Anyone can do it (no, really!). When I signed up for my first half marathon, I hadn’t run longer than 5 miles since high school, and I could barely finish a 5K without stopping to “tie my shoes” multiple times. I was partying every weekend, stress eating all of the sweets, and averaging 4 hours of sleep per night. Yet somehow, less than 2 years later, I am able to claim the title of marathoner. I will not lie; the process was long, mentally challenging, and definitely painful at times. But the feeling of crossing the finish line knowing you have just completed 26.2 miles is unlike any other. Not to mention the mental and physical strength that rewards 18 weeks of 2 and 3 hour training runs. If you’ve ever considered attempting this event but have NO idea where to start, here is my advice to you, from one beginner to another:
Step 1: Run a half marathon or 2.
Although it’s definitely possible to jump straight into running full marathons, I would seriously recommend running a few 13.1s if you haven’t already. I ran my first half in September of 2016, my second half in March of 2017, and my first full marathon later that year, in November. Although running a marathon is a completely different experience from running a half (seriously you can’t even compare), I felt that running 13.1 first helped ease me in to long distance running, something I truthfully had always hated.
Step 2: Choose a training plan.
Advanced athletes may choose a shorter training plan that ramps up the mileage very quickly- I mean there are literally crazy people out there who run a marathon every week. DO NOT make the mistake of rushing your training. Most training plans consist of 1 “long” run per week and maintain a more steady increase with the shorter, midweek runs, so it is easy to look at a shorter plan and think “that doesn’t seem much harder.” A 1 mile per week increase may seem small, but to your body it is NOT, especially when you pass the 10 mile mark. It is generally recommended for beginners to choose an 18-week plan, and this is what I did. There are a TON of marathon training plans out there, so feel free to choose one that fits you the best, but I used Hal Higdon’s “Novice 1.” The first long run is 6 miles, but you do not get into double digits until week 5.
Step 3: Choose a marathon.
For your first full, I think it’s pretty important to do some research beforehand. You need to make sure that 1. You choose a race that is further than 18 weeks away, 2. There is a realistic time limit (some do not have a limit, my race had a 5 hour limit), and 3. The course is not too difficult. Personally, I tried to pick a course that had as few hills as possible, because even small inclines can feel like Mt Everest when you’re 15 miles in and your body is screaming. Something less important to consider is the scenery. My marathon was on the Las Vegas Strip, and I chose this race because I knew it would be easier to run if there were cool things to look at the whole time (spoiler: the Vegas course is actually kind of terrible and only 5-6 total miles are on the strip, would not recommend).
Step 4: Test the waters.
Marathons are expensive. Definitely wait at least a week or two to make sure your body can handle the running before pulling the trigger. You don’t want to blow $150 only to find out your knees give out if you run over 5 miles. That being said, waiting too long may allow you to give up because you haven’t spent the money yet. For me, clicking the register button gave me the highest form of motivation because I knew there was no turning back. (I also ran this race as a St. Jude Hero meaning I fundraised $500 for childrens’ cancer research instead of paying the $150 race fee out of pocket—if you have generous relatives or are a great salesperson, I would def recommend running for charity. It adds to the motivation factors because you’re running for a great cause and it’s less expensive for you personally).
Step 5: Invest in GOOD running shoes.
Good running shoes can be expensive, but let me tell you, it is worth it to prevent injury. I made the mistake of trying to train in my super old shoes to save some money, and I ended up with terrible shin splints and aching knees. It’s also the general rule to replace shoes after 300-500 miles, so you’ll probably end up needing another pair a month or two before your race. I ended up traveling to Potomac River Running Store where they actually film you running on a treadmill and find shoes to fit your specific running style. I ended up with Mizuno wave inspire 13s, and I’m now on my 3rd pair of these. Having good quality shoes isn’t super important for lower mileage, but you do NOT want to increase your aches and pains when you’re going to be running this far.
Step 6: Try out some energy supplements.
Most people run to burn calories and, ultimately, to lose weight. Being one of these people, something that was really hard for me to get used to was calorie/electrolyte intake DURING the run. It seems pretty strange to be eating while you run, but for these long distances, it’s SO important. There are tons of options for energy during runs (GU, Honey Stinger, Science in Sport, etc). It’s also important to try these out early in your training, because you want to be using the same type for the last few weeks and during your marathon. I guarantee any running store you visit will have someone telling you “Nothing new on race day!” I personally used GU energy gels, but have more recently switched to trying energy jelly beans (yes these exist) due to stomach problems that made my marathon pretty miserable. Each type is different, but I typically carried my GU packets with me on any run 8 miles or longer, and I took one every 4 or 5 miles, depending on how I was feeling. Without water and this extra energy on hand, your long runs can be pretty miserable.
Step 7: Get some equipment.
I always joked that I looked like an 80’s grandma running around town with my water belt, but it’s a pretty accurate description. Some people prefer to buy the larger water bottles that strap to your hand, but I hate carrying that extra weight in my hand, so I opted for the belt that holds two smaller bottles: here is the link to the one I used. (Check TJ Maxx before you blow $50 in the store for this, I’ve seen the exact belt there several times for $14). I promise you’ll get over the fashion aspect of it once you do your first long run and are dying of thirst—having a sip or two of water every few miles was a game changer for me. Here are the other things I purchased that were pretty much vital for me:
- Leg roller
- Chafing stick
- Reflective gear for night running
- KT tape for my horrible knees
- Compression socks for shin splints
- Road ID bracelet & runners pepper spray for safety.
Step 8: Never stop drinking water.
I used to be terrible at drinking water. I would regularly go an entire day and realize “wow I did not even have a sip of water today.” I tried to continue this trend during training, and I learned my lesson very quickly. After running for 3 hours you will literally be covered in the dried salt from your own sweat (yeah it’s pretty gross). If you’re not drinking enough water throughout the day, dehydration will hit you hard a few hours after your run, and it can seriously make you feel like you have the flu. It’s generally recommended to drink 1 gallon of water per day for at least 2 days leading up to a long run, but I eventually started drinking 1 gallon every day, no matter how far my run was. Even now, while I train for a half marathon, I try to drink at least 90 oz of water daily. If you need to, you can add flavor to your water with Mio or real fruit to help you get the volume in.
Step 9: Fuel your body well.
DO NOT make the mistake of trying to maintain a caloric deficit to lose weight during training. Trust me, you don’t need to “diet” to lose weight during this process- you burn an insane amount of calories. It’s so much more important to fuel your body with plenty of protein and healthy foods. I eventually got to the point where I had completely cut out desserts (except for special occasions) because eating more fruits and veggies made me feel so much better on my runs. I also supplemented my diet with collagen (for bone and joint strength) and felt the effects very quickly. It’s also pretty important to carbo load for at least 1 night before a long run- I did this for 2 nights. This is the best part of training in my opnion because you actually HAVE to eat bread and pasta.
Step 10: Figure out what makes you move.
For me, this has always been music, so I spent a lot of time making training playlists with plenty of motivating songs. If you can, find a running buddy. This was super helpful for me during training for my first half, but I had to learn to run alone for my full marathon training (finding someone to run 18 miles with you isn’t too easy). Long runs can get VERY boring, so you may find it helpful to use podcasts or books on tape to entertain yourself. I personally loved the podcast “Up and Vanished” by Tenderfoot TV, but I ultimately needed upbeat music to keep me going for most of my runs and started using the podcast as my post-run reward to listen to while in the shower.
I could probably type an entire novel full of advice and things I wish I had done during training, but I think this is a pretty good place to start. Good luck, and I hope some of this was helpful!