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Part 4: Eight Couch to Marathon Baby Steps

19 November

Author’s Note: This is the third installment in our new “Couch to Marathon” instructional series designed to help newbie marathoners make the most of their first race (first one is here, second is here, the third is here). From training to racing information, we’ll cover the fundamentals that all beginner runners should know. If you have any additional questions, please find us on Facebook:


Once you have made the commitment to do a marathon, you have set in motion a series of events that will take you on an incredible journey. You will be tested physically, mentally, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually.

While this is your own personal adventure to navigate, rest assured that thousands more have done the same. You can use their experience as your road map. As a coach who has helped countless athletes reach the finish line, I am going to let you in on one simple secret for your preparation: Take Baby Steps.

Dream Big, Execute Small

It’s easy to spend the initial part of your marathon journey, the weeks after signing up, thinking about the race itself. But alternating between finish line daydreams of elation and late-race nightmares of cramps does absolutely nothing to prepare you for the big day.

Your dreams have pushed you to sign up, but now it’s time replace the big picture goals with some basic fundamental steps. Just like race day is little more than thousands of footsteps from the start to the finish, so too should be your training.

Over-excited is only a few workouts away from being overtrained.

Why be so granular?

Because year after year new runners overdo it in training to the point where their race is either going to be a total disaster or perhaps even a non-event.

Your experience doesn’t have to be the same…here are some key incremental steps you can work into your overall training in order to be ready for the marathon when the big day finally arrives.

Eight First Marathon Training Baby Steps

#1 – Find the Right Shoes

Before you can run, you need shoes. Proper shoes. Don’t do your first runs in the old pair you use to walk around or mow the lawn. Find your local running store, bonus if they watch you walk before recommending a shoe, and then try on a bunch.

Bring your own socks (you might need to get some new ones!) and be sure to ask what their return policy is…most are pretty liberal given the online competition these days.

You might not pick the perfect shoes right away, but you have plenty of time when you sign up for all those other races!! Getting started with running starts here.

#2 – Identify & Reserve Your Workout Window

Wanting to become a runner isn’t enough; you need to create the time to work out. A great beginner tip is to actually schedule in your runs at the start of your week. This ensures you have the actual time to get the workouts done. The added bonus is taking a few minutes to review your week as a whole instead of just making a gut call at the start/end of your day.

#3 – Think TIME, Not DISTANCE

While miles are sexy, and 26.2 miles is intimidating, don’t fall into the trap of tracking your miles until you are well into your program. Instead, track the total time you spend exercising — even if your workouts are a mix of run / walk intervals.

Tracking time means you can push for incremental change each week (adding another five minutes is doable, as compared to adding another mile, for example). It will also aid you in budgeting time for the actual workouts.

#4 – Building Run Weeks by 10% or LESS

As you get more consistent and your running fitness improves, avoid the temptation to jump too far in any one week. We’re all invincible until we get hurt, and you are only a few consecutive excessive workouts away from having an issue — like the rest of us have!

If you are tracking TIME in minutes, try to avoid increasing any given run more than 15% in one week — that means moving from a 30 minute run properly would take you to a 34:30 run.

If you are tracking DISTANCE, try to avoid increasing any given run by 10% — that means moving from a 5 mile run to a 5.5 mile run.

#5 – Recover Whenever You Feel Less Than 100%

Don’t wait for your plan to tell you when to rest; listen to your body. You might not know what it “feels like” to be a runner, but you certainly are an expert at discerning when you feel good or not. If you feel tired, sore, or run down, take a day off (or two). If you can’t sleep at night or think you are coming down with a cold, take time off.

Your top priority in getting to the marathon should be to get there health and as fit as you can be. Most runners to do the opposite: they are super-fit but nowhere near healthy and they pay the price on race day!

#6 – Nutrition Practice

Every single run is a chance to practice your running nutrition. As a runner, you will need to drink sports drink and take in digestible calories when working out. Don’t wait until you start running “long” to get this right…use all your runs to start this process.

Your best bet is to head out to the local running store and pick up a variety of things to see what you do / don’t like. You’ll also need to figure out the right frequency of eating and drinking to make sure you are properly fueled so you can avoid workouts where you run out of energy.

Trial and error is the only way you’ll find out what does the trick for you, so get to it!

#7 – Race Simulation

As your marathon gets closer, you will want to run an actual race simulation workout to test both your nutrition but your pacing plan. You probably know what you want to run, but actually being able to do it for extended periods of time is another thing entirely.

Do the math on your goal pace, and then pick a nice flat course near your house. Run the first 6 miles slightly slower than your goal pace (approximately 10 seconds per mile slower) and then run the next 12 miles slightly faster (approximately 5 seconds per mile faster).

Mentally record how you feel at every 3 mile point so you can review your actual performance (splits and time) with how you felt. How was your nutrition? Your shoes? Your other gear? What “broke down” first?

Clink on this link to learn more about marathon race simulation workouts.

#8 – Pre-Race Recon

If you are lucky, you’ll have chance to explore your race before the big day. All the more reason to pick a more local event. You can do your simulation on the course, or perhaps one of your other long runs. You don’t have to do EVERY run here, but knowledge of the course and landmarks can be a distinct help on race day.

If running on the course isn’t possible then make sure to drive the course before the big day. You’ll want to be the one behind the wheel, so you can feel the elevation changes as you use the brake and accelerator. Note key miles to sync them with your race plan; you might even want to jog two or three miles on the course as part of your final preparations.

Do you have any other key tips that beginners should consider? Please let us know by sharing in the comments below!

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