For many people, running a long race, like a half or full marathon, is on their list of future athletic goals.
Of course, training for such an endurance event requires miles and miles and more miles of running effort. But preparing for a marathon or half marathon isn’t just about running, either. Training for a long race is, well, a marathon—not a sprint. And that’s why it’s so important to set your goals early and target a race well in advance of when you want to run it.
“A lot goes into training your body and mind to do a marathon beyond just running,” says Brett Toresdahl, MD, a sports medicine physician and Research Director for the HSS Primary Sports Medicine Service.
Here, Dr. Toresdahl shares tips for getting your training off on the right foot.
Going from zero to 13.1 or 26.2 isn’t impossible, but it’s better to start slowly well in advance of a race to give yourself a head start. “If you don’t have a fitness base before you start training, the odds of you getting to the race injury free are not in your favor,” Dr. Toresdahl says. “You want to start from as healthy as you can be at the start of training, with running a consistent part of your exercise routine.”
If you’re new to running, consider run-walk intervals to ease into longer distances and durations. “Run-walk intervals can be effective to gradually expose your body to the higher impact of running,” Dr. Toresdahl says. “This gives your body a chance to recover a bit and also allows you to maintain better form, rather than running until you can’t anymore. If you’ve reached the point where you can’t go any further and you need to walk, your form has already broken down. That’s when injury can happen.”
Ideally, before you kick off the actual training portion of your planning, you’d be running between three and four times a week, with long run distances ranging between five and seven miles—something comfortable and consistent, Dr. Toresdahl says.
You’ll need plenty of time to build up your mileage and your fitness, which is why it’s important to target a race that’s sometime in the next year, not the next month. “A marathon requires time,” Dr. Toresdahl says. “Most people can do couch-to-5k or couch-to-10k so long as they don’t have any major problems, but a marathon is a slower buildup to ensure you can handle the stress of running 26 miles. There’s no shortcut for putting in the miles and weeks of training.”
Of course, there’s more to training than the runs: Make sure to prioritize rest and recovery, too. “If you’re waking up early to get in your runs, you’re losing sleep—and you need to sleep more when you’re stressing your body with training,” he adds. You may also need to allocate time to work with a physical therapist or massage therapist for what Toresdahl calls maintenance treatments, intended to help with recovery, as opposed to addressing injury.
You might be training for your first marathon or half marathon, but it shouldn’t be your first-ever race. “In our studies, we’ve found that people who have never done a half marathon before starting marathon training are at greater risk for injury,” Dr. Toresdahl says. Running a half marathon will help you familiarize yourself with the training cycle, increasing and then tapering mileage and running a race—including pacing yourself. “There’s a lot of excitement at a race, so you may be tempted to run faster than what you trained for due to adrenaline and then run out of gas quickly,” he says. “Get experience with the race routine first.” There are many popular half marathons that take place in the spring, in places as varied as Miami, Austin, Cleveland and New York City, so you should be able to find one close to you.
The rule of thumb for race training is to increase your weekly mileage by about 10 percent week over week, though what will work for you may differ. “The 10-percent rule isn’t scientific,” Dr. Toresdahl says. “There are different stresses on your body to account for, like your pace, whether you’re running hills, what other exercise you’re doing and your sleep.” Rather than focusing on hitting weekly distance goals, aim for maintaining consistency and working up slowly.
Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. But it’s also what happens when you’re in the middle of a plan—and it doesn’t make exceptions for endurance race training. When, not “if,” there’s an interruption during your training, address it and adjust accordingly. “People get knocked out of their training plans with an injury or travel and then try to make up training runs and increase the pace of their overall training too quickly,” Dr. Toresdahl says. “It’s a setup for more serious injury.”
If you miss more than a week of training, you won’t be able to maintain your current fitness level. “You’re getting deconditioned without the stresses of running,” he says. “If you get back into training too quickly after a few weeks off, it’s a big jump—our bodies are not as adaptable as we might like, especially as we get older. Our muscles, tendons and bones don’t do very well with fluctuations in training volume.”
Recognize what your body is capable of and get back to increasing your mileage as you are able. This means not doubling or tripling your mileage week-over-week or compressing two weeks of training into one, but gradually building back up. Consider, too, doing more run-walk intervals as you recover from an injury or interruption.
Your race may be a way off, but it’s important to make sure you’re allowing for time for recovery after the big day. “Don’t plan anything too strenuous for after a marathon or half marathon,” Dr. Toresdahl says. “Some runners go sightseeing or take a red-eye flight home after a race. That would not only be really uncomfortable but also would be a big setback for recovery.”
Beyond the race weekend, be ready to not run for a little while. Dr. Toresdahl recommends a period of rest from running, working in biking, yoga or other forms of exercise that are not high-impact. And of course, don’t forget to celebrate your achievement!