How to Conquer a Marathon without Actually Dying

participants in marathon running
silhouette showing how a man runs

 "Ah just felt like runnin."-- Forrest Gump

So you’ve decided to run a marathon.

We're sorry. But you need to know this up front.

The guy who ran what is believed to be the first marathon in history?

He died.

(He might not have had the best marathon training plan, though.)

As the story goes:

The doomed marathon innovator was Pheidippedes, a Greek soldier in the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.

Legend has it that Pheidippedes ran in full battle armor from Marathon to Athens with the glorious news of Greece's triumph over the more massive Persian military.

A distance of roughly 25 miles, give or take a few.

Marathon battle map

Image: CC0 1.0 Universal by Jona Lendering via Livius.org

And upon completing his duty, as later recounted in a 19th Century poem by R​​​​ob​​​​ert Bro​​​​​​​​​wning, he promptly collapsed and perished from the earth.

None of this may actually be true.

But here’s the good news:

You can conquer a marathon without dying. (But we give no guarantees about the chafing.)

“In running, it doesn’t matter whether you come in first, in the middle of the pack, or last. You can say, ‘I have finished.’ There is a lot of satisfaction in that.” – ​Fred Lebow​ – New York City Marathon co-founder

The key to survival is carefully choosing a marathon plan that works best for your specific level of running experience.

One in which you:

  • Build your cardiovascular capacity by gradually increasing your weekly distances for training runs.
  • Learn about and choose the right shoes, socks, and training ensemble.
  • Eat right and drink enough water, especially on the hottest days.
  • Suddenly realize you’re not really partial to any of your large toenails.

Do all this, and you’ll end up with a great set of stories.

And you’ll even live to tell them.

(Probably)

When to Start Running/Training

Getting ready to run a marathon isn’t like flipping a switch.

You need to achieve a basic level of fitness before seriously contemplate tackling the 26.2.

It’s that basic level of fitness that will dictate what kind of marathon training plan you’ll want to follow.

We’re not talking American Ninja Warrior fitness.

You can be plump in all the wrong places and still be a candidate to go the distance.

What you need is called a “base” for running.

One does not get off the couch and dive straight into the rigors of marathon training any more than one jumps off a cliff without a parachute.

You have to give your heart, lungs, and muscles a chance to adapt!

But first things first:

You probably didn’t realize that marathons involve math.

You want to allow at least ​16 weeks​ for training.

a calendar with red marked on the 18th, Saturday

Image: by ​Basti93​ via Pixabay

Maybe as much as 20.

So that means, your first task is deciding on your goal race. And then back-timing, so you know when the misery training should start.

Because no one wants to run more training miles than they have to. That would be truly crazy. Crazier than running 26.2 miles in one outing.

Marathon Training Schedule

Week 1:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 3 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 3 miles
Fri - 3 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 4 mi
Total = 13 mi

Week 2:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 3 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 3 miles
Fri - 3 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 5 mi
Total = 14 mi

Week 3:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 3 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 4 miles
Fri - 3 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 6 mi
Total = 16 mi

Week 4:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 3 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 4 miles
Fri - 3 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 7 mi
Total = 17 mi

Week 5:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 4 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 4 miles
Fri - 3 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 8 mi
Total = 19 mi

Week 6:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 4 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 5 miles
Fri - 3 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 9 mi
Total = 21 mi

Week 7:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 4 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 6 miles
Fri - 3 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 10 mi
Total = 22 mi

Week 8:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 5 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 5 miles
Fri - 4 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 11 mi
Total = 25 mi

Week 9:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 5 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 5 miles
Fri - 4 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 12 mi
Total = 26 mi

Week 10:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 4 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 5 miles
Fri - 4 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 11 mi
Total = 24 mi

Week 11:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 4 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 5 miles
Fri - 4 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 10 mi
Total = 23 mi

Week 12:
Mon - Rest
Tue - 3 mi
Wed - Rest
Thu - 4 miles
Fri - 3 miles
Sat - Rest
Sun - 13.1 mi
Total = 23.1 mi

You’ll find out what I mean.

From there, you need to allow an additional month for base training.

Many coaches suggest starting wit​​h a combined period of running and walking. Your total ramp-up period should be about four weeks.

Once you’ve built your base, then you’re ready for the fun!

a feisty woman poses as she is about to run from the starting line

Image: CC0 by ​Gratisography​ via Pexels

(And by fun, we mean, waking up before sunrise for a long training run just to avoid temperatures and humidity typically only experienced on the sun, or in hell.)

