Running, or rather road racing, is currently one of the most popular activities in the United States. It’s cheap (only need shoes!), it’s accessible (just go outside!), it’s social (join a club!), and it good for your health (in moderation!)…in short, running has the deck stacked in it’s favor when it comes to rapid growth. This is most apparent at the marathon level, where tens of thousands of runners tackle the challenge of 26.2 miles, regardless of experience and ability level. The goal of this post is to make the overall process of becoming a first-time marathon runner both transparent and easy to follow…the more successful you are the more likely you’ll be to continue running and contributing to the growth of our sport. Are you ready to move from the couch to the marathon?
A Recent Change
Once the elite playing ground of running fanatics, the marathon is now accessible to all through charity programs, group training services, a wealth of coaches and more. Ask anyone about running a marathon in the 1970s and 80s, and it will sound like another era: only water, no food, minimal aid stations, little to no gear, a number for your shirt, etc. Since that time, entire industries of apparel, equipment and nutrition have evolved to market and serve long-distance runners, and the combined result of this focus is clear–one of the largest segments of the running population is the the first-time marathon runner.
Marathons Are Still Hard
But that doesn’t mean that doing a marathon is any easier–after all it’s still 26.2 miles of running on the heels of a whole lot of training. The Internet abounds with one-shot programs and insider reports promising to give the first-timer the One True Way to train. But truth be told, there is no one single right way to train for a marathon, especially a runner moving from the coach to marathon. Coaching runners over the last decade has taught me that a successful marathon experience isn’t about a magical pill or plan. I have given the same training plan to ten runners and seen ten completely different outcomes. It’s not so much about what you do to train as how you handle the impact of training on your life, body, and mind. Instead of talking of mileage per week, it’s more important to discuss the principles of marathon training — what I will refer to here as the Key Six Phases of the marathon lifecyle.
Phase One: Commit
It’s one thing to put a marathon on your bucket list, it’s another to actually pick a race and drop the money on an entry fee. Signing up gives you something to show to your friends and family; it’s an event that you can mark as a milestone on your personal calendar. Who knows, maybe you can even convince some of your crazy friends to sign on with you! I suggest you follow registration up quickly with lodging and travel arrangements, making your participation just that much more likely. The closer we can move it to inevitable, the better off you’ll be. Other options for this momentum building include:
- committing to raise funds;
- making a bet with your friends/training partners/co-workers;
- choosing to run in the memory of someone.
Phase Two: Connect
Now that you are officially “in” for the race, it’s time to start building a little community who will support and motivate you en route to your finish line. While you might have your own pre-existing group in place, here are a few things to do if you were to start from scratch. First, find a local running shop where you can sit down and talk (even if briefly) with a fellow runner about the right shoe for you. An easy way to tell if this store is invested in you is whether or not they’ll watch you walk/run and then recommend shoes for you…and watch you run a bit in those shoes. Picking the right pair of shoes is critical if you are to enjoy even a single mile of your training — it might take a few tries so you’ll want someone you can trust and talk with to help you through the process. Second, this shop will most likely have information on the local running scene. You are looking for a running group that meets regularly to do scheduled runs; if possible drop in on a few different groups/sessions to see which one fits your vibe best. The goal here is not to find the best training possible, it’s to get connected with other runners to improve your learning curve and to stay focused on your training when the going gets tough (it will at some point).
Phase Three: Conspire
With your event locked in and a group to run with at least part of the time, you can now turn your attention to your marathon training schedule. Picking the right plan has less to do with the plan itself, and more to do with you…so always put yourself first when making your decision.
- When are you available to run?
- Is the plan hard copy only or available online?
- Do you want/need cross training guidance?
- Do you have local support to answer your questions or do you need support through your plan?
- Is the plan simple to use or will you need additional devices to follow the training guidance?
- Does the plan provide information / guidance for dealing with race day?
- Is there a money-back guarantee?
- Where are the testimonials / feedback?
