How to Prepare for a Marathon

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One sure way to cure that midlife crisis is to run a marathon. It's 26.2 miles (42.1 kilometers) of pain and suffering, but crossing that finish line for the first time will be one of the greatest accomplishments of your life. First, though, you have to be prepared, and to do that you need to set up your training schedule carefully.

  • Have 6 months to a year of solid running under your belt. Expect to spend at least 26 weeks in training, 1 week for every mile you'll complete in the race. Of course, this will vary depending on what shape you're in when you start, your current running base and the length of the runs that you are currently doing. For example, if you are already running 5 miles a day and you occasionally go out and run a half marathon, you would start your long runs at the half-marathon distance and increase from there.

  • Do some serious research before you begin. If you know people who have run marathons, talk to them and get their advice.

  • Investigate running clubs and organizations in your area. Many offer classes as well as provide the safety of group runs. Locate coaches and trainers at the Road Runners Club of America. There are also groups like the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training and the Arthritis Foundation's Joints in Motion, which will coach you in exchange for your getting donations for their charity (see Resources).

  • Invest in a good pair of running shoes. This is critical. Shop for shoes at the end of the day when your feet have swelled slightly. Visit a couple of stores that specialize in running and speak with a qualified salesperson. You should be able to test-drive them in a jog around the block. Retire shoes after 300 to 400 miles since the cushioning breaks down, inviting injuries.

  • Dress in moisture-wicking layers appropriate to your climate. Wear a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses.

  • Purchase a performance-quality wristwatch with a stopwatch function to track your splits at each mile. This will help you regulate your pace.

  • Develop a training program that you can stick with. The general idea is to slowly increase your distance, and then your speed, over a 26-week period. Each week will build off the previous one and include 5 running days (1 long run and 4 shorter runs) and 2 rest days. Remember, while you can skip an occasional shorter run, the long ones are essential to your training.

  • Stretch your muscles smoothly, without bouncing, before and after every run to keep them prepared and resilient. Give your hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, groin and hip flexors plenty of attention, slowly stretching each for at least 30 seconds.

  • Eat meals that are high in carbohydrates and low in fat.

  • Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water, even on days when you're not running. During your training period you'll need to consume at least 6 to 8 pints (3 to 4 liters) of water a day. Carry a water bottle with you on the run or wear a hydration pack. Many seasoned runners eat small packets of easy-to-digest carbohydrate gel every 35 to 40 minutes during long runs.

  • Register a few weeks or months in advance if you're shooting for one of the major marathons, such as the races in Chicago and Los Angeles. The New York Marathon, for example, uses a lottery system to choose participants for the race, so not everyone who applies even gets to run. To enter the Boston Marathon you have to have qualifying times based upon your age on the date of the race you wish to run. (See Resources for more information.)

  • Start your taper 3 weeks before the marathon. Don't burn yourself out before the race begins.

  • Rest 1 to 3 days if you feel like you are getting an injury. You will be back on the road much sooner if you don't aggravate the problem. If your symptoms pass, resume gentle running; if they do not, see a medical professional.

  • Rest and eat properly the week before your race. If you stick to your plan, you don't need to load up on carbs the night before--and stay away from unknown restaurants, fish and spicy foods. Don't try anything for the first time on marathon day either: Test everything (gels, hydration packs, shoes and inserts, clothes--even your hat, but especially shoes) well before the race. Stock up on energy bars, gels and sports drinks for the big day.

  • Keep your pace even, or start out slow during the race and increase the pace during the second half or last third of the marathon. The surest way to crash and burn is to run too fast at the beginning. This is very hard when people are passing you. You can run faster if you are in good shape, but you need to resist. Run at your own pace and run it consistently. You will feel much better for a longer time in the race, and you can always speed up near the end if you have extra energy.

  • Stay on your feet right after the race and walk around in order to avoid some serious soreness. You'll heal much quicker if you stretch every day over the next week and get some easy running in. For example, run 1 mile at a 15-minute pace the day after the marathon. The next day, run 2 miles at a 13-minute pace. Then rest a day, but stretch. The fourth day, run 3 or 4 miles at an 11- minute pace, then take a day off. By the following weekend, you might run up to 6 miles, but slower. Listen to your body.

Tips & Warnings

  • Hire an experienced coach if your budget allows. He or she will help keep you motivated and make sure you're training properly.
  • Slather Bodyglide or Vaseline on those parts of your body that chafe (armpits, inside of thighs, under bra straps, inside of the knees). There is nothing worse than painfully chafing skin on a long run.
  • Keep a training diary to help you stay focused and identify how any injuries occurred.
  • Getting plenty of rest is a vital component of your training.
  • Shop for shoes in a running store. The staffers are usually highly experienced runners. Bring an old pair along. An examination of the worn areas reveals quite a bit about the type of shoe you need.
  • Incorporate cross-training into your routing: walking, swimming, cycling and so on to increase endurance and strength and avoid boredom.
  • You don't have to run the entire 26.2 miles. Many marathoners walk a portion of the race to rest and rehydrate.
  • Consult your physician before beginning any serious training programs.
  • Stay clear of alcohol and caffeinated beverages (coffee, tea, cola). They're diuretics and will quickly dehydrate you.
  • To avoid injury, never increase your distance from one week to the next by more than 10 percent.
  • Never train in worn-out shoes. If you feel pain in the knee, shin or foot, it may be time for a new pair.

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