So you want to run the Boston Marathon. Here’s a nice long post on how to get yourself there and start/finish strong.
1. Do the research. Make sure you know exactly what time you need for your gender and age. Also, know that running a BQ time does NOT guarantee you a spot in the marathon. It gives you a chance to register. Every year, hundreds to thousands get turned away due to capacity limits. Many people try to aim for a BQ - 5 mins to be safe. This years Boston had the largest cut off time. You had to run 2 minutes and 28 seconds faster than a BQ to be accepted into the race. (For 18-34 men, this means 3:02:32, and 18-34 women, this means 3:32:32). If you’re close to Boston, I highly recommend watching the race before trying to qualify. It’s absolutely incredible and it’s definitely worth the trip.
2. Pick a race. The nice thing about qualifying for Boston is that there’s races all over the country (and world!). You get to pick! Check on the Boston Athletic Association’s website to make sure it’s a USATF certified course before you make your final decision. I recommend choosing a flat course. There’s also multiple websites out there that have BQ and PR rates for lots of popular marathons. Plan a race far enough out that you can map out your training (with a bit of room for adjustment) and increase your mileage safely. Fall is a popular racing time, but since registration opens in early September, running a fall marathon will likely qualify you for Boston 2 years out (for example, running a marathon in October 2016 would get you a BQ for 2018). Races mid summer and winter also have the possibility of being cancelled due to blizzard or extreme heat, so you may want to pick a back up race if weather is questionable.
3. Be realistic. Most people aren’t gonna qualify during their first marathon, while racing injured, undertrained, over trained, or during extreme weather conditions. Be flexible with yourself and be willing to adapt your plan/goals to what’s happening. I found that making ABC goals help a lot. A is best case scenario, perfect weather conditions, etc; B is maybe not gonna quite hit a BQ but here’s another goal; C being it’s not my day but I’m confident I could finish in X. The C goal should be something you know you can do, so you’re not completely devastated if things go wrong.
4. Do the training. Build mileage SLOWLY. You don’t become a marathoner overnight. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to your body. 10% is a good rule of thumb for how quickly some people can increase weekly mileage, but as a frequently injured runner, I would recommend 5-7% to be safe. You don’t want to train for a marathon injured, trust me. (Seriously, TRUST ME.) My body tolerates workouts and speed work VERY poorly. I know this. I know I can’t do Yasso 800s or mile repeats or hard farther runs. All of these are recommended in nearly every training plan I’ve seen. So I don’t use one. You can be successful doing one “tempo” run a week. This pace is up to you. My “tempo” runs when I BQ'ed were 20-30 seconds slower per mile than my BQ pace. Most of your running will be much slower than your actual goal pace. Run hills too. They’re good for you.
5. Do the other training. Yeah. Cross training. And strength training. You should do both. Chances are, you’re not going to run every day. My body maxes at about 4 days a week of running, which is totally fine. Some days you’ll wake up and just not want to run, which is also fine. As mentioned above, I don’t tolerate speed workouts well. Every running workout I have ever done has resulted in a serious injury. But I can do bike sprints all day no problem. Bike sprints are great! Slow biking is great. Elliptical is great. I have found that long distance biking is really good for building mental strength (in an “I don’t want to do this but I’m gonna sit here and do it anyway” sense). Some gyms have different machines like zero runners or stair steppers or others so see what your resources are. Strength training doesn’t necessarily involve lifting weights, but it can if you want it to. Running Strong (by Jordan Metzel) is a great injury prevention book which involves lots of different exercises (some body weight and some weighted). Runners World also regularly posts articles like “6 core exercises you’re not doing!” or “arm workout for runners”. The Nike+ Training Club app also has good, short strength training workouts. Most are 15-30 minutes and require little to no equipment. If you’re going to lift weights, don’t do leg day immediately before or after a hard/long run, you WILL regret it. Also, core. Really important. It’s not just “doing abs” either. Core also involves your butt, your back, your chest, etc. Everything that’s not your arms or legs is “core”. Having a strong core reduces impact elsewhere on your body and helps prevent injury. Do core workouts!
6. Do the long runs. Pace yourself appropriately. Your long runs don’t need to be at marathon pace and this certainly shouldn’t be your fastest run of the week. You’re gonna need to run 20 miles, at least once, but twice would also be good. You don’t need to do it every week for 3 months. That’s completely unnecessary. Some people do long runs up to 24 miles but I also think that’s unnecessary. I have done one 22 miler in training for each of my marathons (which fit within my weekly mileage goals) but I wouldn’t recommend it to a beginner runner. I’ve read before that your long run shouldn’t take up more that half your weekly mileage, meaning in your peak weeks which you’re doing 20, your total for the week should be near 40. It’s not an exact science, and life does get in the way sometimes, but don’t go out and try to do 20 if you’ve barely run all week. ALL training plans are adaptable. Nothing is set in stone.
7. Nutrition. This is important. I’m not just talking about mid run nutrition either. Your body is working 24/7 to repair broken down muscle, decrease inflammation, get stronger, function normally, etc. You need to eat. You need to eat appropriately. This probably means eating more than you eat right now. There are countless books and resources out there with recipes, recommendations, info, etc. You don’t need to count everything or measure or weight all your food. You need to eat carbs. You need to eat protein. You need to eat fat. You need sugar. You need salt. You need everything!! For shorter distances runs, I personally don’t find that I need to take in much fuel. Water usually works just fine. The standard recommendation for gels is one every 45 minutes, taken with water (DONT FORGET THE WATER). Take gels with water, NOT Gatorade! Some people cannot tolerate gels. There’s tons of different gels, blocks, chews, waffles, jelly beans, etc. You can also eat real food. Clif bars, Swedish fish, dried fruit, etc. Any carb based snack that’s easy to carry will work just fine. You can also just drink Gatorade or something similar. Or do a combination of both (this is what I usually do). You need try different things to find out what works best. Every runner has a favorite, so feel free to ask around! If you plan on not carrying you own nutrition on race day, find out what’s on the course. Typically, all races half marathon and above will have water, Gatorade, and some type of gel. Post run I usually like some kind of electrolyte drink, plenty of water, and a meal that involves a significant amount of carbs but protein also. 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is what runners world and other resources usually say, but you don’t have to overthink it. It isn’t rocket science, just listen to your body!
Side note on nutrition: If your weight needs to be adjusted (like actually though. Not I need to lose X pounds so I can have X% body fat and be lean and fast!! I’m serious, like a real medical professional suggested you need to lose or gain weight) then I HIGHLY recommend speaking to a real medical professional about that. Losing weight and gaining weight (I’m talking more than a few pounds fluctuations, which are normal and will happen as you adjust your training) are both EXTREMELY difficult to do when you’re putting your body through so much stress. Marathon training is incredibly demanding, and to demand more from your body that you’re already pushing so hard can have devastating outcomes.