#12. What it takes – and doesn’t take – to train for a marathon

Last Sunday, I ran my longest marathon training distance yet: 16 miles. I elected to do so on the scenic Paseo del Bosque trail in Albuquerque, our temporary home for the next month. The inspiring views of the Rio Grande and Sandia Peak, combined with a slow, manageable pace of 12 minutes per mile, lent to what ended up being a highly enjoyable run. By the time I finished, my legs ached and I smelled like a locker room. Other than that, I felt really good.

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A gravel acequia trail adjoining the paved Bosque path

I posted my run and a video on social media, as I do most Sundays (what can I say? I get excited about running and like to share it) and received several comments to the effect of, “Wow, I could never do that.” I have to disagree. The fact is, most people absolutely could work their way up to 16 miles and beyond, and most people could complete a marathon if they really wanted to. 

So what does it take? First, let’s look at what you don’t need before committing to marathon training:

  • You DON’T need to be fast. See above. Heck, you could walk the entire marathon if you wanted to. Same goes for your long runs. Speed isn’t always important in endurance races, though most marathons do have time limits that you’ll need to be aware of.
  • You DON’T need to be super tall or super skinny or super “runner-like”. If you’ve ever watched a half marathon or marathon, you probably noticed that the participants came in all shapes and sizes. That’s one thing that I love about the running community: it’s so inclusive. All body types are welcome.
  • You DON’T need to have fancy, expensive running clothes. You also don’t need fancy, expensive supplements or protein bars or watches or other gear. If you’ve got some grungy old clothes, a decent pair of sneakers, some sweet and salty snacks (see below), and some sort of timekeeping device (I use my phone), you’re good to go.
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Inexpensive cotton t-shirt shown here.

What you do need:

  • Time. This might be the most critical yet trickiest ingredient to successful marathon training aside from the actual running part. Especially if you’re a slower runner – like me – you’ll need several consecutive hours all to yourself to get these long runs done. That means that if you’re a parent of small children, someone will have to watch your kids on Saturday or Sunday morning. If you’re someone who works all the time, you need to cordon off several hours that you could devote to your job to your training run. And although mid-week runs are usually relatively short (mine currently range from 3 to 6 miles), you need to make time for those, too.
  • Commitment. I wasn’t totally committed to training for my first marathon. In fact, I skipped many of my long weekend runs. The result? A painful race day experience. If you really want to do this, and if you want to minimize the likelihood of crying, puking, or quitting during the actual event, you have to be committed enough to get those training runs in, even if you don’t particularly feel like it.
  • Appropriate food and beverages. Long runs are much easier when I fuel myself properly before and during long runs. For me, that means eating a lot of complex carbs the day before (I’m a big fan of rice and beans) and a combination of sweet and salty snacks during the run. This past weekend, I brought a banana, a container of corn chips, a couple of granola bars, an apple, and my current training beverage of choice, Beachbody Performance Energize (it looks like ectoplasm and tastes like Crystal Light lemonade). It was a perfect menu for a training session of that distance.
  • A solid training schedule. After I signed up for the marathon, I sat down with several sample training schedules and my calendar and mapped out three months of training. I started by inputting my long weekend runs, then the shorter weekday runs, and finally my cross-training workouts. Knowing precisely what I need to do on a given day takes the guesswork out of the process and allows me to plan ahead.
  • Realistic expectations. I know that I’m not a fast runner. I know that my right knee is prone to getting wonky if I overuse it, so I have to give it adequate recovery time. I know that I am not going to run this marathon at a pace less than 10.5 minutes per mile. I also know that running alone isn’t enough for me – my best training occurs when I also make time for strength training. Having realistic expectations helps me schedule my training sessions appropriately, run at a manageable pace, and reduce the risk of injury.

All this to say, if you’ve been thinking about training for a marathon but your doubts are holding you back, shove those doubts aside and go for it. I dare you, and I’d place a bet on you being able to do what you set out to do.

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