Only 0.5% of the U.S. population will ever run a marathon*.
And you’re about to become one of those magical unicorns.
Your athletic ability and ambition rivals 99.5% of the population’s (are you getting excited yet??).
But before embarking on this incredible journey, let’s talk about some important first marathon tips to make training easier and race day unforgettable.
1.) Set Realistic Expectations
This might sound like a limitation, but it’s not. In fact, it’s freeing. It will prevent injury and stop you from over-training.
It’s your first marathon (yay!) and that means it’s probably your first time running 26.2 miles. Your body will be challenged, even after the best training.
So set goals that are realistic – many first-time marathoners simply aim to finish. That is a fantastic goal, and one to be so proud of!
Don’t try to be an elite runner for your first marathon.
Don’t try to run a ridiculously fast pace because your friend did it before and now you want to.
DO start off selecting a goal or goals that are realistic for your body. Allow yourself to train for the distance without added pressures of additional goals like pace or finish time.
2.) Understand the Time Commitment
Someone once told me that training for a half marathon or marathon is like having a second job.
And it really is.
It’s glorious and some days feel fantastic and you’re the happiest runner in the world. You love marathon training! It fits into your schedule perfectly.
But some days…running feels like a job.
It takes hours of your day, almost every day. You’re tired, busy, the weather stinks, you’re sore, you didn’t prepare, etc. How do you fit a run in today?
So, what takes so much time? you might ask. Here’s a short list:
- Preparing for a run (getting up early or fitting it into your day or evening, working around family plans or work)
- Going to Bed Early & Waking up Early – many runners prefer morning runs (some as early as 4:30 or 5am) and that means going to bed early too
- Actual Running time (long runs can be hours at a time)
- Figuring out Food (marathon trainers need the right food before, during and after workouts)
- Washing Running Gear (I literally do a load of laundry every 2-3 days and it’s ALL SMELLY RUNNING GEAR)
First-time marathoners find it helpful to have supportive family/significant others/friends who understand how much your first marathon means to you and will help motivate and assist in the scheduling around workouts.
Don’t let the time commitment deter you though, you got this! It just takes some planning. 🙂
3.) Find a Good Training Plan or Running Coach
Don’t train willy-nilly. Find a well-thought-out marathon training plan that will work for your body or engage with a running coach.
I know some people cringe at the cost of a running coach but they add so much value to marathon training!
Running coaches provide RRCA-certified advice (so they know what they’re talking about) and customize plans to your body. They can easily react to how training feels and revise plans as needed.
But either way, find a plan and stick to it, and remember that each day of a marathon plan has a purpose. I’m talking to you, cross-training-avoider…or you, guy who doesn’t want to take a rest day. 😛
Side note: marathon training incorporates various specific workouts (like tempo runs, interval training, hill workouts, cross-training, sometimes yoga, and more) that you may not have focused on during previous race training.
And, a marathon requires increased endurance and strength…more than, say, a 10K or half marathon requires. So don’t ignore those workouts! They are crucial to marathon running success.
4.) Pick the Right First Marathon for You
Make your first marathon memorable by choosing the right one for you.
Things to take into consideration when selecting your first half marathon:
- Time of year – will it be hot or cold during the marathon? What weather will it be during training? Is this compatible with your preferences?
- Location – is the marathon local, or will you have to travel to it? What do you prefer to do?
- Course description – is the course hilly or flat? On a scenic route or not? Will there be crowds cheering you on or no? Many first-time marathoners rave about how helpful crowds are for boosting motivation throughout the course (so perhaps consider a popular marathon for your first one)
- Entry criteria – do you have to qualify to enter? If so, what is the criteria and how can you achieve it (and does that fit into the time table you’re working with)?
5.) Review the Course Early (and train for it)
Ok, you selected your first marathon, congrats!
Now take a peek at the course.
Are there hills? If so, integrate training routes will similar grade and length hills to prepare your body for race day. The last thing you want is to train on flat surfaces your whole training cycle and then be surprised by rolling hills (or worse, a couple giant steep-grade hills) on race day.
Are there trails or non-paved roads at any point? If so, make sure to train for that too.
6.) Run for a Cause
Make your miles count even more by running for a cause!
Some marathons require minimum fundraising thresholds for runners or teams. If your marathon is one of them, then have some fun raising money for charity.
Plus, running for a cause helps get you through tough patches or low motivation days. Just remember you’re doing even greater good than just going for a run.
If your first marathon doesn’t require fundraising you can use CharityMiles.org, which is a fantastic free app that you download and it tracks your miles and turn them into money for charity from their sponsors.
7.) Wear the Right Running Gear
If you’re a long distance runner then you probably already know this.
Cotton = bad.
Wicking material = good.
That applies to socks, shirts, undergarments, and pants or shorts.
Get the full lowdown on essential running gear with Running Gear for Beginners (for the basics for all seasons) and The Best Hot Weather Running Gear of the Year.
