So, you want to run a marathon? Respect the distance
Don’t do it just because your friends are doing it, and don’t lose the love of running
Competitors run past the Eiffel Tower during the 40th Paris Marathon, on April 3rd in Paris. Photograph: Thomas Samson, AFP/Getty
Why would anyone want to run 26.2 miles just for fun? A valid question and one which I probably would have asked myself some years ago. It is hard to give a short answer, but try asking any marathoner and you will struggle to stop them reminiscing about their marathon day out.
For a non-runner, it’s hard to appreciate the attraction of a marathon. What could possibly be so tempting when you consider the long days of training, the risk of injury, the potential blisters, the anticipation of the dreaded wall and the gourmet diet of pasta, jelly babies and energy gels?
What makes it tempting?
There has been a shift in the past five to 10 years in the volume and type of runner taking on the marathon challenge. The distance has become more accessible and it’s a chance to run in the footsteps of so many great athletes and earn the title and pride of becoming a marathoner. However, it’s generally not the elite athletes who inspire most of us to run a marathon.
Fear of missing out (FOMO) has a lot to answer for. Everyone now knows someone who has completed the marathon distance, someone who is just like them, a recreational runner who has knuckled down and put in the miles and achieved the impossible. We have all listened to friends and colleagues relay stories of long runs, emotional finish lines and the pride of the medal.
These runners plant seeds of temptation in us, making us wonder if we too could take on this famous distance. If they can do it, surely I could give it a go.
Keep the love of running
Before launching into marathon training, it’s important to respect what is actually involved in preparing for the big day and the impact marathon training can have on your body, your lifestyle and your family life. It’s not a decision to be made lightly.
When coaching runners for marathon distance, I stress the importance of not outrunning the love for running by putting too much physical or mental pressure on the body just to be able to earn the title of becoming a marathoner.
I truly believe the marathon should be there to be enjoyed as a celebration of hard work, rather than an experiment to see how far one can run on a given day. There is no point completing a marathon and then retiring from running feeling burnt out, injured or disappointed.
The people who enjoy the marathon are those who put the work in, respect the distance and leave nothing to chance on race day. They know their limits and work within them.
Behind the scenes
It’s easy to get caught up in the glory and pride of becoming a marathoner but it’s important to remember there is more to being a marathoner than smiling and waving to the crowd in the final 200 metres.
There will be sacrifices along the way, a lot of focus, dedication and discipline, and the possibility of some tears, doubts and setbacks along the training journey. A good coach and training programme prepares you for these ups and downs and makes you mentally as well as physically ready for the distance.
Is a marathon for me?
Don’t rush into the marathon distance if you are new to running. I would highly recommend you have at least 2 years’ running in your legs and be very comfortable over a 10km distance right now for a late summer/autumn marathon. Ideally you should have also completed the half-marathon distance in the past and know the impact of long distance on your body. You should also be injury-free and feeling strong and healthy before you launch into training.
Consider your life outside running. Have you other family pressures and commitments that may need to be prioritised over the summer? You will need to make the time and have flexibility to train all summer long. You will need to be able to block out a window of three to four hours one morning a week for your long run and also allow time for rest and recovery. Identify what time you do have at your disposal this summer and decide how best to put it to use.
More than a marathon
Completing a marathon doesn’t define you as a runner. Marathons are not for everyone.
Many runners are perfectly happy with shorter distances and different goals. Other runners may aspire to long distance but their busy lifestyle or biomechanics may not agree to cooperate. So many lifelong runners will never run a marathon and are no less of a runner because of it.
Do not let the distance you run influence your opinion of how good a runner you are. Endurance running is just one style of running and there is no perfect running distance that defines an individual as a good runner.
Experiment with different types of running to find what inspires you. You might find a new love for short distance, trail, mountain running, cross country, track or adventure runs.
Don’t give in to FOMO
Please do not run a marathon just because your friends are doing it. You are not missing out on anything if you push your body to a long distance before it has an adequate training base.
If you do not have a strong base, you risk becoming disillusioned with your running, getting injured or overwhelmed by the training.
There is no point in training for a marathon if you are not going to enjoy the experience. It is not worth launching into training only to then lose your running confidence over the summer by comparing your progress with that of others.
Running is a lifelong habit which so many of us love and there are plenty more years to take on the challenge when the time is right for you.
Build a strong base
If you have made up your mind that this is your marathon year, spring is the perfect time to build the perfect running base. Get strong over your 10km distance and take the time now to focus on strength training, technique and mobility.
As the mileage starts to increase over the summer, any niggle you may have now will only get worse with the added volume of training.
Don’t rush into the long miles. Make sure you have a clear training plan in place, and a body that is fresh and excited about the challenges ahead.
Know your motivation
In my coaching workshops for first-time marathoners, the first thing I ask people to think about is their reason for running the marathon. Take a few minutes to consider this and write it down.
There will be days when you don’t feel like training, when you would much rather stay in bed, hit the town or stay in and watch TV. You need a strong incentive to get you moving on these days.
Training buddies and a good coach will help you stay on track, but you need to be clear on why you are doing this marathon and have a reason strong enough to keep you motivated and inspired.
The time will pass quickly over the summer. Decide to make the most of it, train sensibly and train well, and you too can be one of those marathoners who won’t stop talking about what a life-changing experience training for a marathon turned out to be.
Watch our Facebook video with Ian O'Riordan and Mary Jennings discussing marathon running - is it right for you? https://www.facebook.com/irishtimesrunning/
Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with ForgetTheGym.ie. Mary trains beginners and marathoners and everyone in between to enjoy running and stay injury-free. Mary is also the creator of all our Irish Times Get Running programmes: Beginners Get Running, Get Running 10k and Get Running, Stay Running.