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How masters runners can finish their first marathon

By Henry Howard


I have the pleasure of coaching athletes from their 20s through 60-plus years young. For them, age is just a number. With custom training plans to meet their fitness, goals and other factors, these athletes are redefining their limits.


Among the recent successes of my athletes:


• A female masters athlete finished her first Boston Marathon, and once again had a qualifying time.


• A male runner in his 60s won his age group, placed in the top 20% overall (out of more than 200 runners) and beat his previous time by over an hour in a challenging trail marathon.


As the excitement from some spring marathons winds down, now is also a prime time to start training for fall marathons. I strongly prefer marathons in the fall since the bulk of training takes place in the warm summer months and race day is generally cooler and better suited for a successful 26.2 miles.


For masters athletes who have a goal of finishing their first marathon, here are some tips as they start out on their journey. (For those looking for a coach, I have a few spots available right now. If interested in a free, no-obligation introductory phone call, contact me here.)


What a masters athlete needs to know about their first marathon

Masters runners are typically defined as over age 40. While everyone is unique in their fitness history, time available for training, goals and more, there are some basic strategies to follow in pursuit of their first marathon. Here’s an outline:


Build up mileage gradually: Increase your weekly mileage slowly (the general guideline is 10% max) over several months to avoid injury. The high mileage required for marathon training puts added stress on older muscles and joints.


Focus on recovery: Allow enough rest and recovery days between hard workouts. The training should be about 80% easy and 20% hard. No more than two hard workouts per week, separated by 48 hours.


Strength train: Incorporate strength training two times per week to improve muscular endurance and reduce injury risk from the repetitive pounding of running.


Fuel and hydrate properly: Ensure you are eating enough calories, protein and carbohydrates — especially carbs — to fuel your body for the increased training. Stay well-hydrated, especially during the summer and on the run.


Listen to your body: Don't try to run through significant pain. Older runners may need to adjust paces and mileage more frequently based on how their body is responding.


Taper appropriately: I prescribe a two or three-week taper period at the end to ensure my athlete is well recovered for the marathon. It is better to go into the race 10% undertrained than 1% overtrained.


How a masters athlete should approach their first marathon


A first-time masters athlete has likely run shorter distances like 5Ks, 10K and half marathons. For these runners, I definitely recommend having experience with half marathons before attempting a full.


It is recommended that masters runners build up to the marathon distance gradually by first running several shorter distance races before attempting their first marathon. This allows the body to adapt to the rigors of racing while minimizing injury risk.

Here are some approaches:


Run multiple half marathons: Ideally, complete two to four half marathons over the six to 12 months before the marathon. This reinforces the endurance required and allows the runner to also practice nutrition and hydration in a race environment.


Consider a 20-miler: While these are rare, they do provide a longer practice under race conditions. The only 20-mile race I did, Fox Valley, is perfectly timed for those doing the Chicago Marathon, which comes three weeks later.


How would a masters athlete know when he or she is ready to run a marathon?


There are some key signs that indicate a masters athlete is ready for their first marathon. Among them:


Consistent long run mileage: They should be able to complete a couple of long runs of 18 to 20 miles during training. If they struggle on these longer efforts, they may need more preparation.


Successful half marathon times: Having run multiple half marathons at their goal marathon pace (or slightly faster) indicates marathon readiness. The half is a solid predictor.


Injury-free training: Being able to complete most of the planned training runs and workouts without persistent aches/pains is crucial before taking on 26.2 miles.


Allowing enough time: Most marathon training plans follow 16- to 20-week schedules. Don’t cut it short.

Should a first-time marathon runner get a coach or just ask ChatGPT for advice?


I decided to ask ChatGPT that question, even though I would strongly argue for a human over ChatGPT or a generic online training plan. Here’s what ChatGPT had to say:


“While I can provide general advice on marathon training for masters runners, I would recommend that a first-time marathoner strongly consider getting a coach, especially if they are over age 40. Here are a few reasons why a coach is preferable to solely relying on an AI assistant like myself:

Personalized training plan: A good coach will develop a customized training plan tailored to the individual's specific goals, abilities, injury history and other factors. My recommendations can only be generalized.


Accountability: Having a coach provides accountability and motivation to stick to the training plan. It's easier to skip workouts when you don't have someone tracking your progress.


Technique analysis: An in-person coach can evaluate your running form and biomechanics to identify potential issues and make corrections to improve efficiency and prevent injuries.


Adaptation to setbacks: If injuries, illness or setbacks occur during training, a coach can adjust the plan accordingly. I don't have the capability to dynamically modify training.


Race execution plan: An experienced coach provides race-specific advice on pacing, nutrition, hydration and mental strategies based on the course and conditions.


Personal factors: A coach gets to know the athlete's lifestyle, sleep patterns, work stress and other personal variables that impact marathon training.


While I can offer tips and guidelines, I don't have the capability to fully customize a plan or make adjustments like a human coach. For a masters runner's first marathon, investing in coaching can help maximize training, reduce injury risk and better ensure an enjoyable race experience. My advice should only supplement, not replace, professional coaching if possible.”


Agree, ChatGPT, I could not have said it better myself.


Human coach > ChatGPT.




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