Until seven years ago, I belonged to the “I’ll never run a marathon” camp. Of course, fewer than five months after repeatedly making this declaration, I found myself at the Martian Invasion of Races Marathon, ready to go the distance for the first time.
Since then I’ve run eight more marathons. Never say never.
While the only requirement for being a runner is running, there is a certain pressure among self-identified runners to check the marathon off their bucket list. There are as many reasons to run a marathon as there are reasons not to, and ultimately, you are the only person who can decide if running a marathon is important to you. If you’re on the fence and want some insight from an experienced (albeit, average, non-elite) marathoner, I’ll lend my perspective on what I wish I had known before my first marathon.
Find your motivation
People run marathons for a variety of reasons: to improve physical fitness or lose weight, to overcome an illness or medical condition, to raise money for charity, to accomplish a personal goal, to honor a loved one, or to get that shiny finisher medal. Whatever your motivation, make sure you own it and really want it. You are the one who will have to get out and run even when the weather is bad, you didn’t get enough sleep, or you get a better offer from friends or family. When it comes to doing the work, you’ll either find a way or you’ll find an excuse.
Assess your baseline fitness
An endeavor like the marathon warrants serious evaluation of your current level of physical fitness. Are you healthy? Do you have any medical conditions? How much do you exercise? Are you running already? The worst way to experience a first marathon is to be physically unprepared. You could end up sustaining a serious injury or be just plain miserable. If you don’t feel comfortable making the call yourself, consult your doctor.
If you set a time goal, set multiple goals
Going into my first marathon, I was hell-bent on finishing in under four hours. Race day came and the story played out like thousands before me: I held onto my goal race pace until about mile 20. Suddenly I had new goals: maintain 12:00 pace, keep moving, just make it to the finish line… you get the idea.
Statistics suggest that most marathoners — even those who are experienced — go out too fast. Some, if not majority, then hit the dreaded “wall” somewhere near mile 18 or 20. That said, I’m not suggesting that setting time-based goals is a bad idea. Time goals can help with training structure and pacing guidelines.
An even better goal strategy that many runners follow is setting A, B, and C goals so that if one goal starts to slip away, they don’t get discouraged and give up.
- A Goal: A lofty goal; best case scenario, race conditions are good and everything goes as planned
- B Goal: A challenging but realistic goal; most things go as expected
- C Goal: A goal that could be accomplished even if conditions are bad and almost nothing goes as planned
Consider setting process goals instead of outcome goals
If you want to set a goal, but setting a time goal sounds scary, set a process goal (small things you need to do to achieve the outcome goal). Here are some examples:
- Focus on an easy effort (HR below 140) during the first three miles
- Slow down on hills
- Keep arms relaxed and turnover quick
- Run by feel rather than watch pace
The advantage of process goals is that they can be addressed at any moment during the race and you can make adjustments immediately. I relied heavily on process goals during the Redwoods Marathon when I cramped up badly around mile 20. Projecting a finish time is a lot more arbitrary and there are a lot of small pieces that have to fall into place for the goal to be met.
Lean on your social supports
Not everyone relies on a social network to get through a marathon training cycle, but many benefit from running with friends, joining a marathon training group, or just having someone to talk to about how training is going. If you’re more of a solo runner (as I tend to be), that’s okay, too. Just keep in mind that connecting with others around you is a good way to build solidarity throughout training.
Know the purpose of your run
This is one of the best pieces of advice I can offer. Every type of run offers a different benefit and a good training plan should explain the differences. Every workout has a unique purpose and different physiological impacts and recovery periods. If your training plan calls for a tempo run at a certain pace and the weather conditions are windy and rainy, adjust your pace to reflect a tempo effort. When it’s hot and humid during your long run, slow down. If you fail to make these types of adjustments, you may be on a swift path to burnout. Your body will be fatigued because you’re working too hard. Work smarter, not harder.
Keep a journal
One of the things I really wish I had done for my first marathon is track my training. Now, as a veteran marathoner, I frequently look back on old training cycles to see which workouts led to the best races.