Training for your first marathon will be so much easier with the right running gear.
8.) Get Fitted for the Correct Running Shoes
Running shoes merit their own first marathon tip. They are that important.
Go directly to your local running store and get fitted by a professional.
They know their stuff.
From gait analysis to pronation, many factors go into which running shoe fits your foot the best. And ordering the cheapest running shoes online is not gonna fly for marathon training, sorry.
Do your self a HUGE favor and find the RIGHT running shoes before training starts.
Then, once they’re tested and approved, buy another pair (or two) to rotate in.
You don’t want a worn pair of running shoes on race day! Make sure the pair you’re going to wear is well under 300 total miles on race day.
9.) Train for Proper Pacing
One of the best first marathon tips you’ll ever see: train physically and mentally to pace yourself evenly throughout the race.
One of the biggest mistakes first marathoners make is getting overly ambitious out of the gate and burning out too early.
Conserve energy. Pace yourself. Even when you feel great.
To prepare for successful marathon pacing, use long training runs to practice your pacing.
I use Runkeeper and set the voice reminders to tell me my current pace every 5 minutes. It helps keep my pace in check with audio cues rather than making me fixate on my fitness tracker for pace.
10.) Train in Your Race Day Outfit
(Minus the bib).
Simulate race day as much as possible during one or two of your last long runs.
Wear the running gear (or “outfit”, though my husband would roll his eyes at that term if related to running) you plan to wear during the marathon to make sure everything feels comfortable.
11.) Train for Probable Race-Day Scenarios
Mostly meaning: weather.
If your first marathon takes place in Arizona in May…you will certainly want to do long training runs in sunny, hot weather (if possible).
Same thing for rain, snow, humidity, etc.
No one likes to run in the rain, but train for it anyway. Run at least 1 long run in the rain. You’ll be happy you did if race day turns out to be a wash.
Not sure how to run in the rain? Try these 8 hacks for running in the rain (that actually work).
12.) Have a Race Day Fueling & Hydration Plan
Speaking of preparing for race day…let’s not forget fuel and hydration.
Make a plan and test it throughout training.
Plan for: pre-race food, mid-run fuel, and post-run recovery food (and drink).
Does your body like GU? Or gummy blocks? Or whole foods like medjool dates? (More on Long Run Snacks here).
Test it. You’ll find out.
Do you like carrying a handheld water bottle, or a hydration pack like a Camelbak? Or nothing (and you rely on water stops only)?
Nothing on race day should be new.
13.) Food is Also Fuel – Eat Healthfully
Worth noting – while it’s obviously important to figure out your race day fueling plan, it’s also crucial to fuel your body properly throughout training.
Runners Food 101: The Ultimate Guide to Nutrition for Runners provides guidance on nutrition for runners to feel your best and perform optimally.
Basics: stay away from greasy foods, fast foods, and processed foods.
Do eat the right combination of lean protein, healthy fats and good carbs.
14.) Be Kind to Your Body – Recovery is Important
Running, cross training, strength, and more…you’re going to exercise a lot during marathon training.
But remember – rest and recovery are essential to any training plan.
It’s when your muscles rebuild.
It’s when you mentally recover from all the miles and exertion.
Ways to rest and recover:
- Sleep(is soooo important, get plenty of it!
- Massages – some runners get monthly massages as part of their recovery routine but it also works as a reward too…having a low-motivation day? Promise yourself a massage after you complete your workout!
- Foam rolling aids in muscle recovery and reduces soreness, especially after intense workouts or long runs
- Ice – sore knees and muscles benefit from cold ice compresses (but always check with a doctor or qualified medical professional if you have any questions about what is right for your body)
- Easy restorative yoga – stretching your sore muscles (gently) helps keep you limber and reduces tightness
- And more!
15.) Prepare for Race Day
Now onto preparing for the actual race day.
This is an important first half marathon tip because without proper day-of preparation, all your weeks and weeks of training could be for nothing (insert melodramatic music here).
Find a great marathon checklist (like this one here).
Prepare things like:
- Bib packet pickup – where? when?
- Pre-race fuel – I eat oatmeal with honey and drink coffee before a race (but do whatever you normally do…nothing new!), which is hard to prepare in hotels, and requires prep…
- Race day gear – what you’ll wear before, during, and after the race
- Sunscreen, Aquaphor/Body Glide – avoid chaffing and sun burns
- Cell phone, charger, armband (if necessary)
- Race day directions and parking/transportation – don’t be late to the marathon, it will through off your whole mental state and won’t be a good first marathon experience. Plus, porta-potty lines can get long the half hour before start so plan this into your timeline.
- And more – figure out your list ahead of time and print it
Ok, now you’re ready to run your first marathon!
Do you have any questions? Did we miss something? What is your favorite first marathon running tip? Share in the comments!
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