If someone asked me how to run a marathon 11 years ago my answer would not have been as razor sharp as it is today. I have been competing in the distance since I was 25 years old.
I have been running for nearly 24 years, marathons for 11 of those years.
I wish I would have known the information I will be writing about in this post when I first began running the 26.2 mile distance.
Beginners are usually susceptible to starting out too fast having never run the classic 26.2 mile distance. I was certainly one of them.
I had a crash course in the distance several times over the years and am continuing to learn but the fact it, unless you get out an attempt racing 26.2 miles you will never know what to work on, where to start.
I ran my first marathon at the 2002 New York City Marathon.
It was my first year in the Army, first time competing as a Soldier, and was called upon to be a part of an Armed Forces Marathon Running Team that was to compete in New York City.
I am now at an Forward Operating Base Fenty, what we call in the Army, a FOB, here in Eastern Afghanistan, that was named after one my teammates that was on that running team with me back in 2002.
He was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan. I am fortunate that I was able to spend a little time with a very quiet, but professional senior Army Officer. I remember him as I write this post as I spend time at the FOB named after my friend and teammates, LTC Joe Fenty.
I had just run a then-personal best time of 53.12 at the 2002 Army Ten-Miler a couple months prior to competing in New York City and thought I was in descent shape, but the facts were I had no idea how to run a marathon.
I was like other beginners, ready to get out there and take a crack at it. I never considered running a marathon in high school or college and to be honest had no idea what I was doing in New York City (I ran 2.43.36 starting in last place-32,189th and finished as the top finisher on the team and finished in 253rd place).
*note-we ran for a lunch cancer research organization and were to start in last place. Chase Manhattan Bank donated $1 to the organization for every runner we passed.*
I was a 1500m-5000m runner and the farthest I had ever run was a 1.11.13 half-marathon time trial while competing for Malone University.
Needless to say, I was intrigued by the distance and at the time thought about the Olympic Trials “B” standard time of 2.22.00 time needed to qualify for the Olympic Trials.
This was a huge time. I limited myself back then inwardly saying, “I have to run not one, but two back-to-back 1.11.00 half-marathons in order to be a part of the very select few men who have the opportunity to compete in the Olympic Trials.
Truth is, far too many runners do the same thing, instead of taking the time to figure out what must be done to sustain the pace and put their mental and physical focus on that instead they let a bad race dictate their thinking. I wanted to run 4.20 but ran a 5 hour marathon, I may not have what it takes..not true!
My mentality was such that I needed and wanted to learn how to run a marathon. I wanted to see if I could maintain that same pace for 26.2 miles, rather then just for 11.
So what are some in-depth ways on how to run a marathon?
1. Be patient. This is probably the most overused, yet vital pieces of information I can give on how to run a marathon. Do not be in a rush, especially if you are just starting out as a marathoner.
2. Long slow runs will not prepare you to race the distance. Notice, I wrote race, not run, the distance. There is a major difference. If you have, as your goal, to run the marathon in a certain time you have to pay close attention to the amount of time you spent at that specific pace.
I read an outstanding article written about the world-renowned long distance coach, Renato Canova in this months issue of Running Times called Canova 101-How training principles from one of the world’s leading marathon coaches can make you a better runner. I have revolved the majority of my training for the past two years around Canova’s training principles.
If you want to learn how to run a marathon I suggest you buy a few books and research as much as you can on this man’s philosophy.
The idea of training the Canova way is to focus on long hard sustained runs that mimic or come near the pace you want to hold for the marathon distance.
He puts it like this,
How does a long slow 2 hour run prepare you to race the marathon? Nothing. Here in the United States 140 miles a week is considered high mileage. 140 can be OK, but if the mileage is too slow, you don’t produce anything with this situation. The problem is the tempo at the good speed is too short. So there is no connection with the marathon. And the long run for the marathon is too slow.