Your journal doesn’t have to be fancy. Some people keep paper journals while others create Excel spreadsheets or use mobile training apps like Strava or MapMyRun. Whatever you decide, keep track of basics like mileage and pace, type of workout, and how you felt. Chances are, you’ll start to discover patterns that you’ll be able to learn from and incorporate into future training and race plans. For example, I’ve discovered that I feel best if I cut back on my weekly mileage by about 30% every three weeks, no matter what I’m training for. My training cycle leading up to the Eugene Marathon was possibly one of my strongest, so I refer back to my spring 2011 training frequently. Everyone is different, but the point is that knowing what works and what doesn’t work is a powerful advantage.
Use good judgment when evaluating aches and pains
Training for your first marathon very likely will have you exploring uncharted territory when it comes to volume, mileage and intensity, and many first-time marathoners experience setbacks in the form of injuries, ranging from minor tweaks to full-blown plantar fasciitis or serious IT band issues. If you experience any of these aches or pains, take a couple of days off. Apply the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) if applicable and if pain doesn’t subside, consult your doctor. Whatever you do, don’t exacerbate an injury by training through it — you want to make it to the starting line healthy.
There will inevitably be a week (or two) during your training cycle where you get sick, the weather is unsafe, you get hurt, or you’re just plain worn out. One or two missed runs will not ruin your marathon, so listen to your body when it is telling you it needs rest. Don’t become so married to your training plan that you ignore heat advisories or run through illness and injury.
Strike a balance
Just because you are training for a marathon doesn’t mean you should ignore your family, turn down social invitations, and stop doing everything else you enjoy. Yes, the training requires a time commitment, but it isn’t worth sacrificing everything else in your life that’s important. Build your training plan around your other commitments and continue to make time for other activities. Running should feel like an opportunity, not a chore.
Figure out what works (and what doesn’t) before race day
The worst time to try something new is on race day, especially in regards to what you eat and drink. If you drink water and take GU every 45 minutes during your training runs and it works, stick with the same plan on race day. Also, the night before the race isn’t the time to try a new food that you’ve never eaten before, especially if your body is sensitive to changes in diet.
A better approach is to experiment with different fueling options throughout your training cycle and take note of what works and what doesn’t. Keep notes in your training journal so you can reference your fueling strategies.
It’s okay to walk
When I hit mile 20 in my first marathon and had to walk, I though the world was going to end. Runners are often so prideful that they refuse to walk during a race, but the truth is, incorporating walk breaks into your plan may actually keep you going for longer because you’re giving your legs a chance to rest. Many runners endorse the Galloway method of running, which features a run/walk strategy.
Train and distract your brain
You undoubtedly will come to a point in training when you lose motivation to start (or finish) a run. Similarly, you’ll experience rough patches during the race and will need to engage your mental toughness and other strategies to keep you moving. Too often, when we’re hurting, we put all of our energy into thinking about how much it hurts. Instead, come up with a few positive affirmations or mantras that you can repeat. Stop agonizing over splits. Focus on cadence. Look at the scenery. Smile and wave at other runners. Celebrate how far you’ve come.
Trust your training and control what you can control
I can’t stress this enough. If you came to the table with good baseline fitness, followed the training plan, and hit your training paces in workouts, you are ready for your marathon. It wasn’t until my most recent marathon, the Arizona Marathon, that I was finally able to embrace this concept. While there are going to be factors that are out of your control on race day, you can control how you react. Pouring your energy into things you have no control over will ruin your mental game. Focus on staying relaxed and paying attention to how your body feels. Get out of your head, trust your training and run your race.
Remember that the journey is the destination
While there’s nothing quite like crossing that finish line and receiving your finisher medal, the glory of that moment is just that: a moment. So don’t forget about all of the hard work and tenacity that went into every week of your training.
On the other hand, the physical aspect of finishing a marathon is only a small part of your accomplishment. Finishing a marathon is a character-building and humbling journey worth so much more than a finish time or a medal. Whether the race played out as you wanted or not, hopefully it will ignite a fire within you that wants to continue choosing challenges that might have once seemed impossible.
Emily Bushouse is a recreational runner who has competed in more than 100 races ranging from 5K to ultramarathon. Her running journey started over a decade ago and continues to bring new challenges and adventures. Emily is dedicated to her progress as a runner and is currently training for her first 50-miler. She loves mile repeats, post-run pizza, and blogging about the trials and tribulations that come with identifying as a runner.