I get this question all the time around the beginning of the year (from new and seasoned) runners wondering if they are ready to tackle the infamous 26.2 In fact, I've been asked by three different people just this month! And although my opinion is just my opinion, it is based on 15 years of running experience combined with advice gleaned from coaches and (more) knowledgeable running folk. I promise.
That said, yes, anyone (with training) can finish a marathon. But there is a difference between "finishing" and "running" a marathon, and this is not just "snobby runner" talk, as my husband calls it. When you do your first marathon, you want to finish well, avoid injury and burnout, and keep the miserable-factor as low as possible, right? So here is what I generally tell people.
You are ready to run a marathon if........
1) You have a good base.
You've been running consistently for 6-12 months averaging 20-30 miles/week. You are comfortable running 4-6 miles, to the point where it feels second nature. And about 1/3 of your running is outside on pavement, since likely, your marathon will take place on pavement and you're legs and feet need to be ready for the pounding. Starting with a strong base and strong legs decreases your risk of injury and burnout while preparing your body for the long, hard training runs.
2) You're doing it for the right reasons.
You love to run and want to go longer. You've always wanted to do a marathon. You want to prove that you can mentally and physically tackle 26.2. These are all great reasons to run a marathon, losing weight is not. In fact, many runners actually GAIN weight during marathon training (I did!). You'll have to eat lots of calories and carbs to keep up with all those miles, as well as recovery foods (like chocolate milk) and pre-run fuel like bars and oatmeal. Your body will NEED fuel! If weight loss is your goal, I recommend training for a half marathon or shorter distance.
3) You have training & race experience.
You wouldn't ski a black your first day ever on a ski mountain, so why would you run a marathon without ever toeing a starting line? I usually suggest making your way up the race ladder from 5K to 10K to half marathon to marathon. There's something that comes with the experience of following a training plan, dealing with pre-race jitters, and learning how to avoid going out too fast when the gun goes off. Also, you'll get a good idea of pacing and finishing strong.
Once you have one (or even better, two) solid half marathons under your belt, then I'd sign up for the 26.2 of your choice. Or, if you're determined to run your first marathon in 2012, sign up for a spring Half and a fall Full to give your body plenty of time to build a base and work up to the distance.
4) You have time to train and a supportive community.
Marathon training is intense. You'll need to carve out time to run 3-5 times/week, including one long run of 1-3 hours. You'll also likely have some cross-training and strength-training days mixed in, as well. You'll want to make sure your husband/wife, kids, and family members are on-board and supportive of your plans. Is your husband willing to hang with the kids while you're out on the trails every Saturday for most of the morning? Will your friends mind if you can't hang out late on Friday nights because you have to get up at 6:00am to fit in your run? Do you have people to run with you, cheer for you, and give you advice as you tackle this new adventure? Or even better, do you have a friend or family member who wants to do the marathon with you?
So you've determined you're ready. Now what?
1) Register for a race- they fill up fast! Ask for suggestions from friends who have a few marathons under their belts. Do you want a big or small race? Destination or close to home? Spring or fall?
2) Invest in a good pair of shoes, a supportive bra, and a fuel belt to carry all the nutrition and water you'll need for those fun 3 hour runs.
3) Select a good training plan that works for you. Hal Higdon is a good resource, as is Runner's World. I usually recommend plans that don't increase your long run mileage every week: 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, etc. Instead, look for a plan where you increase for 2-3 weeks and recover for a week at a shorter distance : 10, 12, 8, 12, 14, 10, etc. Or a long run every 10 days, rather than every 7 days. Also look for plans that allow you to incorporate cross-training a few days a week. And the best bit of advice I have to offer? On your rest days, rest.
Now, for those of you who've done a marathon before,
and are wondering if you're ready to do it again,
I like the saying.......
"When you've forgotten your last marathon, you're ready for your next"