Running Your First Marathon...
What do Oprah Winfrey, George W. Bush, Al Gore, Will Ferrell, Joe Strummer and I all have in common? No, we didn't all go to the same high school. But we've all run marathons. In fact, I'm pleased to say that I whipped Al Gore. Still, if there's one thing this proves, it's that anyone can run a marathon. You don't need any particular athletic ability, talent or special equipment. If you've got the gumption and some decent running shoes, you too can run a marathon. I'm always amazed at the range of people who cross the finish line at any marathon. You may not get a world record time, but if you want it, and train for it, you can do it.
Anyone who really likes running, has run a few 10K races while still smiling and has 6 hours a week to train can complete a marathon. You don't need to take a year off, you don't need to train 6 days a week. You don't have to be a running nut (ok, it doesn't hurt.) That being said, running a marathon is still a very hard thing to do. I would rank it as one of the toughest things I've done in my life. Harder than working in a startup. Harder than marriage. Harder than writing humor. But it's also a very enriching experience. I learned more in completing my first marathon than in almost anything else in life. And I can't emphasize enough, you have to really like running and be willing to put in some hard miles for 4-5 months to train. If you're not up to a 10K level, run 2-3 times a week until you have confidence to run a few 10Ks and perhaps a half marathon and then think about whether you really want to run the full marathon. While the marathon is an event that has a lot of mystique associated with it, a half marathon is still a significant accomplishment and a lot more fun.
The key to successful marathon training lies in the weekend long run. Assuming you can run a 10K in an hour or less without keeling over, then you just start adding 1-2 miles every other weekend to make it your long run. In other words, you start running 6 miles. Then two weeks later you run 7 or 8 miles, then two weeks later 9 miles and so on. You should also run 2-3 times during the week, preferably for 45-60 minutes or more. In four months time, you'll be ready to run a marathon. Ok, it sounds easy. Realistically, those last 1-2 miles of your long run will always be hard. But when you get to the point you can run 18 or 20 miles, you'll be amazed at how easy the first 10 miles are. There are a range of different training programs, typically 14-16 weeks (assuming a base line of 20-30 miles per week) available in books and on line in the resources section below. You don't have to follow the programs exactly, but you should not consider running your first marathon until you can run a long run of 20-22 miles, and preferably cover that distance 2 or 3 times. Don't ever train to the full marathon distance of 26.2 miles; save that for race day.
As you get to 90 minutes or more of training time, you need to start thinking about fuel management. In other words, drinking water, and consuming carbohydrates. Despite recent fad diets, carbohydrates aren't bad; they are essential for any athletic endurance training. Just as you wouldn't start a long car drive with your gas tank on empty, you need to make sure you consume enough carbohydrates to keep on running. That usually means having a bagel, yogurt or cereal before doing your long runs. When you get beyond 90 minutes of training time (and certainly when you're at two hours) you should be prepared to consume some food on the run. Typically this is Gatorade, Gu or a PowerBar. Be sure to consume water if you take Gu or other foods.
Be careful not to over train. I ran my first five marathons without ever running back-to-back days. After a long run, be sure to take a day off. A good rule of thumb is to not increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% in any week. I've always found that too restrictive, but its worth keeping in mind. If you feel any signs of injury, you should consider easing up on the training. If you have a dull pain, you can probably run through it, but if you ever experience a sharp pain, stop immediately as you could end up tearing tissue and the time to repair will be that much longer. If injury does occur, remember the acronym RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. You can also use Ibuprofen to help with inflammation, but its best to wait a few hours after a hard run before taking it. If you're in doubt about any injury it's best to take time off. Marathon training is very much a balancing act of pushing yourself close to --but not over --the edge of injury. Even taking two weeks off of running during a 16 week program is unlikely to seriously affect your performance. But being unable to complete a race due to injury is a always a distinct possibility. Also plan on tapering for 3 weeks prior to the race, cutting your mileage in half each week.
Jeff Galloway is a big proponent of the "walk / run" strategy which I strongly recommend for beginning marathoners. Following Jeff's program on your long run you generally run for 9 minutes (or 1-2 miles) and then walk for 1 minute. This is a great strategy and works well until you've got a few marathons under your belt and are starting to get competitive.
Make sure you get fitted with the proper shoes to accomodate your feet and running style. Don't just buy shoes at the mall. Go to a good store and have them check you out to make sure you're getting shoes that support your running form, for example if you're a heel-striker, whether you over or under-pronate etc. Also, wear proper running socks and coolmax or equivalent shirt or singlet while running long distances or races. Don't wear cotton. (Trust me on this, if you don't, you'll learn a lesson.)
If you're compulsive, neurotic or serious about training, consider getting a Garmin Forerunner 301 GPS and Heart Rate Monitor or similar device for measuring heart rate, pace, speed, barometric pressure, phase of the moon etc. The Garmin Forerunner is terrific and it makes it easy to maintain an even pace and track your progress on training runs. If you own an Apple iPod, you may also want to investigate the Apple Nike+ Sport Kit which enables your iPod to automatically tell you pace and distance. While it's promoted as working with Nike shoes, it will work with any "shoe wallet" to measure your strides. The Nike+ kit costs around $30, so its an excellent value.
Furman FIRST program
In the August 2005 issue of Runner's World, they featured an article called "The Less is More Marathon Plan" which described a marathon program developed at Furman Institute on how to train for a marathon on just 3 days a week. (That's the good news; the bad news is they are all tough workouts.) Since I'd been suffering achilles injuries the last few years peaking at 45-55 miles per week in marathon training, I thought it would be worth trying out a workout program with fewer miles but more intensity. I can't say whether it will work for everyone, but it worked for me with a PR at the Silicon Valley Marathon and no injuries! They also have a program for first-time marathoners (PDF).
Here are some good sources of information about marathon training. Both Hal Higdon's and Jeff Galloway's books and web sites have step-by-step training programs to guide your training over a 16-20 week period. If it's your first marathon, just focus on finishing. Don't set a time goal or you may easily become frustrated keeping pace with a tough program. Just completing a marathon is a big accomplishment.
Marathon, Hal Higdon
Jeff Galloway's Book on Running, Jeff Galloway
Road Runner Sports
I ran 10 marathons in 10 years, with times ranging from 3:57 for my first at Big Sur (not recommended as a first marathon) to a PR of 3:18 which qualified me for Boston Marathon in 2006. At this point, I'm not sure if I'm going to run any more full marathons, at least for a while. I've done a few half marathons, which are more fun and less time consuming to train for. They are not as studly as the full marathon, but you can walk the next day. If you're looking for a good first marathon, look for something flat and cool, like Austin, Chicago or Silicon Valley. For those interested, I have posted my times at the bottom of the article on "How to Run a Marathon PR."
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