Take these steps to avoid a very unnecessary and uncomfortable situation.
Marathon running, once seen as a dubious habit best left to professional ectomorphs, now reaches deep into every sporting and cultural demographic. Throughout the 1970s, only highly experienced competitors tackled the event, and as the four-hour mark approached, officials started dismantling the finish-line equipment.
Now, however, there are well over half a million marathon finishers a year in the United States—almost four times the 1980 total. This influx of novice runners has nudged average finish times steadily higher; in 2013, the average man took 4 hours, 16 minutes to finish and the average woman 4:41. With more and more less-than-optimally trained people in the mix, the running world has become witness to the formerly unthinkable, with people entering marathons fully intending to take as many walk breaks as necessary to reach the finish line. The incidence of once-rare physical problems has risen, among these electrolyte disturbances, extreme muscle trauma, even crippling blisters and severe sunburns.
Even if you’re not a professional runner, your main challenge is the same one marathoners have always confronted: getting to the finish without running out of fuel and being reduced to a slow, ugly shuffle. For you, successful fueling requires attention to banal details you can safely ignore at shorter distances. Since you’re unlikely to magically wake up with the talent to run at a five-minute pace for a couple of hours, you might instead simply lower your expectations, ignoring the projections from your 5K and 10K times and being happy just to notch a few however-I-get-there finishes. But as a time-goal-oriented marathon racer, what nutritional and other preparatory steps can you take, not only during the race itself but in training, to avoid this very uncomfortable and unnecessary situation?
If you follow the pros, you may have noticed that most of them don’t start racing marathons until they’re 30 or so, despite the allure of a significant payday. This is not for nothing.
A lot of newcomers, lacking the helpful context provided by racing shorter distances in high school or college, make finishing a marathon their primary goal from the start. Consequently, more and more runners take to the marathon only six months or so after ungluing themselves from their couches. While plenty of folks can survive a 26.2-miler without an extensive running background, only the most gifted of specimens can both build sufficient endurance and master their pacing in such a short time to race a marathon without running out of gas to some extent.
Perhaps the biggest problem with “doing” a marathon and feeling “OK” about it, rather than assiduously racing one from start to finish, is that you can’t learn from mistakes you may be unaware of even having made; even experienced marathoners often believe that some degree of slowing down in the last 10K is all but obligatory. Once you make burning up in the final miles a habit of sorts, it becomes easy to expect it—and do nothing to counteract it—in subsequent efforts.
Pacing and Fueling
Assuming you’ve trained your body properly and have a realistic goal, the two essentials of successful marathon racing are sound pacing and following a well-thought-out fueling plan. As you progress in your training and the length of your longest runs increases, you can work on these in tandem.
For example, if your 10K and half marathon times point toward a 3:30 marathon, aim to do about 10 to 15 or more miles at 8:00 pace at the end of at least three of your long runs within the training cycle.
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Just as critically, you need to experiment with different sources of fuel during these faster long runs to see which ones you can most easily stomach. Some marathoners prefer sports drinks, others are partial to energy gels, and some combine the two. In any event, you certainly need to know before race day which ones sit best in your stomach.
And most important of all, you need to count on taking in roughly 500 or 600 calories of carbohydrate during the race to complement the 1,800 to 2,000 or so you can store in your muscles and liver. This is not something you can simply opt to forgo because you don’t “like” taking in sweet stuff on the go. No matter how light you are or how efficiently you can burn fat, running hard means metabolizing a lot of basic sugar.
If you’re short on experience and want to race a marathon, by all means pick and train for a goal event, but do it in stages and be patient. Enter 5K, 10K and half marathon events first. Give yourself at least a year to get to know your running body and what it feels like to “red-line” at various distances, and to develop the reservoir of physical and mental strength you’ll need to stay on top of the marathon rather than bow down to it. These factors help keep you from crashing once you do tackle a 26-2-miler.
Putting all of these elements together takes patience, practice and savvy. But if you’re diligent about it, you’re all the more likely to reach the finish line in style, and wearing that finisher’s medal around your neck will be all the more satisfying when you know—to borrow from Jurassic Park—that you spared no preparatory expense.
About The Author:
Kevin Beck has been a runner since 1984 and holds a personal best of 2:24:17 in the marathon. A former senior writer for Running Times, he is the editor of Run Strong (Human Kinetics, 2005), and has also written about sports and health-related topics for Marathon & Beyond, Men’s Fitness, The Roanoke Valley Sports Journal, and numerous other publications.