What to know about training for a marathon


Whether you’re a seasoned jogger who wants to work toward a new goal or a novice runner who’s inspired by a friend's accomplishment of winning a race, there are many personal reasons as to why you would want to train for and run in a marathon.

Although running a marathon or half marathon can be a daunting and sometimes painful endeavor, training for and running a race can offer a number of benefits for your body and mind.

Health benefits of training for a marathon

The benefits of training for a long distance running event such as a half marathon or marathon are many. By far the most notable benefits are improvements in cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance.

Other less commonly publicized positive effects are weight loss and mental health changes such as improvement in mood, self-esteem, reductions of anxiety and relationship bonding with training partners. Additionally, an active lifestyle that includes marathon training often stimulates healthier eating habits and quitting smoking.

The physiologic effects that running causes help to stimulate endorphin release in the brain, creating a feeling of euphoria as well as capillary development that improves the efficiency of your heart and improved blood flow to the brain and the extremities.

Getting started with running is inexpensive, as it only requires a pair of well-fitted shoes, and there’s a huge health return on that small investment.

Downsides to training for a marathon

Training for long distance events isn’t without risks, so make sure you consult your physician prior to beginning any intense training program.

It’s important to gradually build your training over time, especially for beginners and first-time marathoners. If mileage or training intensity is increased too quickly, significant injuries can occur that can derail your training and prevent you from reaching your goal.

The most common injuries I see in my practice from overtraining are stress fractures, overuse injuries of the bones of the legs and feet that are brought on by pushing your body too hard to quickly, running in worn out shoes and running only on hard surfaces. Some of the other common conditions that occur with overly intense training programs are muscle strains, tendonitis, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome and chronic fatigue.

Importance of using a training program

Training schedules are crucial when you’re preparing for a half marathon or marathon. Just like a study schedule or a work schedule, a training schedule keeps you on task and focused as you progress toward your goal.

With a set training schedule that includes some variability in the distance, time, location, direction, terrain and intensity of your running, it’ll be easier to stay motivated and optimize your performance on race day.

One simple motivational tool that a training schedule can provide is making others aware that you’re preparing for a race. This will stimulate them to ask you how your training and preparation are going. They know that you’ll need time on Wednesday afternoon or Sunday morning for your long runs and are commonly more respectful of your time, as well as excited to see you succeed.

How to find a credible training program

To find or develop an appropriate and safe training program, it’s important to begin with a goal in mind and know what you expect from your body on race day. If your goal is simply to complete the race, then you most likely won’t require regular intense interval (sprint) training to accomplish it.

With higher aspirations, such as qualifying for the Boston Marathon or running a sub-90-minute half marathon, seeking out coaching advice may be necessary to customize your training plan. Though some training programs allow runners to complete a marathon by running only 30 miles per week, keep in mind that this is an absolute minimum.

If a program doesn’t include occasional runs of at least 10-12 miles, your body may get shocked during the race and “hit the wall” when you reach a distance that it hasn’t previously experienced.

How far in advance should I start training for a race?

Depending on your baseline level of fitness, most runners require a minimum of two months of diligent training to complete a half marathon and three months to complete a marathon. For novice or beginner runners 4-6 months of preparation are often required for a marathon. This timeframe allows you to slowly build your endurance without overtaxing your body and putting you at risk of injury.

One of the dangers of simply “jumping into” a marathon with minimal preparation is the risk of developing rhabdomyolysis, an acute condition of muscle breakdown that can lead to kidney failure or even death if not treated right away. The best advice is to start early and increase your mileage and intensity gradually.

Running, whether you do it to prepare for a half marathon, marathon, 5K or just to improve your fitness, is a treasure. It’s inexpensive, can be done just about anywhere and the health benefits of long distance training dramatically outweigh the risks.

I’ve had countless friends and acquaintances over the years who labeled me as “just another crazy runner” take up running as they got older and realize how much they love it. Start slow, stay focused and you’ll reap the benefits for a lifetime.

Timothy Miller is the director of the Endurance Medicine Program at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and associate professor of orthopedics in the Ohio State College of Medicine.

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