Marathon Training Tips for Beginners
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Interested in running your first marathon or half marathon? Awesome!
Both 26.2 and 13.1 are physical and mental accomplishments that are so rewarding they’ve become an increasingly popular “bucket list” item for many. We’ve run both full and half marathons ourselves and have found them to be fun (yup!) and fulfilling experiences.
While it’s debatable that long-term distance running is great for the body, long races like marathons and half marathons can be trained for and completed in a way that’s not too taxing overall.
Though running is a natural human activity you could in theory take on without much of a learning curve, there are certainly a few key things that help in going from rarely (or never) running to completing your first long race. In particular, we recommend that any “beginner” runners pay special attention to the following types of preparation:
Nutrition & hydration
We’ll get into plenty more detail below, but in general you’ll want to be sure you have a well-structured training plan that sets you up for success; proper footwear and clothing for the conditions you’ll be running in; and proper nutrition and hydration before, during and after your runs.
How to prepare for your first marathon
Here are our top tips for beginner runners training for your first long race:
1. Choose the right race
There are hundreds of marathons held each year in the U.S., but not all are created equal. Here are a few factors to consider when choosing your first long race:
Time of year: Generally, running in cooler weather is a bit easier for beginners than running in the heat of summer. However, cold conditions require additional planning to keep your muscles warm and to properly regulate your varying temperature before, during and after the race. Be mindful of how the time of year will affect the temperature range you’ll be racing in.
Location: There are multiple things to consider here—convenience, scenery, accommodations. Is there a particular race you’ve always wanted to run? Do you feel comfortable traveling to your race location or would you prefer a local one? How will you get to the starting location of the race? (Seems like a small detail, but it does make a difference when you’re in an unfamiliar city navigating public transit to your early start-time.)
Race course: It’s a good idea to be aware of the race course before committing to it—some races are more hilly than others, some are on paved roads through urban areas, some are on unpaved trails in natural scenery.
Type of race: Some marathons are “big deal” races with international runners, media, tons of spectators and a party-like atmosphere. While this environment can be fun and exciting for some runners, it can be overwhelming to others. Some first-time marathoners find it simpler and less overwhelming to choose a smaller race with fewer spectators and less hoopla.
If you’re training for a full marathon, it can also be a good idea to schedule a half marathon midway through your training, to get used to the race-day environment before a full 26.2.
2. Invest in proper footwear
Your feet will take a bit of a beating in training for and completing a marathon. It’s essential to invest in quality running footwear that supports your foot structure, stride and training style. We recommend visiting a local running shop to be professionally fitted for a shoe that meets your specific needs. Heads up: it’s common to purchase running shoes a half-size or full-size larger than your usual shoe size, to allow your toes proper room in the footbed when striking the ground.
3. Ramp up slowly to avoid injury
This is foundational to almost any new workout activity, and it applies especially to distance running, which places considerable impact on our muscles and joints. Starting with too much distance right away or increasing your mileage too rapidly can lead to injury. Though taking up running may not seem very technically challenging, it does require time to safely prepare your body for distance mileage.
There are a wide variety of marathon or half marathon training plans available online with different starting/ending mileage and weeks of training (we curate training plan options on our Running Training & Tips Pinterest board, if you’re interested). In general, we recommend new runners plan for at least 16 weeks of training.
We also recommend starting with no more than three runs per week, and only increasing your weekly mileage by 10% each week. That means that if in your first week you run a total of five miles (let’s say one run of one mile and two runs of two miles), you’ll only be adding a half-mile to your total mileage in week two (for example, one run of 1.5 miles and two runs of two miles).
4. Choose softer trails for long runs
As you increase your mileage, each new long run can be somewhat of a shock to your body, as you push it in ways you haven’t before. To ease the transition, it’s helpful to complete long runs on softer surfaces like gravel or dirt trails, rather than on pavement, which is harder on your joints and typically results in more post-run pain.
5. Focus on recovery
Your training will be greatly improved by proper attention to post-run recovery. At its simplest, this includes stretching out your muscles post-run and foam rolling any tight spots. If you experience pain after longer runs, you can ice sore knees or shins to reduce inflammation and pay special attention to their recovery between runs—and perhaps use a lacrosse ball to loosen up tense tissue.
