Marathon and half marathon training tips

How To Train For Your Next Road Race

by Mark Paigen 14 minute read

The marathon has been around since the days of ancient Greece, and for many people, they're a bucket list item. But even if you're more interested in 5Ks or ultra-marathons, many of the training tips still apply. 

The Basics ---

  • When creating a plan for your first race, consider details like what to eat to prepare for the race to what to wear on race day.  
  • The night before your race, make sure to drink plenty of water, eat lots of carbohydrates, lay out your gear, and get some rest.
  • On race day, remember to pace yourself, keep hydrated, and refuel as you rack up the miles. 
  • Make sure you have the right gear for your race, including insoles for running. We recommend Tread Labs Pace insoles if you like firm support or Dash insoles if you want rigid support with minimal flex.

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What You Need To Know ---

Preparing For Your Race

You've completed your half-marathon training plan. You've been tapering for the last three weeks, and you feel great. You've got your loyal fan section ready to get out there and cheer you on. Now all you need to do is run.

Three Days Before Your Race

If your half marathon is in another town, state, or even country, you want to make sure you get there early. Traveling can take a toll on your body. Muscle soreness, dehydration, and fatigue are common side effects of long-distance travel. Make sure you're drinking lots of water. When you get to your destination, do a yoga sequence that focuses on travel soreness. Go on a walk or easy jog to loosen up.

Traveling can also take a toll on your mind. Airport delays and traffic can cause unnecessary stress. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get where you're going.

What To Wear For Your Road Race

Before you leave, make a list of everything you need to bring and check it off as you go. Figuring out what you want to race in is partly dependent on the weather. Check the forecast for your race and plan accordingly. And then plan for the unexpected. The key is layers (and wearing gear you won't be afraid to part with if necessary).

Think about packing three different outfits: one for a really hot afternoon, one for a perfect fall day, and one for cold that came out of nowhere. Remember to bring rainproof gear to protect against the dreaded thunderstorm. Don't forget sunscreen and headgear. This fun calculator will help you decide your best race-day outfit.

Start Carbo-Loading For The Race

Now's the time to begin  "carbo-loading" so your body has time to store up the energy it will use to get you through your first half marathon. Your body uses both glycogen (which comes from carbs) and fat to fuel you through your day. Glycogen is much easier to burn than fat, so you want to make sure your levels are high before the race.

In the few days leading up to the race, about 85 to 95 percent of your calories should come from carbs like pasta, bananas, oatmeal, rice, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tortillas, yogurt, juice, pancakes, waffles, and bagels.

Avoid fat, fiber, caffeine, and alcohol. This cool endurance calculator will tabulate how many calories and carbohydrates you need to finish your marathon without "hitting the wall," or the moment when you've used up your glycogen and your body has to begin converting fat to energy.

The Day Before The Race

You've arrived at your race location and have had time to relax. You're carbo-loading. Now what? While it may seem counterintuitive to run the day before the race (won't that make me tired?!), it's actually the best thing you can do. It will loosen your muscles and put your neuromuscular system into alert mode.

Your neuromuscular system is the connection between your muscles and your brain. You want to make sure they're effectively and efficiently communicating with each other. Every time you run, you activate the system, and you want to keep it primed right up until race day. This doesn't mean doing a lot of running, a 3-mile jog the day before is enough. Afterwards do some strides — short sprints of around 20 seconds —to really fire up your muscles and blood.

Finalize Travel Plans To & From The Race

Having a plan in place for getting to the starting line will make race day less stressful. Check the race's website for tips on how to get to the race location. If it's in a big city, public transportation might be the best option. Often transportation is free or at a discounted rate for race participants. Many systems expand their hours and train lines to accommodate the runners.

Now's the time to make a post-race plan with your friends or family. Figure out a meeting point after you finish (avoid official "meeting areas" as they can be crowded). There's nothing worse than wandering around for an hour after you just ran for four, looking for your cheering section.

The Night Before

You don't want to eat a huge dinner the night before. Just make sure that you get enough to eat and that most — if not all of — of your calories come from carbohydrates. A bowl of pasta (without cream or fatty sauces) is perfect when preparing for your first half-marathon. Avoid alcohol (it dehydrates you), and make sure you are drinking plenty of water.

