Marathon Fever: How Many Is Too Many?


By Sheryl Rosen,


It’s no secret most runners are an obsessive bunch. We have to know how many miles we’re running and what our splits are; we’re exacting with our running logs, meticulously calculating our mileage and comparing current performances with past races; and we take pleasure in adding up grand prix points and plotting our next racing season.

Assuming the above is the typical runner’s ethos, it’s also no surprise runners have great difficulty holding ourselves back and making smart training and racing decisions. Despite our best rational, injury-fearing thoughts, too often we choose to enter that extra race or add on yet another hard training run when it might behoove us to rest or cross train instead.

This is a forgivable temptation to which many runners – yours truly notwithstanding – regularly succumb. We love to run after all, so it’s easy to let ourselves have too much of a good thing.

However, overtraining or racing too frequently is a game of roulette that can end up costing months of training time, plenty of discomfort, and a heap of health care costs. Plus, there’s nothing more terrifying and anxiety-producing for a type-A distance runner than not being able to run for 8 weeks.

While runners who race shorter distances or train with lower mileage can sometimes get away with occasionally overextending themselves, the risk of overtraining multiplies for marathoners and ultramarathoners. The predicament then becomes choosing between doing what we do best – enjoying plentiful runs – and doing what is best for us in the long term – which, lest we forget, means allowing ourselves to recover fully and avoid injury.

The main marathon season (October through April) has already arrived and claimed its first victims in the heat of Chicago and Twin Cities. New York City is almost here, and many more races near and far amply populate weekends in the coming months. We certainly have our pick of marathons, but how many is too many? Some Gulf Winds marathoners run 1 or 2 a year, some a few more, and yet Jack McDermott, our very own serial marathoner, has run 12-15 per year since 2003. Especially with these differences, how can we balance our love of running and desire for great performances with the need to avoid overtraining and injury?

I consulted three trusted sources for input on the number of marathons we should run per year: Maclay School’s Coach Gary Droze; Dave Milliman, a personal friend and former editor of U.S. Track & Field Coaches Review; and an article on Runner’ by Coach Jenny Hadfield of Chicago Endurance Sports.

The consensus is definitely 1-2 marathons a year for optimal performance, ideally with the races spread 6 months apart. By virtue of the distance we cover during a marathon, we break down muscle tissue that needs months to fully repair itself. We must give our legs the time they need to recover in order to race at our very best.

Of course, not all of us are out on the race course to compete for a trophy or set a new personal record. Sometimes the joy of the experience is the only goal we need, and rightfully so. In that case, all three coaches acknowledged runners can safely participate in more than 2 marathons per year by slowing our race pace in order to incur less stress on our bodies. Otherwise, they warned, we may burn ourselves out and end up with no choice but to slog through a race at a sub-par performance.

As with most else in running, trial and error is king. I imagine it would be a terrible feeling to “hit the wall” and have the wall hit back, but by experimenting with different paces and frequency of marathons, we can find that ideal balance between performance, injury prevention, and yes, to the shock and horror of our non-running friends and colleagues, even fun.