The First-Timer's Guide to Marathon

People run marathons for many different reasons -- the key is to find your own motivation.  Credit: Brian Kersey/Getty Images

Whether you've resolved to try a new sport or tackle a new distance on the running circuit, you probably have a million questions and thoughts running through your head. Should I purchase new shoes? Should I join a charity program? Do I need to pay for a training program? How can I stay injury-free? How will I survive a training program?

Just like you seek out the frequently asked questions area when you're unfamiliar with a computer program or tourist hot-spot, running has its own guidebook. These are the FAQs to remember.

Why do I want to run a marathon?

That's easy--it's a challenge that battles your mind and body, but the rewards are worth every minute. And the reason to start is personal.

"Some people run marathons to lose weight, some run for a sense of accomplishment, some run because that's how they like to visit new cities," says Jason Koop, a pro coach with Carmichael Training Systems. "The important thing is that you find your own motivating factor."

For Melody Barron of Nashville, Tenn., who has run two Chicago Marathons, the idea manifested in her head after seeing others train.

"New Years Eve two years ago, one of my friends suggested that we all give one serious resolution and one silly resolution," she says. "My silly resolution was to run the Chicago Marathon. I told myself that it was absolutely impossible and that I probably wouldn't make it through the first month, but I wanted to do something impossible."

Should I train in a group?

While it depends on the individual, group training can help the miles go by or provide the extra motivation to get you out of bed, especially on a day lacking ideal weather conditions. Plus when you return, you've already had your daily workout while your family and friends stumble around, just arising from bed.

Group training programs provide groups at all different paces and levels, plus ways to have fun while training and social activities afterward. "Training for a marathon is much more fun when you train with a group," says Jenny Hadfield, co-owner of Chicago Endurance Sports, Chicago's largest multi-sport training company. "Talking about life, work or the latest movie makes the miles go by quickly and also reduces the chance of running too hard."

Involving your friends is another way to train. Have someone chart your mileage and check on your progress. Have someone who can motivate you to log the miles you need to reach the finish line.

"My best friend checked in on me, asked me how things were going, made sure I was keeping to my schedule and, most importantly, gave me permission to skip a run or two when I was exhausted or sick," Barron says.

When should I start training?

Commitment is key to most marathon training programs. You'll dedicate a chunk of the year to building your mileage and scheduling runs and cross training into your daily routine.

Most programs start with 16-week programs leading up to the marathon, but Hadfield and Koop recommend about 20 weeks to prepare. "If a vacation, ache or pain, illness or project detours your marathon training, you'll have plenty of time to get back on track," Hadfield says.

How far should I be running when I start training?

Hadfield suggests having a strong base before starting a training program, ideally running at least three to four times per week for 30-45 minutes each and the ability to run six miles for a long run. "Having a strong base reduces the risk of injury and allows you to progress safely through the training season," she says.

Aside from being athletic in high school and running the mile in gym class, Barron lacked a running base. She built her base by starting slow and setting small goals. "Each time I would reach one small goal I created another," she says. "The marathon is too far away and way too scary for that to be the goal. You need to be able to accomplish something every few weeks."

How can I get started?

An Internet search on marathon training reveals countless hits that can guide you. Magazines and books focus specifically on running and training. But the secret wealth of knowledge can be found within the local running community through running clubs and specialty stores.

"After I had been running for a few weeks, I started to realize how amazing the running community is," Barron says. "I came across so many runners in my daily life and they were my greatest resource. They told me how to train, how to cross train, how to stay motivated, how to get rid of a cramp, where good running routes were, everything."

Secrets to start: What you wish you knew before training

All runners wish they could turn back time--run a race over again, return to peak form, log some extra training--to use their post-race knowledge to their benefit. Melody Barron, a newbie turned marathon runner, has some things she learned the hard way:

"Everyone is different with what they can and cannot eat while training, but you have to pay attention or else it won't be pretty."

"It's OK to need to walk during your long runs."

"The burning feeling in your lungs when you first start out will go away if you just keep training."

"Look for other runners--listen to what they have to say."

Steer clear of cotton socks to avoid blisters, and invest in a good pair of running shoes to replace every 350-400 miles. Running stores can help with this one.

Radios and mp3 players help pass the time on the long runs, especially if you're alone.

"Having small goals and motivational tools really helps. One of my favorites was that I printed out a map of the Chicago Marathon course and posted it on my wall. Every time I reached a mileage I had never run before, I highlighted that mile on the course, all the way from one mile to 21 miles. And it felt really good every single time."


Reprinted, courtesy of Windy City Sports Magazine.

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