Marathon FAQ with Hal Higdon, part 2

Credit: Nick Wilson/Allsport
In part 1 of this article, running journalist, author and coach Hal Higdon addressed 10 questions and concerns commonly asked by first-time marathon runners. Here are nine more.

11. Is two or three months out too late to start a training program?

It's iffy, but it depends on what you've been doing the two or three months before you start. If you have been participating in other fitness activities (swimming, cycling, online skating, etc.), this might allow you to slide into a marathon training program without having much of a background as a runner.

People do start to train for marathons without much background, but the training and the race itself will go much easier if you spent 6 to 12 months gradually getting in shape. Consider making your first running goal a 5K, a 10K or a half marathon before tackling a 26- mile marathon.

12. How will I know I can run 26 miles in the marathon when the longest training run in your training program is only 20 miles?

Have faith. The finishing rate for the approximately 2,000 runners who sign up each summer for the CARA Marathon Training Class is close to 99 percent, and they all follow my program with its longest run being 20 miles. Tens of thousands have benefited from this same program on the Internet and in my books.

I consider the distance between 20 and 26 miles to be sacred ground, thus you are only allowed to step into it with a race number on your chest. As stated above, have faith.

13. Is it OK to run marathons only a few weeks apart?

It depends on your background. Experienced runners with a good base of training can sometimes get away with it. I ran 6 marathons in 6 weeks to celebrate my 60th birthday once, but I don't advise that approach to others. If you just finished Marathon Number 1, you don't want to do Marathon Number 2 the following weekend, if only because you need time to savor your victory.

The secret to running multiple marathons is to make at least one of them an easy run done 15-30 minutes slower than your fitness level normally would suggest.

14. Is it OK to do speedwork while training for a marathon?

Speedwork is generally classified as training done faster than marathon race pace. Different forms of speedwork include interval training on the track, fast repeats done on the road or track, and tempo runs or fartlek, often done on forest trails. This form of training can help you run faster, but it can also increase your risk of injury. Be safe. Unless you are an advanced runner, save your speed training for periods outside the marathon build-up.

15. I got some really bad blisters on my toes, plus one toenail turned black after my last long run. What can I do to avoid this in the marathon and in the future?

When we run, our feet swell, sometimes as much as a full shoe size. This is more a problem with beginners than experienced runners, since often their fluid-pumping systems are not fully developed. The longer we run in any one workout, the more the feet can swell. (This also is a problem with the hands of beginning runners.)

When feet swell, this forces the toes into the front of the toebox with unpleasant results. Proper shoe selection is the best preventative. Your running shoe size may not be the same as your street shoe size. But if you choose too large shoes, your feet may slide in the shoes causing more woes. As you continue as a runner, this should be less a problem.

16. I play several other sports on a regular basis. Can I count these as cross-training?

Other sports, such as basketball, volleyball, tennis or racquetball do not count as cross-training. In fact, you will increase your chance of injury if you continue to play them as daily and weekly mileage increases. You might be able to get away with it at the beginning of your training, but as soon as the long run mileage starts to get up there in double digits, you're asking for trouble if you participate in any sports involving sudden shifts of direction. So it's a risk.

The question then becomes: You enjoy playing other sports, but do you want to risk a sudden turned ankle that will take you out of your marathon? Particularly in the last 3 to 6 weeks, you need to take a seat on the bench when it comes to other sports.

17. I have something else scheduled the weekend I'm supposed to do one of my long runs? Where can I fit it in?

My training programs are not meant to be carved in concrete. You can juggle workouts to suit your schedule in the Real World. If your sister is getting married, you do not want to do a 20-miler the morning of the wedding. So shift it forward a week or backward a week.

The 18-week program has numerous stepback weeks with lesser mileages for the long runs. Shift with one of those. Or do your long run one or two days earlier. This is true if you work weekends and need to do different workouts midweek. What you do on any individual day is less important than what you do for the entire length of the program. But don't miss too many key workouts, or you'll pay for it in the marathon.

18. The first month or so of the program has me doing fewer miles than I do normally. Should I ignore the program and do my regular mileage?

That's not always a good idea, even for experienced runners. The build-up from 6 to 20 miles and then to a 26-mile race follows a very logical progression. You are not merely training your body, but you are also training your mind, convincing yourself that, yes, I can run 26 miles!

Besides, starting the program with easy workouts allows your body to rest and store energy, perhaps rebounding from your regular hard training. The miles keep building, and you will equal your regular mileage sooner than you think. When that happens, you will be ready to push forward without the overall fatigue and nagging injuries that can accompany overtraining.

19. Which training program should I use?

If you are running your first marathon, I recommend picking the Novice program, even if you have been running for years and don't consider yourself a novice. It is a fail-safe, foolproof program that is almost guaranteed to get you to the starting line as well as the finish line. In your first marathon, your main goal should only be to finish regardless of time.

If you train too hard or select too fast a pace, you jeopardize your chances of reaching that finish line, or at least reaching it with a smile on your face. If you have a few marathons under your belt and are looking to improve your time, the increased mileage of the Intermediate programs may be just what it takes to get that Boston Marathon qualifier. The Advanced programs feature speedwork, and it's not a good idea to do that fast form of training unless you know your way around the track and can handle the extra stress.


Hal Higdon now offers his training programs in an interactive format: daily e-mail messages sent to your computer telling you what and how to run. Visit: www.halhigdon.com


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