Newbie Questions: Marathon Training
If you’re anything like me, the challenge of running your first marathon evokes your inner neurotic-self. After finishing my first half-marathon, I registered for the Los Angeles Marathon, and immediately began to obsess about it.
Leading up to my first half, I had tightness in my hamstring that just wouldn’t go away. No amount of massage, stretching, and foam rolling helped this sore spot. It felt electric, so I took a few weeks off and hoped that would do the trick—no such luck, but I ran a Thanksgiving Day 5K Turkey Trot anyway. After that race, I reached out to Andrew Kastor, head coach of the ASICS Mammoth Track Club and the coach of the LA Road Runners to talk about a training plan for the marathon. I was running about 20 miles a week at the time, still had a sore hamstring, and the marathon was less than five months away.
“You need to be healthy and ready for the big volume of marathon training,” Coach Kastor said. “I think it would be wise to wait until the fall to try a marathon.”
Like good coaches do, he was saving me from myself—I did not like it, but I listened. I pushed my marathon goal back before I even started to train for it. He recommended slowly building mileage over the winter to get my body ready for the intensity of marathon training.
That spring I raced a few 10Ks and started lifting weights in the gym with a coach. Ian Nielson at Mammoth Strength helped strengthen my body, to prepare myself for the higher mileage. A strong core and strong hips keep the body balanced and less prone to injury.
Even though I had shorter races to focus on, I was thinking long term. My mind was spinning with questions. Do I need minimalist or maximalist shoes? There are so many choices. How high should my mileage be? How fast should I run? Should I cross train? What’s the best pre-run breakfast? How many gels do I take in a race? Even though I ran when I was a kid, running as an adult was different. There is so much more information and technology these days. Even with GPS watches, chip timing, a ton of shoe designs, and fancy electronic gadgets, it turns out that running is still just putting one foot in front of the other.
Finding a pair of shoes was intimidating at first since there are so many choices on the market. According to Benno Nigg, a leading Biomechanics researcher, comfort in footwear is the key factor in selecting running footwear, and insoles, and is the determining factor in preventing running related injuries. This made buying a pair of shoes seem pretty simple, so I ordered a neutral shoe (ASICS Nimbus) and running specific inserts (CurrexSole Run Pro) to get started.
With Coach Kastor’s guidance I ran “just enough to be challenged,” and my schedule increased mileage slowly to decrease risk of injury. For 5K and 10K races I was running between 25 and 40 miles per week. That eventually increased to 50 miles per week building up to the marathon, and ultimately reached 60 miles just before the marathon taper.
Cross training is recommended in many training programs, and helped ease my tendency of wanting to over train. Instead of adding mileage to my weekly runs, I rode my bike, or went climbing, which is good for core and upper body strength. I took my dog on hikes, and continued to lift weights at the gym.
I followed the intensity of the training schedule closely. Easy runs should be at a pace where you can hold a conversation, hard runs should be hard but sustainable, and long runs were to be performed 60 to 90 seconds over goal marathon pace. By sticking to the designated efforts, I was able to maximize the training adaptations and run well when it counted most.
As the marathon got closer, long runs became dress rehearsals.
“It is the perfect opportunity to decide whether or not you love your shirt, shorts, socks, food, hydration, hat, and sunglasses,” Coach Kastor said. “Make sure you are doing all the things that you will do in the race, so that you have everything dialed in for the big day!”
I prepped the day before my long run by hydrating well, and eating a lot of carbohydrates. I went to bed early and in the morning had the same two-banana, yogurt, and orange juice smoothie I intended to have for breakfast on race day. I practiced alternating Gatorade and water every three miles, and taking Power Gels at mile 10 and 18 on the long run.
As race week neared I started to get excited. It was time to taper. The work was done.
“Don’t expect to feel great during the taper,” Deena Kastor warned.
“Yeah, you might feel like shit all the way up until the day before the race,” Bria Wetsch chimed in.
Even though Deena and Bria are experienced marathon runners, and professional runners, I hoped they were wrong.
“Taper tantrums are real,” my friend Amanda confirmed. “Read a book, eat bagels, drink water, and stay off your feet.”
They were all right. Tapering is when the mileage decreases after an intense training period. Your body is resting and gaining the benefits from the work you put in, and hopefully ready to peak just in time for race day. But for some reason, tapering makes us feel certifiably insane.
That’s when the panic set in. The Tasmanian Devil running circles around my brain.
Since training was decreased, I had more time to overthink everything. My throat became sore, so I immediately became a hypochondriac and started chugging Emergen-C.
Then I really got sick. My stomach was uneasy and I couldn’t hold down fluids. I can’t run if I’m sick, I thought. I pounded pro-biotics and ate a bland diet and continued to obsess about the race.
Am I ready? I wondered. I wanted to trust my training, but did I do enough? Should I have run more? Am I going to get blisters? Can I really run 7-minute pace for 26.2 miles? WILL I HIT THE WALL?
I was grumpy and wanted to run it out, but instead, I sat around and ate bagels.