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Grete Waitz’s Tips For First-Time Marathoners

15173122When the nine-time New York City Marathon winner gives running advice, we should all listen.

Interview by: Matt Fitzgerald

The second edition of Run Your First Marathon: Everything You Need to Know to Reach the Finish Line, by nine-time New York City Marathon champion Grete Waitz and collaborator Gloria Averbuch, was recently released by SkyHorse Publishing. We marked the occasion by tossing a few questions Waitz’s way by email. The 56-year-old cancer survivor graciously answered from her home in Norway. Why did you choose to write a book for first-time marathoners instead of more
advanced runners?

Grete Waitz: Running a marathon is something many people want to do – it is like the ultimate goal for them. Not everybody can climb Mount Everest or dance on Broadway but most people can complete a marathon. The numbers of first-timers are increasing and that is why some races get bigger and bigger. I am personally happy to see that so many women take on the challenge of 26.2 miles.

I wanted to write a book for the so-called novices and also a book that could inspire everybody to complete a marathon. Like from a couch potato to a marathoner. My experience is that there is already much written for the advanced runners. My book is more like a survival kit for the first-timers. It is simple and at the same time tells them what it takes to complete 26.2 miles. You will not run a three-hour marathon on the program but you will finish and feel good about it.

According to legend, you ran your first marathon after having never run farther than 12 miles in training in your life. Is this true? If so, does it prove that runners don’t necessarily have to run 20 miles in training before they run a marathon, or does it only prove that you were born to run marathons?

I ran my first marathon when I was a world-class track runner and cross-country runner. I was an experienced runner who ran 80 to 90 miles a week. It is correct that my longest run was only 12 miles and I had to pay for that. I will always remember the last 6 miles of that first marathon, hurting and being angry at my husband and coach who had talked me into running the race. I swore never again when I crossed the finish line.

I learned that long runs are the backbone of marathon training and that you need to do a few of them. My husband convinced me I could run a lot faster if I did so, and I did and improved my time by 5 minutes the next year, running a 2:27.33. I was the first woman to break 2:30 (NY 1979).

What does your book have to offer first-time marathon runners that makes it different from similar books?

The marathon program in my book is simple and what I will say is the minimum of running you have to do to complete a marathon. Starting on the program you have to be able to jog 5K. There is also a program in the book that will bring you up this point. Quite a few of the books/programs out there are overwhelming for a beginner and many get discouraged just by reading it.

Could you describe your training philosophy in a nutshell?

My training philosophy for an advanced runner who wants to be competitive and runs every day is very much the type of training I did myself:

  • Monday: Easy 6 to 10 miles
  • Tuesday: Hard, intervals, hills, tempo runs, etc.
  • Wednesday: Easy 10 to 12 miles
  • Thursday: Medium effort, very often a fartlek
  • Friday: Easy 6 to 10 miles
  • Saturday: Like Tuesday
  • Sunday: Easy long run – never more than 15 miles if off-season for a marathon

For a first-timer I believe that just doing the miles is the most important thing. It is also important that they run some races from 5K to a half marathon before the marathon [to get] race experience and learn about pacing. In my opinion, running long-distance is pretty simple. I see so many complicated programs, or sophisticated, to use that word, that I would need a Post-It stuck to my hand to remember everything. Train hard and smart is my belief. Very often it is not the runner who trains the hardest that is the best. Balance between quantity, quality and recovering is important.

What is the most important lesson about successful marathon running that you learned from experience?

It is all about pacing. Have a realistic plan for your race based on your training and most of all stick to it. Don’t get carried away by how you feel at the moment. Miracles seldom or never happen in marathon running.

How were you able to stay on top of your game for so long, and what can other runners learn from your longevity in the sport?

I was lucky. I had very few injuries before I reached my late thirties and I did not over-race. When I was at my best there were fewer big races and not as many championships as we have today. (The first World Championship in track and field was in 1983.) I could allow myself long periods of solid training and spending the winters in Norway I did a lot of cross-country skiing. My track background gave me an advantage over the other runners at the time.

How important is the mental aspect of training for and running marathons?

Very much of running long distance is mental. You have to think positively, stay focused and have confidence in yourself. I think visualization is an important tool. See yourself in the race running strong and telling yourself you can do it. No negative thoughts or doubts. You have done your homework, which is the hardest part of marathon running.

What is the most common training mistake that first-time marathoners make?

Starting their real marathon training too early and getting injured. If the race is in the fall you don’t have to run 18 to 20 miles in May. If they get injured they easily panic, thinking they will lose fitness if they have to take a short break. Cross-train and see a doctor to identify the problem if you don´t know.

What is the most common race-day mistake that first-time marathoners make?

Getting carried away on race day and not sticking to the plan.

Are you surprised by the continued growth in the popularity of marathons? Why do they continue to grow?

I am not really surprised. Inactivity is the biggest health threat for people in the Western world. Many people need a goal that really motivates them to exercise, and what can beat running a marathon? The runners are running a lot slower than 20 years ago, but who cares? They are physically active.

(The average finishing time in NY Marathon is almost an hour slower today than in the 1980’s. I am not sure but I believe the women’s average is now 5:09 and the men’s is 4:20 something).

What is your running routine like these days?

Today I don’t run that much but I work out five times a week. Since I was diagnosed with cancer five years ago I have had a lot of chemo, which is hard on the bones. After a serious stress fracture in the hip two years ago the doctor told me to be careful with pounding and suggested not to run except for uphill on soft surfaces.

I bike (spinning and mountain bike), cross-country ski, power walk and use the elliptical machine.


Check out Matt’s new book: RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.