What is it about running 26.2 miles that draws so many people?
No doubt it’s a serious challenge, but there’s more to it than that. The marathon offers a tantalizing combination of achievability and bragging rights that’s hard for amateur athletes to find elsewhere.
It also offers a rich international history with it’s very beginnings surrounded in myth and legend. In short, the marathon is a one-of-kind race. And no matter what your motivation for running it, here’s what you can expect when you take on the challenge.
By successfully training for and completing a half marathon, you’ve learned most of what you need to for marathon training. The frequency of your runs will increase as will the total volume of miles you run per week. (The first step is finding a training plan that works for you. The good news: the Internet is full of them.)
You will be running almost every day and will have much less recovery time between sessions. As such, the volume you add to your training will consist almost entirely of easy to moderate aerobic-level miles. (Zone 2 in a 5-zone heart rate model).
Your plan will still likely include tempo runs and some form of interval/speed work, but the primary focus will be your long runs. This is where plans tend to differ. Traditional plans gradually ramp up the long run until it reaches 20-23 miles. Other plans cap weekly long runs at 16 miles but focus on running those miles while not yet fully recovered from your previous sessions. Both approaches are proven to work. Which one you chose is up to you.
When you raced your last half marathon, you probably eased up on volume and intensity the week prior. Whether or not you knew it at the time, you were tapering. For the marathon, how you taper takes on extra importance. You want to begin gradually ramping down your training far enough out that you can be fresh and fully recovered by race day, but not so far out that you lose fitness or become lethargic. The plans you find online should all include some form of taper over the last 2-3 weeks.
As you’ve increased your race distance over the years, you’ve no doubt noticed that longer races call for slower paces. The same holds true here. 26.2 miles is a long way to go and a long time to suffer if you go out at the wrong pace. Your goal marathon pace can be determined by adding 6%-10% to your most recent half marathon pace. For example: if you are a 2-hour half marathon racer, your half marathon pace is 9:10/mile. Add 6%-10% and you that becomes 9:43 to 10:05 for your marathon.
26.2 miles is a lot of ground to cover—ground that can go up and down and greatly impact your pace. If your race course is flat, you can settle into a steady pace as you tick off the miles. If your course has a few substantial hills, you’re going to need to adjust your pace accordingly by slowing down (keep your cadence up) on the uphills and opening things up on the downhills. (Note: the closer you get to the finish, the tougher steep downhill sections become. You may not be able to recoup as much time as you think on these.) If your course resembles a roller coaster, you may be better off disregarding pace and basing your effort on heart rate.
RACE DAY TIP: Use a pacer. When you line up in the staring corral, there’s a good chance you’ll see pacers, individual runners holding up a sign or wearing a vest with a mile pace and/or finish time on it. These are experienced runners who will be running the race at a steady pace from start to finish. If you don’t have a GPS watch or other means of tracking your pace, these pacers can be a big help. Find the pacer that matches your goal pace and follow them all the way to the finish.
A proper, practiced nutrition and hydration plan is essential for success at the marathon distance. You will need to eat and drink multiple times during your race, and it’s best not to wait until you are hungry or thirsty to do so. Find a plan online or build you own. Either way, practice it on every one of your long runs. Come up with an eating, drinking, and salt supplementation schedule that works for you and stick to it on race day. Note: many races offer flat cola at the later aid stations. If you are having a bad day, this stuff can be a magic elixir. Just be sure to try it before your race if you plan on using it.
Completing a marathon takes a lot out of you and puts a great deal of wear and tear on your body. You will be sore by the time you reach the finish line, and you will stay that way, to varying degrees, for a few days or more. If the venue offers post-race massages, take advantage of this. Massage is a great way to flush waste from your muscles, bring in fresh blood, and kick-start the healing process.
Plan on being very stiff and sore the first 2 days after your race. Try to walk around when you can and incorporate as much light stretching and foam rolling as your legs will tolerate. As the soreness goes away, try a short super-easy run just to make sure everything is working right. You may also want to consider swimming or stationary biking as low-impact options to get your body moving again. Pay attention to joints or soft tissues that start hurting when you run or anything that gets more painful after the first 2 days. Keep a notebook and write down what hurts and where so you can identify patterns and areas that need more massage or foam roller attention. Continue easing back into your normal routine over the course of 2 weeks. You should avoid all types of racing or hard efforts during this period.
Why 26.2 Miles?
According to Greek legend, a messenger named Pheidippides ran from the Battle of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated. He ran the whole way without stopping, only to collapse and die after exclaiming, “We have won!” It is unknown how far Pheidippides ran on that fateful day, but it is about 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, so that was the distance used when the marathon first entered the Olympics in 1896.
For the 1908 Olympics in London, organizers set up a 26-mile course that went from Windsor Castle to White City Stadium and finished with a partial lap on the track of 385 yards. The total distance was 26.22 miles. The distance fluctuated for the next 13 years until the International Amateur Athletic Federation set the standard distance at 26.22 mile in 1921. That’s where it has stood since then, and that’s something you can tuck away to think about on those long training runs.