One thing, among many, that I love about marathon running is how inclusive it is. If you think you are too old to run, it might surprise you to learn that runners forty years and older represent the majority of participants in these events. For example, in the 2018 NYC Marathon 46% of the runners were 18-39 and 54% were over forty. In the 2019 Boston Marathon the percentage of runners who were forty and older was even higher: they represented 60% of the total finishers.
What this tells me is that there is no perfect time or ideal age to start running. If there's no medical condition that could put you at risk then there's no excuse (consult with your doctor prior to starting any exercise routine). Running isn't even necessary in the beginning: walking and jogging and progressively increasing mileage is how many of those marathon finishers mentioned above got their start.
I'm an example of this. I started running when I was thirty-eight. Since then I have completed more than twenty marathons (totaling upwards of 843.9 km, or 524.38 miles, ran). While each of these races has been a lesson in and of itself, I've found that most of the learning experiences take place in between the events, during the many weeks of training.
And now, after eleven years of running, I thought it would be a good idea to put together a selection of some of the things I've learned in that time.
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- The Training Plan. For the past seven years I have been very fortunate: I've been able to train with a local running group and follow training plans provided by my coach. But it wasn't always like this. When I first decided to run a marathon, I trained for it using a plan from a book my brother sent me. Later, I added a few tweaks.
Nowadays, most of my training plans are 16-24 weeks long. They usually involve 3-5 runs each week, with short runs of 6-12 km during the week and one long run at the weekend. The short runs are undertaken at different levels of pace and effort, and they include tempo runs, intervals and hill sessions. The most important run is the long one at the weekend. This usually starts at around 12 km in week one and peaks at 32-38 km three weeks before race day.
Training in this progressive manner allows my muscles, joints and bones to accommodate themselves to the physical demand. But more importantly, it allows me to build the mental endurance required to run the full 42.2 km (26.2 miles).
- Have a Plan. A training plan is a path that leads to a destination (the start line). The best way to get started is to have a preestablished plan. Write it down and keep it somewhere visible.
Making time for the training sessions is important. When you build your training plan, be specific about the days of the week and the times of the day you are going to dedicate to each session. Add them to your calendar as you would an appointment at the dentist or doctors, and do your best to avoid conflict between your training and other important aspects of your life.
Once you complete a session it's satisfying to put a big red tick through it. That way, you can look back and get a visual reminder of how far you've come. It can also be helpful to record the food eaten before a run, the weather, and your pre-session mood.
- Be Flexible, and Social. Having a plan is nice, but sometimes keeping to it is impossible. So be prepared to adapt. When my kids were younger I would run more at night, as they were in bed. Now that they are older I prefer to run early in the morning and spend more time with them in the evening.
Running doesn’t have to be anti-social either. Bring your kids to the track and have them run with you, or meet with some friends at a local park before or after. One of my favorite runs of the week is the Saturday run during summertime. My son comes along on his bike. It always brings good conversations and it gives us the chance to spend some time together, outdoors and without any other distractions.
- Resting is Training Too. Take days off. Sleep enough. Recover. That doesn't mean spend days doing nothing. Light walking, swimming and cycling all aides recovery. And if you must sacrifice something in order to train, try to ensure it isn't sleep. Remember, rest helps prevent physical injuries and mental burnout. It also insures against overtraining, which is doing too much, too soon, too often.
- Enter a Race. Sign up for a race as soon as you start running. Send in your application, mark the date on your calendar and put your entry confirmation somewhere you'll see it every day.
When it comes to selecting a race, take some time to evaluate your options and visualize what kind of experience you are seeking. Would you prefer to avoid traveling and enter a local race that you can drive to and back from? Or do you want your first (or next) race to be a part of a memorable adventure in a specific place? Budget, time available to travel, likely weather, season of the year, size of the race, race route and elevation profile are all things that can be considered.
Personally, I like to run in mild/cool weather and on flat courses. This means that I avoid races in hot and humid places, and winter events.
- Get Good Shoes. There is no perfect shoe that works for everyone. Finding your best footwear involves some trial and error. Fortunately, high-quality shoes have become affordable over the years. If you need help, find a running store that stocks multiple brands and quiz their staff while you try out four or five different pairs. Alternatively, ask other runners for recommendations. And don't forget the socks! They should be of a good quality, made from breathable material and without thick seams.