P.S. This was the easy part.

The Ultimate Training Plan
(AKA There Is No Such Thing)

With your base carefully constructed, it’s now time to start putting one foot in front of the other.

In marathon training, there will be good days, and there will be bad days.

Just like Alexander found out:

And there may be the occasional horrible day.

No marathon training plan, no matter how highly ranked or promoted, can change that.

But a few programs get more attention than others.

 Run less, run faster

Now there’s a slogan that will get your attention as a runner.

Developed by physiologists and researchers at Furman University, Run Less, Run Faster emphasizes quality over quantity.

Using this program, you run three times a week. The rest of the week, eat Bon-Bons.

Just kidding.

RLRF adds in two days of cross training (pool, bike, rowing machine) and two days of rest.

The methodology is carefully detailed in an easy-to-read book and comes with a matching app.

 Hal Higdon’s marathon training plan

Popular marathon coach Hal Higdon estimates he’s helped half a million runners break the tape. He also offers books explaining his approach and supplementary apps you can download.

Here's the thing:

Depending on your experience level, you’ll be running 4 to 5 times a week for up to 18 weeks. The plan allows for rest and some cross-training.

“Steve Langley, a forecast manager from Beloit, Wisconsin, recalls running 15 miles with friends on a January morning when the temperature was 5°F. Running through a park with a small lake, they passed several people sitting on buckets, ice fishing. “Look at those idiots,” said one of the fishermen. “They’re going to freeze to death!”

Langley admits thinking the same about them.”― Hal Higdon, Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide: Advice, Plans, and Programs for Half and Full Marathons

Run-walk-run with Jeff Galloway

Finally, there’s Jeff Galloway, creator of the “run walk run” marathon method.

(God Bless you, Jeff Galloway.)

Run-Walk-Run essentially breaks your training runs and race into regular intervals of running followed by short walking breaks. You keep repeating this pattern until you finish.

Here's his philosophy:

Galloway’s research and experience indicate that Run-Walk-Run allows runners to complete races with fewer injuries and quicker recovery times.

And get this:

The runners have faster times than those who run continuously.

Marathon Survival Tips

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Unfortunately, Jeff Galloway, Hal Higdon, and Run Less, Run Faster came along too late to prevent Pheidippedes' untimely demise.

We don’t have that problem today.

Through both science and the bitter taste of trial and error over the years, the running community now understands the keys to making it across the finish line safe and sound.

These are the things you’ll want to know and need to know from the onset of your training, all the way through to the last moments of the race.

They are matters you should contemplate, remember and integrate into your routine in the same way you brush your teeth every morning.

(People still do that, right?)

The mental game

In training and in the race, your biggest opponent is the gray matter between your ears.

Your brain.

How you process what’s happening during your long runs, and on race day, makes all the difference. It’s a ​mental challenge​.

a man using earphones while taking a jog

Image: by Pexels via Pixabay

If you have a bad day, one where you have to cut your run short, or you feel week, or your legs hurt, or it’s too hot or too cold, things can go either way.

  1. You can convince yourself that you’re not cut out for this, or;
  2. You can shrug, take it as a lesson to be learned, erase it from your memory and come back stronger the next time out.

We prefer No. 2. We think you will too. (Pheidippedes...not so much.)

The point is:

Training for and then running a marathon is hard. The experience prompts our bodies to respond physiologically and psychologically, as a matter of self-defense.

Being able to recognize negative thoughts for what they are, and learning to adjust based on those thoughts, is the crucial skill you need to survive the marathon.

As long as you stay in motion, and adopt a little Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, you will get there.

Step by step.

 Hydration/nutrition

Watching a race with elite marathoners gives off a false impression. These runners barely break a sweat, and seemingly only rarely take a drink.

You won’t be so lucky.

Once your mind is right, the next phase to conquer is your nutrition and hydration plan.

Running long distances burns through carbohydrates, fluids, and vitamins and minerals of all kinds. Just like a car, you need to keep fuel in the tank.

Develop a habit from day one that you will always run with water or an electrolyte drink.

The truth is:

It’s not really an option.

Any run that approaches 45 minutes to an hour in length requires water.

The trick is figuring out the best way to carry it. You can purchase 10-ounce to 22-ounce ​handheld water bottles​. Or you can design routes that take you back home for refills.

On race day, you can carry your own bottle, as you've trained.

