Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ten Tips for First-Time Marathoners, from a Former Fat Guy

Most marathon advice is given by tall, thin people who run 3,000 miles per year. It sounds great in theory, but can be unrealistic for mere mortals to follow. I do not fit the prototype of a marathon runner. When I began training for my 1st marathon in 2004, I was significantly overweight, and even on race day, I was 30 pounds overweight, walked a lot, and struggled on severely cramping legs to barely finish, in 5:12. The next 2 marathons were similar - started training way overweight, was too heavy even on race day, and improved modestly each time. Last year, I again started training way too heavy, but this time I lost 31 pounds for my November race, improved by 36 minutes, and have since trained steadily, losing more weight and nearly breaking 4 hours in the Boston Marathon in April. I’m still a normal person, leading a normal life with a normal diet, but I’ve figured out how to do so and yet compete successfully in marathons. And how to guide others through the process as well - I now count 15 people, including three brothers, who have successfully completed their first marathon with my encouragement and advice. If you’ve ever thought about running a marathon, but don’t want to trade your social life and family time for an austerity diet of bird food and daily three-hour runs, I have the top ten tips to get you safely across the finish line.

1. Beware of One Size Fits All Advice

The universe of people training for their first marathon includes men and women, teens and seniors, gymnasts and linebackers, athletes and couch potatoes. Beware the gurus who think they have The One Approach to training for a marathon that will work for all. And what worked for your friend may not work for you. Always test advice, even the advice found in our Web Guide to Running, and adjust it to fit your body and circumstances.

2. Create a Detailed and Realistic Plan

You won’t become a marathon runner overnight. I’ve covered before the difficulty of keeping resolutions, and a plan, created with reasonable expectations in mind, is essential to staying on track. Writing down incremental goals and planning how you will gradually intensify your training will help keep you going. Each tick-off of the check list will be one further encouragement to conquer the next un-ticked goal. Besides, it’s easier to rationalize laziness in your head than to make excuses to a piece of paper.

3. Include Cross-Training in that Detailed Plan

I owe one of my biggest running breakthroughs to a pair of boxing gloves. As I’ve mentioned before, an early-morning boxing boot camp revolutionized my marathon training, and helped me knock off 31 pounds and 36 minutes. Varying your exercise routine can improve your overall fitness and flexibility, while giving your running muscles a break. And, in addition to strengthening different muscle groups and reducing the risk of injury, the image of you in boxing gloves should do wonders for your reputation. For more, see findingDulcinea’s article on cross-training.

4. Make Training an Integral Part of Your Life

A marathon is not a throwaway task, done after the dishes are washed and the kids are asleep – and the training for it can’t be treated that way either. You don’t have to make running your life, but you should make it a habit, an essential part of your daily routine. My life is busy, even chaotic, and I would never get in shape if I only exercised when everything else was done. You sleep, you eat breakfast, you go to meetings, you shower… and you run. Don’t accept excuses to skip your run; does a bad day at the office excuse you from brushing your teeth?

5. Find Training Buddies

From Don Quixote to the Wizard of Oz to the Lord of the Rings, any classic quest film will tell you that all great journeys require companions. Although my friends are fully equipped with hearts, brains, and courage, they see me to finish line after finish line as surely as Dorothy’s friends escorted her to the end of the Yellow Brick Road. I’ve written before and I’ll say it again: running partners are essential. Friendly competition with co-workers at my previous company first coaxed me back into the running habit. One findingDulcinea writer first encouraged me to try boxing and kept me going back, and another kept me, quite literally, on my toes during my weekly long runs. And as proud as I was when my brothers called me to announce better and better training times – after I had personally lured them into the contagious running craze – I could not help becoming competitive with them. Without sharing our accomplishments, we would never have achieved them.

