Beginning Marathon Tips

Twice this year I was asked for some tips by some people running their first marathons. This is what I sent them:
1. It is important that you run 3-4 times a week. 2 is the barest minimum and may mean you will have a painful race.
A nice schedule is 3x a week with cross training in between, like cycling or swimming. If you can tolerate one more, then you can add that in.
2. Generally you run 2 shorter workouts and then have a long run.
3. If you are not running interval, hill, or threshold workouts for your 2 shorter workouts, i would advise you to gradually build from 30 min up to 1.25 hour running for your shorter runs. You will need to substitute longer endurance type workouts for the typical threshold workouts.
4. On the long runs, you should build weekly about 10% in miles. For me, i use time as a metric for training and increase my runs about 15 minutes every week.
5. When you peak for a marathon, you should do a minimum of 2, hopefully 3 at 20+ miles. If you can get to 22-24 miles it will be great training not only for endurance, but for mental training in how your brain deals with being out there so long. One 20+ miler is bare minimum.
6. You should consider a run-walk strategy for the race. I ran my first NYC marathon with a 5 min run :30 walk strategy and it got me in at 5 hours 19 minutes.
If you choose this, you should think about training this way also, so you can get used to running with walk breaks.
7. Somewhere between mile 14 and mile 20, most runners experience the “wall”. This is where your body seems to slow down and you’re feel like you’re moving through molasses, and its hard to go faster. You may experience a mental urge to just quit or slow down and just walk. This is the “wall”. During training, you should train within this mileage towards your peak to train your body and mind to deal with working through the “wall”. However, note that if you break through the wall, everyone typically experiences new found energy and you can run to the finish. So whatever you do, DON’T QUIT when you experience the wall. Keep moving!
8. You should practice hydration during your training runs.
you should consider getting one of these:
Fuel Belt Enduranace 4-Bottle Belt
and then get some bigger bottles:
Fuel Belt 10 oz Super Flask 2-pack
I typically go through 4 10 oz bottles of fluid during a race, for a 4 hour marathon. this varies greatly on temperatures. I have started drinking more from aid stations so nowadays I only take 2 10 oz bottles with me and just drink along the way.
Then you should get some extra pockets to hold your gels:
Fuel Belt Pockets
You should also pick a good sports drink to drink during the race. I use First Endurance EFS ( because it has a lot of electrolytes and also some protein. But most importantly, it is whey protein as soy protein has been known to cause stomach problems. You can get EFS from Helen’s Cycles on Lincoln in Marina Del Rey. There is another store in Santa Monica. Or order it here at
9. You should practice fueling during training. I am a big user of PowerGels because they have a higher electrolyte component, plus I can get some with caffeine for an added kick towards the end of a run race.
But caffeinated gels once threw my stomach into a churn and so I take it sparingly but like the extra kick it gives, but only take it during the last 1/3 of a marathon.
Other gels also work well. You just need to find what your stomach is OK with.
You’ll probably want to take one about 10 min before the race starts and wash it down with some fluid. Then you should take one gel every 45-60 min, and take a sip of fluid right after. You should start fueling as soon as the race starts.
Do not let your body get into a depleted state! You won’t be able to pull out of it. The body simply cannot work fast enough to replenish your energy stores. Generally, when you race, you’re burning more energy than you can take in and process. So it’s impossible to replace it all and don’t try. Just keep as much as you can going in with the gels and sports drink.
Your body is working hard to keep you going with your athletic activity and is not devoting much resources to digestion. Thus, training will help your body prepare for a long, hard effort but it cannot supply all the energy it needs. Gels and what you get in an energy drink are the easiest to absorb that do not require much from your stomach to do so. But even that has a limit to what it can absorb per hour. Taking more than that can mean some severe gastrointestinal problems, like vomiting, stomach ache, or diarrhea.
Trust me i’ve been there before and it is the worst feeling to have stomach problems during a race, besides the fact that squating on a port-a-potty is just gross anyways.
What’s even worse is to bonk. This is when you’ve sucked all the glycogen out of your muscles and you have nothing left, and you cant replace it either through fueling. It’s the worst feeling ever and you just feel like quitting. You may not even be able to run after you bonk.
10. Lubrication is a good thing to put on. You never know when you get chafing or blisters.
For chafing, i use Bodyglide. For my feet, i use Blistershield roll-on. see all of it here:
Pre-race and during training, rub bodyglide on inside of your upper arms and along your ribs and lats where your swinging arms will rub. Guys get nipple burn but I usually don’t hear women getting it, but I rub it on my nipples. I usually only put on lube for training runs longer than about 1.25 hours. Below that, it usually isn’t a problem.
