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Going the Distance—Training for Marathons

Running a marathon

“You can do a lot in a life time

If you don’t burn out too fast.
You can make the most of the distance.
First you need endurance;
First you’ve got to last.”
–Lyrics from Marathon by Rush

After the battle of marathon, a Greek soldier is said to have run the entire distance to Athens—roughly 24 miles—where he announced the Greek victory over the Persians before keeling over and dying. Today, 500,000 Americans finish the 26.2-mile modern distance and live to tell the tale. There are risks in facing the marathon—and rewards, too. Here are some tips, rules and guidelines to help you achieve your dream.

PLAN. Start with manageable bites, training in blocks of six to 10 weeks. Can’t run a mile? Set your sights on that, first. Give yourself time to get strong—ideally nine months to one year from your marathon day. Plan the entire process in terms of pace and mileage, and set goals along the way.

“CONSISTENCY IS KING.”  So says Steve Speirs, one of the top American Masters (age 40+) marathoners on the East Coast. The marathon is no flash in the pan. Discovering the routine that works for you is key—morning, midday or evening running. Make it as natural as brushing your teeth. Create a rhythm and follow its momentum.

BUILD YOUR LONG RUNS. Long runs are the heart of successful marathon training programs. You’ll need to handle 15-22 miles in a single running bout during training in order to succeed.

RECOVER AND REST. Rest is part of the training process. When you’re not running, hit the hay early or get a massage. Use the time off to work out little problems before they become bigger.

STRENGTH. Core and glute strength keep you tall and balanced—crucial elements of making it to the starting line uninjured. Consider a Yoga for Runners class, or visit the gym a couple times each week.

ROTATE SHOES. Shoes lose their zip after 300-500 miles. Keep your shoes (and legs) fresh. Buy shoes from someone who knows running. These days, most running stores will do at least a basic gait analysis to pair you with a suitable shoe.

EAT. Learn how to eat before you run, and even during your runs, so that you don’t cramp up. Consider purchasing a book on sports nutrition or consulting with a nutritionist who specializes in endurance athletes.

DRINK. Marathoners are unwise to attempt the full distance without learning to fuel. Begin your workouts—and your marathon—properly hydrated, and drink while running. Do it during training and it will be easier on marathon day.

RESPECT THE WALL. The wall is a physiological point where you begin to rely
more on fat-burning to finish. For most of us, our glycogen (sugar) stores dry out somewhere about two hours or 20 miles into the event. Don’t go out too fast, or it comes sooner—and harder. It’s called “hitting the wall” because it hurts and can make finishing impossible, or so painful that you never want to experience it again.

TAPER. In the final weeks before the marathon, back off on mileage and intensity, but not so far that you feel flat on race day. Back off by roughly 20-30 percent and—if you’re focusing on a finishing time—decrease intensity and frequency of your harder efforts. Ideally, you’ll line up feeling fresh, fit and full of confidence, with few or no aches and pains.

Don’t forget that the marathon is a metaphor for life. Enjoy the journey. Revel in your successes, learn and return stronger when you fall short. After marathon day give yourself up to four weeks (a day per mile) before even thinking about training for the next big event or goal. You can train lightly during the recovery period, but it’s a time to refresh, to heal, to transition. Make the most of the distance…and of this wonderful life.