Okay, you’ve made the decision. You are going to do it—you are going to run your first marathon. Now what?
As a veteran marathoner who has completed 13 marathons, I still vividly remember my first race. Completing a marathon is a daunting goal, no matter what age or shape you are presently in. Maybe you want to lose weight, or want to regain the fitness you’ve lost. Are you are recovering from a heart attack and want an outlet for stress? Maybe you want to lose weight or a friend is goading you into it, or is it just the challenge of completing 26.2 miles?
Whatever your reason…good for you! Be prepared to have one of the best times of your life. But that is the key word here—prepare. If you prepare properly, I promise you will feel a rush of excitement unlike anything you can imagine when you cross that finish line for the first time.
At this point, let’s address the first-time runner. I emphasize wholeheartedly, do not run a marathon unless you have at least a year of consistent running and can run 20 miles a week comfortably. A marathon is a huge physical challenge and it is wise to prepare your body for the distance to avoid injury. Injuries can range from shin splints and swollen knees to hip pain and foot problems. Give your body time to adapt and get strong.
Following are my tips to make your first marathon experience a happy and successful one:
1. Participate in a group marathon training program. I recommend a six month structured program which clearly outlines how much mileage should be logged each day and week. Other runners will motivate you as the training gets tougher. They will also help push you on the long runs. Plus, it is less likely you will get lost on that long 20-miler. One program to consider is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program.
If you prefer to train on your own, there are several training programs available. Both Hal Higdon and Jeff Galloway offer great training schedules and advice. The Runner’s World and Running Times web sites offer sample training programs for different abilities. Don’t get overly ambitious with the first marathon. Follow the beginner programs and get enough rest to avoid injury.
2. Choose a flat marathon. A marathon is challenging enough without the added test of hills. When you choose your marathon, review the elevation chart on the web site. Unless it’s flat and described as such on the website, choose another marathon. Believe me, when you get to mile 18, you will thank me for this advice.
3. Wear shoes that fit properly. Shoes are the main tool of the runner. Do not go to a discount store to buy your running shoes. That is a prescription for injury not to mention huge blisters and lost toe nails (which are not attractive at all). Instead go to a specialty running store, usually staffed by runners who are knowledgeable about the various types of shoes. They will watch you run and tell you if you need a cushioned shoe or one with added stability. The maze of shoes is confusing and over time you will figure out what brand and style of shoe works best for you. Until then, trust an expert to guide you in your shoe selection.
4. Complete the mileage. This is not the time to take short cuts. You must do the miles or you will hit the wall on marathon day. The wall is that elusive barrier many runners hit at about the 18- to 22-mile mark where your body shuts down and refuses to move. You can make it through the wall, but it will feel like you are in labor. If you’ve never been in labor, it will prepare you for that experience.
If your training program calls for 40 miles for the week with two eight mile runs, two 4.5 mile runs and a long run of 15 miles don’t cut the long run to 12 miles because you are tired. It is important to push through it and train your body and your mind to go the distance.
5. “Speed kills” (or don’t run too fast). There is a common saying which I tell myself when I get overly ambitious, “speed kills.” It is quite common for beginner runners to go out too fast. The excitement of the race takes over logic and common sense. If you trained at 11 minute mile pace, it is highly unlikely you will be able to run 26.2 miles at 9 minute pace on race day. Perhaps you can gut through a 10K, but a marathon is a really long run. Wear your running watch or GPS and pace yourself to run at the pace at which you trained. Again, you will thank me when you finish your first marathon strong and without undue pain and trauma.
6. Visualize crossing the finish line. Running a marathon is more of a mental challenge than a physical one. If you trained properly, your body will know what to do, but your mind may try to convince you that you can’t do it. Completing a goal is all about attitude and intention. If you believe you can complete the marathon, you will. Practice often during your training to visualize crossing the finish line with a big smile. On race day, be confident because you prepared. It will happen.
When I crossed the finish line for the first time, I remember the surge of excitement and satisfaction I felt at conquering the marathon. It’s a rush, and I highly recommend the experience. Good luck and happy running!
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