In her new book, Run Your First Marathon,Grete Waitz, nine-time winner of the New York City marathon, points out one of the wonderful draws of the marathon. “No matter who we are,” she writes, “at some point we are all first-time marathoners. All of us share that. That’s the beauty of the race — Olympians and all-comers share the same event.”
There is one vast difference between the first-time marathoner and the experienced veteran: The first-timer may think he or she can run the 26.2-mile distance but doesn’t know it. When I ran my first marathon in 1989, although I had carefully prepared according to a standard marathon training plan, I didn’t believe I could do it until I got beyond the 24-mile point and still felt intact. When the finish line passed beneath my feet, I could sense my brain processing a new belief and erasing an old one. I realized something deep down didn’t believe I could run 26.2 miles. Finishing the Big Sur marathon had proved otherwise. It was, at that point, the most powerful experience in my life. All sorts of imagined limits began to melt away.
The problem with running 26.2 miles, all at once, is how a blinding number of small details come into play. The following 15 tips are designed to help you avoid many of the usual pitfalls that plague beginner runners making their first attempt at what is considered the classic challenge of endurance sports.
1. If you are new to running and new to the marathon, consider committing yourself to at least one year of the running lifestyle. I’ve known people who have taken up group training programs that promise to see you cross the finish line in as little as 12 weeks, despite little or no exercise background. A participant may stop smoking (for example), do the group workouts, barely survive the race (walking much of it), then, within an hour of finishing, pull out a fresh pack of smokes. It’s all over. Sports psychologist Dr. Denis Waitley has stated it takes a minimum of a year to truly ingrain a new habit, and a fitness lifestyle is worth this amount of time. So plan your marathon within the scope of the year, or at the end of it, and make being a runner a year-round project that envelopes the race.
2. Get a thorough checkup before you begin. You’ve likely heard this suggestion as often as you’ve heard flight attendants talk to you about seatbelts, but it’s incredibly important. Even if you’re in reasonably good shape, training for a marathon is a stressful process. Tell your doctor what you plan to do and have him or her check you out to make certain it’s safe to proceed.
3. If you’re battling obesity, consult with a dietitian, a doctor and a coach. It’s great that you want to burn off a lot of weight, weight that could render severe harm to your health and well-being. However, you may need to take a cautious preliminary journey before you begin a marathon program. The stress on joints, for one thing, is a complication obesity has in regards to running. Never fear, though, because ultimately a long, smart mix of dieting and exercise can prepare your body to successfully conquer a marathon training plan and accompanying race. Check out specific coach/doctor/dietician services, like www.trismarter.com, which can give you access to thorough evaluations of your diet and can prescribe a safe path toward life as an endurance athlete.
4.Use a quality training plan. Get a good coach if you can afford it, or join a local running club and talk to the coach about your marathon goal. In fact, many running clubs organize group training plans and workouts around nearby marathons. Failing a coach, the bookstore is loaded with excellent books on the marathon. As referenced previously, Run Your First Marathon, Grete Waitz’s new book (Skyhorse Publishing, $17.95) is one of the newest volumes to hit the shelves. Waitz lays out a plan that will take you from gentle run/walks to the completing the marathon distance.
5. As you begin your training, make yourself accountable. This tip is for the aspiring marathoner who has trouble with procrastination. Procrastination and marathon training do not go hand in hand. Running a marathon isn’t like a final exam: You can’t cram for it. Being ready for a marathon requires you to slowly, consistently and thoroughly prepare your body for the race. The week before your race should be a taper week, meaning you cut back mileage by a ton and save up energy for the race. So if you do tend toward procrastination, a coach is almost a necessity. Or a training partner with whom you meet for major workouts (like long runs). Essentially, you need to have someone expecting you to show up and get the primary training taken care of, week after week.
6. Make nutrition an integral part of your program. Six-time Hawaii Ironman World Champion Mark Allen has said he believes nutrition is the weak link when it comes to the training programs of many endurance athletes. Allen believes that intertwining intelligent training with an intelligent, nutritious diet is key not only for overall health, but also for performance. Spend time around a lot of runners, and more than once you’ll hear that the reason they like running is: “I can eat whatever I want.” True, marathon training can burn off the worst of junk food diets, but ultimately you’ll be making a sacrifice. You don’t see F15 pilots fueling their jets with moonshine. Consider your body a high-octane machine, and feed it the good stuff: plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish make a wise start.
