Thousands of people every year come together to run in local marathons. Some walk, some run. Some do it for a cause, some for fitness, and some for the pure love of marathons. We participate in marathons for different reasons. We each have our own motivations and our methods to prepare for the serious effort. But when it comes to running over 20 miles in a single day, we all share the same common problems.
Whether you’re running for charity, health, or pride in personal achievement, it’s important to train effectively, balance your nutrition, and properly manage your energy or you could put yourself at risk of a crash or a significant drop in speed long before the end of the race. No one wants to face an upset tummy, turned ankle, or surprisingly slow time during their next marathon and we’re here to help with a few tips on how to increase your speed and dodge the common mid-marathon troubles.
Remember to Train for Speed
Running a marathon is all about pacing yourself. Everyone takes marathons at a different speed and, for most people, winning isn’t really an issue. Your real goal is to finish strong and with a better time than you made during your last marathon. If this isn’t your first. Marathons aren’t about running fast, but they are about understanding your limits and going as fast as you can to make it through this incredibly long event.
Most marathon runners train at the same pace they intend to use for the race. This is a perfectly good policy because it will help to condition your body to keep that pace and build endurance at your intended energy burn rate. Whether you are walking the marathon for a cause or trying to beat your best time, training for speed can be incredibly useful.
Unlike non-marathon training, increasing your marathon speed isn’t about how fast you can run. It’s how fast you can run and maintain that speed for several hours at a stretch. If you start out at a sprint, you will likely be exhausted before the first mile is up. Speed training for a marathon should involve slowly increasing the fastest speed you can go for long periods of time, focusing on endurance and pushing yourself a little harder each day.
Focus on Nutrition, but Don’t “Diet”
Anyone who exercises regularly understands the relationship between what you put in your belly and how well it burns off as efficient energy. Greasy, cheesy, and sugary foods are more likely to make you feel heavy and give you an upset stomach instead of providing good workout fuel. However, this doesn’t mean that you should start adhering to ‘diet’ tactics like cutting calories or dodging carbs.
Many people training for their first or even second marathon may make the mistake of either loading up on a big heavy breakfast or trying to diet to ‘get fit’ before the big event. Neither approach is actually ideal. Instead, you want to get in tune with your body to figure out what your personal metabolism will respond to best to begin the marathon with a lot of physical energy and keep that energy up during the race.
Every person has a unique metabolism and digestion process which influences what you should eat and how much of it during training and on the day of the marathon. You will need protein to build and maintain muscle, carbohydrates to burn into energy, and vegetables to keep everything clean and well-balanced. What you eat for dinner the night before matters almost as much as what you eat for breakfast. And what you eat for breakfast should be well-balanced to keep you feeling energized and digesting easily during the day.
That said, most marathon runners rely on glycogen gels to replenish carbs and energy during the long race so you will want to train with these so you are familiar with them and get a good idea of your fueling schedule before the big day. If gels don’t work for you, plan to bring a fanny-pack of crackers, nuts, or whatever feels best to eat while you’re training.
Don’t Forget to Hydrate
One of the easiest mistakes to make in a marathon is under-hydration. The problem is that you can drink constantly and still not be getting enough. If you’re feeling low-energy partway through the race, the temptation will be to consume more fueling gels but it’s better to stick close to your fueling schedule and supplement with water or sports drinks instead. Remember to alternate between water and sugary drinks to keep your hydration well-balanced.
Marathons use up a lot of hydration so you will need to replenish constantly and copiously. Little sips throughout are often not enough and healthy consumption will equate a lot more than a single water bottle over the course of a race. However, you also don’t want to drink so much in one stop that you feel heavy and ‘sloshy’ for the next part of the race. Consider drinking each water bottle about a fourth or third at a time and don’t be shy about refilling your on-the-go bottle at every stop.
Prepare for the Weather
You can train perfectly for months before a marathon but the weather on race day will still have a profound impact on your performance. The best way to pull through it is to be prepared, not just for the weather you expect but any weather that could potentially occur for your region and time of year. Days that are especially hot, cold, or icy can be managed as long as you know what to do.
On hot, sunny days, don’t forget the sunscreen and consider bringing some with you to re-up every two hours. Avoid pouring water over yourself but do remember to drink extra water to make up for the extra sweat. You may want lighter workout clothes than usual and consider wearing a light-weight hat or visor during the race. If you slip on shades, make sure they are padded in a way that will not slip off or rub you raw by the end of the race.
Cold days, on the other hand, should be met with resolve and layers. Make sure to cover your head and hands in lightweight gear that can be stowed or tossed to a friend on the sidelines and remember to drink more water than you’ll want to. The cold reduces the desire for water, but not the need for it. It’s okay to bring a jacket that gets tied around your waist and leggings under your sweat pants. If your feet tend to sweat inside warm socks, consider bringing extras and switch out to keep your feet dry during cold-weather races. It can matter.
Avoid Injury – Listen to Your Body
Marathons are not the most dangerous type of race by a long shot, but you can still get hurt running at a steady pace for many hours. It’s still possible to strain a muscle, twist an ankle, or over-stress your body in a way that results in injury. The best way to avoid injury during a marathon is to listen to your body.
If one calf starts to get tight, take a moment to slow down and loosen it up before your next burst of speed. If your hip starts to hurt, change your pace and the way you are running to give it a break. Some people even switch to walking backward as they wear out to work out a separate set of muscles. Be aware of your hydration and the strain you are putting on your body, especially if the weather is extremely hot or cold.
If you have a tendency toward weak ankles or are already recovering from an injury, consider using some form of compression-wear that can help support muscles and joints on the big day. Compression braces, tape, and elastic bandages can make a big difference and help you maintain your endurance throughout the marathon.
Rest Up Before the Big Day
Training for a marathon is exciting and people often find themselves counting down to the big day. During this time, it’s tempting to over-train by trying to go on several marathon-length runs in the weeks leading up to race day. Unfortunately, while this may be enjoyable it is not the best decision for your muscles and energy reserves. Endurance is not based on conditioning alone, you also need to be well rested. This means that you will want to keep your long runs down to once every two to three weeks and spend the rest of your training time working on speed, pacing, and strength. Have your last marathon-training day at least 4 weeks before the race and remember to be fully rested mentally and physically.
Every marathon training regime is a personal journey of fitness, nutrition, run times, and overall preparation. How you train should be based on a combination of scientifically and experientially proven methods and improving your own personal capabilities. Whether you’re training for your first marathon race or your 50th, remember to take good care of yourself and stay hydrated.