7 Tips to Help First-Time Marathoners Avoid Common Mistakes

STACK Expert and ultra-marathoner Jamie Walker offers seven solid tips to help first-time marathoners avoid common rookie mistakes.

Marathon Training

Marathon training can be confusing. Many first-timers focus so intently on building up their legs and endurance that they overlook other keys to a successful race. The biggest marathon training mistakes typically fall into one of the following categories:

  • Overdoing it
  • Failing to diversify
  • Not planning for race-day nutrition

All of these are avoidable with the following seven tips:

1. Set a Realistic Goal

Since your goal time is essential to your entire marathon training plan, overly ambitious beginners can easily put themselves on a path that leads to overtraining and injury. Many arbitrarily pick a goal based on performances by their peers or qualifying marks for other major races.

Your goal shouldn't be an ideal time you feel you need to achieve. Instead, it should be tailored to you and your current training background. To set a proper marathon goal time, use a performance equivalence calculator to help you base your time on past performances in 5Ks, 10Ks or half marathons.

2. Take Time to Rest

Your workouts are only one part of the equation. Recovering from those workouts ultimately increases your level of fitness. Going full tilt on long runs every weekend can prevent your body from fully repairing itself, leading to injuries and reduced performance. The easiest marathon training mistake to make as a beginner is to push yourself too hard, both mentally and physically.

To determine whether you are overtraining, track your times and distances closely from week to week. If you're plateauing (times are slowing down and you're feeling sluggish), you may benefit from completing a long run once every two weeks instead of once a week.

3. Run Outside

It's hard to predict the weather conditions on race day, but you can be certain it won't be like a smooth treadmill run in an air conditioned gym. Take opportunities to train in humidity, heat, rain and other inclement environmental conditions. You'll feel more prepared and confident at the starting line.

4. Vary Your Speed

Running longer and longer distances provides a sense of accomplishment, but beginners often forget that they have to run fast once in awhile, too. Work in some speed work at least once a week during most of your training weeks (skip it every fourth week to allow your body to recover). Alternate between running intervals (shorter distances faster, followed by a recovery period) or tempo runs (long distances at a challenging-but-still-manageable pace). Don't do too much fast running too early in your schedule—you want to save that energy for race day.

5. Do More Than Run

Aside from avoiding boredom with your training, incorporating other forms of exercise can prevent repetitive stress injuries and allow you to get a meaningful workout on days you might otherwise have dedicated to low intensity runs. For instance, in place of an easy run every few weeks, add an hour-long session of yoga or foam rolling to stretch and maintain your connective tissue, thereby reducing your chance of injury. Your body will thank you.

6. Pin Down Your Diet

Test drive race-day fuel on long run days to see how you feel after a few miles into your run and to determine how early you should eat before hitting the trail. Never eat or drink something new on the day before or the day of a race. You should have had experience with everything you put into your body. Every time you put on your running shoes, you should think not just about distance and pace, but also about how to keep your body properly fueled when the big day comes.

7. Mid-Race Nutrition

As a general rule, you should consume about 8 ounces of fluid per 30 minutes of running. Practice drinking while maintaining your target pace during training. Sample some energy gels and learn what you can stomach.

The marathon is a big jump from a 10K or even a half marathon. With every additional mile, there's greater potential for injury and fatigue. But for most runners, the longer distance also confers a larger sense of accomplishment when you reach the finish line.

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