How to Run a Marathon for Beginners

Introduction: How to Run a Marathon for Beginners

Running a marathon can be an extremely enjoyable experience.  Whether you're trying to find a new hobby to keep you busy, or want to get in the best shape of your life, it is an accomplishment that many look back on with pride.  I ran my first marathon this past October in the Twin Cities and it was an unforgettable experience.  I would like to share with you the keys to running your first marathon and some knowledge I gained during my marathon.

Step 1: What You Will Need

Running Shoes (ones that fit your running form; go to a specialty running store for more information on pronation.)
Running Shorts
Running Singlet, or dry fit shirt
Racing GPS/Time Chip (attached to your shoe)
Racing Number (with 4 safety pins)
Racing Watch
Energy Gel (GU or other high energy gel)
Vaseline or Lotion (to rub in areas that are prone to chafing)
Cotton Balls (to protect your nipples from chafing and irritation; as you can see in the picture above, one man forgot to do this.)
Band-Aids (to keep the cotton balls on)

Heart Rate Monitor (to stay in your target training zone)
Running Socks (dry fit)

Weather Dependent items:
Throwaway Clothes (old clothes to keep you warm the first few miles)
Trash Bag (keeps heat in and is very cheap)
Hat (for warmth or protection from sun)
Sunglasses (I regretted forgetting to bring mine!)
MP3 (I don't personally recommend it, but some people say they can't run without music)

Step 2: Signing Up for Your Marathon

Scheduling: It is important to pick a marathon that is right for you.  Things to consider when choosing a marathon may include:
- How much time you'll have to train
- What time of the year you want to run
- Weather preferences
- Location? There are marathons all across the country and even abroad!
- Are you trying to qualify for the Boston or Chicago Marathon?
- Price

Once you sign up for a marathon, you are locked in; there is no refunding your money.  This can be a great motivator for beginning your training!

Step 3: Choosing Your Training Program

Program: Now that you have signed up for your marathon, it's time to select a training program that is right for you!  You should first evaluate your fitness level and consider seeing a doctor to get a physical check up before choosing a program.  There are hundreds of different programs online to peruse.  In addition to online resources, Runners World Magazine has some great advice on training and running marathons.  The program I ultimately went with is shown above.  It was a beginner program that was 26 weeks long.  It broke me in slowly and allowed me to build a strong base before doing the longer runs.  The great thing about having a program to follow is that you simply do what it says and check off the days until the big day!  If you have a scheduling conflict, you can alter the program slightly to fit your needs.

Nutrition: Some programs include other helpful tips in addition to running training.  There are diet plans specifically for marathon trainers.  In general, you should eat a well balanced diet that is rich in carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables.

Features to check for: When looking for a program, there are a couple of key features that I look for.  Make sure that it is a program with at least 1 rest day a week.  Check to see if it has a longer run scheduled every week.  One of the most important things in a marathon program is a tapering phase in your training a couple weeks prior to the marathon.  This reduces your mileage and allows you to build up your strength and stamina as you get closer to the big day!

Step 4: Marathon Weekend Prep

Lodging: It is important to have a hotel or place to stay nearby the race starting line the night before the race.  Most races start early in the morning and it can be very stressful having to worry about driving or parking in time for the race.  If you're planning on staying in a hotel, make sure to call early because they do tend to fill up quickly.

Carb Loading: A couple days prior to the race you should begin to "carb load."  Basically just increase your carbohydrate and fluid intake.  This will allow your body to store more energy that it can burn during the marathon.  When choosing carbohydrates, try to keep it simple.  Avoid spicy pastas and instead opt for plain straightforward meals that won't upset your stomach.

Night before the race: You will likely be very nervous.  Try to relax and remember all of the training you have done.  You are ready for this!  Before going to bed, prepare all of your clothes and race gear.  Pin your race number on your racing singlet.  Put your racing chip on your shoe.  Get plenty of rest before your big day!

Morning of the race: Wake up early and shower or have a small cup of coffee.  Eat a light breakfast consisting of simple foods such as a granola bars, bananas, or toast.  Head to the starting line to check in!

Step 5: Start of Race

And They're Off!: While it is unlikely the start of your marathon will look like the picture shown above, it will be full of excitement for you.  Most larger marathons break runners into "waves" of runners according to their skill level.  They should have assigned you a wave number upon registration; make sure you go to the proper gate when you arrive at the starting line.  For your first marathon, you will likely start in the middle of your wave and unlike the picture above, you will start out at a walking pace until the hundreds of people in front of you get going.  It is very similar to a traffic jam at the start. Make sure to keep a little distance between the people around you so as to avoid tripping situations.

