It’s been almost five years since I started to run road races – 10K, Half Marathon and Full Marathon. I’ve run eight races and thousands of miles in the training. While I am not certified or trained to offer any advises or coaching to anyone, I’ve surely learned what works for me and have developed certain opinions about training for distant races, especially Full Marathon. So, this is my first crack at sharing my training and conditioning tips with those who are planning to train for their first marathon. This is purely based on my past experience as a distant runner, and I do not take scientific measurements, such as heart rates, VO2 Max, lactate thresholds, etc. Also, this is strictly for Full Marathon training; I don’t feel I’ve run enough 10K and Half Marathon races to give any tips. I will definitely share my training tips for 10K and Half Marathon after successful races.
Know Your Current Fitness Level
Everyone’s fitness level is different. Some might be optimistic about how far they can run and how fast, while others might be very conservative about assessing their fitness level. You might have run track or cross country in high school. You might be a casual runner who logs a few miles every other day, or you don’t exercise at all and never enjoyed running before. Regardless of past fitness history, it is very important to know your current fitness level. How do you know your current fitness level for marathon training? Unfortunately, there are no tools that tell you whether you are fit enough. Just be honest with you and listen to what your body tells you when you run; otherwise, you risk disappointing yourself by getting injured or setting aggressive targets you end up failing to meet. Before you start your training, ask yourself how you feel when and after you run: How are your feet, achilles, knee, hip, lower back, shoulder and neck? How are your breathing and heart beat? Feel nauseous during or after the run? If you notice anything that is not normal, it is definitely a good idea to ask your doctor whether s/he thinks you are fit enough to start a training. The doctor might prescribe pre-training advises. This could be done in a regular check-up or could even be a good chance to see your doctor again. You think you are healthy enough and don’t need your doc to confirm it? Well, let’s start running and set your goals. Read on!
Set Achievable Goals
You hear this all the time. At home from your parents, in the classroom from your professors, or at work from your managers. And yes, the goals should be measureable, too. Whether your parents, professors, or managers are right in other circumstances, it is very important to set achievable goal before you start training for your first marathon. Your goal will sound like this: I want to finish San Francisco Marathon in 3 hours and 3o minutes – actually, that was the goal for my first marathon. Simple, isn’t it? But you might ask how I came up with 3 hours and 30 minutes and why in San Francisco Marathon. Great question. That’s what I want to share in this section. First, you want to set a target finish time and calculate race pace. After setting the time and pace, you pick a race. This goal setting process can be reversed, and many do pick a race first and then decide the finish time and pace. But for the first-timers, I definitely suggest above sequence, because the finish time dictates your race pace and you definitely want to give yourself enough and reasonable training to run the entire marathon at even pace. Many experienced marathon runners will tell you they ran PRs (Personal Record) when they paced themselves evenly throughout the race. I learned this in a hard way. In the first four marathons, I ran too fast in the first half, having thought I would naturally slow down as I ran further; therefore, my pace had to be faster in the first to compensate the slower pace in the last half. Wrong! After mile 18 or so, my leg muscle started to cramp, and my energy level and confidence went down the drain very quickly, all of which led me to stop, stretch and walk for a while. The time gained by running faster in the first half was totally lost in the last several miles. Even if you don’t care about finish time and just want to finish a marathon, I would still suggest you know your finish time and race pace first, and then pick a race. A couple of exceptions to this goal setting: If you are looking at a marathon more than six months in the future, you can pick a race and still give yourself six months to train for the race. Also, if you are running with a group for a specific marathon, they usually have a training staff that can help you identify (and adjust as you progress) your finish time and pace for the given race. Anyway, there are several ways to set your finish time. The most realistic way is to use the time from the longest of your most recent easy runs where you could conduct casual conversations with someone without stopping. Calculate minute per mile pace from your time, subtract up to 60 seconds from the min/mile pace (optional), then calculate the finish time by multiplying the minute/mile by 26.2. For example, if you ran five miles in 45 minutes, you ran 9 min/mile. If your fitness level is high and you are confident you can keep up with the training, subtract 60 seconds to make it 8 min/mile, which gives roughly 3:30 finish time. If your fitness level is low, make 9 min/mile your race pace and you have 3:56 finish time. Of course, this finish time is adjustable during your training. During your long runs (10+ milers), if this pace feels too slow or too fast, you can re-calibrate and update your target. This finish time should be achieveable with a six-month marathon training for people with recent running history. If you have not run for several years, you want to extend the training period and build a base fitness. Once establishing your finish time, go look for a marathon race that is scheduled six month (or more depending on your fitness level) from the day you start your training. In 2010, there were over 600 marathons in US alone, so it should not be too difficult to pick a race. If there are no races after six months of your training, you have more time to train. For your first marathon, it might be easier if you picked a local race or somewhere you don’t have to travel too far. It is good to be running a race that your body is already acclimated in. Getting excited about your marathon?