Just don't put any of this in it:

a glass getting filled up with red wine

Image: by rawpixel via Pixabay

Or you can rely on the hydration stations set up across the course. (We favor controlling your own destiny.)

Now nutrition:

When it comes to nutrition, this is also a must-do, and it will require experimentation.

Nutrition options range from jelly-bean-like candies to gels and energy bars and the like.

You’ll want to craft a ​fueling strategy​ where you take hydration and nutrition at regular, predictable intervals.

Here's the bad news:

Once you move into hydration and fuel negative, it’s too late. You’re going to feel lousy.

While we can’t guarantee hydration and nutrition would have saved Pheidippides, we are sure it will stave off your untimely demise.

 Choosing the right shoes (and socks)

Perhaps running got your attention because you believed it was a low-cost activity.

Just lace ‘em up and go, right?

Not quite.

When it comes to your feet, it is not a case of “any old shoe will do.”

To minimize the risk of getting sidelined by shin splints, plantar fasciitis or other ailments, you'll need some ​help in finding the​ right shoe and the right size for your feet.

A shoe that aligns to your running style. While it may seem that your gait is straight ahead and normal, for most people, it isn’t.

The truth is:

Most runners need additional stability in their shoes. And most runners also need help from trained specialists to determine how much stability to introduce.

For this, you should rely on Fleet Feet or other local running specialty stores.

Here’s another survival tip concerning your feet. Never, ever, ever run in cotton socks.

Cotton = moisture = blisters. Stay away.

Do this instead:

Rely on socks of a polyester/synthetic blend. Brands ​to consider​ include:

  • Balega
  • Darn Tough
  • Feetures
  • Smartwool

Love your feet. They’ll love you back.

 Stretching

Last but not least in our survival tips is one that we’re pretty sure Pheidippides didn’t have enough time to incorporate.

It’s a good idea to get your muscles warmed up at least a little before you punish them with so many run miles.

Lightly warm up. The key is introducing flexibility and not shocking your muscles. (I mean, you can just not tell them, but eventually, they find out.)

One trainer interviewed by Runner’s World suggests dynamic stretching pre-run. We think that’s a great idea, as long as you don’t get too aggressive and overdo it.

Listen up:

Your legs are going to feel tight after you run.

So a post-run stretching regimen will keep you limber, speed recovery, and get your ready for the next ready-set-go.

In addition to various types of stretches you can find online, consider investing in a massage tool - either a foam roller, a massage stick, massage ball or other forms.

These tools will help get your muscles ready to rock, and also help you address any post-run knots or aches and pains.

Whatever you choose:

Make it a habit. Whether you’re wearing armor, or not.

Getting to the Starting Line

The 16 or 18 weeks spent in training is geared toward one outcome: Getting you to the starting line, confident and injury free.

You're in for quite an experience. I hope you have lots of toilet paper and no shame.

In all seriousness, as we said earlier, the path from training to the starting line may well be a bumpy one.

You’ll have your doubts, your aches and pains, Your early mornings and tired evenings.

None of it matters.

When you toe that starting line on marathon morning, you’ve already won. You’ve accomplished something that only a small fraction of the world ever dreams of attempting.

You’ve trained for a marathon. Successfully. Revel in it. It is an accomplishment unto itself.

Should the race go awry, it doesn’t negate the incredible heart and backbone you exhibit to get through 16 to 18 weeks of intense training.

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PRO TIP:

The night before a marathon "lay out your running clothes," writes marathoner Henry Howard. "It’s easy to find photos of “Flat Runners” while checking out social media feeds on Friday and Saturday nights during prime race season. Runners regularly lay out their shorts/skirts, shirts, hats, compression gear, sneakers and more as flat versions of themselves."

Also:

Fill your water bottle and pack the nutrition you’ll carry.

All you want to do on race morning is get up, poop, eat, and go.

The starting line area of a marathon is unlike anything you’ll have experienced.

People will be everywhere, wearing every kind of attire. It will probably seem like everyone knows everyone.

You'll be one bundle of nerves, like everyone else. But don’t let the excitement get the best of you.

You'll need every ounce of energy. So, do this:

Stand still. Better yet, sit down.

If you can’t bring yourself sit down, then our advice is simple:

Go

To

The

Bathroom.

You think we’re kidding. We're not. Just do it.

(And be prepared to be in line. Or if you’ve got the right parts, go in the woods.)

 What to eat in the morning

One of the most common questions of new marathoners is, what should I eat on race morning?

It’s the same answer for every question about race morning.

