1.) Pick a Summer or Fall event, especially if you live anywhere north of Iowa
Training through the winter is tough. The littlest excuse will do, and once you skip one run, the second is veeerrryyy easy to skip as well. It’s quite the slippery slope. Unless you just LOVE the treadmill, it’s best to enjoy the winter on skis or skates. That being said, running through a winter can be very rewarding once you make it through to the other side. The sunsets (or sunrises), slowly illuminating the frozen landscape through a spiderweb of frozen branches, are spectacular when you can see your breath. Just make sure you are layering correctly and have footwear suitable for the conditions.
2.) Train the Brain
Picture your dream race day. Every little detail. What the weather will be like, how you will feel the night before, how you will feel at the start line, who will be around you, and most importantly, what it will feel like to cross the finish line. Visualization is a powerful and underrated, underutilized training tool for runners of any distance. It fires up the subconscious part of the brain which operates at a more electrifying and emotional level than the rational, conscious part.
3.) Find an Accountabili-buddy
There are runners out there who thrive on discipline and a regimented training schedule, for whom the motivation to train day in and day out is intrinsic. If you’re not one of those, having a training partner/group or at least an accountability partner can make the training grind infinitely more enjoyable. If you live in a bigger metro area, there are bound to be several running groups (usually out of gyms or running stores) with marathon-specific training plans. These help you stay on track on the calendar, as well as providing a major dose of positivity and encouragement. Give yourself small rewards for nailing your toughest workouts (I would go and get one of those chia seed drinks, which would cancel out the extra ice cream I would allow myself, theoretically).
4.) Hit your Long Runs
The long runs give you the foundation. Sure, it’s a drag to give up your social life the night before and usually the day after, but nailing the long runs is the most crucial part of training, both mentally and physically. As your mileage increases, so does your capacity for physical discomfort and mental anguish. If headphones are your thing, create a fun playlist that will provide some rhythm for your pace, or find an audiobook that will transport your mind to a different time and place. It can also be quite stimulating when you ditch the technology and just see where the mind goes after a while. Regardless, long runs give you the training inside the training. Additionally, weekly long runs provide you a canvas for storytelling. It’s wild sometimes what you experience out there. During my last training cycle, I ran (it was mile 17, so “shuffled” is more accurate) past a minor construction accident in which a gentleman cracked his head open and I happened to be shuffling by as it occurred. You just never know! (He wound up just fine, just to put a bow on that story)
5.) Recover Right
As you progress through the journey of marathon training, the 20-30 minutes immediately following a workout can be a danger zone. It’s SO easy to sprawl out on the floor or the couch. A couple minutes of peaceful, relaxing reflection is fine of course. However, as soon as you can, foam rolling and stretching is critical. It aids the recovery process by increasing the mobility of the fascia that encapsulates your muscles. Skipping out on foam rolling/stretching allows the fascia to stiffen, which causes muscle soreness. So though it feels like slow, agonizing torture while you do it, that pain will dissipate as you continue.
I also try to get something into my stomach immediately after a run. The natural sugars in fruit can reinvigorate you. But my personal favorite is Skratch Chocolate recovery drink mix. It tastes EXACTLY like chocolate milk, and it gives your recovery a little extra boost. After all of that, feel free to lounge and sloth to your heart’s content.
6.) Cross-training is the spice of life
Running so many miles grinds you down. There are days when you fight the plateau monster the whole way. Lethargy and sluggishness eventually will set in for a spell. To combat these unpleasant feelings, set aside a day for cross training. Be it biking, yoga, skiing, or watching the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy (just throw some pushups into the slow parts OH WAIT THERE ARE NONE), allowing different muscles to work can be invigorating and relaxing. Detach from running for a day and treat yourself to a massage. And when the going gets tough, remind yourself that it’s SUPPOSED to be hard. Doing something great is never easy.
7.) Open the Buffet
What you put in the tank, and when, matters. From GU to salt tablets to Coca-Cola to the occasional mid-course beer, they all have different effects on the machine that is the human body. I won’t pretend to understand the chemistry behind all of it, but sugar, salt, and liquid intake, and the timing of it all, can make or break race day. In the weeks leading up to your event, start sampling various treats and gels and drinks during your long runs to see not only what tastes good, but also what feels good in the stomach and goes down easy. You probably don’t want to be choking down a sticky, salty mess at mile 23 when you can barely lift it to your mouth to begin with. If you’re a coffee drinker like me, start experimenting with how much you can drink before running without..ahem, setting things in motion.
8.) Prepare for a whole host of emotions throughout the process
Excitement and anxiety. Invincibility and vulnerability. Relief and even a little fear. No matter why you’re running this marathon, be it charity, a personal challenge, or even a bet with a friend, you will feel every emotion there is. The floating feeling of a long run filled with negative splits. Snuggling up to your darkest thoughts at mile 18. The intense high of a victorious endorphin rush, followed by the excruciating pain of learning how to walk again the next day. The ever-present fear of wondering if you put in enough time or mileage. Relief at getting to your shuttle with plenty of time to spare. The loud, blaring WHY at mile 20 reverberating in your head. And finally, the insatiable urge to do it all over again a week later.
9.) Embrace and enjoy the challenge
You’ve signed up to do something awesome! Raise a glass to yourself for having the courage to start! Embrace the suckiness that comes with training and internalize it knowing that you are molding an amazing version of you! When you toe the starting line, know that every other person there has been struggling right along with you. When you hit the wall (it’s real), that person next to you is hitting it too. So give high-fives to strangers, applaud the creative signs along the way (personal favorites: “You know the first guy to do this died, right?” and “Smile if you peed a little”), go ahead the slap the “Hit Here for Speed Boost” posters. Keep your head on a swivel, not only to be aware of who is around you, but to enjoy the scenery! And when it’s over, after they hang the impossibly heavy medal around your neck and you trudge the interminable distance to the Family Reunion area to collapse into the arms of a loved one, you will feel like a champion. You might even cry a little.
Happy Running, and I’ll see you out there!