Lay out your outfit, water bottle, gel shots, shoes, and bib number. Use already broken-in footwear so you won't have any problems during the race. Blisters from new shoes or insoles can turn your run into a nightmare.

Get some rest. Don't worry if you're nervous and can't sleep, it's natural. Your body will be full up on adrenaline on race day, and you won't be adversely affected from one night of poor sleep.

The Morning Of The Race

Most runners think the pre-race dinner is the only meal that impacts your performance. But your breakfast is just as important. Some of your stored energy from carbs (glycogen) will deplete overnight (remember, you are still burning calories even while sleeping). Jackie Berning, Ph.D., reminds us of the importance of replenishing your body's fuel source: "Glycogen keeps your blood-sugar level steady during exercise." What this means is that a good breakfast will sustain you for the entirety of your marathon.

That being said, many of us are nervous we will eat too much before a big race. The key is timing and type of food.

  • What to eat: Your breakfast should be mainly carbohydrates. You digest them the fastest, so they become easy fuel for your body to go on. A small amount of protein ensures you won't be hungry later in the race. Avoid fat, fiber, and caffeine. Fat can be hard to digest while caffeine and fiber can cause GI issues. Try bagel and peanut butter; oatmeal with milk and banana; yogurt and toast; banana and high-carb energy bar; or smoothies, juices, or sports drinks for those with sensitive stomachs.
  • How much to eat: A half-marathon is long, one piece of toast won't cut it. A 150-pound runner needs to consume around 1,000 calories (mainly carbs) for breakfast. That may seem like a lot, but it's necessary to give you the energy you need for the race.
  • When to eat: The key to making sure you digest your breakfast (and turn it into fuel for your race) is timing. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you should eat your breakfast 3 to 4 hours before the race starts. Most races start early, so this means setting your alarm for a bright-and-early wake-up. If this seems unrealistic, try breaking your breakfast into separate parts. Eat about 2/3 of your total breakfast two hours before, and then the rest around an hour before.
  • Don't forget a pre-race snack. Around 90-minutes before the race, have some easy calories from sports drinks and energy gels.

If you're worried about mid-race GI trouble, avoid fiber, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners.

Race Day Tips Going The Distance

Get to the race with plenty of time. It may be chilly in the morning, so make sure you are wearing the correct layers (that you will peel off later).

If you've followed your first half-marathon training plan, you shouldn’t worry about getting to the finish line. But, you’ll want to keep in mind:

  • Don't go out too fast. Adrenaline will be pumping through your body when the starting gun goes off and you might feel like you can sprint to the next mile marker, but don’t.  Your body will hate you at mile 23. Just find the pace you’ve identified in your training as you goal pace per mile and stick to it.
  • Hydrate and refuel. Run with a water bottle (there's plenty of cool gear out there) and some fuel. Whether you’re into energy gel packs or Sports Beans, make sure you are refueling your body with carbs every 30 minutes or so during the race. Rehydrate at water and fuel stations along the route.
  • Stop for a restroom break. Races will have porta-potty units throughout the course. If you're having GI issues, don't be afraid to stop and use them. You'll feel better and have a better time if you do. Sometimes the lines can be long in the first few miles, so wait until a few miles in to stop if you can.
  • Enjoy yourself. You've been training religiously, eating right, and mentally preparing. Now is the time to enjoy yourself. You're doing something most people never will. Feel the wind on your face. Laugh at the funny signs spectators have made. Wave to your family. High five the little kids. You earned it.

You Finished Your First Half Marathon — Now What?

You crossed the finish line with you arms up. You got a medal, a cool t-shirt, and even one of those foil blanketsMake sure you celebrate your accomplishment and help your body recover.

Immediately after the race you should focus on both carbs and protein. For a 150-pound person, a bagel with peanut butter and a banana is a great option. Re-hydrate with water or sports drink. Continue eating lots of carbs with small amounts of protein for 48 hours after the race.

Your muscles will probably be sore after the race (and may be for a week). Avoid hot tubs or warm baths as that will increase muscle inflammation. Icing specific areas, using foam rollers, or even getting a massage are recommended.

It's also important to let your body have a break. Take a couple weeks off from running, particularly if this was your first half marathon and switch to lower-impact activities like swimming, biking, or even walking. Continuing to run high mileage puts you at higher risk of injuries like plantar fasciitis and stress fractures.