6. You Will Be Frustrated, Then Astounded, by Your Progress

The first part of your training will be discouraging. When you first push yourself to run further than you have before, your body will push back, and it won't get much easier for several months. You'll doubt that you’ll be able to complete your long runs, never mind the race itself. And then, about 8-10 weeks before the race, the clouds will part, the sun will glint off of your newly-sculpted legs, and you will experience that breakthrough moment. You’ll suddenly improve in leaps and bounds each week, until finally you start saying silly things like "I never knew 15 miles could seem so easy."

7. And Once Astounded, Contentment is Thy Enemy

Sure, smug self-satisfaction feels good – even deserved – when you’ve lost that first 10 pounds or improved your time by half an hour. Perhaps, you complacently think, you can skip this week’s training for some TV, or replace your run at the gym with a late-night run to Ben & Jerry’s. Sorry, but no. As I’ve told you before, now is exactly when you have to work harder. Whenever I begin to feel that creeping sense of contentment, I double my efforts, knowing that I’ll only slide backward if I don’t run forward. If it feels this good to shave off that first 10 pounds or 30 minutes, think how great it will be to lose the next 10 pounds – and how disappointing it would be to gain it all back.

8. Don’t Let Small Setbacks Cause Total Failure

You’re human. Over 18 weeks, you WILL bend. Don’t break. You will have three consecutive days where you are busy, hurt and tired and not run. The difference between success and failure here will be determined by whether you let these three days became ten. Draw a line in the sand and, after a few days back on your plan, it will be as though you never missed any training at all.

9. No Running on Empty

Nutrition is as important to successful running as training. Food is fuel, and you must approach it that way: when you’re eyeing that chili hot dog for lunch, remember that it won’t provide the energy you’ll need at mile 15. And empty calories will be excess baggage on your journey.
And you may not realize this on your 10-mile practice runs, but you also have to eat real food during the marathon. As I learned at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, water and Gatorade alone won’t cut it in a 26-mile race. Ignore how foul “carbohydrate gel” sounds and learn to love them for long runs and the race. My personal favorite is the Hammer gel. And during the marathon, you’ll need to eat real food as well; granola bars and orange slices work for me. Don’t just accept my suggestions, though – you might do better with peanut butter packets, nuts, fruit, or a bagel. Test them out on your training runs, and find the food that best fuels you. Rather than wolfing down whatever snack you choose, eat it in small doses continually. Break up a granola bar into seven pieces and make it last seven miles. And eat continuously the night before the marathon, too, since you can’t wake up to a big breakfast. The night before I ran Philly, I did not stop eating; I was curled up like a rabbit with a granola bar for a carrot, trailing crumbs all over the pillow until I fell asleep. The next day, I felt fully energized, and beat my best time by 35 minutes.

10. Invite Your Cheerleaders

Cheerleaders provide more than just distraction during half-time, as you’ll learn when you become the athlete and your friends and family band together as your cheerleading squad. Even if you can’t coerce your friends into training with you, their support, encouragement, and even high expectations can spur you on to faster miles. As I’ve written before, my late brother James has been a constant inspiration, and when you hit mile 12, nothing can provide an extra burst of energy like the sight of your excited, cheering family. A support network is essential to a successful marathon.

For further tips, inspiration, videos, and interactive tools, see the findingDulcinea feature Training for Your First Marathon.


Stretching Before Exercise said...

It is always advisable to eat healthy diet rather than eating fast foods. You need to workout more if you take these foods. And they will not provide you the energy.

Middleagedathlete said...

I was just randomly surfing the web when I fell upon this post. Outstanding advice. I have been a true runner for the last 3 or so years, and recently went off the deep end and started running marathons (now 6 and 1 on the way). Your advice is sound for anybody getting ready to train for their first marathon.

Good work!

Mark Moran said...

Middle Age, thanks for your kind words. It sounds as though you and I are living parallel lives; I started slowly, running slow marathons in 2004, 2005 and 2007, then also went "off the deep end" and ran three much faster marathons from Nov '08 to Nov '09; I may run 4 this year alone. Keep running!