A lot of runners are attempting a marathon these days. In fact, in 2015 there were over 500,000 marathon finishers in the United States according to Running USA.
But as this race distance becomes significantly more mainstream, the difficulty of covering 26.2 miles on foot is sometimes lost on first-time marathoners. Running for four, five, or even six hours is a substantial feat that requires dedication, adequate preparation, and a can-do attitude.
With so many relative beginners attempting the marathon, it’s important to train properly. The right training choices result in faster finish times, fewer running injuries, and more enjoyment from the race itself.
By avoiding these training mistakes, you’ll be a stronger and faster runner. And much more likely to enjoy your next marathon!
Mistake #1: Not Respecting the Long Run
There’s a reason most elite marathoners run a long run every week: it’s the most important, specific workout to the race itself.
Long runs build aerobic and muscular endurance by improving your efficiency and creating more mitochondria in your muscles (the “energy factories” of your cells).
But too many marathoners don’t run a long run every week. Instead, they run long every other week or cut the distance substantially once or twice every month.
In fact, Jay Johnson (a coach to three national champions on the roads, track, and cross country) considers this the biggest mistake of them all. In a lengthy marathon training interview, he asks the important question: “If the long run is the most important run for marathoners, why reduce its distance so often?”
Runners must gradually increase their long run every 2-3 weeks to about 20 miles in the 3-4 months leading up the marathon. Rather than frequently cutting the most important run, this strategy prioritizes it and ensures you’ll be ready to run 26.2 miles on race day.
Mistake #2: Rushed Training
Far too many runners hope to train for a marathon in just 10-12 weeks. But the fitness needed to run a marathon (and indeed, to run a marathon well) must be developed over 16-20 weeks.
Unless you’re already in fantastic shape and capable of running more than 15 miles for your long run, giving yourself ample time to prepare for the marathon is vital.
And more importantly, it’s critical that runners begin their training already capable of comfortably running 10-12 miles as their long run. This ensures that there’s adequate time to build the long run over the course of the training cycle.
When runners attempt to train for a marathon in just a few months when their starting long run is less than 10 miles, the progression of long runs is too fast. Mileage increases come too quickly—and rushed training is risky training.
Give the marathon the respect it deserves and prepare adequately—and for a long enough period of time.
Mistake #3: Racing on Empty
The marathon is so uniquely difficult for a variety of reasons, but one of the most significant is physiological: your body can only store enough fuel for about 20 miles.
So how do you stretch those fuel reserves to enable you to run 26.2 miles?
One runner told me that he planned to race on adrenaline rather than eating anything during the race. I do not suggest this strategy!
Instead, the key is to fuel appropriately during the 2-3 days leading up to the marathon and also during the race itself. Carb-loading is a common practice because it works—it stocks your muscles, blood stream, and liver with as much glycogen (stored sugar) as possible to give you more fuel on race day.
Aim to eat more carbohydrate during the 2-3 days before the race from healthy sources like wild rice, quinoa, whole-grains, and sweet potatoes. The goal should be about 4g of carbohydrate per pound of body weight.
The next challenge is fueling while you’re racing the marathon. Most runners should consume about 45-60g of carbohydrate per hour during the race. This amounts to about two energy gels.
Eating while running—even small amounts—can be difficult, so it’s important to practice this fueling strategy during your last 2-3 long runs to help your body adjust to processing calories while running. Perfect practice makes perfect, so don’t skip this step!
With a consistent long run, enough time to prepare well, and a solid fueling strategy most runners will have much more enjoyable marathons. And, they’ll finish a lot faster!
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About the Author:
Jason Fitzgerald is the head coach at Strength Running, one of the web’s largest coaching sites for runners. He is a 2:39 marathoner, USATF-certified coach and his passion is helping runners set monster personal bests. Follow him on Twitter @JasonFitz1 and Facebook.