This is absolutely brilliant and what I wish I could have known a few years ago. Americans and other runners around the world are selling themselves short on their capability. They have the motivation, what they often time are doing is training the wrong way.
3. Increase the pace of your long runs. I went from a 2.43 marathon best (6.14 per mile average for 26.2 miles) to doing what others thought was impossible, breaking 2.20 and running 2.19 (a 5.19 per mile average for 26.2 miles), by making a dramatic change, increasing the pace at which I ran my long runs.
If someone asked me today how to run a marathon this would rank up there with the best tips I could give. I spent years thinking doing a 20-24 mile long run at 7.00 mile pace was going to build the strength needed to run a great marathon.
I felt good track workouts was the remedy along with my long runs would create the strength I needed to break that 2.22.00 marathon time I was dreaming about. The facts were my long runs were too slow and my tempo runs were not long enough.
Now, that being said. Everyone has different reasons for attempting the marathon. There is nothing wrong with wanting to participate in it for fun. See your loved ones along the course, stop every once in a while to drink a beer or what have you.
It all depends on what your goals are. If you have a goal time in mind then these are some fundamentals you have to take to heart in order to know how to run a marathon the right way.
4. Training to run faster creates one very important physiological change.
It teaches your body to use fat as it’s main fuel source, rather then carbohydrates. I hear it all the time I the military. Soldiers brag about how many miles they ran, their workouts in the gym.
There is an enormous difference between talking and doing, when it comes to running, doing wins every time. Mileage alone is meaningless if you haven’t trained to bring about the proper physiological adaptation.
Anyone can go out and run 10 miles, it takes skill to run those 10 miles at a set pace and maintain it.
5. Don’t expect overnight success. It doesn’t work like that in this sport. I have had far more disappointments (most of which was in my earlier years of marathoning by not adhering to these fundamentals) than successes racing in the marathon.
I accepted years ago that to get the distance right, I was going to have to face failure. Do you know the very best marathoners in the world including world-record holders, have had to drop out of marathons or have run far slower then they were capable of.
Always remember you are sharing in the trials of some of the best runners on earth. It is how you handle that disappointment and motivate yourself to make up for it that counts.
6. To succeed in the marathon you have to extend the amount of time you spend at or near goal race pace. If you have as your goal to hold 7.00 mile pace for 26.2 miles, what good is doing 20-22 mile long runs at 8.15 mile pace.
Is it creating fitness, sure, but can you hold 7.00 pace for 5 miles, 10 miles, 15 miles? Have you attempted to try that first?
Canova was quoted as saying,
to achieve your best race day performance you must practice running at or around goal race pace for long periods of time
7. Running faster for longer period of time creates a higher lactate tolerance. My best marathon prior to running 2.19.35 at the 2007 California International Marathon was a 2.40.02 but I did some significant training, suffered the set backs along the way, and was not intimidated with running at 5.15-20 pace for the distance.
I focused on that pace, running at or below that pace for long period of time going in that race. I did the same thing last year leading into the Monumental Indianapolis Marathon. My long runs were much harder.
My best 20-mile long run prior to running 2.19 was 1.53.56 at 6,000ft running at a heart rate of 160 beats per minute. I had run 1.50.02 6-weeks prior to the Monumental Indianapolis Marathon. It was an average of 5.30 per mile for the 20 mile run which leads me to the number 8 way on how to run a marathon.
8. Listen to your body. Timing is everything. My only regret is waiting 6 weeks to run a marathon after I had done that 1.50 20-miler. There is only so many times you can push the body before their is a diminished return on investment.
It is like the runner who sees so and so running 130 miles weeks and feels he or she has to do the same to get the same results. Not so.
Results come from patience and being smart, not being stupid and getting caught up in high mileage. Quality is what kills in this business, long slow miles and bragging to your friends you ran 130 miles last week does you no good.
It wastes your time and will diminish your mental confidence if you miss the mark come race day. I can’t say this enough, listen to your body.