You did it. You can cross running your first half-marathon off of your bucket list. If you’re hungry for the full marathon next, follow these nine simple steps toward training for a marathon.

Marathon Training Guide 

Phase One – Gearing Up

So you think you're ready to cross running a marathon off your bucket list? When starting to train for a marathon, it's important (especially for beginners) to train smart and listen to your body.

1. Building Blocks

  • See your doctor. The 26.2 mile race is no neighborhood fun run. The risk for injury drastically increases when running this long a distance. Talk with your primary care physician about your plans before you start training. If you have a history of injuries and have seen a sports medicine specialist or orthopedic doctor, check in with them as well.
  • Build base mileage. Many first-time marathoners injure themselves because they ramp up mileage too quickly. You need a strong base before you even begin training for a marathon.
  • Try the half. During your "pre-training" period (when you are beginning to run consistently but not specifically training for a marathon), try running races at different distances. 5K and 10K races can be fast and fun. Run a half-marathon. Pick races with terrain similar to your marathon. A hilly trail race is much difference than a fast-paced asphalt course.
  • Get good gear. Make sure you have running shoes that work with your specific stride and gait. Replace your running shoes after the recommended amount of miles (it's just like getting an oil change). Wearing orthotics is a good idea, especially if you overpronate. But don't switch up your gear right before you begin training. This can cause discomfort and even injury. Make sure you have been running with your shoe style and insoles for a couple of months to ensure maximum comfort and support during your training.

Phase Two – Marathon Training Plan

Most marathon training plans for beginners range from 12 to 20 weeks. It's important to map out your runs and follow your plan closely to avoid injuries or over-training. Look at some of the free plans and training options available, as well as the more advanced beginner marathon training guides with customizable options.

If your goal is to run a certain time, try using a pace chart. This tells you what your mile times should be on race day, and you can train accordingly.

2. Weekly Mileage

  • Build your mileage slowly and consistently, running between 3 and 5 times per week. You should not increase your mileage by more than 10% per week. And be careful not to run more than 5 days, which can take a toll on your lower body. If you do, you are at higher risk for injuries such as stress fracturesplantar fasciitis, and Achilles tendinitis.

3. The Long Run

  • Probably the most important run each week will be your long run. Every 7 days you need to up your mileage and slow down your pace on a longer run. Because you will already have built up a base mileage in your pre-training, you can start with about a 9-mile run. Increase your long run each week by a mile or two. Every 3-4 weeks shorten up the run so you don’t over train. For example, you could run 12, 13, 14, and then 10 miles over a 4-week period. This run should be at a comfortable pace, one at which you could have a conversation with a running buddy without too much problem.
  • Some training plans will peak at about 20 miles. Some bring you up to the full race length. Your longest run should not be less than 20 miles, or your body might not be prepared for actual race day.

4. Jump On The Speed Train

  • Slow and steady might win the race (or even just finish it!), but speed makes all the difference. While not necessary, it is a good idea to have one speed day per week. This increases your aerobic capacity and teaches your muscles to fire more rapidly. It will improve your endurance–and your time.
  • It's not hard to incorporate speed into a marathon training plan. We recommend interval training, fartleks, or a tempo run.
    • Intervals are the repetition of a set of short distances run at a faster pace than your long run with rest in between. Intervals can differ drastically in length, pace, and recovery. Doing intervals between 800 meters and a mile are best for marathon training. An interval day could be: 1 mile jog warm-up; 4x1 mile intervals run at a fast pace with 5 minutes rest in between (jogging or walking); 1 mile jog cool-down. Try running your miles 30-seconds faster than your goal pace time for the marathon. Adjust according to how you feel.
    • Fartleks (Swedish for "speed-play") can be fun to do in groups. During a medium-distance run, you alternate running at fast and slow paces. A 1-hour fartlek workout could consist of: 10 minutes jog warm-up; 5 x (5 minutes fast pace, 3 minutes jog, for a total of 40 minutes); 10 minutes jog cool-down. If you run with other people, everyone can have a turn leading the fast-paced segments.
    • Tempo workouts are short- to medium-distance runs completed at a fast and sustained pace (but probably slower than your mile interval pace). Don't run your long run at a tempo pace--that run is to build endurance, not speed. Your tempo workout could be: A 5-mile run, with the first mile at normal pace, miles 2 and 3 at a faster pace, and miles 4 and 5 at an even faster pace.