I wear these socks to prevent blisters:
But i have found that my form is more predictive of blisters than socks. So in changing/correcting my footstrike to the ground, I have found that I have substantially reduced the chance of blisters, in addition to using Blistershield lube.
11. Another thing you may experience is sore biceps. This is from simply holding your arms up for such a long time. So watch out for this when you train and get used to holding your arms up that long. Learn to relax the whole way and shake out your arms occasionally.
12. Marathon taper is typically about two weeks. You do one more long run/high volume week two weeks before the race and then take two weeks to taper. I would not advise you to do a long run one week before. Experienced athletes are ok with this, but for beginners it’s better that you not overtrain, and that you arrive fresh and uninjured on race day.
13. I gave you some DVDs. i think the Pose Method stuff is a bit hokey, but definitely practicing balance by standing on one leg is a good thing. Running on the balls of my feet have eliminated knee problems although it took literally years for my calves to adapt to the stress. Only recently have they not protested in the early season after coming off the off season. ChiRunning is pretty good. Evolution Running was additive although I felt that I learned the most from ChiRunning and Pose.
14. As we mentioned, running into a headwind stinks. Try to find somebody to run behind. You are basically drafting behind.
15. Interval training is great. It allows you to create situations where you can adapt to higher stresses, which equate to handling tough conditions during races. But it is done with short bursts as training at super high intensities for too long, over too long a period of time will only lead to injury and overtraining. So here is one interval sequence that involves neuromuscular training. You should strive to do this sequence every week if possible.
Neuromuscular training
Description: use of super short intervals, with full recovery in between, but at super high intensity, will train your neuromuscular system to adapt to high efforts, whether they are high speed or high effort or both. Then slower speeds or lower effort will feel almost easy. But most importantly, it trains your neuromuscular system to fire neurons (to make the muscles move) faster and not to tire from simply the effort of firing. This is a source of fatigue and is easily eliminated by workouts like these. These are best done on a treadmill where the relentless nature of the treadmill forces you to keep up or else you’ll fly off the back (but please don’t!). The treadmill can also be cranked up to speeds that one would normally not be able to achieve, but eventually can adapt to. This will lead to faster speeds overall which may be hard to get to if only doing road or track work.
WORKOUT 1: Discover your workout speed or workout effort
Warm up with this sequence:
4 min easy jog, whatever speed works. For me that is 4 MPH.
Then, do this cycle with each time increasing the speed by .5 MPH:
30 sec @ Speed, then 30 sec rest back to your jog speed.
Keep increasing the speed until you find that it is almost too hard to keep up, but not so hard that you cannot. You may find that you will pass the speed you should be working out at where you will find it took everything you had to just hold on for 30 seconds, which is OK, so make your workout speed .5 MPH less than that number.
Once you find that speed, then if you don’t feel too tired, run another 2 intervals at that speed:
:30 @ X MPH, then rest for 1:00 in between intervals.
WORKOUTS AFTER 1: increase the number of times you can repeat speed X for :30, with rest interval of 1:00
Warm up again, 4 min easy jog, then do 30 sec @ speed with 30 sec rest. Increase speed by .5 MPH each time until you hit X MPH. Then take a 1.5 min easy jog.
Start with 4 repeats at :30 @ X MPH, with rest interval of 1:00
Then each workout time afterwards, try to increase by one more repeat. So next workout 5 repeats at :30 @ X MPH, with rest interval of 1:00, then 6 x :30 @ X MPH, RI 1:00, then 7 x :30 @ X MPH, RI 1:00, etc. If you cannot add one more repeat, then just stop at the previous number of repeats.
Total time for these workouts is less than 20 min usually.
16. The typical marathon before and race day looks like this for me:
Day before:
No training. Check into the race, get your race materials. Make sure you have enough supplies: Clothes, shoes, sports drinks, gels, etc. I also like to buy whatever it is I’m going to eat tomorrow morning.
Prepare everything you’re going to race with on the floor. I put my running shoes, hat, sunglasses, shirt, tights or pants, socks, etc. all on the floor and lay it out. I stick gels in my fuel belt. I pin my race number to my shirt or use a race number belt.
That night I eat a big pasta dinner. There is some evidence that you should eat a pasta dinner 2 nights before. I personally like to do both if possible. I think just the night before is probably enough. If it’s going to be a warm day, i may also toss salt on the pasta to help with electrolyte loading.
