5 common questions and answers about your first marathon
By Henry Howard
Running your first marathon is a great goal. After all, less than 1 percent of people have achieved the feat of finishing the 26.2-mile distance.
As a running coach, I’ve had the pleasure of guiding a range of runners to their first marathon. The training, which generally takes between 16 and 20 weeks, has many nuances. The customized plans I create for my athletes vary widely, depending on the individual’s running experience, fitness, goals, the actual race and more.
For many first-timers they have lots of questions about training, nutrition and more. Here are some common questions and answers, based on my experience in running roughly three dozen races of marathon distance or longer, as well as my coaching of athletes of various skill and experience levels.
Question: What’s the farthest I should run before a marathon?
Answer: I tell my first-time marathoners to not focus on a single long run. It’s a process. The consistency in building up your base mileage, cardio system, etc. will suit you well on race day. There is no reason for someone seeking to finish their first marathon to run more than 20 miles during training.
After all, the more pounding your body takes during training, the more recovery time you will need and the risk for injury also increases. I would much prefer all of my athletes to go into any race 10 percent under trained than 1 percent over trained.
Question: If my longest training run is only 20 miles, how can I run 26.2 on race day?
Answer: The approach to marathon training is to build up both the weekly long run and also the cumulative weekly mileage. Both will peak between two and three weeks before race day. Then the taper period begins. That is a time to reduce the overall mileage and the length of the long run. At this point, the hard training is complete and it’s time to let the body adapt to it.
This recovery phase sets the body up well for the marathon.
Also, keep in mind if you are doing 40- to 50-mile weeks in the heart of training, your weeks during the taper period will be significantly less. This conservation of energy will suit you well on race day.
In your training you have proven to yourself that you can run 20 miles. Sure, the last 10K will be new territory. However, that’s where your training will be assisted by your strong mind, excitement of race day and remembering your “why” to propel you to the finish line.
Question: What will my weekly mileage look like?
Answer: For first-time marathoners, the training plans start with a base-building phase, depending on their current level of fitness. Ideally, you have completed half marathons in the recent past. If not, that’s OK. Sixteen weeks is a good range to train for and complete a marathon. From there the mileage will increase as the runner gets stronger. The overall mileage will roughly double from the early build-up phase to the peak of training three to six weeks before race day.
Just like miles per gallon estimates for vehicles, your mileage will vary. A masters athlete attempting his or her first marathon will have a weekly total that. will vary widely from a 20something recent college athlete trying to hit a Boston Marathon qualifying time in their debut marathon.
The process here is to build gradually, then incorporate appropriate speed work and cutback weeks. For my athletes I give them a cutback week — call it a “mini taper” – every four to six weeks to let their body adapt to the training and give their mind a break. When possible, I try to time it with something going on in their life that might complicate training. For example, a business trip or family vacation are great times to reduce training volume due to the added work/life, travel and other stress.
Question: How do I handle nutrition and hydration over such a long period of time?
Answer: Here is the absolute perfect solution for proper fueling for every runner: whatever works best for you your body.
Some runners can handle just water and gels for a marathon. Others use a sports drink with electrolytes. Back-of-the-packers may pause at every aid station, picking out whatever looks good.
For me, I use Honey Stinger’s gluten-free waffles, gels and chews, along with Gnarly Nutrition’s hydration products. I’ve used pretty much every other major brand and found that — for me — Honey Stinger and Gnarly work the best. (Subscribe to Honey Stinger’s newsletter to learn more about their products. You can also read about why Gnarly is better than an overhyped, marketing-driven product here.)
So, what’s the best way to find out what works the best for you? That’s where the training runs come in. They are not just designed to build up your strength. Training runs are an excellent opportunity to test your gut on what it can tolerate. After all, at mile 16 of a race, your gut might have a different reaction to a gel, waffle or banana than it does after a 5-mile run.
As part of this practice during training, I also advise my athletes to learn what will be served on course and where the aid stations will be located. If the aid station fare sounds appealing, try it during training runs. If it works for you, great! If it does not, then it’s time to decide what to try and how to carry it with you.
Question: What else should I be considering?
Answer: No matter how fast you run it, a marathon is 26.2 miles. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else. But do know that someone shooting for a Boston Marathon qualifying time will have a much different training plan from someone who just wants to finish the marathon — which is an awesome goal!
So how does that play into the training for the runner with the goal of finishing?
That person’s training plan will need to take into consideration how long the athlete will be out there. That runner will need to be trained to spend more time on their feet during race day.
I have created training plans for some of my athletes that call for a time, rather than distance, on training runs. This way they are not stressed out, trying to get to mile 16, or mile 18 or whatever. Instead the focus is placed on increasing the amount of time they are running or run-walking if and when they need to.
I hope this was helpful for you. I’m open to questions you have about marathon training, ultras nutrition and other running-related topics. Feel free to shoot me an email here.
I’m also available for personalized coaching and specialize in long distances such as marathons and ultras. If you would like to have a free consultation with no obligation, contact me at the email link above and we can set up a time to discuss your running goals and history, my coaching philosophy and see if we might be a good fit.
Thanks for reading and best wishes on your running journey!