from about 12 to as many as 30 weeks in length.
Marathon training takes commitment, so it’s important to be practical about your preparation. Are you realistically ready to commit to exercising 3- 6 days per week? Are you able to commit at least an hour each day to training?
If you answered “Yes!” then let’s start planning. Choose a training plan that suits your activity level and real life schedule. Some to consider are Nike+ Run Club, running coach Hal Higdon, or running coach Jenny Hadfield. There are a variety of apps with training plans as well. Some of the benefits of using an app are the push notifications for accountability and the ability to track your run time, pace, and distance on your phone.
Now that you have a training plan, it’s time to choose a race that aligns with the schedule of your training plan (remembering that you can delay your start date a week or so to match the race date). You can easily find a race in your area or a fun destination by searching online. Try Marathon Guide, or Running in the USA. If you choose a destination marathon, be sure to review the course map terrain. You may need to adjust your training routes to prepare for more hills, mountains, or altitude.
Next, it’s time to start your plan. Training for a marathon has the same basic principle as training for any other running distance: develop the endurance to complete the entire distance.
To start, build your foundation, meaning the average time or miles you want to complete each week. You’ll notice on your training plan that the total mileage each week gradually increases up to 30 or more miles. The goal is to gradually increase weekly mileage to maximize performance while also avoiding injury.
If you have a time goal in mind for your race, then you will also want to improve your running economy and work on your race strategy including nutrition, hydration, and pace throughout the race.
To improve your running economy, or marathon time, include some added intensity in your training such as speed and hills. Some training plans include these techniques, but you can add them to your short runs if it doesn’t. For hill work, simply find hills in your area to include in your training. If there aren’t many inclines in your area, look for bridges or overpasses that have pedestrian lanes and do hill repeats. This is exactly what it sounds like: run up the hill, then turn around and run down the hill, and repeat as many times as needed for the day’s training. For example, if today’s run is 3 miles, consider running 1 mile as you normally would, then run 1 mile of hill repeats, and complete the run with 1 mile on your normal terrain.
Speed work trains your body to run at a faster pace. Speed work can often be incorporated within a short run in your training plan if it is not already included. There are a variety of speed techniques that can be used including intervals. The focus of interval runs is to accelerate your pace for a specified distance or time, then reduce to your usual or slightly slower pace to recover before the next interval of accelerated pace. For example, if you are running 3 miles today, you could increase your pace for the first ¼ mile of each mile, then finish the mile at your normal pace.
Consider these suggested guidelines for speed work from the American College of Sports Medicine’s March/April 2018 Health & Fitness Journal.
*These types of runs are sometimes referred to as tempo runs or threshold runs. However, because every single training run or pace has a given tempo, tempo runs are not the most accurate or scientific term to use for moderately high-intensity runs.
Race strategy can be as simple or as detailed as you would like it to be. When it comes to nutrition, it is always best to try the food and drink you plan to use before the day of the race. There are a variety of products on the market that are easy to carry while running including gels, bars, gummies, and electrolyte drinks. If possible, find out what will be provided at the marathon you plan to run and try those products. If they work for you, it may be one less thing to carry while you run.
For exercise that will last longer than two hours, it is recommended that 30-60 grams of carbohydrates are consumed every hour. It’s also important to drink fluids. While your sweat rate will likely surpass your hydration rate, try to avoid dehydration as well as over hydration. Practice staying hydrated during training to determine how much fluid is best for you.
Most race strategies include a planned race pace as well. In the excitement of the start, many runners start out too quickly. Unfortunately, this often means that they run out of energy before the end of the race. Aim to stick to the pace at which you have trained. This will help ensure you have plenty of endurance for the entire race. Try this marathon pace chart to plan your race pace.
All this may sound like a lot of work, and it is. But it’s also a lot of fun! Setting goals and challenging yourself can be very rewarding, not to mention the health benefits of regular physical activity including improved mood, lower stress, increased energy, and reduced risk of chronic disease. Additionally, many towns have running clubs you can join for comradery and support. It’s a great way to meet new friends that are physically active and challenging themselves as well.
I can tell you from personal experience, while the training can feel overwhelming at times, running through the crowds of cheering people and crossing the marathon finish line is an exhilarating feeling that you won’t find anywhere else. This year, set your own personal record by completing your first marathon or improving your time in your next marathon.