Don’t ​do anything differently​.

If you eat peanut butter toast and banana before your long run, then do that.

Though we might suggest if your typical morning meal is McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets … maybe pass on those, at least for today.

Keep hydrated.

You’re going to need it. Yes, even if it means having to go to the bathroom.

You may want to adjust the timing, however. If you have a start time of 7:30 a.m., you could consider getting up a bit earlier to consume that first pre-race meal.

Some experts suggest that four hours before is a perfect time.

But we are not ​those experts​.

The whole idea is to get your energy stores up to 100 percent. Think of it like you’re filling a gas tank.

Think about it:

You’ll be spending down those stores as the miles go by. And this is why it’s so vital to have a fueling strategy during the race as well.

We all know what happens when a car runs out of fuel.

 Dressing for success

Let’s have a word about what to wear.

Just like we covered with socks: cotton is out. You’ll be miserable.

(The growers won’t be happy to hear this. But then again, they’re not running a marathon, are they?)

You’re going to want a polyester/synthetic blend for your shirt or shirts and the same for your bottoms. Anything else is chafe-city.

If it’s a warm-weather marathon, you’ll want to go as light as possible. Grab the silky-smooth technical shirts.

On the other hand:

Cold weather is where it gets tricky. Your body temperature will rise as you cover the miles.

That's why the key is to dress in layers. Start with a base layer, maybe from Craft or Helly Hanson. Then a lightweight mid-layer. If the winds are howling or its raining, then you'll need a wind and water repellent jacket.

a man jogging on a well-paved road with scenic mountain and lake view

Image: by sk​​eeze via Pixabay

a man running in the middle of the asphalt road

Image: by compsita via Pixabay

Dressing in layers allows you to lighten the load as you go. You can always tie your jacket around your waste.

Or, wear a mid-layer shirt that you wouldn’t mind discarding.

What makes it tricky is the waiting game in the morning, as you gather for the start. Those early morning hours can be chilly!

Don’t overdo it.

Remember that you’re about to run 26 miles. You’ll be super warm before you know it. Make your core dress be what you think would be appropriate for the ​end of the race​.

If it's super cold in the morning, again, wear clothes that you can part with. Or go to a Goodwill and buy a top and bottom you wouldn’t mind discarding.

And guess what?

Big-city marathons typically donate clothes left at the start so your efforts will go to good use.

On the Course -- What to Expect

And just like that, after 16 to 18 weeks of following your carefully cultivated marathon training plan, you’re on your way.

If there is one piece of advice you remember from this article, let it be this.

Start.

Slow.

The energy and enthusiasm at the ​start of a marathon​ are palpable and contagious.

It’s all enough to make you think you’re invincible.

That you can just speed through these 26 miles like the Roadrunner from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Don’t try it. You’ll regret it. Run one mile at a time.

Around you will be all kinds. Men, women, young, old. Some may have jogging strollers (though most big marathons ban them.)

Some will be running together. Others will be running alone. Some will be listening to music.

Stay alert.

While marathons typically send runners out in waves, no group runs at a uniform pace.

You’ll find yourself on top of someone before you know it if you’re not paying attention.

Smile at the crowds. They’ll cheer for you even if they don’t know you. And read their signs. They’ll make you laugh.

Our all-time favorite: “​​Don’t Trust the Fart” (If you don’t know exactly what it means, you will soon.)

Don’t be afraid to take a walk break and catch your breath. A good time to do this is when you come upon a water station.

Stop, drink your fluids, nibble on your snacks, recollect yourself -- and then start again.

Trust us, you don’t want to be the runner who gamely tries to down water or Gatorade from a tiny cup without breaking stride.

Make sure to thank a volunteer as well as a police officer (or several.) The race could not happen without them.

And here's some awareness of a few final matters.

 There will be poop

Well...maybe. Since you’ve gotten through your training, you’ve probably figured out by now that running gets your bowels in motion.

Nobody really knows why. But there are ​som​​​​e t​​​​​​​​​heories​.

If you’re going to be in the marathon game, you might as well come to terms with the fact that in addition to grappling with your mind, you may be faced with the real urge to go No. 2.

Like everything else in marathon running, the time to address this is during the training phase.

Here's the good news:

You can, as you train, try different tactics to reduce or eliminate the need to … eliminate.

"When you run the marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners and not against the time." ​Olympian Haile Gebrselassie​

For instance, you can try to reduce the amount of fat and fiber in your diet leading up to race day. Or control or reduce your caffeine intake.

