Have you ever been listening to someone talk with great enthusiasm about their marathon-running experience and think to yourself, “this person is crazy” or at the very least, “I could never, in a million years, do that?” Well that was me, three years ago. I was on a date with a lovely young lady whom I’d met the week previous at a mutual friend’s wedding and she was scarfing down a lumberjack-sized bowl of pasta, having just done an “easy” fourteen-mile training run. Not that I was out of shape. I even ran on the regular. But anything further than eight miles seemed liked the domain of elite athletes with 0% body fat and nothing to do all day but train and eat protein bars.
Well a lot has changed since that day. First of all, that young lady and I? Hitched. And I’ve now got two marathons under my belt. I didn’t have to devote my life to running and I didn’t even need to get my body fat down to zero (in fact if anything my paunch has grown a bit since then – my wife is also a brilliant cook). And I guarantee that you can finish a marathon too, even if you’re built like Chris Christie and only walk up stairs to get to the Twinkie drawer. You won’t need to transform yourself into an elite athlete, either. You just need to be smart.
CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR
First things first. You want to make sure that you don’t have existing conditions that will place you in a position of risk. Distance running puts every part of your body through the ringer, inside and out. Even though I’m in pretty good shape for my age, I visited the doctor twice during my marathon training; once at the onset for a complete physical and once at the midway point, just to make sure all my bits were still in working order. Be sure to let your doctor know that you plan on running a marathon and listen carefully to any advice or precautions they might have.
GET THE RIGHT PAIR OF SHOES
As far as sports go, running’s pretty cheap, but you do need a good pair of kicks. You don’t need to buy the most high-tech or expensive running shoes on the market but you probably shouldn’t be running 26.2 miles in your stinky Converse All-Stars either. Skip the mall stores and go to a dedicated running store if you can, where a knowledgeable staff can match the right shoe to your feet.
The reason marathons seem insurmountable to most people is simply because they’ve never run long distances before. But unless you’re already in fantastic shape, running double digit miles is not something you just do on a whim. It’s something you build up to by slowly, by systematically increasing your endurance. When I decided I was going to give it a shot, I joined the LA Roadrunners, a running group affiliated with the ASICS LA Marathon. They have training groups for all levels, from “pro” runners aiming for sub-three-hour finish times to walkers doing 20 minute miles. The training program lasts six months — that’s half a year to get in marathon shape! Remember, you’re not trying to win the thing, you’re just trying to finish. You’ll get a medal either way.
I’m not a morning person. Neither, thankfully, is my wife. Yet every Saturday we get up at 5:30am to hit Venice Beach for our weekly group run. It’s not like I wouldn’t rather sleep until 10AM. I just know I’d be far more likely to skip my run once the rest of the world was up and demanding my attention.
This is where training with a group comes in especially handy. It’s easy to skip out on a run when you’re not accountable to anyone. But as part of a group, you’re expected to be there. People are counting on you, depending on you even. And a little shame isn’t a bad thing if it gets you up and running.
But that’s not an excuse to skip your mid-week runs, either. Depending on the training regimen you follow, you’ll likely be expected to put in 4 to 5 runs a week. The closer to hitting that mark you are, the better prepared you’ll be come race day.
You’re not just training your body. You’re training your brain, too. Simply putting feet to pavement isn’t enough. You’ll be learning about proper nutrition, stretching, recovery, and how to push yourself past your comfort zone without going into the injury zone. They say running a marathon is 80% mental. (Who says that? Who knows? Somebody.) On race day, the big muscle upstairs needs to be just as primed as the ones downstairs.
The best part about marathon training? You get to eat. A lot! Forget Atkins, you’ll need those carbs for energy. That said, you don’t want to scarf a bunch of empty carbs from junk food, either. Nutrition is a vital part of marathon training. You’ll have six months to figure out what foods work best for you, but in general whole grains, fresh fruit and veggies, and lean proteins are the way to go.
You’re going to want to get used to carrying a water bottle with you at all times. You’re also going to want to get used to frequent trips to the restroom. Even on your off days, you should be drinking .5 – 1.0 ounces of water per body pound. While there’s nothing better for you on earth than water, on running days, sports drinks are probably a better bet, as they contain electrolytes to replace the ones you’ll be sweating out.
Is it possible to drink too much water? Yes, actually it is. This condition is called hyponatremia, and it will afflict 13% of marathon runners on race day. If you’re sweating an abnormal amount, you might want to scale back on the fluids. Luckily you’ll have several months of training to figure out your sweet spot.
DON’T IGNORE INJURIES
Even minor injuries can take you out of a race if left untreated. It can be frustrating to take time off in the middle of a training season, but don’t worry about the missed miles. It’s far more important to make sure your injuries are fully healed. Running a marathon is hard enough with a healthy body.
Sure, running a marathon is about pushing yourself. But you should also know your limitations. Don’t expect a sub-three race if you’ve never ran a marathon before. Know why you’re doing it. Are you running to get in shape? For bragging rights? To show all those jerks who called you Tubby Two By Four in grade school that you can do something they can’t? All legit reasons. But whatever the reason is, knowing the goal going in will help you see it through to the end.
DON’T FEAR THE WALL
If you’ve known anyone who’s run a marathon, you’ve probably heard of “The Wall.” From about miles 17 to mile 20, your body will have depleted all its stored carbohydrates and will start burning fat. Great! No more love handles, right? Uh, not so much. Because burning body fat is far less efficient, which means every step is going to feel like climbing Mount Everest. The good news is that every runner goes through it, even the elites. And if they can get over the wall, so can you. This is where nutrition (before AND during the race) and mental preparedness come in.
No matter how well you prepare, the day after running a marathon will be one of the most uncomfortable days of your life. Every part of you, top to bottom, will feel like a banana-crazed gorilla is pounding at it from the inside. This is your body telling you that it’s time to rest. So listen to it! Put your feet up, ice your sore spots, eat good foods and treat yourself to a massage. Just don’t run! You’ve earned the break, so enjoy it. Give yourself at least two weeks of recovery time and you’ll be a stronger, healthier runner once you start training for your next race.