At the Portland Marathon this past October, I saw elite runners with their petite but mighty limbs sprinting past me. I also saw octogenarians in incredible shape, running with what I can only describe as pure joy. This last group weren’t the fastest – though some certainly put me to shame – but they were by far the most impressive. The beauty of running is that it can be adapted to any ability, age, and commitment level. What other official sporting event or race can boast such a wide range of individual talents?
It was seeing this diversity in the running community from an early age that motivated me, at the ripe age of 25, to begin training for my first marathon distance. I grew up close to Newton’s Heartbreak Hill, a particularly grueling portion of the Boston Marathon route, and witnessed first hand, year after year, the pain and personal glory in each and every runner that passed. Not all of them high-fived me or took the slices of orange I offered, but all of them left me with a valuable impression of raw human will and strength.
The beauty of training for a running event is that while you can run with others or play team sports, a road race is and will always be an individual effort. We can be as competitive as we want to be with ourselves and others, but it all comes down to learning to read our bodies – to know when to push harder and when to rest. Starting a marathon journey means having to set our own very particular goals and the key is knowing that previously set parameters will undoubtedly evolve throughout training, and that is perfectly acceptable.
The longest distance I ran before seriously contemplating a marathon was a 15K race. After, I felt an urge to prove something more to myself, to see if my body could take me the distance. It did! And yours will too. It may seem daunting at first, but here are a few tips to keep in mind so that you cross the finish line strong, healthy and happy.
1. Set competitive yet flexible goals. Think honestly about why you want to accomplish this and turn your motive into your end-goal. Do you have a goal time? Or just want to cross the finish line with both legs still attached?
2. Keep a log or journal. I tracked my weekly mileage and routes as well as the various pre and post workout meals and snacks I tried. I also kept a note of small aches and pains in order to prevent more serious injuries. I did so in small notepad (pen and paper is still my preferred method), but some people use mobile apps or websites to track their progress.
3. Read books and articles, and consult with other runners you meet (runners are a friendly bunch!) to acquire those juicy morsels of knowledge. Tailor these valuable tips to your own body and experience. I asked mostly practical questions about appropriate protein intake, post-run recovery methods, and how to avoid painful chafing in certain areas (vaseline, roll-on products, and Band-aids).
4. Find a mentor, if possible. Building a support network is invaluable in keeping you motivated on your journey. I credit much of what I know to my step-father, who helped me train and imparted his hard-earned wisdom from his marathoning days through e-mails, phone calls, and the occasional pump-up talk (the Rocky theme song, sometimes included). The most useful piece of advice he gave me was to think of my 20-week training period as an opportunity to learn how to listen to my body and to foster an acute awareness of its changing needs.
5. Develop or adapt an 18-22 week training schedule that fits your ability and lifestyle. Then split your training as you go into more manageable chunks. Smaller goals are easier to aspire to than huge daunting ones, especially at the beginning.
6. Save a little money for expenses like race registrations, gear (replacing old running shoes, hydration packs), or food (extra protein, energy gels.) Through trial and error, you will know what will work for you on race day.
7. Lay out your daily and weekly schedule and see where you can fit in your runs, especially the “long” runs, which are traditionally reserved for the weekends.
8. Relish each and every long run, for these are the days you attempt to mimic race day (which will most likely be on a Saturday or Sunday). Your body needs to slowly become familiar with what you’ll experience come marathon day, including the early wake-up time. With each week, hone in on what feels good for your body and stomach. Pre-run, do I eat eggs and toast, or opt for a hearty shake? Which energy gels or chews work best, if at all? Should I consume caffeine? As a rookie marathoner, these will all be new and imperative questions.
9. Lastly, know that training will take a lot of time and effort, but the experience will be truly unparalleled.
Research has found that runners reach their peak athletic performance seven to ten years after they begin training. So, go easy on yourself for your first marathon and just enjoy!
Andrea works in the Higher Education Access/Federal TRIO programs field, helping students and families get into college. She is a part-time photographer, and full-time travel, running, brewing and food enthusiast. Andrea taught English at the University level for almost three years in Nantes, France, where she also wrote about her culinary and travel experiences. She is fluent in Spanish and French, and proficient in Italian. Follow her on her website or blog!