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Running Your First Marathon? Here's How To Train

Runners approach the finish line of the 120th Boston Marathon on Monday, April 18, 2016, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP Photo)
Runners approach the finish line of the 120th Boston Marathon on Monday, April 18, 2016, in Boston. (Elise Amendola/AP Photo)

More than 500,000 people finished at least one U.S. marathon in 2015, the last year for which the group Running USA has released its annual report. Almost half of those runners were at least 40 years old, a record high percentage.

Anyone can run a marathon, says exercise physiologist Susan Paul, but beginning runners should take it slowly — injuries are common among novices and experts alike.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson talks with Paul, training program director and coach at Track Shack ( @trackshack) in Orlando, about how newcomers can prepare for their first marathon.

Interview Highlights

On how common it is for running newcomers to run a marathon

“It is very, very common. We have a huge training program here in Orlando, and we see anywhere from 500 to 600 runners throughout a year that I will coach. Many of them are first-time runners. Just like your statistics, many of them are 40 years old or older. Some have run previously, maybe way back in high school. Others have maybe never run at all.”

On training for a marathon by running different distances

“By the time [runners] come to me, they typically are ready for a marathon. I also coach a beginner program, so I like it that we have sort of stages in our programming. I can take someone from that zero to 5K level, get them ready to run that three miles. Once you’re at three miles, I like to start gearing people to marathon training if that’s what they choose. But along the way, yes, absolutely, I will encourage them to do a 10K, a half marathon, so that they will have run some intermediate distances before they do get to that marathon distance, so they begin to get a feel for what they’re in for and what all those miles really mean.”


On how long it takes a beginner to prepare to run a marathon

“I would like to have someone for anywhere from even seven to nine months. Because those first few months that people enter training, it’s really important to go slow and set a very good base for conditioning. That’s usually where most people will drop out because of injury or they get burned out. So, you want to take it easy and give their body time to adapt to all these many, many changes that they’re going to now have to make.”

On the most common injuries during training, and how to avoid them

“The most common injuries depend on where you are with your training. If we’re talking about beginners, shin splints are very common. Many times they are just part of the conditioning process, and again that’s where we want to go slow at the beginning. For a more experienced runner, often times hamstring pulls are one of the most common injuries that I see. A lot of times that’s because they’re trying to get faster, so not only are they working on increasing their distance, they’re also trying to do it faster, and sometimes we just overtax the system. I think it goes along the lines with, we never know our limits until sometimes we cross them. I like to use injuries as training tools and to realize that, OK, we need to back off from where we were and we need to take it slower and rebuild.

“I think that’s also where equipment is very important. Running shoes are integral to anyone’s success, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced runner. And you do need to be in the right shoe for you based on your biomechanics and your gait. Then runners are going to have to replace them often, and probably more often than we would like. But they do wear out, and we’ve got to be in good gear to complete, especially, the marathon distance.”

On whether people who miss a marathon because of an injury regret training in the first place

“Never, never. That’s the funny thing. I love the saying that, ‘I’ve never gone on a run that I regretted. No matter what happened.’ I think that once you get a runner to the point where they are training, especially for the marathon distance, they pretty much are in love with running and we really can’t wait to get back out there. Often, that’s why doctors will get frustrated with us because we’re not their typical patient. We come in and they’ll say, ‘OK, you’ve got a stress fracture,’ and we’re like, ‘OK yeah, but can I still run my marathon on Saturday?’ We want to get better. We want to be out there, and we’re very, very motivated. I tell people that, ‘It’s time to rebuild. The system broke, so it’s time to rebuild it. So rebuild your body. Look at this injury as a way to rebuild a better body for the next time around.’ Many times that may involve physical therapy or cross-training. Maybe you can ride a bike when you can’t run. Maybe you can swim when you can’t run. You can still maintain your fitness level, and then ease back into the running.”

On training for the next marathon

“Fitness is constantly changing. It doesn’t really stick around. Many people will run a marathon, we need to recover, and I think that’s one mistake a lot of runners make is they don’t give themselves enough recovery time after the marathon. You really do need to take about three weeks of going easy. Really, maybe even not running at all, but running very slow, very short. Let your body rest. And then you’ve got to rebuild and go through that whole building up of increasing in mileage gradually all over again.

“Now, it does get a little bit easier in that sense of you don’t have that early conditioning stage to go through because you have that base conditioning. But you do have to rebuild to that distance over and over again. In part, I think, that’s the allure for a lot of runners is because our bodies are never static. Fitness is never static. So every time we train for a marathon, it’s different. Maybe your nutritional needs are different. You’re more fit, so maybe you’re going to be faster. Maybe you’re trying to qualify for Boston this time around. Maybe you want to set a personal record. So, there’s all these little things that we can kind of play with and change up our training a little bit, so it’s never the same.”

On whether people should listen to music while running

“I encourage them to go ears open, for a lot of reasons. Listening to music I think is great, but I think primarily it belongs in the gym. When you’re running outside, which is primarily where I train people — we run outdoors — you need to be aware of your surroundings. You need to listen for traffic. You need to listen for people around you. Also, since we’re group training, you’re running in a group of people. So, I think it’s kind of isolating if you’ve sign up and you’re running in a group of like 20 people, but you stick in your headphones, basically you’re kind of saying, ‘I’d rather listen to my music than talk to you.’ So, we really encourage people for safety reasons not to wear headphones.

“But the other thing I think is really important is one of the best appeals to running is that we have to tune into our bodies. Especially in today’s world that’s so high tech, you need to listen to your breathing. You need to listen to your footfalls. If your feet are slapping the ground, if you’re huffing and puffing, you need to know that and become very aware of that. The time that you spend running, you really need to tune into yourself, listen to how you feel, have those feelings. Maybe you are in pain. You don’t want the music to mask anything, so I really encourage runners to go without headphones.”

On the one common misconception about training to run a marathon

“That it’s easy. Anybody can run a marathon. Now, not everyone will qualify for Boston. But anyone really can run a marathon if they want to. But they really do have to want to. I don’t care how slow you are, it’s still hard. 26.2 miles is a long way. It’s still gonna be tough. You have to train just the same. If you’re a 15-minute miler, your training is essentially going to be the same as someone who maybe is a six- or seven-minute miler. As the saying goes, a 12-minute mile is just as long as a six-minute mile. You have to be prepared for that.”

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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