Running a marathon, a 26.2-mile race, is an athletic feat that makes the top of many an ambitious person’s bucket list each year. It’s a badge of honor many strive for, and thousands of runners will go for it Nov. 4 during the 2023 Novant Health Charlotte Marathon.
About 1.1 million people run a marathon annually, the Marathon Handbook states. With the right amount of training and preparation, running and finishing a marathon or a half-marathon is an attainable goal.
Anne Ganim knows this from experience, both at work and outside on the pavement. She’s a runner and a doctor of physical therapy at Novant Health Rehabilitation Center - SouthPark where she works with other runners to help them maintain stamina, understand the mechanics of their bodies and set realistic goals. Here Ganim offers five tips for preparing for a marathon or half-marathon.
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1. Set a personal goal.
Ganim says the most important thing to consider when deciding to run a marathon or half-marathon is to first ask yourself why.
“Get real about what you want from this race,” Ganim said. “Are you doing this race as a first time? Do you want to crush all your previous records? Are you trying to win it?”
Ganim emphasized that your goal should be personal to you and shouldn’t involve comparing yourself to others. And if your goal is just to finish the race, with no regard for your time, that’s perfectly acceptable. In fact, that’s her goal as she prepares to run the half-marathon distance in the 2023 Charlotte Marathon.
“My goal is literally to finish because I have two very young kids; I have a 9-month-old and a 2 1/2-year-old,” she said. “So my training looks a lot different this time than it would have in previous years. I used to run to prove to myself that I could excel … and now I'm trying to do it to prove to my kids that while they’re my world, it’s OK to have hobbies and interests outside of them. There's more to being a mom. We can be dynamic, we can work, we can have a separate life. And I think that makes me a better mom for them.”
2. Pace yourself.
No one can jump right into a marathon without physically training first. Running 26.2 miles, or 13 miles in a half-marathon, requires training and conditioning. (Legend has it that the world’s first marathoner, Greek messenger Pheidippides, learned this the hard way in 490 B.C. He collapsed of exhaustion and perished after running 26 miles from the battleground in Marathon to Athens to report that the Athenians had driven back the Persian army in war.)
Most marathon plans suggest beginning training at least 16 weeks before the big race. This, however, assumes at least a baseline of physical fitness, so this can differ for everyone. Some runners benefit from starting as much as a year in advance with a running routine, which should include recovery time.
“I don't push people to run daily,” Ganim said. “Your joints usually need a break and a big way to do that is running just a few times a week. You could run three, maybe four times a week at most, giving yourself every- other-day breaks, or as little as one to two times a week.”
Much as with setting a personal goal for a race, it’s important not to compare yourself to others. If you start out by running just a mile at a time and gradually increasing, that’s still progress.
Leading up to the race, Ganim recommends doing a run that is close to the same distance as the race (10-13 to prepare for a half-marathon and 20-23 for a marathon) but leaving time for recovery.
“You want to do that a good three to four weeks before that race,” Ganim said. “Then you don't want to do any sort of long runs right before the race, like within the last like two weeks, because you want to give your body a chance to recover.”
3. Cross train.
The concept of cross training is participating in physical activities or sports other than the primary sport. It has many benefits, including aiding in active recovery, improving endurance and helping prevent injury. Cross training is important for running, Ganim explained, because running involves so much movement in just one plane of motion: forward.
“You're not really going backward, or side to side. So a lot of your muscles get overused in the same plane repetitively,” Ganim said. This can lead to overuse of the IT band and tensor fascia latae, interrelated structures on the anterolateral side of the hip, which in turn can cause pain in the knees and hips, as one example. To help prevent this, Ganim recommends cross-training activities that help strengthen the glutes, as well as yoga, weightlifting, Pilates and swimming.
“If you can cross train and strengthen your glutes and your core, that can help stave off some of those injuries, make you more powerful for the race and make you tolerate the race better, too,” Ganim said.
Also going hand in hand with the benefits of cross training is the importance of establishing a regular warmup and cool-down routine. Regularly warming up and cooling down for 10-20 minutes helps decrease risk of injury and keep muscles flexible.
4. Fuel your body, and clothe it right, too.
Getting adequate calories for a long-distance run is important to avoid problems like fatigue, nausea and dizziness. Enough water is also essential to maintain hydration and regulate body temperature.
There are differences in how it’s appropriate to fuel the body before, during and after intense exercise like long-distance running. Sports-marketed energy products like gels and chews are only appropriate during exercise because they contain high-glycemic sources of carbohydrates, which result in a quick blood glucose response. If possible, it’s helpful to eat these over 3-4 minutes of running, rather than in one gulp.
Before and after a run, it’s important to consume nutrient-dense foods from a variety of whole-foods sources. This recovery smoothie is a well-balanced choice with healthy protein, carbohydrates, fats and leafy greens.
Ganim’s No.1 recommendation for fueling is to never try a new food on the day of, or the night before, the big race.
“People have different reactions to food,” she said. “You have to try things out in your practice runs and you have to make sure that you feel comfortable with it going into the race, especially if you're going to use a nutrition supplement.”
Along with not trying a new food or nutritional supplement on race day, it’s also important to not wear a brand-new pair of shoes or clothing item. Ganim recommends only wearing shoes and clothes that you’ve worn before so that you know exactly how they feel when you run. (Good-quality running shoes are crucial to prevent injury so buy yours and break them in well before the race.) Dressing for the weather in light layers is helpful, as is knowing spots along the race route where you can shed or add layers as needed.
5. Find your allies.
Marathons and half-marathons are big tasks, both physically and psychologically, so it’s important to identify what your challenges are, then seek out and count on support from others to overcome those challenges. For example, lining up reliable child care may be integral to ensure consistency with training.
To help maintain optimal physical condition during training, Ganim said that she and other physical therapists are movement specialists and excellent resources who can help runners understand the mechanics of the body in motion. Plus, aches and pains are possible during training, and when something starts to feel “off,” it’s always better to address it sooner than later.
“We're here to be advocates for a healthy body and prevent injuries,” she said. “We can be a great asset, helping people understand nuances of their body. Each person is different.”