But there are no guarantees.

So what happens if the urge hits you mid-race?

We beg of you. Heed the warning.

Marathons will typically station Port-o-Potties across the course, every few miles.

Here are the facts:

You’re just going to have to take a pit stop. And you’re probably going to have to wait in line.

Considering the alternative...come to think of it, there is no alternative. Wait it out, and you’ll feel so much better when you get back out on the course.

 There may be blood

Don’t get alarmed.

Your body isn’t going to start a gusher just because you’re running a marathon. (Although it may like to do so.)

What we’re talking about is anything from an injury (you fall and the pavement gouges your knee) to the dreaded bloody runner’s nipple (caused by chafing) to the very uncommon blood in your urine.

The fact is:

The marathon puts a strain on your body. Your body fights back in any number of ways. Some of which aren’t exactly pretty.

For example, a common marathon injury surrounds your toenails. It's possible that during your long runs you could game one of your toenails to the point where it has to be removed.

That too can lead to black and blue and bloody.

Whatever it is, the key, as always, is not to panic. (Unless someone asks you to run in a suit of armor. Then: panic.)

That would be indeed something to worry about, not the fact that you're covering 42,000 kilometers in (hopefully) less than 6 hours.

 Listening to music

One of the ways that runners distract themselves from the pain and potential misery of the marathon is by listening to music.

This is fine if you're doing a run around the neighborhood, as long as your head up and feet on the sidewalk. (Being on the road has some hazards if you can't hear traffic.)

But listen:

The environment is different on race day. When you're surrounded by other runners, it's essential for you to be able to hear.

Many marathons in their terms of service will actually ban the use of headphones on the course, for precisely this reason. And many runners will ignore those terms of service.

Don't be that guy.

You’re taking a risk not only for your physical safety but of being pulled off the course and banned from the race.

The more significant reason not to listen to music during the marathon? Race day is about the experience.

And the truth is:

If you’re zoned out on your music, you miss an opportunity to connect with your fellow man.

If you must use music (and some runners are lost without it), then consider putting only one earbud in at a time.

That way you can hear what’s going on around you and maintain a good rhythm.

 Breaking the wall

You’ve probably heard this phrase before, and, maybe, wondered what it meant. Could it be that marathon courses have walls you have to break through to finish?

Not literal ones.

We're talking about the figurative runner's wall. It's that time of the race when the fun-time is over, and the groaning begins.

Everything starts to bother you.

The feel of your shoes.

The sloshing in your stomach.

The 15th time of seeing the “World’s Worst Parade” sign.

This is just your body talking, trying to trick you into handing over control.

Most likely you will hit some form of a runner’s wall within the last six miles of the marathon. Your legs will get heavy, and your brain will tell you it's time to quit.

Don't fall for it.

The first line of defense against the runner’s wall is in your training program. If you are running within your capacity -- not at the maximum or the minimum all the time -- you have the best chance of seeing the wall coming.

"Hitting the wall will, over time, and with decent punches, strengthen your knuckles. "--​Jay Coe​, Contender

And getting through it is about coping strategies.

Possibly the biggest sign of having hit the wall is when the miles start going by much more slowly, and it becomes harder and harder to keep moving forward.

Here's the thing:

For some runners, the wall is way more than mental. Their muscles will cramp or seize up, and it will bring their runs to a premature conclusion. If you follow the best possible marathon training program, you have the best chance of beating the wall.

Coping and adjusting to that, plain and simple, is a function of listening to your body.

If you train smartly, you’ll be able to recognize the onset of the wall and implement your strategies for ​powering through​.

Is It Worth It?

Is your question whether doing something that could leave you dehydrated and unable to walk for days, make you lose toenails, and cause your nipples to drip blood “worth it?”

Duh. Of course, it is!

Running a marathon really isn’t about the physical feat.

It's about building a belief that you can do extraordinary things. Enormously difficult situations that require dedication and a commitment to follow-through with the right amount of training.

And along the way of accomplishing those fantastic things, you get the chance to experience the outdoors, meet and make new friends, and see parts of the world you can't see sitting at a computer.

And to think...

we may owe it all to one Greek soldier, who, thousands of years ago was sent to town as a messenger but emerged as a running God whose name is everywhere in the explanation of the evolution of running.

If only he had chosen the right marathon training plan.

Yes. It’s worth it.

Do you know anyone who has run a marathon? Have you started training yet yourself? Tell us all about it in the comments!

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