5. Rest

  • Running no more than 5 times a week ensures quality training over quantity. Following a marathon training plan means incorporating rest days so your body can recover from all the pounding on the joints, bones, and muscles. Make sure you have at least 2 full rest days per week.
  • You will want to taper your training plans about 3 weeks before your marathon. Begin slowly backing down your mileage so your body is rested before race day. Scientists have demonstrated tapering eliminates accumulated fatigue without reducing your aerobic capacity. A taper of 3 weeks will make you stronger, not weaker.

Phase Three – Important Training Tips For Beginners

6. Cross Train

  • If you're running 5 days a week, there’s no wiggle room for cross training. But if you are running 3 or 4 days a week, you will have 1 or 2 days for cross training. Non-impact aerobic activities like swimming or biking will work on your cardiovascular endurance without the impact of running. A day of weight training can also be helpful for strengthening your bones and muscles, preventing injury.

7. Stretch

  • Allot 15 minutes for stretching after your daily runs to prevent injuries. Taking a yoga or Pilates class on a cross-training day will also help prevent injury. There are great yoga sequences designed specifically for running.

8. Walk Your Way To Success

  • If you are new to running, consider the run-walk approach to finish a marathon. This method alternates longer run periods with shorter walk breaks, for example running 5 minutes and walking 1. This can help you overcome fatigue, prevent injury, and work through mental blocks, all important for first-time marathoners.

9. Listen To Your Body

  • Easier said than done, but perhaps the most important part of your training plan. If you become injured, you need to rest until you are completely better. Running through plantar fasciitis or a stress fracture will only cause more pain. If an injury gets in the way of completing your training plan and you have to back out before race day, don't sweat it. Take the time to rest and recover and try again.

Thinking About Running Barefoot?

There have been a number of high profile barefoot runners over the decades - think Abebe Bikila, Shivnath Singh, and Zola Budd. But the more recent surge in popularity came after Christopher McDougall's 2009 book "Born to Run." In it, he promotes the virtues and benefits of barefoot running.

Despite the resurgence, there remains a lot of debate within the running community. There's no evidence that barefoot running is better than “shod” running (a fancy way of saying wearing shoes), or vice versa. But there are pros and cons. 

The benefits of barefoot running include:

1. A change in strike and impact. Running shoes cause feet to strike the ground heel first (known as the heel strike), increasing the force on your feet and body up to 3x. Barefoot running shifts the strike to the midfoot or forefoot, creating less impact. Less force could reduce the risk of repetitive injuries like stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, and runner’s knee.

2. Stronger feet and arches. Barefoot running strengthens the muscles in your feet—particularly your arches. As researchers at Harvard University argue, “A healthy foot is a strong foot, one that pronates less and is less liable to develop a collapsed arch.”

3. Energy conservation. The same Harvard researchers argue that when you midfoot or forefoot strike, you use the “natural springs” in your feet and calf muscles. Moreover, barefoot running means you are carrying less pounds around. In other words, you use the muscles in your lower legs and feet more efficiently and you’re lighter on your feet. 

The benefits of barefoot running seem like a win, but there are downsides.

1. It strains other areas of the feet. Going barefoot will change your stride. A switch to forefoot and midfoot striking can strain your Achilles tendon. If you have a history of Achilles tendinitis, this might not be the best option. Some studies have contended that it can also cause bone injuries.

2. Proper shoes and insoles can prevent bad running gaits like overpronation. When you overpronate, your ankle rolls inward when your foot hits the ground. This can lead to a host of injuries including shin splints and plantar fasciitis. Proper shoes and insoles prevent this.

3. The ground can be unforgiving. Ever run across broken glass, gravel, or dog poop? Glad you were wearing shoes? Not everyone has access to the sand of Copacabana Beach. Serious cuts, blisters, and scrapes can result from barefoot running.

Now that you know the pros and cons, you can weight them for yourself. If you decide to try barefoot running, start slow. You might want to try minimalist running shoes before going completely barefoot.

The Finish Line

Finishing a road race is a great feeling of accomplishment. You might find that you're completely hooked and start thinking about your next race before you finish your first. Just make sure to give your body the time to rest and relax that it deserves. 

And whichever distance you choose to tackle, prepare well, take care of yourself with the right gear, and have fun!

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