Thinking of a Running a Marathon? Think Again

Posted by Filed Under: Races & Racing

New to running? Don’t run a marathon.

I know you want to. But don’t.

The marathon has become the running Mt. Everest to every new runner. With the amount of hype and advertising that accompanies every large marathon, runners are drawn to them like moths to a flame. They present the ultimate challenge for anyone who is just trying to figure out how far they can go.

But don’t let your eyes get too big for your shoes.

If you are 18 years old and have wings on your feet, then this isn’t about you. But for people out there who are first trying out running, a marathon is most likely far beyond what you should be doing to your body right out of the gate. You want to enjoy your first marathon, not turn it into a tortuous, dreadful experience that you just barely get through, which is where you’ll end up by rushing to get there before you are ready.

The best piece of advice I ever received about running a marathon was: “Respect the distance.” I took this to mean it’s not easy and it will humble you without mercy if you don’t take it seriously. You will run that marathon some day, but driving yourself too far, too fast will only hurt you and destroy that running dream you’ve just found. Here is what I found to be good advice for getting yourself to the marathon, without arriving too early.

  1. Run. You need to be running for about a year before you begin training for a marathon. Your body needs to adjust to running. Bones, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and your heart, all need to change to adapt to running. Each one of them adapts at a different rate. A year of running, finding your pace, your stride, and your form, will give all of your body time to adjust. Before you start running, talk to your doctor. Running is good but start with making sure all the parts are working first. Then run.
  2. Listen. There are thousands of runners out there who have a lot of advice. Listen to what they have to say. That doesn’t mean you have to follow all of it, but they will have tips for you that will make your life easier as you increase your mileage. Some people want to feel like they did it without any help from anyone, but they may spend a lot of time backtracking trying to fix problems they could have avoided. There’s more to running than what you will find in books, so ask questions. Where do you stand at the start of the race? How do you tie your shoes so they don’t come undone? How do you drink from a cup and run? How much mileage is too much for shoes? Ask a runner.
  3. Read. Find a good running book (ask one of those runners from #2). Find a Web site. Join an online running group. Subscribe to a running magazine. There is a lot of information out there about running that is just waiting for you, all you have to do is go find it. Information about food, shoes, clothing, health, training plans, running clubs, technology gadgets, and much more. Which shoes should you wear? What do you eat while running long distance? How much water should you drink? What is gel? Good questions. The answers are out there.
  4. Plan. Find a good training plan to help guide you through your early running days. There are plans online, in books, in magazines, and other runners have plans. Find one that says “novice” or “beginner.” You are a beginner. And that’s OK. Every runner was at one point. Start right and you will be running for a long time. Start wrong and you will end up hurt and hating running. If you have never run before (or have been pretty sedentary), find a plan that includes walking. You will need to spend some time recovering from the forces of running, and walking will give you time to gain fitness while your body rests.
  5. Race. I said don’t run a marathon, but that doesn’t mean don’t race. Go race. Start with something local, so you don’t have to go far and get a hotel room. A 5K is a great first race because they are easy to find, don’t take a long time to run, and they bring out a wide variety of runners. They also tend to be well attended with local folk who are out there to support runners like you. Racing will give you a feel for what works for you in a race, like how you keep your target pace while 30 people are jostling all around you. You should have a few races under your belt, especially a half marathon before starting your training for a full marathon. You don’t want your first half-marathon to be in the middle of training. Racing can be very taxing on a body, and marathon training will require more recovery time between long runs.

Patience is not easy when you’ve found something fun and challenging to do. If you want to run a marathon, then start the right way. Get your body ready for the training so that you will arrive prepared on race day, not just barely making it because you pushed too fast through training. The marathon will be there waiting for you, when you are ready. And you will be ready.

  1. Jank on May 9th at 7:55 am

    I’m going back and forth with this (as you well know). If you’re really, really driven, maybe 26.2 is the thing to do right off the bat.

    Right off the bat being 6 months down the road, though, if you’re coming from a standstill.

    You do make an excellent point about “respecting the distance”, though. Even if you don’t really think about what you’re doing, race day will put everything into perspective, as the Marathon will own you if you’re not prepared.

  2. Geoffrey on May 9th at 1:34 pm

    Respecting the distance is certainly the key. A long time runner gave me the advice the other day of wait until you know you can qualify for the Boston Marathon at your first Marathon. If you train according to that standard, it will probably take at least two years of dedication before that is achievable, but what a fantastic idea.