- Join a Group, or Go Alone. Running clubs are popular and chances are there is one close to where you live or work. Many are free to join or only charge a small fee. Running clubs are great places to meet like-minded people. They give you an opportunity to learn from other's experiences and to find accountability partners.
Also be sure to try running alone, too. It can be relaxing and rewarding. As well as providing time to reflect and plan, running alone enables you to run at your own pace and according to your own schedule.
- Trade-Offs. We only have 24 hours each day, and training for a marathon requires several hours each week. Finding the time to train will require a trade-off. Time spent on social media and the internet, watching TV, or even doing your hair--something will have to step down so your training can step up.
- Treadmills. These are fantastic tools to help you stay on top of your training. If you can have one at home, great. It will allow you to run at any time and stay with your family. Alternatively, treadmills can usually be found at leisure complexes, office gyms, community centers and local gyms. They are very useful for those days when you can't run outside, like when inclement weather forces you to stay indoors. Some runners don't like them much, but they can provide solid workouts.
- AM or PM? Personally, I find that I train much better in the morning, and I also stick to my plan more effectively if it is composed of mostly morning runs. When I get home in the evening I often feel tired, so it's easy to find an excuse not to run. In contrast, getting my running gear together in the evening, setting my alarm, and waking up a bit earlier in the morning is simple. Like most habits, it's hard at first, but then it becomes routine.
- I Can't Breathe! This always makes me smile. When I talk to people about running one of the most common complaints concerns breathing. Some, especially new runners, have trouble finding a comfortable breathing rhythm. I often suggest trying to match inhales and exhales to foot strikes. For some, a 3:3 pattern is best--meaning inhale for three foot strikes and exhale for three foot strikes. For others, a 2:2 pattern works. Sometimes an odd/even pattern like 3:2 works well.
An unexpected upside to focusing on the breath while running is that it induces a great sense of calm. Try it. You'll see what I mean.
- The First Minutes are the Hardest. I hear, "I can't run more than a few minutes", all the time. It's no cause for concern. Most experienced runners will tell you that this is normal. It's because this is the time when your body is warming up and transitioning from an anaerobic state to an aerobic one. Your heart rate and breathing are trying to stabilize, and your muscles and joints are trying to find an efficient rhythm. Pass those first initial minutes and you'll feel better and more relaxed.
- Run Different Routes. For many, running the same route might be boring, so it’s a good idea to change it up. Try running on different surfaces like road, dirt, grass, crushed gravel or a local athletics track. If you travel often, take your running shoes with you. Running is a great way to explore new locations and get a better feeling of the places you are visiting. Take some time to study the map of the surrounding areas, or do some searches on social media and travel blogs. It also helps to check with the locals, before you head out, if it’s safe to run.
- All-Weather Running. Train in different weather conditions. Don’t be scared of hot, humid, cold or rainy days. You don’t know what race day is going to bring, and training in unfavorable conditions allows you to test your runs and understand how different conditions affect you. If it helps, take notes about what you wore and how you felt.
- Running Soundtracks. I have never tried to run with music. When I run with friends or my husband, running starts great conversations. When I run alone, it’s a time to reflect, to be with my thoughts and enjoy the surroundings. But for many runners listening to their favorite playlist helps them get into a positive mindset and motivates them to keep going. Find what works best for you. But if you do choose to run with music make sure that you can still hear the environment around you.
- "Down" Days. Some days you will feel full of energy, ready to complete your session. Other days will feel like a terrible obligation, and you might find yourself wondering, "Why am I doing this?" I try to use those hard days as a reminder of the reasons why I decided to become a runner in the first place. And if that doesn’t work, I try to recall all the great adventures and positive experiences running has brought into my life. The “down” days are part of the journey. In fact, I’m grateful for the bad days because they make the good days more enjoyable.
Winter is always the hardest training season for me. Every single winter there is at least one run where conditions are extreme. It could be a temperature of -25°C, freezing rain with strong winds, or 15 cm of snow on the ground. If I can get out of the door and complete my training in those conditions I feel like I accomplished something big. Those days are the most rewarding, but also the hardest. And I know that, most likely, race day won’t be that hard.
Regardless of the conditions, one thing that I have learned throughout all these years is that I never regret going for a run.
