By Jane Johnson
Author’s disclaimer: When Fred Deckert asked me to write an article about training for a marathon, I cringed. I am not a marathon expert, and my training regimens are anything but scientific. However, when I was trying to get up the confidence to run my first marathon, I genuinely appreciated hearing how other people achieved their marathon goals. So here are ten insights I have gained over the years about training for a marathon:
1. Commit to the race you decide to run physically, mentally, and emotionally. For me, this is more important than any other aspect of marathon training or racing. Training for and running a marathon will take your body, mind and spirit to places they really don’t want to go. You will be pushing yourself beyond your physical comfort zone, contradicting what you know to be sensible standards for physical exercise and reaching points of discouragement and self-doubt that create an overwhelming urge to quit – or at least downgrade your goals in favor of a more easily attained outcome. It’s really important to acknowledge that upfront and prepare for it.
The physical commitment to a marathon is obvious. If you want to run a 26.2 mile race well, you should commit to a training regimen that will give you the endurance and strength to achieve your goal.
The mental commitment is less obvious, but equally important. For most runners, the physical training is the simplest piece. But to train effectively, it’s also critical to tackle your goal like a math problem and calculate what you have to do in order to get to where you want to be on race day.
The emotional commitment is the extra “edge” that allows you to exceed your expectations and run beyond yourself. It’s a physiological fact that your body will be stretched to its capacity somewhere around 20 miles. You will feel physically whipped, mentally defeated and the best way to keep yourself motivated and on pace is to summon those emotions that separate the ordinary from the extraordinary – things like: courage, determination, fortitude, tenacity, guts and chutzpah. Those are the emotional muscles that can take you to the next level – a level that rational thinking can’t get to because it isn’t rational. Those emotional muscles can be cultivated and strengthened just like your physical muscles. I run many “micro-marathons” before I actually toe the line in a race, by going all out for the last 100 yards of my morning run like it’s the last mile of the marathon and I am about to break 2:50 or applying the same tactics in the pool, on my bike and even doing yard work. Yes, they’re just crazy mental games, but they really work for me!
2. Find a group to train with. The camaraderie experienced by running in groups is priceless and it makes the training much more enjoyable. It’s likely that you will even run harder and farther in a group than you would on your own, but be careful not to get too caught up in other people’s training programs if they are very different from what you have already planned for yourself.
3. Give yourself at least three months to train for your event. Many people prefer a longer window, but if you are already fit and maintaining a regular running schedule of 20-30 miles a week, I think you are much more likely to sustain an overuse injury by extending your marathon training program beyond three months. If you are starting from little or no running base, allow no less than 6-9 months to train for a marathon.
4. Once you’ve decided on the race you want to run, get out a calendar or training log and back up three months from that date and calculate how you can take whatever the distance of your normal long run is up to what you want your longest training run to be no less than two weeks before your marathon. This is part of the mental commitment. It’s simple math based on steadily increasing distance over time.
5. When the length of your longest run gets to 15 miles or so, start using every other weekend as a “rest and recovery” weekend. While you are increasing the length of your longest run every other weekend, give your body a break and don’t run more than 12-13 miles for your long run on the alternate weekends. This strategy gives your legs and you mind time to recover from your long runs.
6. Get a map and elevation chart of the marathon race course. I really like to be able to study the elevation and route of a marathon course and mentally project how I will feel at each point. This strategy prepares me for tough parts of a course (like heartbreak hill in Boston – which can really break your heart if you don’t prepare for it by fueling and backing off sufficiently before you get there.)
7. Don’t leave your marathons on the road. I do think that overtraining is more harmful to your marathon performance than under-training. There is no magic length that your longest run before a marathon should be. The longest marathon training run I have done is 2 ½ hours (I don’t measure distance, just time,) but I like to do at least three runs at that length. That is based on a projected finish time of just under 3 hours, so if your goal is a 4-hour finish time, your longest run should be adjusted proportionately.
8. If you don’t already cross train, start. Cross training is not only an injury prevention strategy – allowing you to increase your cardiovascular capacity without pounding your running muscles – but it also helps you gain total body fitness. Upper body and abdominal strength can really help during the last miles of a marathon when you start looking and feeling like a cooked shrimp.
9. Choose a race that will provide crowd support or an interesting route that can help the miles go by faster. Don’t underestimate the advantage that distractions along the course can give you mentally.
10. Maintain a regular stretching regimen. Marathon training can really tighten up your hamstring and calf muscles, which can shorten your stride and eliminate the vertical lift in your foot strike.