If you are absolutely crushing it in workouts or long runs, start winding down your mileage and begin to rest, don’t span your training block out too far.
I was fit 6 weeks after that long run but I stretched my training out too far. My wife said it best, ‘what you should have done is picked a marathon and ran one 2-3 weeks, rather then 6 after you did that 20-miler‘.
She was right.
I finished with a 2.26.42, my second fastest marathon behind my 2.19.35 while fitting in training with the 101st Airborne Division.
Military work weeks don’t fit well with training for marathons and more often times there are people who don’t understand or care about the fact that you can run fast. It was the hardest training block of my life.
Trying to fit in 20 mile runs at 2am during military field problems lasting a week is not my idea of the proper environment to better the 2.19.00 marathon barrier…it took guts to even try it but I had to try.
That 2.26.42 was just as good to me, knowing what I had done leading into it, as had I run 2.16.42, a time I know I am capable of, a time I am preparing to break at the 2013 London Marathon.
9. Faster running will not only show you how to run a marathon it will teach the body to clear lactic acid faster then it is building up in the blood stream. Why do runners slow in races of longer length? They are relying more on carbs then fats. We only have about 1800-2000 calories of carbohydrates stored in our muscles.
Where do most marathoners hit the ‘wall’ at?
Usually around the 18-20 mile mark. You do the math.
Runners burn approximately 100-110 calories per mile, depending on the weight of the individuals. The problem isn’t that runner A who has a PR of 4.11 for the marathon can’t run runner B’s 3.58.
All he or she has to do is extend the amount of time they are spending at or near goal race pace in their long runs over a matter of weeks and months and they will reach their goal. In fact, they will absolutely demolish their goal if they adhere to that.
Why? The body is forced to burn fat rather then carbohydrates when you train at long period of time at an anaerobic effort. You don’t get this stimulus by running easy miles and this is where most marathoners fail if they miss their goal time.
Of course, there are many other factors that come into play.
There are many times runners do everything right and still miss their times but I have run my best times my following these steps. I ran my worst times by not adhering to them and payed a heavy price.
10. Follow your heart and surround yourself with supportive people.
One of the non-commissioned officers on my deployment team brought up a very interesting subject the other day. We got to talking about goals and how sometimes those around us want us to follow what they want for us disregarding what is on our hearts.
Sometimes it is easier not to share your ambitions with others. People will more often than not trample on your dreams. This will happen when people are not happy with their own circumstances but are too cowardly to do anything themselves.
You are therefore insulting them when you express such desires. He mentioned ‘the lobster effect‘. I had never heard the term used before so had to look it up. Here is the definition.
The idea behind the lobster effect is what happens when fishermen lift their lobster pots not their boats. The lobsters at the top could easily escape, only if the lobster below them had not let them go. This, often times, is how human beings work as well.
I was told I was ‘not good enough’ when I was still ‘only’ a 53.12 10-miler and 2.43.36 marathoner. I wasn’t fast enough and should quit. This was told to me by a 2.16.00 marathoner who thought I didn’t have what it took.
You have to follow your heart. It doesn’t matter what people think about you, your capabilities, it is your life, you only have one chance to live your dreams while on this earth. You can’t waste your time trying to live the way others want you to live.
If you have a goal in mind, you have to go after it, regardless what others think. If they are not their to support and believe in you, then they are not worth your time, period.
I hope this post will benefit you and hopefully has answered some questions on how to run a marathon and what success in the distance entails.
Lastly, if you are not taking your easy days as seriously as you take your hard days you will never run the marathon time you are capable.
It takes just as much skill to back off when you should as it does to tun a hard 20 miler.
Always be wise in how you approach the days after you push your body. Too many athletes think they have to run 6.30 pace on their easy days, then brag to their friends…I am being blunt because I care..I have seen far too many runners do this.
Take your easy days EASY, your body will thank you for it and so will the personal best you set at the finish line because you listened.
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