- To Stretch or Not to Stretch? This is one of those controversial topics that creates a lot of debate. According to many experts, stretching muscles before a warm-up could increase the risk of pulling a muscle. A common recommendation is 1) to make sure you warm up your muscles by jogging at a very slow pace and/or performing some dynamic stretching exercises, and 2) to incorporate stretching and mobility exercises after your run and as part of your cool down.
Stretching exercises will likely help you increase your range of motion, flexibility and agility. I find that I recover much faster and have less pain the day after when I spend some time stretching after a long run.
- Keep It Simple. We are bombarded with information about all the gadgets and gear that will improve our performance, make us recover faster, reduce pain, etc. A lot of these claims are just anecdotal and are not backed by reliable studies. Running is one of the most basic forms of exercise and many of the things that will make you a better runner are the very same things that maintain and improve your health: good nutrition, rest and recovery, stress management, and a well thought out exercise routine performed properly.
- Goal Times. This is very personal. Some runners have a goal time and train accordingly. Others just want to complete the distance, cross the finish line and become a “marathoner”.
When I ran my first marathon I was only intrigued by the distance. All I wanted to know was if my legs would be capable of running 42.2 Km. Since then, I have run most of my races with a goal time in mind. Some go as planned. I have done better on a very few occasions and gone slower on many other occasions. If you do decide to have a goal time, make sure that it is relative to how you have or intend to train. Most of all, when it comes to race day resist the temptation to run faster than you've planned and trained for.
- Cross Training. This means adding different exercise activities to your schedule in order to improve your cardiovascular conditioning. It can involve cycling or swimming, or snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing during winter. It means using your muscles differently and/or training the muscles that don’t get much work while running. Generally, this will improve your performance and help you stay injury free. On those days when you feel too tired to go for a run or feel that you need more time to recover from your last workout, cross training is a good alternative.
- Strength Training. I’m getting older. We all are. But over the past few years I started to feel the effect of aging on my muscles. As a result, I have been including more strength training as part of my regular routine. I’ve found that just running several times a week is not enough to prepare for the great demands imposed by a marathon. Incorporating a strength routine better prepares the legs for the stress imposed by running and it helps prevent injuries. Core routines are also part of my regular training schedule.
- Nutrition. What you eat affects how you run. A diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and other whole foods will provide the nutrients and the energy to support your training and recovery. As we increase our mileage, we tend to feel hungrier and these are good opportunities to eat nutrient-dense foods that help with recovery and performance.
Fueling is an essential part of a marathon itself. As a general rule you’ll want to take a source of carbs like gels, gummies, “sport” drinks, or real food every 30-45 minutes during long runs and during your race. Long runs are the time to practice your nutritional strategies. Experiment to find out what you like and what you don’t like and which foods you tolerate better while running. It is also important to avoid eating too much before or during your run, since your digestive system functions slow down once you start running. The last few long runs of a training plan are a great time to practice your race-day fueling strategy.
- Listen to Your Body. This phrase gets thrown out a lot but it’s quite important to take some time before each session and consider how you feel. Are you still very tired from your last session? It is normal to feel fatigued, especially during long sessions, but if you are feeling pain or are completely exhausted it might be a sign that you need to dial back, perhaps for a day or a week, and give your body the time to recover from your training.
- Taper. 2 to 3 weeks out from race-day is the time to recover and get ready. Make long runs shorter, but still aim to maintain some intensity and practice your marathon-race pace. For some of us this period can be a bit stressful. We start to question our training, feel aches and pains we’ve never felt before and stay away from kids and coworkers who sneeze and/or have a cold. No matter what happened during all the weeks of training, this is not the time to try new workouts, experiment with different training strategies, or makeup for the runs you missed.
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For many, running a marathon turns out to be one of the hardest things they ever do. And with proper training it often turns out to be one of the most gratifying, too. Sure, there are factors we can't control, like the weather and injuries. But there are also many things we can do to ensure that we reach the start line in good physical and mental shape. It's not solely about logging miles each week, though that is important--nutrition, sleep, recovery, stress management, even relationships, matter just as much.
My final piece of advice is also a reminder to myself: enjoy the process and celebrate the small wins along the way. Why? Because if you do that the race itself becomes nothing more than the icing on the cake, the perfect end to a rewarding journey.