So You Want to Run a Marathon?
The story goes that in 490 BC Pheidippides, a Greek messenger, ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated. While this alone is amazing, he also apparently ran the entire distance without stopping and once he made his announcement to the assembly he collapsed and died. Fact or fiction? No one can say for sure, but there's no doubt that the story has inspired many to don their running shoes and to complete their own marathons. In fact, people have been doing so since Charilaos Vasilakos won the first Olympic Marathon in April in 1896 in Greece.
The distance of a marathon is officially a 26 mile / 42 km run. Technically, anything that is longer or shorter should not be called a marathon without altering the name e.g. ultra-marathon or half-marathon. So you can't use the term marathon when referring to a 5 mile run.
There are marathon events world-wide, with probably the most famous being the Boston Marathon. A simple internet search should easily reveal such events for the area you live in so don't feel you need to figure out how to get to Boston.
How To Prepare for a Marathon
Motivation: Before you decide that you want to run a marathon you first want to really, really think about it. You see, 26 miles is very long! So you'll need a very good reason, not just to successfully run it, but to train properly for it. And staying motivated may not be so easy as you first think when the idea pops into your head while watching others run on TV.
Goals: Why do you want to run a marathon? Are you interested in getting really fit; do you want to lose weight; or do you have time goals you want to beat? Or, as is the case with many, do you just want to finish? If it's your first marathon, the latter might be the best goal, but you should still have a time frame in mind to assist with training.
Nutrition: Do you know what to eat? When to eat? If you think you can fuel your body to run a marathon by eating chips and peanut butter, you've got another thing coming. So, start learning about nutrition. Learn about carbs, proteins, and fats. And you will also need to do a bit of experimenting to see what things work and don't work for you.
Time: Make sure you have several months ahead of you before the actual event. Unless you are already a serious runner you will need to slowly build up to the 26 mile mark. You will also need 2-3 weeks at the end of the training, before the event, to taper — a multi-day cooling period before the big day. This is vital otherwise you will start the run not fully rested.
Equipment: While running is by no means the most expensive sport you can get involved in, it still requires some basic equipment. The most important being running shoes. This is one area where you don't want to be cheap. Good running shoes can make a huge difference so find a specialty store and go talk to someone that knows what they are doing, preferably someone who is a runner.
I also recommended that you purchase 2-3 pairs of running shoes so you can change them once in a while — it's good for your feet. Other gear to consider: shirts, shorts, socks, and a light jacket. Of course, always aim for the best quality you can find, but you don't need to spend a fortune. Also take into account the environmental conditions you'll be training in and not just the conditions of the race location.
Stride: Learn about proper running stride and how your feet should hit the pavement. This can by done via some research on the web or by signing up for a running clinic. Don't assume you already know what's right. Running is not the same as walking and if you don't learn to do it properly you risk injury.
Training for a Marathon
You should leave yourself at least 6 months from the date of when you start running to the date of the marathon. If you don't leave enough time you will just end up pushing yourself too hard and increase the risk of injury, maybe even permanent injury.
Note, the pre-season below does not include the 6 months of running training.
Pre-season: If you are really out of shape you should begin with some resistance training, primarily of the lower body. Of course, don't completely ignore the core and make sure you exercise all the muscle groups. This should be done for at least 2-3 months. The reason is, if you start running with weak muscles and joints, you are simply asking for trouble.
You are considered a beginner if you presently run less than 30-35km per week, in no more than 3-4 sessions. Don't be offended by this. Even if you are active in other sports, it does not mean you are a fit runner. Each sport is different and sometimes the skills don't transfer well.
Step-by-Step Training Plan:
- Get a physical check up first.
- Start slow! Run 1-2 miles every other day for a couple of weeks.
- Slowly increase your mileage. Slowly! Don't worry about speed just yet.
- Aim for being able to run almost 26 miles about 3 weeks prior to the event.
- Once you reach about 45 minutes of continuous running then start mixing things up a little bit such as alternating between long, slower runs and shorter faster runs. Consider doing some uphill running.
- There's nothing wrong with even doing a totally different activity once in a while.
- Listen to your body; if you are tired, take 1 or 2 days off, it means you need it either physically or mentally.
- A bit of muscle soreness is normal, but if you feel aches and pain stop and seek help. Especially in the joints.
- Do NOT run every day! You risk injury, boredom, and over training, and there is no physical benefit to running every day.
- Monitor your progress with a daily diary: distance, time, how you felt, type of run, what you've been eating and how it made you feel. This will help inform you about how to maximize your future efforts.
- Read everything you can on running, nutrition, and common injuries. Besides learning, this will provide motivation.
- If you like running with others, join a running group.
- If you don't think you will be ready for a full marathon, don't give up. Consider doing a half-marathon, this is still a great achievement. Usually they are organized together.