  3. Kent A on May 9th at 5:31 pm

    This article held interest. I have been running for 1.5 years and have run a few Half Marathons. I am wondering when to switch to the full. I beat my HM PR by 6 minutes by I missed by goal pace of 8:00 by 22 seconds. I now have two real goals — run faster than 1:40:00 HM AND complete a faster than 3:45 full marathon. One goal is racing against myself, and the other is much closer to the dreaded “complete the distance” motivation. I am hoping as I up my mileage 35mpw to closer 55 both are possible. Perhaps some people are just much HM than full marathons…

  4. booyaa dot org» Blog Archive » Web links for May 9th on May 9th at 6:38 pm

    […] Thinking of a Running a Marathon? Think Again » Complete Running Network – Some friendly advice about that fearful distance. I can’t wait till we start seeing “Thinking of entering a(n) Ironman Triathlon? Think again”. I think people love a little danger, especially if it’s laced with a bit of unknown… […]

  5. Irene on May 10th at 11:14 am

    I agree whole heartedly about not running a marathon if you’re new to running, as in my case. It was about 4 years of working out and running shorter distances (5k’s) before I could fathom a marathon. I also received some of the best advice from long time marathon runners. Nice article, Jon.

  6. My 1st Marathon » Blog Archive » “Respect The Distance” on May 10th at 11:27 am

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  7. Tory K on May 10th at 10:46 pm

    Wait until you can qualify for Boston? Are you KIDDING me? There are some who may never qualify. So are you saying that just because someone might be slow, they shouldn’t run a marathon. Damn, then I guess I shouldn’t have run the last six marathons, nor the one coming up in a few weeks because as a middle aged runner who just started running a bit over three years ago, my dreams of qualifying are still just dreams.

    However, I do agree. Here’s a discussion I had with my sister last Fall.

    (Her)”I think I’m going to run a marathon! There’s one here in April.” (She lives in Mass.)

    “Really? Wow! That’s exciting.” (She has run a 10k as her longest run.) “Which marathon do you think you’ll run?”

    “Oh, the one in Boston in April.”

    “YOu mean THE Boston Marathon?”


    “Um, first of all, not a good choice for a first marathon. Why not try to find a nice flat course.”

    “Oh, my friend told me there’s nothing to it. It’s all about the pacing.”

    “Did your friend mention you have to qualify for this race? That means you either have to run another marathon beforehand at about an 8:30 pace, or you have to get in as a charity runner.”

    “Naw, she can get me in.” (She’s one of those people who is pretty sure that BS will always “get her in” to something. This comes from being married to an insufferable boor who likes to pretend he’s a VIP.)

    “Really? I hadn’t heard that this was possible. So have you started training?”

    “Not yet, but my friend says it’s just in the pacing.”

    “Well either your friend has never run a marathon, or she has selective amnesia.”

    At which point I shared my training with her, and pointed out that having three children and a husband who is unwilling to EVER help with the kids would make it substantially more difficult to do long runs.

    She decided against it.

    I ran for a full year before starting to train. Injury kept me from a full my first try, so I ran a half and built up. Ran a full in May 2005 and loved every painful minute of it. (Not that every minute was painful, but there were a few.) Built a better base and trained for another in November of that year, then did a very slow Disneyworld (ran with my husband who had many issues on the route). I take each and every one very seriously, but I might never qualify for Boston and that’s okay. I’ll still keep running!

  8. Pamalamadingdong on May 11th at 6:31 am


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  10. ZaleTabakman on July 23rd at 5:39 pm

    While I liked your comments, I have few comments.

    I started by walking a few 1/2 marathons cause my girlfriend was doing it.
    I used to be a rollerblader – but she didn’t do that so I wanted to spend some time with her. And a several hour walk was a great way to get started.

    I am now instructing a Learn to run a marathon clinic at the running room here in toronto.

    I think your advice is very well taken – but most won’t listen and they try to do too much way too quickly.

    Here is my first article on marathons. It tittle Marathons as a metaphor for success.

    I don’t want to write about the how – there are many better people than me. However, I do want to write about what it means in the greater scheme of somebody’s life.

    I would like some feedback on it.If it sucked please tell me quickly (I hate being embarrassed) . If it was ok I would like the encouragement and some thoughts about where I can go with the series and what people would want to read.

  11. ZaleTabakman on August 6th at 6:33 pm

    By the way – I posted the Toronto Marathon in Google Earth here