Whether you’ve just started running or you’re a seasoned runner, completing a marathon can be a logical next step for anyone chasing their next “runner’s high.” But jumping into a marathon of any length can be dangerous if you’re not prepared, says Stuart Michnick, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Denton, and at Orthopedic Surgery Specialists, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice.
“Many people use a marathon as a goal to stay active and work towards something, which is a great idea. However, it is important to remember that while a marathon is an obtainable goal, it does require appropriate training to achieve and prevent injury along the way,” he explains. “By ramping up your training smartly, you’ll not only increase your cardiovascular fitness to the level needed for a marathon but also prepare your muscles, joints and tendons for the stress of a distance run.”
As you’re choosing the length of race you’re training for, Michnick notes it’s important to take your background and experience into account. Training progressively, at its foundation, can look like starting small and working your way up to lengthier, more intense runs. This can mean starting with a 5K, then getting a few races under your belt as you train for a 10k. You’ll keep up this process until you reach your goal.
While there’s no mandatory “minimum” amount of time or mileage necessary before you start setting your sights on training for a marathon, conventional wisdom recommends that you run a consistent base mileage for at least a year before entertaining marathon training.
“I feel like most people are consistently running an average of at least 20 miles per week before they start thinking about marathons,” Michnick adds. “This is often referred to as your base mileage.”
The primary elements of marathon training consist of:
- Base mileage
- Long runs
- Speed work
- Rest and recovery
Michnick says a good rule of thumb is to give yourself at least four months of training time, even if that feels disproportionate to the length of race you’re running. This is because time will help you ramp your mileage up safely. For every week, make sure you’re increasing your based mileage by at least 10% so that your body can get used to just slightly longer runs each week.
“For example, if your base mileage is 20 miles a week, next week shoot for 22 miles spread out evenly over the days you run. If you run 4 days a week, that can look like an extra half mile each day. The following week, you’ll aim for 2.2 miles, and so on. If you’re training for a half-marathon or marathon, aim to build your base mileage up to 50 miles over the 4 months leading to race day,” says Michnick.
Every seven to 10 days, you’ll want to work in a long run to get your body prepared for running long distances in one go. The general rule of thumb is that your long run should be one and a half to two times as long as your regular run.
For example, if you run 5 times a week equaling 30 miles a week, your average is around 6 miles a day. For your long run, you’ll aim to run 9 to 12 miles. Every week as you start up your new long run, try extending it by a mile or two each week. However, every three weeks, make sure to scale it back down a few miles so you don’t overdo it and risk injury.
So, if you run 9 miles one weekend as your long run, you’ll run 10 miles the next and then 11 miles. On your fourth long run, you’ll want to take it back down to 9 miles again before picking it back up to 12 miles on the fifth long run.
If you’re aiming for a full marathon, most training plans will max you out at 20 miles for your long run. While it may be tempting to go past those 20 miles, especially if you’re worried about not being prepared to run a full 26.2 miles come race day, with proper training, your body will take you the rest of the way, especially as race day adrenaline kicks in.
While speed work can be seen as an optional part of training, Michnick notes that interval training and working on your tempo can help increase your cardio capacity and prepare your muscles and joints for the stress of a long run.
Intervals are a set of repetitions of a specific, short distance, run at a substantially faster pace than usual, with recovery jogs in between. For example, you might run four 1-mile repeats at a hard pace, with 5 minutes of slow jogging or even walking between the mile repeats.
Tempo runs are longer in distance than an interval — generally in the range of 4-10 miles, depending on where you are in your training — run at a challenging, but sustainable, pace. In addition to those long runs you do every week, this workout teaches your body, as well as your brain, to sustain challenging work over a longer period of time.
Rest and Recovery
Resting is vital to preparing your body for a marathon, while preventing injury that can derail your training plan or even sideline you for the long haul. A rest day means absolutely no running. If you’re still itching to do something, Michnick suggests cross-training, such as lifting weights, swimming, yoga, hiking or walking.
Tapering Your Runs
As you get closer to race day, you’ll want to start tapering down your mileage about 25 to 50% per week, which may feel counterintuitive, but Michnick says there’s good reason.
“Tapering down your runs in the two or three weeks leading up to your race allows your body to rest up for race day,” he says. “You might also want to taper off your long distance runs about three to four weeks out, that way your tired muscles can begin to recover. Don’t worry, you’re not going to lose progress.”
At this point, we’ve talked a lot about training with safety and injury prevention in mind. That’s because there are several injuries that can occur when training for a marathon. Since an injury can potentially sideline your marathon aspirations and everything you’ve been working towards, injury is the Achilles heel — pun intended — of any serious runner.
“A lot of the injuries we see are caused by the increased intensity of the marathon training process, and many are stress-related,” Michnick explains. “This includes stress fractures in the feet, patellofemoral syndrome (also called runner’s knee) and iliotibial band syndrome.”
Because these injuries can sometimes require several weeks of rest from running, which can be disruptive to the training process, training properly can be your best bet at making sure you cross that finish line come race day.
Michnick notes that other common injuries can include shin splints, Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. These occur when the supportive structures in the lower extremities become inflamed because of the increased stress. These can often be avoided by performing stretches before and after exercise as well as using ice and anti-inflammatory medications in order to keep the inflammation down.
Invest in a Good Pair of Shoes
This leads us into a discussion about how valuable a good pair of running shoes can be when it comes to preventing injury. But before you head into a blog-induced research spiral, Michnick says finding a “good” pair of running shoes is simpler, and more personalized, than you may think.
“Studies have found that a shoe that is comfortable to run in for an individual is less likely to cause injury as it tends to accommodate for the person’s specific gait kinematics,” he explains. “Granted, it takes time for a shoe to break in and become more comfortable, so a small bit of discomfort the first time a shoe is worn is to be expected. But often you can put a shoe on and tell it’s just not going to be a comfortable shoe, no matter what. And if you put on a shoe and it’s painful to walk in, that’s a no.”
If you’ve slipped on your glass slipper and it passes the comfort test, Michnick provides a few more key elements to look for:
- Give yourself some space – Make sure there is some space between the end of your toes and the front of the shoe. This will help prevent the toe from continuously hitting the toe box and causing sore toes.
- Consider your surface – Not all shoes are made for all surfaces. If your race has you running on a nicely paved roadway, you may need different shoes compared to a race you ran on a dirt trail.
- Give yourself a break – As we noted already, it takes time to break in shoes, and you don’t want to discover how uncomfortable your shoes are halfway into your race. So if you’d like to buy a new pair, make sure you’ve worn the shoes for at least four weeks prior to race day.
If you weigh 150 pounds, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends replacing your shoes after 500 miles. Since many marathon training programs exceed this mileage, you may want to buy two pairs of the same shoe and switch to the second pair several weeks before your race.
Last, but not least, we have to talk about nutrition. You’re going to be burning more calories as you increase the length and intensity of your runs leading up to your marathon, so properly fueling your body is just as important to injury prevention as ramping up your training and investing in a good pair of shoes.
“Eat a balanced diet including nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, fruit, vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats,” Michnick says. “When race day arrives, it is important to eat a diet of complex carbohydrates. This includes bread, rice, pasta, and starchy vegetables. This will give you an ample supply of energy needed to run the race.”
Preparing for a marathon can be an exciting challenge for any runner, and it can be easy to get ahead of yourself. But setting aside an adequate amount of time to train, as well as choosing an appropriate race length for your experience and investing in some good shoes, can take you a long way.
To learn more about the services offered at Texas Health Sports Medicine or to find a sports medicine physician, visit TexasHealth.org/SportsMedicine.