5 Things to Know Before Your First Marathon

Runners race during a marathon.

Ah, autumn. Crisp mornings, changing leaves, and fall marathon season. What’s not to love? One of the biggest reasons distance runners enjoy racing a fall marathon is because of the weather. To train in the heat of summer and benefit from cooler temps on race day is such a treat, and can even help you achieve a personal best.

With many major races making a comeback this fall, maybe you went “full crazy” and signed up for your first marathon. Welcome! It’s an experience every runner with even a sliver of interest should have at least once in their running career. However, marathons are an entirely different undertaking than shorter distances. Here are five things you need to know before you toe the line on race day.

1. Training might take over your life.

Runners run during marathon training.

You might not fully understand the scope of the training you’ve started. You’ll get wrapped up planning out your long run routes, running all the miles on your training plan, finetuning your fuel and hydration strategy, wear-testing apparel and footwear to make sure you won’t be tugging at your clothes or building blisters for 26.2 miles and incorporating stretching and recovery. You may even skip social activities because, “I have a long run tomorrow morning.” Marathon training will become a big part of your life.

While running is an independent sport, running with a group can turn a grueling solo run into a fun, social experience. Plus, if you train with other people who are also tackling marathons around the same time, it’s easier to find buddies who need those same long runs you do.

2. Your body will be tested.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but training for a marathon pushes the body much harder than shorter distances. You might find yourself feeling extra tired, struggling with new aches and pains, constantly feeling hungry and even experiencing weight gain during training for your first marathon. Marathon training stresses the body, causing all of your systems to react differently than normal, and it’s easy to reachthe point of burnout.

It's important to incorporate recovery weeks, during which you ease back on mileage, to give your body a chance to adapt to the training load. Rest and recovery are just as important as getting the miles on your feet, so skipping a rest day in favor of an “easy run” could do more damage than good. If at any point you’re feeling excessively tired, experiencing drastic changes in appetite or are struggling with persistent pain, it’s time to see a doctor.

3. What you wear matters. A lot.

A woman shops for marathon running clothes.

It’s natural to hope for perfect conditions on race day, but it’s important to be prepared for anything Mother Nature can throw your way. After all, fall weather can be hot, cold and anything (or everything) in between. Lightweight layers are key to making sure you’re ready for changes in weather.

Don’t forget the “rule,” nothing new on race day. If you can, do a couple test runs in the various layers you’re planning to wear for your marathon. Generally, your base layers are the most important – anything that touches skin can cause chafing. Testing your hydration vest (or belt, for those races that don’t allow vests) for movement or rubbing is important, too. You don’t want to be stuck running a marathon in uncomfortable clothes, shoes, or gear.

Hot tip: Bring a throw-away layer for race morning. Many races collect these discarded items from the starting chute and drop zones in the first couple miles and donate them to local causes.

4. Taper time is your friend.

Tapering is a very important part of your marathon training plan. It starts after your last long run (ideally 20 miles), and generally lasts two to three weeks until race day. After so many weeks of running high mileage, it can be hard to suddenly find yourself running less. You may find yourself restless, irritable or even anxious in the weeks leading up to the race – a phenomenon otherwise known as the taper tantrum. Now is the time to trust your training, enjoy the reduced workload,optimize this recovery period, and even have a life again.

If you’re still pushing during the taper, you risk heading into race day with a new injury. Maximize this time with easier paces and routes, and keep up the strength training – but don’t overdo it. Straining your muscles with a hard strength session or even a very athletic yoga class in the weeks before your marathon will do you no favors. The phrase “everything in moderation” definitely applies during taper time.

5. Training will get you there, and grit will keep you going.

Runners cross the finish line of their first marathon.

Trust your training, but be ready for the unexpected. It could be a change in weather, a blister, running out of fuel, or last minute travel delays that play with your mind. Remember that not everything has to go perfectly in order to have a great race.

More importantly, unless you’re an elite debuting in the marathon, don’t worry too much about your finishing time. The main goal should be to have fun and finish in the upright position!

When you’re on your feet for 26.2 miles, whether you’re a speedy runner getting it done in three hours, or a back-of-the-pack athlete doing it in six-plus hours, the mental games can come out to play. Many training plans only go up to 20-23 miles. If that’s the case, you’ll be hitting your 26.2 goal for the first time on race day, and might have to dig deep to run that last 5K or 10K.

Run intervals if you need a break, high five spectators, take pictures of your favorite signs, and don’t forget to smile when you cross the finish line of your first marathon.

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