Organized marathon racing has been around since the modern Olympic Games began in 1896. But it wasn't until the last decade or so that marathoning really started catching on among the casual running crowd.
Now runners young and old, swift and slow, beefy and svelte are increasingly adding that grueling, 26.2-mile feat to their list of accomplishments.
If you want to be one of them, here are eight marathon training tips to help propel you across the finish line.
1. Get a checkup
If you've never done much running, that doesn't disqualify you from running a marathon. But you might want to aim first for a less daunting goal — like a 10-kilometer run or even a half marathon.
And before you get started, you may want to check with your doctor to make sure your body — particularly your heart — can handle the stress of a marathon.
"Regardless of how long you've been exercising, there are certain warning signs and risk factors that should be evaluated before beginning a new workout program — especially one as intensive as marathon training," says Kousik Krishnan, MD, an electrophysiologist at Rush and veteran marathon runner.
If you're experiencing any of the following symptoms, Krishnan says, you should definitely see a doctor before diving into marathon training:
- Chest pain, shortness of breath or excessive fatigue with exercise
- Unexplained passing out or near fainting spells
- Prior history of a heart murmur
- Elevated blood pressure
Also see a doctor if you have any of the following risk factors:
- A first-degree relative (mother, father, sibling) who either died or was disabled from heart disease prior to age 50
- Specific knowledge of a family history of cardiac disease
- Personal history of coronary artery disease (if you're over age 35)
2. Pick a marathon training plan
Following a training plan will help ensure you're physically prepared for the physical (and mental) rigors of a marathon.
Four to five months before your race, select a training plan that mixes shorter weekday runs with long, slower runs on the weekend.
These plans — which can be found online, either free or for a small fee — vary in mileage and intensity, depending on whether you're a novice or experienced endurance runner.
- New runners might start with weekday runs of mostly three to five miles.
- Advanced runners may start with runs of six to eight miles, with some speed workouts mixed in.
- Most plans include four to six outings each week, including one longer weekend run that starts at about six miles and gradually rises to 20 or more in the weeks before the race.
Krishnan follows the Daniels' Running Formula, running five days each week and occasionally twice a day if he doesn't have time for a long midweek outing.
3. Pace yourself
The challenge of marathon training is figuring out just how far and how fast you should run.
- Running more weekly miles may better prepare you to run 26.2 miles, but it also increases your risk of injury. If it's your first marathon, a conservative approach — with fewer weekly miles — is probably a wise one. "Many runners fall into the pitfall of increasing their mileage too quickly or running on too many consecutive days," says Joshua Blomgren, DO, a sports medicine specialist at Rush. He says it's often a mixture of the two that leads runners to develop overuse injuries, the most common type of injury that marathoners develop during training.
- There's a lot of truth in that old adage, "Slow and steady wins the race." Running your weekly long runs at a slower-than-normal pace can better prepare you for the marathon by keeping you on your feet a good bit longer.
- Marathon experts suggest you should run your long run at least 30 seconds to a minute per mile slower than your planned marathon-day pace.
Rest is a crucial component of marathon training, enabling runners to recover from heavy mileage.
4. Find a shoe that fits
Go to a specialty running store and ask for advice on what shoe works best for your foot, gait and body type. It's OK to care about color and style, but fit and shoe type will mean more on those extra-long runs.
Look for the following:
- Runners with high arches typically need neutral-stability shoes.
- Runners with medium arches should seek out stability shoes.
- Low arches? Get high-stability, or motion control, shoes.
- Larger runners should also consider shoes with extra cushioning, as more weight equals a little extra wear and tear on their bones and joints.
Once you've found the right shoes, break them in by taking them out for a few shorter runs.
Experts recommend replacing running shoes after about 300 miles, but some shoes may hold out longer. Many runners like to get two pairs of shoes and rotate them throughout marathon training.
5. Take a break
Nearly all training plans include days off and so-called "cutback" weeks with reduced mileage, all designed to give runners' bodies some badly needed breaks. Rest is a crucial component of marathon training, enabling runners to recover from heavy mileage.
- Even if your schedule calls for a run, if you're feeling achy or worn out, take the day off.
- Cross-training is key, as it helps strengthen muscles that provide stability and efficiency while running, Blomgren says. This includes strengthening of the upper body and core, along with hip-stabilization exercises. "These exercises are important because they help to control alignment of the body while running and prevent breakdown of proper running form," he says.
6. Stay hydrated
Make sure you have fluids close at hand throughout your training.
- Water is fine for shorter runs, but you'll need sports drinks to help replenish your electrolytes on longer outings of six or more miles, maybe even less in hot or humid weather.
- Don't overdo the water: Drinking too much can cause hyponatremia, a relatively rare but potentially fatal condition in which sodium levels in the body become dangerously diluted. (The condition seems to be most prevalent in runners with a slower pace who are consuming excessive water, Blomgren says.)
Energy gels (or blocks or bars), meanwhile, provide a welcome glucose boost to help sustain you when you hit double-digit mileage. Also, recovery meals after long runs will help replenish the body's energy stores in preparation for continued training.
7. Join a group
Those long weekend outings seem a lot easier when you're surrounded by like-minded runners. Most large and mid-sized cities — and even smaller communities — have running clubs or marathon training programs that welcome newcomers.
Running with a group helps you stay motivated, maintain a consistent pace and learn practical advice from more experienced runners. Plus you might make some new friends. Check with your local running store to find a group near you.
8. Heed the pain
Just about every runner experiences a few aches and pains during marathon training. Common running injuries include the following:
- Plantar fasciitis, which involves pain in the bottom of the foot
- Patellofemoral pain syndrome, also known as runner's knee
- Iliotibial band (or IT band) syndrome, which typically involves swelling and pain on the outside of the knee
The trick is to distinguish a minor strain from a potentially serious injury.
- If you're suffering chronic discomfort while running, particularly if the pain gets worse the longer you're on your feet or lingers while you're off them, stop and take some time off.
- If the discomfort is not getting better, see a sports medicine doctor or your primary care physician. Blomgren says it's best to seek care when the pain is starting to affect training, as that's the ideal time to identify and start fixing a potential problem.
Treatment options may include relative rest, activity modification, therapeutic exercise or a physical therapy program.
While taking a break from training can be disappointing and frustrating, it's better than abandoning your marathon goal altogether. More often than not, you'll be back on the running path in no time.
"My goal is always to keep runners on track for their training schedule," Blomgren says.