Step 6: Miles 2-7 Take It All In!

Have fun: At this point in the race, you should not be overly exerting yourself.  Instead, go at a steady comfortable pace.  You will probably pass several people and be passed by others.  This stage is about finding your pace.  This is a great stage in the race to take in the atmosphere.  There will be thousands of people cheering you on, bands, blasting speakers, and funny signs like the one above.  Absorb it all, and relish the experience.  Usually at this point in the race, you can afford to chat with other runners.  I recommend doing this because it can help pass the time.

Find a pace group: If you see someone running with a sign that has a time on it, they are a pacer.  They are paid to run the marathon at a certain pace.  If you can, find a pacer that is going at a similar pace as you and settle in with them. 

Water Stations: Make sure to grab a water or Powerade at the water stations provided every 3-4 miles. You may not think you need it now, but your body is losing plenty of fluids that could be going unnoticed to you depending on the weather.  If you have to, stop and stretch or use the restrooms provided near water stations.  A minute or two stretch could end up saving you time later by avoiding a cramp!

Step 7: Miles 7-15 Find Your Groove

In the Groove: By mile 7 or so you should have found your pace or pace group to run with.  You should now settle into a groove and keep on enjoying yourself.  Make sure to keep drinking water, at least at every other water station.  Enjoy the scenery and allow your mind to wonder.  These miles should be relatively stress free.  The picture above shows a woman passing the half marathon mark (13.1 miles).  She is having fun and is in a groove with other runners.

Step 8: Miles 15-20 Bring on the Pain!

Discomfort: Around this stage in the race, you will likely begin to experience discomfort in some form or another.  Whether it be thirst, hunger, cramping, or just overall soreness, it is important to try your best to alleviate your discomfort.  If you're hungry or thirsty, they usually have an energy gel stand during this stage.  Grab a coupe of these as you go by.  They will help with hunger and give you energy that you may be lacking by now.  Make sure you take them with water or they could give you a dry mouth.  If you're cramping up, as I did at mile 17, consider walking for a minute and stretching out the affected muscle group.  It was also at this stage that my knees started to hurt. I later learned that this was more than discomfort.

Injury: It is important that you know your bodies limits.  If you are experiencing some discomfort at this stage, that is normal.  It is NOT normal to be in excruciating pain.  I had about a mile of warning signs from my knees before I stopped at a first aid station.  they wrapped my knees and it alleviated the pain enough to continue.

Step 9: Miles 20-24 Almost There!

Hitting the Wall: Miles 20-24 are the hardest part for most runners.  It is generally in this distance, that you "hit the wall".  This is when your muscles have exhausted their stored up glycogen--which is essentially energy.  At this point you may get tired, or even have thoughts of quitting.  It is crucial that you stay positive during this stage--you are almost there!  During this stage, hills become daunting or seem downright impossible.  If you have to, alternate between walking and running to conquer a hill.  Upon reaching the top, allow yourself to fill with pride and use your new found energy to carry you back down the hill.  Try and find distractions to keep your mind occupied.  At every marathon, there are funny or goofy people like the guys shown above (who actually tried getting me to drink a beer with them at mile 23)

Step 10: Miles 24-26.2 Finish Strong!

Leave it all on the course: After mile 24, it seems to get a little easier.  The crowd gets louder and more uplifting as they see you struggle.  It's hard to avoid smiling as you get closer to the 26 mile marker.  Your training has paid off, you are going to finish your first marathon.  As you come up on the last 320 meters, the roar of the crowd is deafening.  Thousands of people all cheering you on, encouraging music, and an announcer calling out runners' names all greet you as you run towards the clock.  Use all of this atmosphere to finish strong.  Don't leave yourself any room to be disappointed later on.  If you're feeling up to it, kick it in hard the last 50 feet.  Put your hands in the air because you have just conquered a 26.2 mile race!

Step 11: Post Race

Important: After the race, it is extremely important to get fluids back into your body.  Two of the best hydrating liquids are, surprisingly, chocolate milk and chicken noodle soup.  Grab some food and make sure you wrap yourself in one of the cool insulating foil blankets they give to you.

Rest: Sit down and enjoy your accomplishment.  Fill up on some food.  Don't sit too long though or you will stiffen up.  Some marathons have massage tents for free after the race.  I recommend going to one of them and getting your legs massaged.  It will help alleviate some soreness a few days after the race.

Meet up with family: Meet up with your cheering squad at a location that is prearranged.  Take pictures, make post race plans, enjoy yourself--you've earned it!

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