How to Run Your First Marathon

It is the night before your first marathon and you anxiously await the starting pistol the following day. You have trained hard, carbo-loaded, tapered well, and now all you have to do is run the race. However, this can be a more daunting dilemma than most people expect.

Running 26.2mls is never an easy task, even when one does not have a particular time goal, local rival to challenge, or anticipated finishing place.

This article seeks to quell many first-time marathon concerns so you can relax and enjoy your race. Keep reading to learn how you can turn your marathon mountain into a minor mole hill, and have a great experience at your first attempt at this historical racing distance.

Perfecting Pace

A big question many first time marathoners have prior to race day is how they should best pace their first 26.2 mile event.

The first step to quelling this concern is to look back through your training log from the past two-three months. What was the average pace you maintained on your weekly long runs? This little piece of data is pivotal to determining your potential race pace in a marathon because steady long runs are usually the chief workout in a first timer’s training kit.

A good rule of thumb is to subtract 5-10% off the pace you were able to maintain for your longest runs (hopefully 18-20mls or more) to put you in the ball park of your marathon potential.

For example, if you averaged 10:00 miles during your final long run, then a reasonable marathon pace for you would be somewhere between 9:00-9:30 per mile on race day.

This figure was achieved by calculating how many seconds are in a 10:00 mile (600sec) and multiplying by 5-10% (30-60sec). Start on the slower end of this scale, and then progress towards the faster end as the race goes on and conditions allow.

Most large marathon such as New York City or Chicago will have pace groups for virtually all runners that can be very helpful when trying to hit a specific time goal. Use these groups to your advantage, and enjoy the camaraderie of working hard to achieve a common goal!

On the Course

Don’t over-do it in the beginning
When the gun sounds, it is crucial not to get caught up in the moment and go blazing away in the first miles of your marathon. As noted above, start conservatively and be mindful of your breathing and bodily sensations during the first half of your race.

The pace range you are looking for should still allow you to speak in short sentences with your training partner or race buddy, and should not be overly laborious even on hilly portions of the course.

Nutrition and Hydration
Whether it is hot or cold, humid or dry, you still need to be mindful of mid-race hydration. Always research what type of sports drink will be available on the course prior to your race so you can practice with that brand in training; you don’t want to risk any GI upset during the event, so be prepared!

If it is warm, try to hit every water station until at least mile twenty, alternating water and sports drink at each. If you use energy gels (as most marathoners do), aim to take these with water every five to seven miles depending on what you are used to in training. In colder conditions, your body may need slightly more calories due to higher metabolic stress, so be mindful of that as well.

Late stage of the race
Once you have made it to the latter stages of your race (18mls and beyond), most people will start pushing a bit more to achieve their time goal or attempt to set a new PR. That is fine if you are feeling good, but still be wary of the dreaded “wall” that often hits runners around mile twenty no matter their level of experience.

This sensation of running out of gas can be due to dehydration, running too fast too early, depleted glycogen stores, or simple muscle breakdown in the undertrained. However, if you start having a bad patch in the marathon, wait five minutes— you are likely to feel good again soon if you have been smart in the early stages of your race.

After the Race

After your marathon, it is crucial to immediately begin rehydrating with a sports drink, and to refuel with high quality foods such as fruit, bagels, chocolate milk, and eventually a full meal containing both carbohydrates and protein.

When you return to your hotel, it may be beneficial to fill the bath tub with ice water and soak for 10-15min to reduce swelling in your legs and feet. This will be especially useful if you have to travel long distances the following day. Avoid stretching and heat for 48hrs after your marathon so as to not over-stimulate the body’s inflammatory response and cause more harm than good.

For first time marathoners, I recommend a month of reduced training after your marathon comprised of rest, lighter exercise, and sound lifestyle habits (sleep and eat well, etc.). Use the time to relish in your accomplishment, spend time with family and friends, and revisit activities that you enjoy outside of running (hiking, cycling, yoga, etc.).

With these things in mind, and a full cycle of solid training behind you, you should be set to have the best first marathon possible!

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