Tips For Running Your First Marathon
What every newbie needs to know before taking on a big race
Browsing the sneaker rack was always a struggle. Inevitably I would exaggerate to the sales assistant, advertise myself as a competitive runner and opt for the high-impact, cushioning, running shoes. Mentally, I pictured myself as a runner who hit the pavement a few times a week, while physically, I never attempted more than a 5k race (and even that was almost two years ago). I have a shirt to prove it.
Blame it on the chronic shin splints and flat feet, running just wasn't my sport—and that's what made it all the more attractive. Employing the same "I can do anything better than you" mentally that got me through CrossFit training, I became determined (obsessed) with finally putting my high-end sneakers to use and decided to become a (half) marathoner in 12 weeks. Here are the tricks no one told me about:
Week 1-3: Find Your Stride
As a novice runner, the first obstacle to overcome is yourself. While training, everyone says that running a marathon is 80 percent mental (screw that, my body begged to differ), so the biggest challenge was letting myself fail. Just as you can't start with a 250 lb. deadlift, you can't jump into training at an 8-minute mile. Sure, your competitive nature would love to train at a 1:45 hour race finish time, but if you want to make it past a week of training you have to mentally and physically slow down. There are a bunch of running schedules you can find online (like the ones from Hal Higdon, for example), but accept the fact that it's OK to modify based on your ability and schedule, and set realistic, achievable goals in terms of mileage and pace.
Take this time to find yourself as a runner. Do you prefer training indoors or outdoors? It's a lot easier to jump off a treadmill versus running outdoors where giving up means you'll still have to walk home. Are you a team player or a soloist? Find a running buddy who is just a little bit faster than you to keep you challenged, otherwise work on an awesome playlist to keep you pumped throughout your run. And find your solemate—stop by a running store to analyze your gait and find the proper sneaker (turns out the stability, cushioning shoe I splurged on would help ease shin splits my overpronating feet).
Week 4-6: Stay Committed to Your Goal
You've made it four weeks in—this is the time to stay focused and stick to your program. Everyone will offer their admiration for your new-found commitment to road racing, especially while handing you another beer. Sure, it's an accomplishment to run a marathon of any length, but unless your buddies are training with you, no one is going to hold your hand along the way. Know upfront that this is going to mean some sober happy hours and Friday nights in—but if running a marathon came easy, everyone would do it.
So pass on a second round and spend the cash on creating an awesome playlist instead. The secret: every few songs, insert a guaranteed, pump-you-up track (shout-out to Nelly's "Heart of a Champion" for getting me through the end of mile 10). It'll remind you to pick up your speed, and push yourself, even if only for four minutes.
Week 7-9: Know the Gear
Now that you're clocking in decent mileage it's time for the tricks of the trade that make it all the more pleasant. Stock up on Body Glide to avoid dry, chafed and blistered skin—don't forget to apply over the nipples (you can also Band-Aid them to prevent the dreaded bloody runner's chest). You'll also want to avoid new clothes and sneakers on race day. Find the shorts you're most comfortable in — does the lining and stitching hold up for the longer runs?
As you get closer to attempting a marathon, this is also a good time to think about nutrition. Test your stomach now, rather than leaving fuel to guesswork later on. If you haven't trained using power gels or energy beans, the race is not the time to experiment. Find your perfect night-before-race dinner; try whole-wheat pasta with chicken and make this a few times before long training runs to see how you react. What's going to be your morning-of fuel? We suggest staying away from high-fiber foods.
Week 10-12: Focus on the Race
You're at the end stretch so work on sleeping and stretching to avoid injury. Use ice baths to recover after longer runs and avoid massages before the big event—but feel free to make an appointment now for a few days after the race (a sports massage one or two days after the event could help speed up recovery).
The night before race day is about fueling and hydrating. Indulge in a guilt-free pasta (bring on the bread basket) dinner, and be sure to drink lots of water. While it's important to sip water consistently the morning of, you don't want to be stopping at the bathroom every other mile and you don't want to run with a sloggishy stomach.
For fall and winter races you'll want to layer up in the morning to keep muscles warm. At most large marathons there will be a Dumpster near the starting line where you can discard extra layers—or simply hand them off to a friend before the race starts.
Above all, have fun and and enjoy the sense of accomplishment that comes with taking on a race. Oh, and wear your medal for the next few days, you've earned it.