Training for your First Marathon: What to do?

In a previous post we discussed the "moment-of-truth" when you've decided to run your first marathon. So you've decided.....
Now what?
Now you need to start your training. It's time to start logging miles and prepare yourself physically for the grueling event. This can be as time consuming and complicated as you want to make it. You can train as much as you want provided that you're doing the right things and aren't doing anything to burn out, or you can train as little as necessary to prepare for the race.

There are a lot of helpful websites out there when it comes to marathon training. Many provide training calendars and workouts, and some of them are interactive and function as your online coach. Most of the sites have a range of training programs from beginner to elite with corresponding mileage, frequency, and workloads. I've listed resources at the bottom of this post which you should consult for a formal training schedule.

Generally you should try and give yourself a minimum of 3 months to train, and preferably 6 months or more. In the beginning your main training goal will be to log miles and build up a "distance base". This will build you up cardiovascularly, increase your endurance, and prevent you from getting injured. Your LSD (long slow distance) will be the foundation of your program. Most programs incorporate a long run each week(LSD) with a balance of shorter runs and other workouts like hills, or Fartlek Training. Most runners schedule their LSD on a day that is not packed with other activities. This is due to the time commitment necessary to finish, as well as the fatigue and recovery needed afterward. In the beginning your long run should be 4-6 miles and if you can't run 3 miles it should be the longest you can complete. By the time you are a few weeks from your marathon, you should have built up your weekly LSD run to a minimum of 15 miles. You can certainly shoot for 20-26 miles on your long run, but it is very very important for you to understand that it is not necessary for you to complete 26.2 miles in practice in order to finish a marathon efficiently. That is nonsense, and unless you are an elite athlete it is entirely unnecessary. If you are able to run 16 miles with confidence you'll have no problem completing a marathon. My personal opinion is that 18-20 miles is ideal for your longest run before a marathon. When Nicole and I ran the NYC Marathon we had a little less than 3 months to train and because of a minor injury or two our longest run before the marathon ended up being 16 miles and we only did it once. The rest of our LSD runs the month before were between 9-12 miles. I would have liked to have done an 18-20 miler a few times before the marathon -- had we done that we probably would have broke 4 hours instead of running 4:23, but hey we finished and had a blast doing it, and that is what's most important.

Halfway through your marathon training you begin to eliminate hill training and you may start incorporating some interval training. The interval training isn't mandatory, but it will give your legs some spring and help you "taper". You want to avoid feeling "flat" on the day of the race. I'm mentioning a lot of this for readers who are interested, but all you really need to be concerned with as a first time marathoner is to go out there and run, and build up your distance.

Other things you should be concerned with are:

  • Eat a balanced diet. Nothing unusual here, just healthy -- no dieting.
  • Drink lots of water. Drink until you're not thirsty and then drink a little more.
  • Stretch gently before and after your workouts.
  • If you get injured use RICE therapy [rest, ice, compression, elevation] and take care of the injury immediately so that it does not turn into a chronic condition like tendinitis. Also adjust your training if you get an injury and ride the bike or swim until it heals up. There is no excuse for missing workouts. You can always do some sort of non-impact exercise while you are recovering. Common injuries are muscle strains, tendinitis, and joint irritation. If the injury is severe enough or doesn't go away you should see a doctor immediately. An injury setback doesn't mean the end of your marathon bid. You might have to take a break, but you don't lose all those miles you logged.
  • Learn how to "pace" yourself. You should have a watch and run with it on every training run and race. Find out where the mile markers are and time yourself.  Learn to measure your pace. This is extremely important in order to run efficiently over 26.2 miles. It's one thing to go out and run a 5k without a watch, but you just don't do that in a marathon. In the beginning it is very easy to go out fast due to the adrenaline but you'll suffer later on in the race. It is smarter to pace yourself and use discipline and restraint. Learn to know your pace by the way your body feels. Know your pace, create a plan, and stick to it.
  • Register for a few shorter races throughout your marathon training to get a feel for what to expect, and also to get a feel for your pacing. I recommend 5k and 10k runs.
  • Use mapmyrun.com
  • Keep yourself in quality running sneakers. This is very important to avoid injuries. You'll hear a number of opinions on brands, but my two personal favorites are Nike Air and Asics Gel sneakers. There are many different models, but I believe they provide the best cushioning on the market, especially for a heavier runner like me. When your mid-sole becomes compressed, sole is worn, or your sneakers start feeling flat it's probably time for a new pair. If you track your miles religiously there is also data out there to suggest when you should get new sneakers.
Resources and Links:

Sites:

Books:

  • The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer - for training.
  • Barefoot in November - for inspiration and birds eye view of NYC Marathon and the year leading up to it.
  • 26.2 a very good read about the London Marathon - why people are motivated to run it and how they do on the day.
  • Marathon - a great book for people considering their first marathon.
Cool Blogs:
Please add your own favorite links and comments below!


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