Half-marathon finishers totaled 1 million in 2009, says Ryan Lamppa of Running USA, an organization devoted to the running industry. Marathon finishers totaled 467,000.
What’s the appeal? “People are not as intimidated as before,” Lamppa says. That’s partly due, he suspects, to easy access to training programs, online and in niche publications that target runners.
The bragging rights are also motivating. “If you walk into your office on Monday and say ‘I did a 5k this weekend,’ most people would grab a doughnut and leave,” Lamppa says. “But if you mention you did a half-marathon or marathon, more people would stick around and ask questions.” The longer-distance runs, he says, have developed a hip, fun reputation.
If you’ve caught half marathon or marathon fever, knowing the secrets of training — beyond how many miles to do a week, what speed work is, and what to eat — can help you run your first race.
First, clear the idea with your doctor at a physical exam. And get advice about nutrition — plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and enough water.
Next, consider these tips from experts who tell WebMD what they wish they’d known when they were novices and what they’ve learned along the way.
Spread the Word
As a novice, your first inclination may be to tell no one you’ve decided to run a half-marathon or a marathon. That way, if your motivation flails, you can back out gracefully, right?
Wrong approach, says Joe Donovan, a Milwaukee runner who wrote the Essential Guide to Training for Your First Marathon. He suggests telling everyone who will listen, just as soon as you’ve made the big decision. Why?
“Only when you tell other people is it real,” he says. “Certainly, some people will think you are nuts.”
Some did, he recalls, when Donovan announced his decision to run his first marathon while he was a graduate student, working for a U.S. senator. “At first there was disbelief,” he says of the people he told. Next? “There there was this kind of ‘Wow, this is amazing.'”
It became a topic of conversation — and support — among his fiancé, now his wife, and coworkers, which kept him on the straight and narrow training track.
Know Your Goal
It’s not as simple as saying your goal is to finish 13.1 miles, or 26.2, says Cathy Fieseler, MD, a member of the board of directors of the American Medical Athletic Association and a veteran marathoner and ultra-distance runner.
Ask yourself: why are you running the race, she says. “Do you have a time goal?” “Are you trying to qualify for [the Boston marathon]?” “Are you doing it in memory of someone?” “Because you are turning 40?”
Figuring that out, she says, will guide your training plan. Someone running in memory, for instance, may not care about their finishing time, but someone who wants to break four hours — a very respectable marathon finish time — definitely does care.
Have a Plan
If you’re easily running three or four miles at a shot now, plan to train for about three months before a half marathon and about five months before a full marathon, says Todd Galati, an American Council on Exercise spokesman.
You need a nuts-and-bolts training plan. You can get that online, from a running coach if you happen to be in a running club, or from running publications.
For instance, if you’re training for your first half marathon, popular coach Hal Higdon says runners should be able to run three miles, three to four times a week, before starting his beginners’ program.
During his 12-week training, Higdon lengthens the medium and the long runs.
By week 7, the runs are 3 miles, 4.5, and 7. At week 10, runners put in 3 miles, 5, and 9.
By week 11, the long run is 10 miles. Two days of rest are advised before the race.
Once you’ve got a plan, tailor it to your life, and forget some of the myths. “I don’t think you need to run every single day,” Fieseler says. “Figure out what works for your life.”
One way to quash the not-enough-time excuse is to double up training and other necessities, Fieseler says. “I know people who run to the post office,” she says.
Julie Lang of Long Branch, N.J., did her first half marathon in May 2009 and her first full marathon a year later. She has three young children and teaches kindergarten, so spare time is scarce. “I go [running] at 5:30 in the morning,” she says. Consistency is key, she says. “You wake up tired; you do it anyway.”
Many training programs suggest several long runs at the end, sometimes stopping a bit short of the actual race distance. But you may want to do the full race distance as your last training run, Fieseler says. “If you are a newbie, I think something very important is getting in enough distance [in training] that you are not going to be intimidated by what’s left.”
Don’t Overdo It
Don’t add miles too quickly, Galati says. The established rule is no more than a 10% increase in miles per week.
Speed work– workouts designed to make you faster — can improve your times. For instance, run faster than usual for an interval of time, then drop back to your slower pace, and repeat. But don’t try to increase mileage, do speed work, and tackle hills all at once, he says.
Speed work can make you faster, of course, says Fieseler, ”but it also ups the risk of injury,” especially as you age. Be aware of the tradeoff, she says.
Accept the Bad Days and Injuries
No one sticks to the training plan perfectly, Galati points out. “There’s stress at work, sick kids.”
“Accept bad runs during training,” he says. “As the average to good runs become more frequent, the bad runs become easier to tolerate.”
Injuries can happen, too. Megan Alexander of San Diego got a foot injury halfway through training for her first marathon. ”Start early, so if you need to take a few weeks off, you can,” she says.
Monitor and Motivate Yourself
Enthusiasm is good, but there’s a downside: overtraining.
“Check your resting heart rate every morning,” Galati says. “If you see a big jump, you probably are overtraining.” If it’s normally 60, for instance, and goes up to 61 or 62, no big deal, he says. But if it goes from 60 to 72, back off and recover, he says.
What about days when you’d rather do anything but run? Watch a YouTube video of a running event, Donovan says. “See the joy in the finishers’ faces.” He finds it contagious.
Mimic Race Day While Training
Find out in advance about the race — whether the course is hilly or not and what sports drink they will serve along the route, Donovan says. During training, “replicate the race experience,” he says.
Never wear new shoes or even new socks or shorts. Wear something you know is comfortable — because you’ve trained in it.
Start and Finish Positively
Positive thinking, from the start, is crucial, says Fieseler. Tune out any negative talk you’re likely to hear on the course–and you may hear grumbling, moaning, maybe even swearing.
Replace the overheard negativity — and any of your own negative thoughts — with positive visualization. Suppose you know, from scoping out the course, that mile 5 begins to get hilly. Visualize yourself from the start building energy and not struggling at all once the hill arrives.
Think positive thoughts, Fieseler says, such as “I’m defeating this hill; it isn’t defeating me.”