Tips for Running Your First Marathon

Training for a marathon isn’t easy, especially if it’s your first time.

When you’re preparing for a race like a marathon, the right knowledge goes a long way. It can help you avoid injuries and have a better experience from day one to race day.

The following tips can help you stay healthy and energized as you go through training.

1. Start Small

Don’t expect to go from zero to marathon — or even 5K to marathon — right away. Getting ready for a marathon can take months of training and building up endurance.

It’s best to start with shorter distances. As you build up your muscular and cardiovascular endurance, you can increase your mileage and your pace.

“I would tell people to start small,” says Maddy Agladima, PT, a physical therapist at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. “Start with running 5Ks, making sure you can do smaller distances pain-free, that it feels good, and you’re enjoying it. And then build up from there.”

Agladima says new runners who want to run a marathon should start about a year in advance. They should increase their mileage until they can run 20 to 30 miles a week pain-free before beginning a marathon training program. At about four months before the marathon, you can begin training for the marathon in earnest.

“You don’t want to start at zero miles four months out from a marathon,” she says. “You’re going to end up injuring yourself doing that. So, it’s getting that base of, ‘OK, can I run up to 20 miles a week and not have any issues there?'”

As you’re training, you should increase your mileage by about 10% per week, Agladima says. If you increase your mileage too much too soon, you put yourself at risk for injury.

2. Find the Right Fit for Your Feet

Running may not require the same amount of equipment as other sports — but having the right shoes is a must. Getting shoes that fit your foot structure and running style can pay big dividends. They can provide the best support for your feet and body and help you avoid injuries.

“You don’t really need much to get out there and run, but you do need a good pair of shoes,” Agladima says. “So, if you haven’t ever really run before or if you’re having some foot pain as you’re trying to increase your mileage, the easiest place to start is getting yourself a good pair of shoes. Sometimes, people like to have two pairs and rotate them.”

If you’re unsure about what type of shoe is best for you, many stores that specialize in running can help you find the right fit. They can analyze your foot and running style and make recommendations.

Just as important as finding the right shoes is knowing when it’s time for a new pair. Agladima says you should swap out an old pair of running shoes after 300 to 500 miles.

Also: Make sure to break in your new shoes before going on a long run in them.

3. Find a Training Plan Right for You

When you begin training for a marathon, you might not know how to go about it. There are many different marathon training plans out there, for a variety of different skill levels. They can help you build up your mileage while also making sure you get proper rest and cross-training.

“You have to find the program you can commit to and fit into your schedule,” Agladima says. “That might take a little bit of trial and error. The variability in how many days you want to run in a week is going to change person to person, but just getting that overall mileage up week by week is what’s going to be important.”

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4. Get Those Long Runs In

If you’re planning to run 26.2 miles, you need to make sure you can handle it. So, during your training, you should do a long run every seven to 10 days. The distances on those long runs should increase incrementally during your training, peaking at around 20 to 22 miles.

If you use a marathon training program, it can provide an idea of how to increase your distances in advance of the race.

5. Do Speed and Interval Runs

Long runs are important while training for a marathon — but so are other types of running. Make sure to add in speed runs — shorter distances at a quicker pace — interval work, and hill workouts in the days between your long runs.

“Doing some speed work and overall running is going to help your cardiovascular base,” Agladima says. “Then, when you do run longer distances at your normal pace, it’s going to be a lot more comfortable.”

6. Remember to Rest

When you’re training for a marathon, you may think you need to run every day. That’s not the case: Rest days are crucial to helping you avoid burnout and injury. You should have at least a couple of rest days a week as you train for the race.

“You’re asking a lot of your body if you aren’t giving it time to recover, especially for novice runners,” Agladima says. “So, really taking the time to let those muscles rest and let your body recover is going to help prevent a lot of different injuries.”

You also can consider some cross-training workouts on those days. Cross-training could include lower-intensity activities like walking, cycling, swimming, elliptical, or resistance workouts.

Don’t think that a “light jog” counts as a rest or cross-training day, Agladima warns. “That’s still running,” she says.

7. Warm Up and Cool Down

When you go on your runs — especially the long ones — you shouldn’t just start running. To avoid injury, you should make sure your muscles are loose and warm for the workout ahead. Try a five- or 10-minute stretching routine before you take your first steps.

The same goes when you’re finishing your run. A leisurely walk or some simple stretching at the end of your run can help prevent your muscles from tightening up.

Using a foam roller before and after your workout also may help.

8. Listen to Your Body About Injuries

You can expect some soreness during your marathon training — that’s normal, and that’s why rest days and cross-training are important. But if you start to notice pain that doesn’t go away with rest, it could be a sign of something more serious.

When it comes to running injuries, the sooner you get something treated, the better, Agladima says. She advises contacting your doctor if you start to notice that your injury is affecting the way you run.

“If you are able to catch something earlier on and have it looked at and addressed, it’s going to save you a lot of time and energy spent trying to fight that,” she says. “If you’re having pain and it’s changing how you’re running, if it’s changing your gait, you’ve got to get in and get it looked at. Otherwise, you’re going to end up having a whole cascade of issues from that. If one injury changes how you run, now you’re going to end up with another injury.”

9. Fuel and Hydrate for Long Runs

You don’t want to go on a long run with your body tank on empty. So, it’s best to eat something small before going on a long run. Aim for something with simple carbohydrates, like oatmeal or whole wheat toast, about one to two hours before your run.

You should also make sure to drink water or sports drinks both before and during your long runs to stay hydrated. It’s best to drink something about every 20 minutes or so during a long run. Depending on the weather, you may need to drink more to stay hydrated.

Many runners also like to bring food, like energy gels, with them to consume during their runs. This can provide an extra burst of energy, which can help a great deal on longer runs. Just note: It’s best to try out any food or drink that you’re not used to on shorter runs first. That way, you can make sure they agree with your stomach before having them on a long run.

10. Think About Chafing

Your shoes are crucial. As far as your other clothing, moisture-wicking material usually works well. It can prevent chafing, especially during long runs.

And if you do find that chafing is becoming a problem, try applying petroleum jelly to the affected areas for relief.

11. Taper Before Marathon Day

Your marathon training program should build you up to the point where you can complete a run of around 20 or 22 miles. You should reach that distance two or three weeks before your marathon day. After that, you should begin to taper — decreasing your weekly mileage until race day arrives.

Tapering helps to ensure that your body is as healthy and energized as possible.

“You’ve got to ease off and just trust that your training worked and you’ll be fine,” Agladima says.

12. Have a Plan for Race Day

Don’t let your months of training go to waste on race day. Knowing how you want to run the race can help you.

An hour or two before start time, you should eat and drink something to fuel yourself for the race. Many marathons also have water and food stations throughout the course that can help you stay fueled and hydrated.

During the race itself, remember to pace yourself. Many runners go out too fast too early, which can hurt them later on in the race.

“I think the energy of the crowd kind of tricks you into a false sense of euphoria, and you feel great,” Agladima says. “And then everything kind of spreads out and tapers off, and then you die down a little bit. So, definitely pace yourself out of the gate. Don’t push it till toward the end.”

13. Remember to Have Fun

Training for a marathon isn’t easy. But it’s important to remember to enjoy yourself. So, on race day, soak in the experience and have a good time. Completing your first marathon is a tremendous accomplishment — take pride in it.

Learn more from the running experts at UPMC.

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