Then i go sit on the toilet and try to crap as much out as possible. I know this sounds bad, but you don’t want to go and crap out on the race course. It’s the worst feeling.
Morning of Race:
I like to get up about 3 hours before race start. As soon as i get up, I start eating my breakfast and get dressed. My typical breakfast is a hard boiled egg and maybe 1/4 of a bagel, plus a glass of sports recovery drink. This is to carbo load one last time before the race but with something that doesn’t upset my stomach. As soon as I finish eating, I go sit on the toilet and try to crap one more time.
I usually try to wear something warm as mornings can be cool depending on where you race. I bring a small pack with me to stuff everything in. Sometimes races will give you a plastic bag. In any case, whatever you bring you should mark it with your name and race number. I also bring a small plastic bottle of water with me, and one gel.
Then I get down to race start. For a marathon, there is usually a truck where you can hand in your backpack or bag of stuff. Thus you can arrive with warm clothes and then take them off and put them in a bag or pack and hand it to the truck guy. The truck then carries all the racer’s bags/packs to the finish line where you can pick it up. I stretch and warmup about 30 min before race start. I will run some light short reps back and forth to get my blood going. About 10 min before race i take the gel and sip some water. I try not to drink too much water or else i have to go to the bathroom.
17. Recovery is so important. It’s probably the least understood aspect of training. You need to rest your body and brain enough so that you can recover and grow for your next workout. Thus, triathletes are in a constant state of body breakdown and it takes time to adapt to daily stress over a period of 6 straight days of workouts, including double workouts (or triple) on some days. Most people don’t rest enough and this can cause dwindling performance and lead to injury and overtraining.
I think you should run 3 days per week with rest days in between, or recovery workouts in between. By recovery workout, i mean you can pedal on a bike or Lifecycle gently for about 20-30 min to help flush out bad stuff in your muscles and bring new nutrients in. Swimming is also a good recovery workout if you don’t swim hard. Also, I think you should not run the day after your long run. I think you’ll reach a mileage that you’ll find you’re fairly sore the day after. So take the day off!
You know I’m a fan of ice baths so they help remove soreness, help flush out bad stuff, and get new nutrients into muscles. Since you’re right by the beach, you could probably even just walk into the surf up to your upper thighs for about 10 minutes, since the surf is pretty cold.
Also, if you find that you are still very sore on the day after your rest day, take the day off also. Do not be afraid to take an extra day!
During the long training periods of ironman for me, I take one full day off, then the next day i can only do a recovery run and swim. Then on the second day after, I usually do a bike recovery workout. It’s only on the third day that I am back to being able to do a full effort workout. Before that it’s impossible. So I just accept that fact and rest that long. If I don’t, I could get injured and definitely would be pushing my body beyond what it is capable of absorbing at that moment. There was a time when I was pushing very hard and recovery even spilled into the third day and it was on the fourth day that I could finally do a full effort workout. It was only when I discovered protein powder that it almost brought my recovery back by a whopping full 2 days!
18. Eating is important. Your body needs calories to perform. It will not be able to do so on what you have stored in your body right now. That is because 1) the fat that is stored in your body is not easily accessible to heavy activity, and 2) your body has not stored enough glycogen in the muscles because you haven’t trained enough yet, and 3) your body has not yet developed the ability to convert the fat in your body to glycogen. So you should eat afterwards both in protein (to repair the muscle damage sustained in training) and carbs (to be stored in your muscles for use in the next day’s of training). You should try to eat within 1-2 hours after workouts to make sure you get enough. Otherwise, the body will start to cannibalize muscle tissue to recover, and you will feel drained because the body is attempting to restore glycogen in muscles but now is sucking it dry and attempting to do so by a much slower process of using other sources such as fat and protein. In fact it is so slow that you will not be recovered by the next day or perhaps even the day after! So eat right after each workout, even if it is a piece of fruit or smoothie for shorter workouts. For a long workout, I would definitely look at eating a larger meal to get protein and carbs back into your body.
Whew!! That’s a lot of information to digest! So many things to think about preparing for the race and then during the race itself! It can feel overwhelming but after a while it all comes pretty natural.
Here is a typical marathon build in Google docs. The dates correspond to this year’s Honolulu Marathon. Note that this employs a 3 week build, followed by a 1 week recovery week to give your body a break before beginning another 3 weeks of building running time.
If you’re reading this and you’re a first time marathoner, hopefully you’ll find this info useful. If you have any questions/comments/concerns, feel free to comment!