Marathon Training & Quick Tips
Is running a marathon on your bucket list? It takes a lot of planning and preparation – right up there with writing a book, climbing a mountain, and jumping out of an airplane. If you’re one of the lucky ones to accomplish this incredible feat, you’ll join the mere 0.5 percent of the US population that actually completes a full marathon.
Gina Otterbein, Physical Therapist and Director of Learning & Development at the Ivy Rehab Network completed the Boston Marathon two times! In 2020, she also qualified for the third time; however, the Boston Marathon was canceled due to Covid.
While running is now a core part of her lifestyle, it wasn’t always that way. Gina didn’t start running until she was in her 30s, and even then, it was just a quick jog with the dog. Over time, she really appreciated the sport and eventually moved to compete in triathlons. Gina is a three-time Ironman finisher.
The journey to Gina’s first 26.2 miles was never easy but always worth it. Here is Gina’s list of everything you need to know to complete your first marathon.
Marathon Quick Tips
- Timing – Many marathons have a cut-off time. Runners in the Boston Marathon have six hours to complete the course after the last starter begins.
- Planning – Get to the starting line early. If you need to take a quick pit stop, get in line at least a half-hour before the official start time because lines may be very long.
- Music – If you like to run with music, find out in advance whether headphones are allowed on the course because not all marathons allow them.
- Pace – Start slowly and pace yourself. It’s easy to let adrenaline get the best of you but starting out too fast is a rookie mistake.
- Support – If you have a friend or family member there to cheer you on, find out in advance where they’ll be. Spotting that support system along the way can be a huge boost when you really need it.
Training for a marathon typically takes anywhere from 12-20 weeks, depending on how experienced you are with running. The four primary elements of marathon training are:
- Base Mileage – Running 3-5 times per week to build your weekly mileage
- Long Run – Every 7-10 days get your body used to go longer distances, eventually working your way up to 20 miles
- Speed / Cross-Training – Practice intervals, speed, and hills to increase your cardio capacity. Gina likes to include biking and swimming to enhance her cross-training.
- Rest and Recovery – You have to let your body recover to prevent burnout and reduce your chances for injury
Runners who are just starting out will need more time to recover from intense marathon training, so it will take longer to build up to the longer runs. Starting from the couch? No worries, you’ll get there, but you can’t rush things. It’s not unheard of to train for almost a year before taking the marathon leap. The key is to build up to it, so you don’t get hurt – an injury will keep you out of the race far longer and may sideline you for good if you lose all momentum. Gina saw a physical therapist for an entire year before the Boston Marathon to avoid injury. She also had a running gait analysis conducted to review her form, strength, motion, and stride. Maintaining proper form can increase your speed, make running more comfortable, and reduce your chances of injury.
Another thing Gina loved doing before and after the marathon was dry needling. Because of its ability to loosen stiff muscles, ease joint pain, and improve blood flow and oxygen circulation, dry needling provided positive results when Gina felt tight muscles, aches, and pains. She felt immediate relief after one treatment, making it one of her favorite techniques.
Choosing a marathon
Remember that you have to pre-qualify for some of the bigger races, Boston included. Choosing a marathon close to home will give you an advantage because you can train on the actual course and get comfortable with it. If you qualify for a “bucket-list” course like Boston or New York City, you may find yourself motivated by the excitement of the situation. Also, keep the course terrain in mind. A new course may be hilly, busy, or just different than anything you’ve run before.
While marathon training, estimate how long it will take you to finish, so you know how to properly pace yourself. This is also helpful when you have friends and family members waiting at the finish line to cheer you on – this way, they’ll have an idea as to when you may be approaching. A handy formula to give you a general idea is to double your recent half marathon time, then add 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the difficulty of the course. You can also use a pace calculator like this one.
What to wear
Possibly the most essential item for race day is a comfortable long-distance running shoe. Find one that provides the right amount of cushion and stability for longer distances, and then train in it to make sure it feels good when you go long distances. Wear clothing appropriate for temperatures that are 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is, no matter how chilly it might seem. Once you start running, your body will heat up pretty quickly. Finally, never wear anything new on race day. You don’t need an obnoxious sock rubbing on your toe for four hours. Wear clothing and shoes that you know you’ll be comfortable in for a few hours. Consider training in fabrics that wick to help keep you cool and dry as you run.
What to eat & drink
Before your run: To sustain energy levels, eat a high-carb, low-fiber meal three to four hours before your run begins. That way, your body has a chance to digest the food, and it reduces the risk of having stomach issues during your run. When you run long distances, your body relies on glycogen for fuel, which is why people often eat carb-heavy meals the night before a big race. Pasta, bread, or potatoes can help fill your glycogen stores so you can start the race feeling good.
During your run: If you don’t fuel up during your run, your glycogen will typically run out within a couple of hours, so you’ll have to consider a mid-run snack to replenish your energy stores, keep fatigue at bay, and help activate your fat burning for fuel. A high-carb snack like sports drinks, energy gels, nuts, raisins, or two tablespoons of honey will help.
After your run: Eating a combination of carbohydrates and protein 30 to 60 minutes after your run is essential in helping speed up your body’s recovery time. The carbs help restore the burnt energy, and the protein helps heal and repair your muscle tissue. Even a 200-300 calorie snack will help, then a few hours later, you can have a larger meal filled with carbs and proteins.
While training and on race day, it’s essential to get enough to drink. Even the slightest amount of dehydration can slow you down. Before you run, we recommend eight ounces of water or a sports drink. Try to drink three to six ounces of a sports drink that contains carbohydrates and electrolytes to replenish sodium during your run.
Drink several cups of water or a sports drink to feed your tired muscles right after the race. Take a little time to walk and stretch so you can let your muscles cool down. In the days after the race, you should hold off on running for at least a week, then take your time easing back into it. Take good care of your body post-race because your immune system may be more vulnerable right after a marathon.
What if you get injured while marathon training?
Injuries can affect beginner and seasoned runners. If you’re feeling a slight ache or pain every time you run, don’t ignore it – it will only get worse. The sooner you get these pains are taken care of, the less chance you have of experiencing a more serious injury. If you’re currently training for a race of any kind it’s a good idea to have your form and body mechanics checked out. A functional movement screen will find potential weaknesses and reduce your chances for injury. We also offer free injury consultations so if you’ve got a 5k or marathon training question, or issues when you run, schedule an appointment with a specialist before it gets worse.
Physical therapy can help!
Our licensed physical therapists specialize in helping people improve and regain their flexibility, strength, balance, and endurance. Our highly certified clinicians offer customized plans of care to help each person reach their individual goal. Interested in working with one of our movement experts, give us a call today! Click here to find a location near you.
Article Written by Gina Otterbein, PT, Director of Learning & Development
As a licensed physical therapist with over 32 years of experience, a leader, and an athletic mentor, Gina aims to help people perform their best, build strong connections and enjoy a healthy life and mindset. Gina is an IRONMAN and Boston Marathon Finisher. She combines her personal and physical therapy experience to help others with their fitness journey.