Five tips if you’re considering your first marathon

Fall Marathon season is upon us. The Berlin Marathon was Sunday. Chicago Marathoners are starting their taper now for the October 8th event, and New York City is the first weekend in November. In addition to those World Majors, lists another 201 Marathons scheduled for just October and November. It’s quite easy at this time of year to get bitten by the Marathon Bug.

People decide to run their first marathon for a variety of reasons. Some are seasoned runners who have accomplished other distances and the marathon seems like the next logical step. Some decide to tackle the distance for the first time as part of a charity team as a way to honor their values or pay tribute to a loved one. For some, like me, they see news coverage of a marathon event, and suddenly think for no apparent reason, I want to do that.

Regardless of what fuels the decision for toeing the marathon start line for the first time, to all of us it’s a challenge, an opportunity to test our limits, and prove to ourselves that we can do it. It is a huge accomplishment. Since only half of 1% of the population can boast a marathon finish, it means entry into a pretty exclusive group. And it’s a club you can’t buy your way into. It can only be earned – one mile at a time. No shortcuts. No privilege.

It also doesn’t discriminate. Almost anyone who wants to challenge themselves and and make a commitment to the training schedule can do it. So let’s say you caught the marathon bug. Now what? Here are a few things I’ve learned from my own experience and watching other runners take on the challenge for the first time.

  1. Don’t rush into it.

Running a marathon is as much (if not more) mental than physical. Training your body, provided you have the commitment, is the easy part. The commitment is in your head. So before you tell a soul that you are even contemplating running a marathon, play around with the idea in your head for a long time and make sure when you ask yourself why, when you ask yourself, what about finishing a marathon is important to me, you like the answer.

If you are doing it to prove something to yourself, that’s great. If you are doing it to prove something to someone else, I can tell you from all the runners I’ve encountered in the last twenty-plus years, that is not something that will keep you motivated when the miles get tough. That’s when we usually stop caring what other people think.

The second part of not rushing into it is to take the time to build up the mileage so you can go the distance required for the long training runs without getting injured. I know too many people who built up the mileage too quickly, didn’t do any of the other conditioning work (see #2), got hurt, and were resigned to thinking their body wasn’t made for marathoning.

I watched the 1996 New York City Marathon on television thinking about being there the following year. It was a vision I carried with me for the next 12 months. Even though most marathon training plans are 16 to 18 weeks, taking a full year to prepare your body and your mind for the event will yield positive results. This is advice I urge seasoned runners to follow as well.

  1. Make flexibility, strength and endurance your training priorities.

Preparing your body to go the distance is about building endurance, yes, but your body is not going to hold up if it’s not strong and flexible. Even before you start working your training plan, incorporate two days of strength training. It doesn’t have to be time consuming and doesn’t require a gym membership. It does have to build the core strength you’re going to need to hold it all together for the long training runs and the main event.

Google “Core Strength for Runners” and you will find a plethora of suggested exercises that will fit your fitness level and available time. (Here is a 20-minute workout that can be done at home and includes many of the exercises I do: I cannot stress enough how important it is to carve out time in your training schedule for strength and flexibility. Most of us learned that lesson the hard way. Now I tell athletes I work with that if time is limited, they’re better off cutting the run a little short than sacrificing the strength and flexibility portion.

Next comes endurance. The training program you use should gradually increase the mileage each week and the distance of the long run. There are a lot of Marathon training programs out there. I recommend Hal Higdon’s Novice 1 for first timers. The one thing beginner programs do not include is speedwork.

  1. The only goal for your first 26.2 should be to finish.

I finished my first marathon in 4:41. I was thrilled because I had no expectation going in how long it would take. My goal was simply to finish it. I am aware that this past weekend in Berlin, Guy Adola of Ethiopia, in his first marathon, finished second in 2:03:46, the fastest debut time ever. (Read more at about the 2017 Berlin Marathon here). I’m not talking about Olympic caliber or professional athletes, just us normal people.

Training plans for 26.2 miles include several long training runs that never go longer than 20 or maybe 22 miles. Your first experience going the full distance only comes on race day. While you can make some prediction as to what your final time might be, based on your training runs, there are so many factors in play that make race day very different.

Resist the temptation to set a time goal. Don’t set yourself up for potential disappointment, which can reek havoc on your psyche by mile 20 if you’re not at pace for that goal. Just plan to have fun. Focus on finishing. And be satisfied with whatever your time is anywhere along the course. You are about to accomplish something 99.5% of the population hasn’t achieved.

  1. Read everything you can about running your first marathon

When I was preparing for my first marathon twenty years ago, The New York Roadrunners Complete Guide to Running and a subscription to Runner’s World is where I learned about proper nutrition and hydration, apparel and shoes, and what to expect on my first 26.2 mile journey. Now on the web there is almost too much information available and as a first-time marathoner, a lot of it doesn’t apply to you. Bookmark it and tuck it way for the future and focus on what you need to know now: just the basics.

Reading others’ stories of their first marathons (here) might be helpful,  or at least interesting. As Runner’s World said in their review of my friend and fellow northern New Jersey runner, Gail Kislevitz’s wonderful book, First Marathons, “One of the scariest things about running a marathon for the first time isn’t the distance, the muscle pain, the chafing, or the blisters. It’s not knowing what’s going to happen.”

  1. Just run!

I was pretty clueless in 1997. Looking back now I see that as a gift. When I started running, I didn’t really have any runner friends to tell me horror stories or offer, sometimes conflicting, advice. I also had never run before, so I didn’t know anything about intervals or fartleks, tempo runs, lactate threshold or vo2 max. That was a good thing because as a first time marathoner, thinking about all of that is a distraction. Keep it simple. When I ran my first marathon in 1997, I had a simple running watch that told me my overall time and my split times (pace for each mile). It had no GSP and didn’t track heart rate, cadence, or ground contact time. It certainly didn’t connect to my computer to download anything I could obsess about later. Again, a gift! When you’re training for and running your first marathon, forget about the technology and just run.

Bonus: Consider working with a coach.

You are never too experienced – or inexperienced – to benefit from coaching. A coach (as I’ve noted before) will set up your training plan. He or she will also help keep you motivated and accountable. I also think a good coach will help you keep it simple.

IMG_8770Hillsborough, New Jersey. September, 2017. Which way to the Marathon?

These tips come from a seasoned runner, 7-time marathon finisher, and certified running coach. Where am I in my training? I’m still in recovery-mode from my Half Marathon two weeks ago and still have 7 months to my next (8th) marathon.  I got out for an “easy” 8 miles this weekend, working in a weekly yoga class at the gym, and continuing to do a simple 15-minute daily core workout. Practicing what I preach. 🙂

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