6. Experiment with pre-run fuel
It’s best to avoid running within 2-ish hours of eating a meal (it can make you feel sick or have to go to the bathroom), but each person is a little different with the amount of time it takes to fully digest before a run—pay attention to what works best for you. Though you do want to fully digest a meal before running, it’s a good idea to have a small easy-to-digest snack about 30 minutes before longer runs.
During your training it’s helpful to experiment with different fuel options to see what works best for you. Some of our favorite pre-run snacks are:
half banana with nut butter
handful of crackers or pretzels
vegetables with hummus
7. Get comfortable eating while running
As your mileage increases, you’ll need to start bringing hydration and snacks on your runs. A standard rule of thumb is to refuel about every 45 minutes. Eating while running can take a little getting used to, but it gets easier with practice. For a simple snack that’s easy to carry with you, eat and digest, we recommend Honey Stinger energy chews and gels.
8. Invest in helpful gear & supplies
Though we’re all for the minimalist approach of not acquiring extra stuff that’s not really needed, there are certain marathon training supplies that are well worth using to decrease pain or make your training or race day easier. Check out our list of the top marathon training supplies we’re happy we purchased.
9. Find & know your “zone”
Some people have time goals for their marathon and some “just want to finish.” Whichever camp you’re in, it’s still a good idea to know your ideal pace or heart rate zone so you can strategically stay within it while running, rather than being caught up in the pace of those around you. If you’re aiming for a specific time goal, obviously you’ll want to be aware of your speed so you can stay on track with the pace you need to maintain (and be mindful of not going out too fast and burning out midway through the race).
However, if you’re aiming to enjoy yourself as much as possible while running, you’ll actually want to be more aware of your heart rate zone—during training you may find that there’s a specific range you find yourself particularly relaxed and enjoying long runs. This relaxed cardio pace is not so strenuous that you’re struggling considerably, and in it your body reaches a sort-of meditative state that many people find enjoyable.
Whichever your preference for training and race day, it’s helpful to wear a watch or fitness tracker (we share more here about our favorite fitness trackers) to keep tabs on where you’re at while running, so you can maintain your ideal zone.
10. Get used to your attire before the race
It’s commonly recommended that you shouldn’t switch up your race-day shoes—you should wear shoes you’ve trained in at least several times, long enough to break them in and avoid any blisters. But it’s also a good idea to feel confident in the other clothing and gear you’ll be wearing on race day. That means: not running your race in something brand new if you’re not sure how it feels 13-20 miles in. Small details like uncomfortable fabric, poor fit or a scratchy tag can really make a difference over time.
You’ll want to be familiar with what type of clothing you need for your own temperature regulation needs (some people get warmer than others while running) and any personal preferences on material you like or length and style of shorts that fit well and won’t bunch up over time. (Note: This is one of the challenges of choosing a race in a different climate than where you live/train, as you may not have an opportunity to complete a long run in the same attire you would need for race day.)
You’ll also want to be used to running in any gear you may want to use for race day, like a running belt, calf sleeves, knee bands, sweatband, cap, etc. You want to start trying these out on your shorter runs so you know they work well for you by your longer runs. (But, that said, a running band that works well on a 4-mile run may start to rub differently on a 15-mile run, so these are all little details to trial and figure out during training.)
Also: for anyone with long hair, it’s a seemingly small detail, but you’ll want to be comfortable with how your hair is tied back out of your face. Miles and miles of hitting the pavement can cause ponytails to come loosened, and you won’t want to be continuously tying it back up while running.
11. Keep your training well-rounded
For optimum health and fitness it’s always best to maintain a well-balanced fitness plan (aka not just distance running). However, while training for a marathon (especially a full one), your fitness routine may become more run-heavy, especially toward the end of training. Despite a bit more emphasis on running, it’s still a good idea to incorporate other types of cross training and strengthening activities to keep your body in overall good shape going into your long race.
FOUR WELLNESS TIP
If you’re training for your first full or half marathon, try these tips to prepare, and check out our list of helpful marathon training supplies.
But remember: if you have any health conditions that may limit your physical activity, always check with your doctor before starting a new fitness plan.
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