Running, or rather road racing, is currently one of the most popular activities in the United States. It’s cheap (you only need shoes), it’s accessible (just go outside), it’s social (join a club), and it's good for your health (in moderation)…in short, running has the deck stacked in it’s favor when it comes to rapid growth.
This is most apparent at the marathon level, where tens of thousands of runners tackle the challenge of 26.2 miles, regardless of experience and ability level. The goal of this article is to make the overall process of becoming a first-time marathon runner both transparent and easy to follow. The more successful you are, the more likely you’ll be to continue running and contributing to the growth of our sport. Are you ready?
A Recent Change
Once the elite playing ground of running fanatics, the marathon is now accessible to all through charity programs, group training services, a wealth of coaches and more. Ask anyone about running a marathon in the 1970s and 80s, and it will sound like another era: only water, no food, minimal aid stations, little to no gear, a number for your shirt, etc.
Since that time, entire industries of apparel, equipment and nutrition have evolved to market and serve long-distance runners, and the combined result of this focus is clear–one of the largest segments of the running population is the the first-time marathon runner.
Marathons Are Still Hard
But that doesn’t mean that doing a marathon is any easier. After all, it’s still 26.2 miles of running on the heels of a whole lot of training. The Internet abounds with one-shot programs and insider reports promising to give the first-timer the "One True Way" to train. But truth be told, there is no one single right way to train for a marathon.
Coaching runners during the last decade has taught me that a successful marathon experience isn’t about a magical pill or plan. I have given the same training plan to 10 runners and seen 10 completely different outcomes. It’s not so much about what you do to train as how you handle the impact of training on your life, body, and mind. Instead of talking about mileage per week, it’s more important to discuss the principles of marathon training — what I will refer to here as the six key phases of the marathon lifecycle.
Phase One: Commit
It’s one thing to put a marathon on your bucket list, it’s another to actually pick a race and drop the money on an entry fee. Signing up gives you something to show to your friends and family; it’s an event that you can mark as a milestone on your personal calendar. Who knows, maybe you can even convince some of your crazy friends to sign up with you.
I suggest you follow registration up quickly with lodging and travel arrangements, making your participation just that much more likely. The closer we can move it to inevitable, the better off you’ll be. Other options for this momentum building include:
- committing to raise funds
- making a bet with your friends/training partners/co-workers
- choosing to run in the memory of someone
Phase Two: Connect
Now that you are officially “in” for the race, it’s time to start building a little community who will support and motivate you en route to your finish line. While you might have your own pre-existing group in place, here are a few things to do if you were to start from scratch.
First, find a local running shop where you can sit down and talk (even if briefly) with a fellow runner about the right shoe for you. An easy way to tell if this store is invested in you is whether they watch you walk/run and then recommend shoes for you…and watch you run a bit in those shoes. Picking the right pair of shoes is critical if you are to enjoy even a single mile of your training — it might take a few tries so you’ll want someone you can trust and talk with to help you through the process.
Second, this shop will most likely have information on the local running scene. You are looking for a running group that meets regularly to do scheduled runs; if possible, drop in on a few different groups/sessions to see which one fits your vibe best. The goal here is not to find the best training possible, it’s to get connected with other runners to improve your learning curve and to stay focused on your training when the going gets tough (it will at some point).