Build Your Own Training Program
There are lots of online resources available to build your own training program for your first marathon. It is wise to look into several training programs and see what fits your schedule the best. But at the very minimum, you would want to run three times a week. At the very beginning, I suggest you stick with the mileage you are accustomed to but increase the frequency. For example, if you are already running 5 miles every weekend, run 5 miles three to five times a week in the first few weeks. Alternate an easy run and marathon pace run. On easy run days, run at a conversational pace. On marathon pace run day, run at a marathon pace. Easy runs and rest days should give you enough resting for marathon pace run days. If you are already running more than once a week, add a mile or two to easy runs and slowly add mileage to race pace runs. After you get comfortable with this regimen, start introducing a long run once a week, starting with a 10-miler. And this is when I introduce a series of do-nots. First of all, the rule of the thumb about long run mileage is it should not exceed 30 to 40% of weekly total mileage. For example, if you run three five milers and a 10-mile long run, it is a good long run. Many experienced runners long runs can be only 20% of their weekly total; however, those runners are running up to 100 miles per week, which you won’t be doing for your first marathon training. Instead, the goal is to be logging 40+ miles a week starting the fourth month. Second, on the long run days, do not run at the race pace. The long runs are endurance and mental training but not a speed training. You will need to save your legs for the following week’s training. Third, by the end of your 6-month training, you would want to run at least two 20-milers but don’t run more than 20 miles at one time. Fourth, don’t increase your weekly mileage more than 10% week over week. It is OK to decrease the weekly mileage after a hard week. Fifth, don’t increase your long run mileage more than 10% every week. You can increase by 10% every week for up to three consecutive weeks, but tone down a bit after the third week. Lastly, don’t worry about speed or hill workouts. Those workouts are geared to build stronger muscle and improve your running economy, but I did OK in my first marathon without these workouts.
Track Your Training
While you train, I encourage you to keep track of all the runs and other details. The length, route, time, weather, shoes you wear, how you felt and lesson learned. Especially on the long run day, you want to experiment your running gear, nutrition and general health. Keep track of what you ate 24 hours prior to your long run, what you wear during the long run, how you slept the night before, etc.. All this data will help you figure out what to do and how to run on your race day. There are a few free web sites that help you keep track of your training. Most of these web sites also have social features where you can virtually train with other people and compare notes with. Dailymile and RunKeeper are the two I use and recommend to people.
There is nothing more discouraging and frustrating than having to cancel a race due to injuries. You train very hard, spend money on various gear and make some difficult decisions to prioritize your training over other commitments, all of which will be wasted if you cannot run on the race day. So please be aware of what can happen if you are not careful. One of the most common causes of injuries is over-training. It is important to follow the training program and stick with it, but if your body repeatedly tells you something, you should listen to it and take appropriate actions toward it. It could be just another day of rest that is all needed, or it could be more serious and need attentions from professionals. Also, after the training, especially after a long run, your body is weaker than usual. Watch out when you are going down the stairs or lifting something heavy. These activities may not cause you any injuries on any other day but potentially harmful after a hard day of running. It is also important not to get sick during the training. You don’t want to catch a cold during the peak training time and end up missing a week of hard training. Stay hydrated, eat healthy and sleep well!
There area several training gear that you might want to look into before or during the training. First of all, SHOES! You can spend an entire day or more trying to find the best shoes that suit your feet, running style, budget, color and design. There are so many running shoes out there in the market and you are not the only one if you are overwhelmed with the available options. The best thing you can do is to locate a shoe store with well-informed sales people. Look online which shoe store has good reviews. The store should have good selections (not just a couple of manufacturers but several), let you try running in shoes, and be able to assess your running style. Usually, running shoes come in three types: Stability, Neutral and Motion Control. Each type has specific purposes and it is important to know which shoe type you should run or walk in. Basically, Motion Control shoes provide you with the most biomechanics correction, Stability less, Neutral the least. If your feet are flat, you are overweight, you have ankle problems, or you severely over-pronate when you run/walk, Motion Control shoes are your choice. If your feet have high arches or you have normal pronation, Neutral shoes are for you. You need Neutral shoes but they don’t make any in colors you like. I know how you feel but don’t buy running shoes by their colors! Secondly, I have been a follower of compression products, such as socks, sleeves (for calves), shorts and long tights. In the nutshell, the compression products should help your muscles to perform more efficiently by stabilizing them via compression. You have seen a slow-motion video of sprinters and their muscles vibrate and move. Compression products will reduce such unnecessary movement. They also reduce fatigue and streamline the recovery process by and improving blood circulation. After I finish a marathon, I wear a pair of long tights for several hours. Compared with post race fatigue without the compression tights, my legs have been showing recovery much more quickly. There are other gear that you might take a note, such as water bottle holder, hat, apparel with reflective materials, etc., and the list goes on and on. I often wonder who said that running was the most inexpensive sport one can take up on!
There are more tips I can provide on topics, such as nutrition, running partners or group, items to take with you for your race, and so on and so forth. But I am going to do so at a different time, so that this post won’t be any longer than it’s already become. I hope above tips are somewhat useful if you are thinking about running your first marathon. Marathons are not easy, but the rewards I receive by finishing them surpass the effort they take by far. So, I sincerely wish you a sound training and successful race. Good luck!