7.Drink on the run. When performing runs of an hour or more, it’s important to hydrate with water and/or sports drinks. Make sure your routes pass by water fountains or places you can stash sports drinks, or do as the ultrarunners do and carry them with you via a belt pack (available at running stores).
8. Pace yourself. Pace is the key to effective training and successful racing. Your training plan should guide you to running at a proper pace or heart-rate intensity. Going too fast will blow the purpose of the workout (to train a specific energy system) and expose your body to the kind of stress that can lead to breakdown. Going too fast in the first half of a marathon almost always leads to a disastrous race. (This is so important that we’ll mention it again.)
9. Schedule your long runs with groups at a similar level. Some runners love to perform their long runs in a solitary mode, by themselves where they can focus on their pace and enjoy the silence. Most marathoners, however, prefer to make long runs a social occasion. When runs climb up toward and beyond the two-hour mark, a group run (provided the pace is right for you) makes for an optimal workout.
10.Crosstrain for strength. Running may well be the most effective exercise for getting your heart and cardiovascular system into super shape, but when it comes to the muscular and skeletal systems, it lacks harmony. Adding one or two workouts a week that attend to core strength and flexibility will help you stay balanced. Consider tapping your gym membership for a strength class, purchasing a DVD or go online. For a great core routine to get started, go to www.coachkengrace.com/SportsCore.htm.
11.Log your training. The power of a detailed logbook ritual is that it dials your concentration into each and every workout and delivers a satisfaction in the accumulation of training miles. It also lives on as a record of what worked for you (and what didn’t work).
12. Training for and running a marathon takes a long, disciplined approach. We touched on this earlier, but it’s so important it requires another mention. The great runners in the world didn’t become great overnight. Their running is the product of thousands and thousands of miles accumulated over months and years. It’s often said that it takes 10 years of consistent training to fully develop running talent, and this especially applies to the marathon. Your first marathon is but one step in this direction (assuming you want to be a lifelong runner).
13. Throw in a few shorter races in your marathon buildup. Racing 5Ks, 8Ks and 10Ks may be in your training plan from the start, and for good reason: Short races give you something fun to train toward and make terrific speed workouts for the first-time marathoner.
14.Acknowledge and treat aches and pains. Veteran runners have learned the hard way the importance of paying attention to even minor tweaks and pains that arise within the feet, legs, hips and back. Some of these pains may just be bumps in the road as your body adapts to the stress of running; others may be precursors to injuries, injuries capable of stalling or even stopping your training. Take nothing lightly. Seek a sports doctor’s advice if you hear alarm bells go off. First-aid includes ice and massage, and perhaps a fresh pair of running shoes. Exchange a running workout or two with a bike ride or swim, giving the body a chance to catch up.<
15. The race. Here are a few bits and pieces that can make all the difference on race day. First, be sure you take it easy during the two or three days before the gun goes off. This doesn’t simply mean a proper taper, but that you should avoid spending a lot of time walking around or standing, and try and minimize general life stress. If travel is in the mix to get to your destination race city, give yourself plenty of time to get there, deal with registration, figure out where to be (and when) come race morning, and ensure you have the right foods and drinks available for a pre-race breakfast. Bring clothes suitable for the possible weather conditions you may face. If it’s chilly, wear a long-sleeve top that can be disposed of after the opening miles of the marathon, as your body warms up and the sun rises into the sky. Wear proper shoes. Avoid racing flats in your first marathon (if not all of them). Use a training shoe you trust. Clip your toenails the night before the race, not the morning of (to avoid irritation), and be sure to double-knot your laces. If it’s a big marathon, don’t stress out about how crowded the first mile or two is. Try and get through these with as little wasted energy as possible. You’re tapered and charged with adrenaline; take these into account when you settle into your pace. It’s best to go too slow at first than to go too fast.