From the legendary days when the Greek soldier Pheidippides heralded news from the battlefield to the recent growth in popularity of the marathon, the race has turned into a bucket-list run. And there’s a lot that goes into successfully completing those iconic 26.2 miles—both before and during race day. If you’re aiming to join the more than 500,000 runners who finish a marathon in the U.S. each year, here are eight tips that will pave your way to success.
1. Train steadily.
"Consistent training is better than rockstar training," says two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier and New Mexico-based running coach Magdalena Donahue. She says consistent preparation is what counts and the ups and downs of training train your physical and mental fitness for race day.
"You'll have great workouts and terrible workouts, and workouts you miss. The biggest thing you can do to prepare for your marathon is commit to doing ‘most’ of your training, and doing it ‘mostly’ well. Don't beat yourself up when you miss runs with a cold, or for work travel, or a kids’ soccer tournament weekend. Congratulate yourself on your amazing workouts, but realize that not all runs will feel incredible. Some will be so-so, some will be memorable, and some will be forgettable," she says.
The number one rule of running your first marathon: never try something new on race day. Lance Grandahl
2. Find the right gear.
"Finding the right shoe is probably the most important thing out there," says Heather North, an accomplished athlete, doctor of physical therapy, and coach with Revolution Running in Colorado and Washington. She advises visiting your local running store to have the shoe experts watch you run to find footwear and insoles that work best for you. And, “get rid of those silly cotton socks and get into something wool or synthetic,” she says.
3. Stay motivated.
If you find yourself lagging during your training, consider finding a running partner or group. "Motivating each other and keeping each other accountable is very important," North says. Knowing you’ll disappoint a friend if you cancel a run may be the incentive you need to get out the door. And once you’re moving, companionship during the run and celebrating your successes together will keep your spirits high as the training runs get longer and your mileage climbs into the double digits.
Do you want to run a big city race or a smaller event? Mārtiņš Zemlickis
4. Pick a race.
Finding an event that fits your schedule, personal needs, and goals is vital, North says. If you enjoy the support of friends and family, choose a race close to home. If you want to make a trip out of it and don’t mind coordination the travel to a race, pick an event in a vacation spot.
Also take into account the course description and anticipated temperatures. Courses like the Vermont City Marathon with a clover-shaped route means your squad can cheer you on four times during the race without having to relocate. Seeing your family’s smiling faces and their cheesy signs might be just what you need to push you to the finish when you’re lagging.
Flat or downhill courses that don’t require extra energy to chug up hills are more approachable for first-timers, as are those held in mild climates. Some races have course cut-off times, so consider your average pace to make sure you can complete the mileage within the limit. The Walt Disney World Marathon is always a crowd-pleaser with a flat course, mild temperatures, and a fun atmosphere with Disney characters stationed along the route.
5. Train with your gear.
It may be tempting to toe the line on race day with a new pair of kicks. However, that’s not the time to break in new shoes. Train in your race-day shoes at least a few times before the event to ensure you won’t have any (extra) blisters or sores.
Train with your competition clothing, too. Mile 20 is a bad time to figure out your snazzy new pair of shorts are rubbing the insides of your legs raw. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is trying something new on race day.
Practice everything about your race before race day. Steven Lelham
6. Practice your race-day nutrition and hydration.
Anything you anticipate doing in the race, practice it, says Coach Donahue. During your training, experiment with pre-run food and drink so you have your meals down pat before the morning of the race.
Find out where fluid stations will be placed along your race course and drink at those intervals during training. Try out the brand of fluid and energy gels available on the course—if they don’t work well for you, practice carrying your own nutrition. "You don't want to be surprised by nutrition/hydration problems on race day, and have to race with an upset stomach, or feeling parched because you missed your water stop," Donahue says.
7. Prepare mentally.
"As race day approaches and nerves start to tingle, be confident in your training," Donahue advises. Review your training log to remember all the preparation you’ve put in—and to remember that, like your training miles, some miles will fly by and some sections will be difficult.
Recall your training mantras and the mental cues that helped you through hard training runs. Go over your race plan. "Most of all, in the race, be ready to enjoy yourself, push yourself, and discover yourself through this new racing challenge," she says.
8. On race day, start slow.
The energy and excitement of race day can mean you push too hard at the start and burn out before the finish line. Instead, North advises starting out a little easier than goal pace for the first three miles then easing into your goal pace. At mile 20 or 23 you should have energy left to slightly pick up your pace.
"Going out too hard or not negative splitting your marathon will lead to a poor result. Trust in the equation, and you will have a great and successful race!" she says.