If it seems like everyone and their mother is running a marathon these days — you’re not wrong. In 2014, a record number of 550,630 runners completed the 26.2 distance in the U.S., with a high of 1,200-plus marathon events nationwide. But does that mean signing up for the big event is no big deal? Not exactly.
“A marathon isn’t [just] twice as hard as a half-marathon,” says Wesley Pedersen, the group fitness manager of Equinox Newport Beach, who helps create running programs for his clientele. “It’s probably four times harder than a half-marathon, and every mile after 20 feels like it’s own individual race. And at around mile 18, your body passes a threshold where your legs lose their capacity to fire up fast-twitch muscle fibers and get fatigued,” Pedersen says.
Being race-ready also means “extra cross-training to increase your lower-body strength,” he adds. Because of this, you should ask yourself about every aspect of training and prepping for a marathon — from your current fitness level to your race-day goals — before you fork over those registration fees. Here, seven questions you should be ready to answer before you sign up for 26.2.
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Thinking of Running a Marathon? Start With These Qs
1. “Do I have a solid base to start training?”
Jumping right into a marathon plan if you’ve only been jogging sporadically isn’t very wise: instead, you’ll need to have a good training base to safely accumulate mileage over time and minimize risk of injury. “Before beginning marathon training, you should be running at least 20 to 40 minutes at an easy pace four or five days per week, and you should have been doing this for three to four weeks already,” says Andrew Kastor, ASICS running coach and head coach for the LA Road Runners. If you don’t already have that base, you can of course still sign up — but know that doing so may extend your training plan by several weeks. But that’s not an issue if you’ve got 26.2 on the brain, is it?
2. “Do I have time to train properly?”
Hold up for a sec: There are two parts to this question. First, look at the calendar and see if there are enough weeks between now and race day, which Kastor suggests ranging between 16 and 20 for those with regular running backgrounds. “Most comprehensive, well-thought-out marathon training plans are four or five months in length,” says Kastor.
Then, make sure to consider your own personal schedule — do you have enough waking hours to squeeze in frequent runs? “Expect to devote an hour a day or more to running or another activity that supports your running, such as strength training,” advises Debora Warner, founder and CEO of the Mile High Run Club in New York City. If the time commitment seems a bit much, you may want to scale back your race-day goal in terms of distance or time.
3. “Am I trying to lose weight?”
This may be surprising, but if shedding pounds is a priority, marathon training may not help you meet your goal. “The body will go through changes throughout the training process, but losing weight should not be a focus,” says Warner. In fact, “it’s very common for marathoners not to lose weight and some even gain a little,” adds Pederson. While it’s easy to think your revved-up schedule gives you the green light to snack more or eat bigger meals, it’s (sadly) not the case. Contrary to popular belief, endurance runners don’t need to take in a lot more food just because they are running longer,” Kastor adds. “Our bodies have enough energy stored for any activity up to an hour. And since probably only one run per week will be longer than 60 minutes, you really only need to load up with more calories before and after that specific workout.”
4. “Am I going to get injured? Are there any ways to prevent it?”
Nothing hurts more after you’ve spent months sweating through months of training only to wind up injured and have to withdraw from the race you’ve been working so hard towards. The good news, though, is that you can take steps to sidestep aches, pains and more severe injuries, says Kastor. “Proper rest, good nutrition, scheduled massages, and new, good footwear all contribute to staying healthy during the course of a marathon training cycle,” he adds. And if you have any history of sports-related injuries, talk to your doc or physical therapist about extra precautions before you make the decision to toe the starting line. Follow these tips and make sure your form is top-notch from head to toe, too.
5. “Can I help my body recover throughout training?”
Short answer: yes. “Recovery involves everything from stretching to foam rolling and massage to meditation and appropriate nutrition,” says Pedersen. And “developing an effective recovery routine is as important as the training,” says Warner, “because a higher volume of training requires more recovery time and sleep.” So before you even get started on your marathon journey, you should figure out an R&R plan for your body, too. Kastor recommends 48 to 72 hours between long, hard training runs and getting adequate downtime during those days. Most importantly, though, make sure you’re getting at least seven hours of zzz’s each night. “During sleep, your body repairs itself — we make our fitness gains during resting, not during the training,” Pederson adds.
6. “What are my goals for the race?”
Take a step back and think for a second: Are you trying to set a record or are you just trying to finish? Regardless, setting a goal is a must for every race. “It will help guide and shape the training. Set the goal and work backward from there, asking yourself what kind of training will be needed to accomplish the aim,” explains Kastor. If you’re looking to PR, for instance, adding more speed work to your plan is a good idea. Just want to cross that line? “It’s still important to set a target [approximate] finishing time to ensure you’re not going too fast on your daily runs,” says Kevin Hanson, coach of the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project.
7. “Why am I even doing this?”
There are tons of reasons why people are taking on marathon running in record numbers — whether that’s to check off an item on the old bucket list, to achieve a new PR, to run with a friend or to raise money for charity. Whatever your racing impetus may be, it’s a good idea to be clear about your reasons going into training, says Warner: “Remembering why you signed up is important and can help when training gets tough and motivation runs low.”
Asked yourself these Qs, and think you’re ready? Go on and crush it! Think you need more time? Check out these 50 resources to increase your speed, improve your form and optimize your nutrition.