The Horizontal Mt. Everest: A Runner's First Marathon
"Are those people insane?" That pretty much used to sum up what I thought about marathoners. I mean a few miles of running was never too rough for me. Even the longer runs I'd done were 8-10 miles. But they seemed to take forever to complete (and nearly as long to recover from). But 26.2 miles?! M-I-L-E-S??? Well, like I said: insanity.
All that being said though, last year I found myself looking to set and achieve a couple of bucket list goals and, as odd as it might sound, training for and successfully finishing a marathon was one of them. Now, this wasn't some great shift in my mentality, but as a more regular runner over the last several years and watching several friends finish them, the belief and desire was now there. (Though, I still thought it was somewhat insane.)
So, there I was eyeing-up my first marathon. I knew there was a plethora of resources, tips and tools to use to break the goal into seemingly manageable chunks, but, I had to decide exactly which ones were right for me. So, as I look back having successfully completed my first marathon, here are my top 10 tips and tools to use if you're tackling your first horizontal Mt. Everest...
Make sure you realistically plan by signing up for a race that allows plenty of time for training. If you really haven't done much running give yourself plenty of runway (like more than a year depending on how inexperienced you are running). Remember, it's not about getting through training and the race quicker, it's going to be a long road regardless, so you need to make sure every day and every step builds productively on the previous one. Look at several training programs and the experience levels for which they're rated to get an idea of what sort of timeline you can reasonably expect.
It can't be stressed enough how important this is. While good running shoes aren't cheap, neither is the health of your feet and joints. I had spent the first-half of my training on shoes that I'd had for 3 years (really, really unwise especially given my past knee injuries).
After much urging by a neighbor who runs a ton, I went to Jack Rabbit Sports, where they spent an hour with me, recording my stride on a treadmill, explaining my style of running and selecting the right shoe. Not cheap, but I was amazed to find that without any other changes in my routine I could achieve my longer runs (15-20 miles) at about 1/3 the effort and pain.
3. A marathon-specific training app
This is a commoditized market, but there are definitely the good, the bad and the ugly here. Find one that is reputable, that you can see yourself using conveniently and gives you what you need. I was looking for an app that provided a trackable multi-month training program, that recorded my run times, pacing, route and also provided audio feedback. Here are some recommendations below:
One of the most basic, significant and long-term components of a marathon training program revolves around what you eat, how much and when...in other words nutrition! The more deliberate and disciplined you can be throughout your training, the better your performance, recovery and confidence in your preparation. This includes the sometimes misunderstood "carb-loading" directly prior to race day.
Remember, even the most elite runners hit the proverbial "wall," but strong consideration of your intake of carbs to protein to fat will fare you well. I was amazed to learn that I burned just shy of 3,500 calories during my marathon, so it only figures that fueling up correctly for this is crucial.
5. Friends and family
Encouragement from friends and family who have run a marathon can be particularly helpful. They needn't be runners though, simply having others invested in your success can help buoy and bolster your spirits and confidence as you hit the long days of training leading up to race day. Hugs and pats on the back do more than aspirin can - believe that!
6. Music (or sports radio)
This one is definitely a personal preference, but I know that I couldn't do any run longer than a half-marathon without some tunes or something to distract my brain and let me effectively "zone-out". Whether you love rock, calming tunes, books on tape, podcasts or - like me - ESPN Radio, this can go a long way to keep your brain from reminding you about how many more miles you have left, that to-do list you still have to do at work or whether your breathing pattern is right (which always means it no longer is once you're thinking about it!)
7. Hydration pack
Folks are mixed on this, but my best friend recommended a hydration pack. I took the recommendation and haven't looked back. These are small bladders to hold water that are worn like a backpack and they come in really handy for the longer runs. After all, it can be a pain to carry a bottle or impractical to search for water fountains on your route. Holding upwards of 2 liters, it gives you the confidence that you can continuously stay hydrated and not worry about cramping-up deep into your run.
8. R.I.C.E. and stretching
No, not the grain. Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation. This one might as well be comprehensively called "recovery" and it's absolutely key to being able to endure the hardest part of marathon training...durability. You can't train for a marathon even if it's months away if you're dealing with a stress fracture, tendonitis or a muscle strain. So, stretching the major affected muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, calves, arches, hip flexors, etc.) before and after is painful but oh-so-important. I began to find that after stretching post-run, the use of a fitness roller (while incredibly painful at times) led to much quicker recovery of muscles and joints.
In addition to this stretching, after longer runs I made sure to employ plentiful amounts of ice before bed on affected joints - in my case the knees and ankles. Not only did this numb pain, but it made the next day feel more like I'd run a couple miles instead of the 15-20 miler I actually had. Cap-off this regime with elevation of the joints and muscles you're treating and plenty of rest on non-run or conditioning days and you'll be thanking yourself weeks later.
9. Energy gels/chews
Keep the "invisible wall", the "bonk" or the "fade" at bay come race day. This will be a primary way to do this.
Sample plenty of these in advance of some of your long runs (as you close-in on 6-8 weeks of the marathon). Especially for a first marathon participant, it will be nearly impossible to run a race without them. This is because your body will reach a point in long runs and the race at which point you'll have burned through simple energy reserves and begin to burn fat. Your body will need to metabolize additional energy to use right away at several points in the race - that's where these come in. There are tons of different kinds: gels, chews and even jelly beans made for the task. They're mostly the same, the big thing is to find a kind that tastes ok, you can tolerate and ensure you use during the race.
10. Grit and determination
You'll need this more than anything. Whether it's waking up early to an 18-mile run on a Saturday, rolling-out your legs after a run (ouch) or keeping that self-doubt at bay as you hit mile 23 during the race. You've got to believe, weather the storm and know that the feeling of accomplishment on the other side is so much greater than you can imagine.
You've got this!
Have you trained for a marathon? Or maybe even a 5k? Let us know what your go-to tips are for running training.