As my marathon training is coming to its peak and taper is approaching, I can’t help but look back through past marathon experiences. It’s fun to remind myself that I can do this, and have done it before with enough enjoyment to sign up again. This always reminds me that nothing will ever compare to the experience of my very first marathon.
I enjoy looking through old marathon training runs and reminding myself what I did that was successful, and what I wish I had not done. Every marathon is different, just as every training season is different. However, there are a few things that I always try to stick with and remind myself of during preparation and on race day.
The past four marathons have all been so different in terms of where I am in life, training, physically, and mentally. Each of these races have given me such a strong sense of accomplishment that it kept me coming back for more.
Even so, my first marathon taught me an incredible amount about myself, the sport, and other runners.
Thinking through my past four marathons and the training that went with them, there are many things I know now that I sure wish I’d known before that first marathon.
Focus on the present workouts, not the future of your training.
It’s so easy to get your first marathon training plan and instantly find yourself overwhelmed! If running 4 miles seems challenging to me now, how in the world will I manage 20?! Focus on the moment you are in – your current week of training, the next run on your schedule – and not the future. You’d be surprised how your body adapts and mileage that is double what you used to do suddenly seems like a ‘short run’.
Eat to run, not run to eat.
I’m definitely guilty of this! I am all for rewarding yourself after a long run, but make sure you don’t go overboard. It took me a while to figure out why I actually gained weight during my first marathon training season. Just because you are training for a marathon doesn’t mean that you can eat three portions of spaghetti the night before a 5 mile mid-week run. Be aware of your mileage, eat when you are hungry, and fuel up for those long runs. During the week, there is no need to be winning hot dog eating contests or gorging yourself on cake.
Break those long runs up into smaller distances.
I am training for my fifth marathon and have just FINALLY discovered the beauty in this. I certainly wish I had discovered it sooner because it have completely revolutionized long runs. Instead of heading out for 10 miles and then turning around to get 20 miles, find a place where you can go out in multiple different directions. I start in the middle of a trail and head out for 3 in one direction, then back to the start, 3 in the other direction, then back to the start, 2 out and back, then 2 out and back again. Breaking the run down into 6, 6, 4, and 4 miles has been a game changer for me mentally.
Dedicate your runs to someone or something.
Feeling like you are running for a purpose, or for someone who is really struggling, often puts the pain you are feeling during those few miles into perspective. It helps me to have a purpose, and reminds me that my struggles are nothing compared to what others have been through. Dedicating miles to others helps me practice gratitude during times where it is easy to think selfish thoughts and get caught up in your own pains. My first marathon was something I wanted to do for myself, to see if it was even possible to accomplish. Once I realized that it was, I decided to mentally dedicate future runs to others.
Rest when your body is telling you to, even if you have a run scheduled.
This is definitely easier said than done. If you feel a nagging pain in the middle of a big training week, it is so easy to try and just ‘run through it’. However, more often than not, running through a pain will result in one that actually sidelines you from your training. It is so much better to take time off before it becomes something more serious. Maybe your body has been feeling really tired and lethargic the past few days, and is desperately trying to tell you that it needs some extra rest. Whatever you are feeling, listen to your body and remind yourself that a few missed miles will not ruin your race (or your fitness).
Don’t try to make up missed miles.
On the same note… trying to make up a few missed runs during training is almost never worth it. Trying to tack those miles on after missing them can mean losing a rest or recovery day that our bodies need, which often leads to an overuse injury. A few missed 6 mile runs in the middle of training, or even a few weeks out from your race, is not going to make you feel any different during the marathon.
Just because one running fuel works for most people (i.e., gels) does not mean they have to work for you.
I struggled with this during my first marathon especially, because I wasn’t really sure what else to do. It seemed that everywhere I shopped or researched, gels were always the designated runner fuel. Everyone that I talked to used them on their runs, but whenever I tried them I just couldn’t force them down. My stomach did not like their consistency, and I’d often find myself skimping out on long run fuel because I only brought gels with me. It took me a while to find Shot Blocks and Honey Stinger waffles, but once I did it was a game changer. Don’t be afraid to look outside the box. Just because one thing seems to work for everyone else does not mean something is wrong with you if it doesn’t work for you as well.
Keep a training log documenting your runs.
This is something I just started doing in training for my fifth marathon and I certainly wish I had done it sooner! It is so helpful to look back on how I felt during my last 18 mile run, what my training week looked like leading up to it, and how I recovered my best. Training logs are a great reminder of all the progress you have made. These past few weeks I have been looking through my Garmin history reminding myself of the training struggles I experienced during my first marathon.
Hydration is important even on days when you don’t run.
My best runs seem to always happen when I am hydrated and refreshed. Similarly, the runs that present a struggle almost always happen when I am dehydrated. It was a while before I discovered that in order to feel my best for a big run, I needed to be well hydrated. This meant not just drinking water before I went to bed the night before – but drinking water consistently throughout the week.
Don’t let the excitement of race day make you start faster than planned.
Guilty! There is nothing like the excitement you feel standing in a crowd of people at a race start, especially for your first marathon. Don’t let that excitement get the best of you. It is so easy to start off with the crowd and get running faster than any of your training run paces. It may feel okay in the beginning while your adrenaline and anxiety are at an all time high, but it won’t be long before you begin to suffer. I like to start a little farther back, behind my pace group in the starting line up. Getting passed by tons of people that were behind you in the corral but actually run faster really hurts my mental game. It brings me so much more confidence to start a little farther back and then be the one to pass others as they slow down.
At some point during the race you will get emotional.
I had heard this prior to my first marathon, but never really knew what to expect until I started. Around mile 18 I remember the emotions hitting and thinking about how lucky I was to be able to do something like this, and what a great group of people it brought together. No matter what you think, the intensity of the event will hit you at some point during your first course.
It WILL be hard, and at some point around mile 20 you will question your sanity and tell yourself you’ll never do this again.
After getting all emotional and feeling so lucky, you will no doubt experience the other extreme. Somewhere around mile 20, the distance will start to sound overwhelming, your legs will be really tired, you will be hot and thirsty, and you will start to question your sanity. Don’t let it get to you. This happens to every runner; beginners and seasoned marathoners alike. A marathon is a physical challenge for every person out there, and you will inevitably feel pretty terrible at some point. The first marathon especially is a mental battle, since you have never finished the distance before. Remind yourself why you are doing this, how great it will feel to cross that finish line, and remember that you will not remember the pain when you finish.
…and you will probably find yourself browsing future marathons the next day 😉
Despite all that pain you felt around mile 20, the feeling of accomplishment will be all you remember for the next few days. No doubt you will find yourself experiencing a sense of loss the week after the marathon (post marathon depression is a real thing). All of a sudden you have so much free time that you used to spend training, and will probably end up browsing the web for future races.
Trust in your training.
You have already done the hard part. Running 26.2 miles might still seem far stretched if you have never run more than 20, but there is a reason training plans don’t go past this distance. You have put in the miles, done the hard work, and now are ready to reap the reward. Trust yourself. Your body and mind are more than ready for the marathon.