A few weeks ago a runner emailed me and said:
“I started running a few weeks ago and I’m up to 9 miles per week with a 4 mile long run. I’m also working on increasing the run portion (I’m walking every few minutes) of all my runs.
I signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon this fall and am interested in a custom training plan to help me finish strong. My biggest goal is to finish the marathon without any injuries. It’s in 22 weeks – do you think you can help?
My first reaction was shock: new runners with weekly mileage levels in the single digits shouldn’t put themselves into this kind of situation! Unless of course, you find running injuries adorable.
Covering 26.2 miles on foot – or in other words, taking about 33,000 steps – is a physically exhausting, humbling, and potentially dangerous endeavor. It’s mandatory that you’re actually ready to run a marathon.
And here at SR, I try to be your coach even if you never hire me – a coach by proxy. I look out for your well-being when it comes to your running goals, which is why Strength Running presents one unified coaching philosophy (instead of 50 writers all contradicting each other that leave you wondering what to actually do with your running!).
So I steered this person away from a mammoth goal like a marathon. See, I don’t push a lot of “rah, rah you can do it if you set your mind to it!” nonsense. Instead of irresponsibly selling this woman a training plan and making a quick buck, I likely saved her from a few overuse injuries and a disappointing first marathon experience.
I’m a straight shooter, so let me tell it to you straight: marathons are hard. While I think almost anyone can do one eventually, it still takes the right preparation. But once you get your marathon training right, you can safely run 26.2 miles – and even run it quite fast!
Why is Running a Marathon So Hard?
An interesting thing happens to our bodies after running for roughly 20 miles: we use up nearly all of our carbohydrate, the body’s preferred fuel source for strenuous exercise. When it’s gone, we have to significantly reduce our effort because we don’t have the rocket fuel to maintain that pace (we have a lot more fat, but fat can’t fuel the intensity level of running a faster pace).
Let’s not also forget that the high levels of fatigue and muscle soreness that accompany hours of running lead to a deterioration in running form.
For a fun experiment, cheer marathoners on at mile 25 and notice how their form has gone to hell in a hand basket: leaning from the waist, aggressive heel striking, over-striding, or even limping.
Who would have thought that marathons could be so humbling?!
But the unique challenges of running a marathon lead to an equally unique collection of post-race problems. While you might be familiar with 3-5 days of significant soreness after you finish, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to marathon recovery.
There’s also a host of other issues going on:
- Fatigue to your central nervous system
- Hormonal changes (like this study that shows cortisol levels in women are 211% higher after a marathon!)
- Psychological stress (one reason why elites only race 1-2 marathons per year)
- Even damage to your heart
My runners now know why I DEMAND time off after a marathon!
If preparation is your #1 priority for the marathon, then proper recovery needs to be a close second.
How to Know if You’re Ready to Run a Marathon
I have a simple philosophy when it comes to the marathon: if you’re ready to do the training, you’re ready to run a marathon after that training.
This boils down to a few criteria:
Time. Likely the most important because it dictates how quickly you can progress in your training. Most runners need 3-4 months of specific marathon preparation. The less you run per week, the more time you need.
Long Run Distance. Since it takes 3-4 months to prepare for a marathon, you can’t start from scratch and expect to be ready in 16-20 weeks. Instead, your long run should already be at about 9-12 miles. If your LR is 4 (like the runner I talked about earlier), you simply don’t have enough time to increase that run safely to where it needs to be.
Weekly Mileage: I recommend you start marathon training at a weekly mileage level of at least 20-25 miles. If you’re just starting to run and the idea of a 20 mile week seems daunting, you’re just not ready yet.
These are the “bare minimum” essentials for knowing when you’re ready to start training – what I call your fitness foundation. In addition, there are a few other “nice to haves:”
Workouts: Complete one faster workout per week after 2-3 weeks of running strides. Start with foundational workouts like steady-state efforts, progressions, and fartleks.
Strength Work: Any good program comes with a healthy dose of runner-specific strength work (which is why all of my training plans include it – which you won’t see on those downloadable plans you can get online). Specific routines – including progressions – are included in Injury Prevention for Runners.
Our companion video is also helpful:
These elements are the building blocks of not just sound marathon training, but training in general.
The Value of Being Process Oriented
Beginner runners will see the most success when they focus on the PROCESS of training – what many coaches call taking the “next logical step.” This approach won’t force you to rush your training or fixate on mileage and long run numbers instead of how you feel. Instead, you’ll incrementally run more, run longer, and run faster in a gradual and systematic way.
But I know it’s not sexy. It’s not the newest fitness class or CrossFit WOD that promises shredded abs or the ability to run an ultramarathon in just a few months for a beginner.
But it works. And as your coach by proxy, I ask more of you. I want you to achieve all of your running goals so I only give you the best running advice possible – including what not to do.
And sometimes, that means giving you a nudge in the right direction… even if that direction is admittedly a little boring (but trust me, sitting on the sidelines with an injury is much more boring!).
Don’t Make Decisions Out of Fear
A few months ago I had a short conversation with a runner who needed a nudge in the right direction – after she received her custom training plan, she asked for a refund because “it makes me nervous.”
I knew it WAS right for her and she was making a decision based on fear. So I told her that being nervous is normal and that I don’t want her using fear as an excuse to use another plan that she considers safe (but ultimately less effective).
She agreed and used her plan. Then a few days ago I received this email from her:
I decided that you’re right – if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. And I ran a 5k today (4th of July) and finished with a 28:57 time. I haven’t been under 29 minutes since 2008.
I also realized today that I haven’t injured myself since early April. I’m praying the healthy trend continues.
This runner needed the right encouragement – and that encouragement was to focus on the process of sound training, even if it looked different and made her nervous. Now she’s running faster than she has in six years and has a significant healthy streak going!
The same can help you run a successful marathon… once you’re ready to train for one.
If you want to see specific workouts, strategies, and injury prevention tactics that help you be more process-oriented, I’ve created a free email series that you get just for subscribing here.
We’ll learn about marathon training through the prism of injury prevention – helping you stay healthy as you build mileage and the distance of your long run.
Sign up here and I’ll send everything to you.