Asking these types of questions (and more!) will guide you to find a plan that fits not only when you run, but how you like to manage your running. It should adjust for your progress over time, giving you as much guidance and information about recovery as it does about the training. Please note that I have not referred to any of the various free plans you can print from the web. I think most first time marathoners need a little more guidance than just a table with distances listed for different runs (like a Marathon Nation Membership — with a 7-day free trial!). You can certainly gravitate to being 100% self-supported, but the first time it’s important to have confidence in your training guidance.
Phase Four: Consistency
Whatever plan you do end up choosing, your number one goal is get follow it as closely as possible. The best training plans are “Easy To Do,” in that there are no super-hard sessions or hard to comprehend guidance. The ultimate goal of any marathon plan is to get you ready to handle the rigors of 26.2 miles — and the best way to do that is to get you running as frequently as possible for as long as you can handle at that time. The emerging popularity of minimal marathon training programs with high weekend mileage isn’t that different from the hard-core old school plans with killer volume. They both ask you to place a large portion of your training time and energy into a single session during the week. There’s nothing wrong with this over time, assuming you are fit and ready to handle an unevenly distributed training load, but it’s not a great way to start your running at the outset. Look for a long term plan that’s anywhere from four to six months in duration. This will give you plenty of time to build up your fitness without putting your running health at risk. You’ll simply be more mentally and physically durable. The longer you run in preparation for the final 8 weeks of your plan (where all the volume falls) the better you’ll be able to handle the increased training load.
Phase Five: Doubt
It happens to all of us, from first-timers to grizzled veterans — at some point in our training the little voice(s) in the back of your mind get ahold of a microphone and start to dominate the mental conversation. Maybe it was a bad run that triggered it, or perhaps a setback like a cold or overuse injury. Whatever the cause, you are now questioning your ability to get ready for the big day. I think dealing with this doubt is a critical step towards really being ready. It’s great preparation for handling the demons that will come up at the end of your marathon in the form of the dreaded “wall.” It’s also a great opportunity to review your training and see if there are any pieces of the puzzle that need fixing or tweaking. This isn’t a call to panic, rather I think of it as an early warning sign that you can use to your advantage. Most importantly, know that no one is ever truly ready for race day. Talk to anyone at the starting line on race weekend and you’ll hear plenty of amazing stories of overcoming obstacles like injury, scheduling, health, etc. It’s just part of what we do as runners; do your best to stay focused and don’t be afraid to ask for support from the networks you have built in the early phases of your training. Let them give now; you can pay it forward for the next “newbie” runner that comes along!
Phase Six: Conserve
Once you are in a running groove, you’ll find that running is pretty effortless. You enjoy it, it’s empowering and it’s transforming who you are. So if 40 miles a week is good…then 60 or 80 must be better, right? If a 20-miler is good, a 24-miler must be better, right? Wrong! Remember our mantra of Consistency above; getting aggressive with all or part of your training is a serious roll of the dice. The gamble might work for some, but they are generally in the minority, and it’s simply not worth it this early in your running career. Another way to think of this is “no highs, no lows” — the minute you find yourself on top of the world you need to be ready to handle a setback; and no matter how low things get you’ll be able to bounce back. One great way to exert control over your running is to adopt a pretty conservative mindset, one where you take each workout as it comes, focusing not on results but rather on the progress of your overall running fitness. Nowhere is this more important than in the last six weeks of your training, when you’ll be tempted to run longer and harder than ever before. You’ll be tempted to test your fitness during the running taper by adding extra miles or sessions…and you must resist the siren call off volume to calm your pre-race jitters. Instead, turn to your friends, training partners, event the local store for support and guidance. They might not be experts, but they have been where you are now and certainly can help!
Do you have a first-time marathon story to share?
Please tell us in the comments below or on our Facebook page. Thanks!
Additional Running Resources
- If you liked this post, you’ll benefit from our FREE Eight-Part Video Lecture Series for Beginner Marathoners.
- As a new runner, you’ll enjoy Your Best Marathon, a guide book from Marathon Nation on crafting your ideal race. Click here to learn more.
- If you are looking for our other top blog posts, be sure to check out Rapid Recovery for Runners and The 10k to Marathon Connection.
- To learn more about running performance, functional testing, and long-distance running for all ability levels, please visit Marathon Nation and create a FREE 7-day trial.