The registration is in, and you’ve marked your calendar, but now what? Whether you’re an experienced runner or not, taking on 26.2 is a huge feat. It’s so huge, you might be thinking, “What the heck did I get myself into?!”
Marathons are one of those things that sounds great in theory, but the intimidation factor is not for the faint of heart. For me, marathon training was all fun and games until I was getting up at 4 AM on weekends and nursing my sore feet and bum knee. Trying to fit long runs and regular workouts into my crazy schedule wasn’t easy.
I won’t sugarcoat it, preparing for your first marathon will take a lot out of you. But at the same time, crossing that finish line after months of training will feel even more amazing than what you’re expecting. For me, completing 26.2 was one of the top three best moments of my life. I spent most of last year preparing for my first marathon, and I learned a thing or two in the process.
Here are my tips to make this journey to 26.2 as smooth as possible.
1. Get the Right Gear
Yay, you get to go shopping! You don’t need to go out and spend big bucks on all new workout gear, but there are a few essentials you need to stock up on. The first item on your list is a new pair of running shoes. It depends on a few factors, but a good pair of running shoes will only last about 400 miles. For serious runners (like you, marathon mama), that gives your shoes about six months before wearing out. If you’ve been rocking the same pair of Nikes for over a year, preparing for your first marathon is the best reason to treat yourself. Do your research and find shoes that match your body and running style. I started my marathon training with a firm-soled shoe because that’s what I thought I liked, but I started having serious joint pain in my knee three months into training. I switched to a more cushioned pair of Asics and felt so much better. Don’t underestimate the power of a good pair of shoes!
And while you’re picking out shoes, it’s a good idea to start stocking up on socks. You’ll go through them a lot faster during training, and without extras, you might find yourself picking through a stinky hamper before your regularly scheduled laundry day. Don’t ask me how I know this. Just trust me. You need more socks.
2. Pick a Realistic (But Still Challenging) Training Plan
Picking your training plan is the second most important part of preparing for your first marathon. (We’ll get to the first most important next.) You need a plan that is both challenging and realistic. No matter how fit you are, there’s no way you can skip training and complete your marathon with a time to be proud of. Sure, there are plenty of people who show up on race day with zero training, but is that really what you want? Running a marathon is about proving to yourself that you can work hard and achieve something amazing. Your finishing time isn’t as important as whether or not you put in the effort and do your best.
There are countless marathon training programs online. Ask our good friend Google, and you’ll see what I mean. You should know, however, not all training programs are created equal. You need to find a program that will work for your current fitness level and your crazy busy mom schedule. In general, you want a program that includes a few shorter runs during the week, a day or two of cross training (an activity that isn’t running), one long run a week, and a day for recovery. Take my advice and don’t try to wing it as you go. Before I started, I sat down with a calendar and a training plan I found online. I filled out every workout I was going to do for the next 5.5 months, and I’m so glad I did. Having that plan took away the daily stress of trying to figure out what I needed to do. I occasionally had to move things around to accommodate for regular life events, but having a (mostly) set in stone plan made things a lot easier.
3. Devise a Method of Accountability and Motivation
This is it folks—the single most important part of preparing for your first marathon. You can have the most expensive pair of shoes and the best training plan, but it’ll all count for zilch if you’re not in the right headspace. Not surprisingly, this is also the hardest part of preparing for a marathon. Most people start off training strong, but there’s always that brick wall of exhaustion a few months in. You HAVE to push through. Preparing yourself mentally is just as important as preparing yourself physically.
For me, accountability was the simple reward of being able to cross out a workout on my calendar. I’m one of those list-crazy people who lives for the satisfaction of crossing something off a to-do list. Having an uncrossed off workout on my calendar was not an option. I needed the satisfaction of seeing all those x’s in a row. I also made myself accountable by training with a few friends that were also into running. Trust me, the shared misery of 4 AM long runs is great bonding. My methods might not work for you, but there’s something out there that will. Try to think about why you signed up in the first place and make that more important than how tired you are. Find what motivates you, and hold on for dear life.
4. Change Your Diet
If you truly want to do your best, you’ll need to adjust what you’re eating. I won’t say the “d” word, because your purpose isn’t to lose weight. Sure, dropping a few pounds is usually an added bonus of running 20 miles a week, but when you’re working out that often, you need a diet that will provide all the fuel you need. If you’re not getting the right fuel, you’ll start dragging on your runs, and staying motivated will be even harder.
Focus on cutting out as many simple sugars as you can. You want complex carbohydrates like whole grain pasta, cereal, brown rice, veggies, and low fat dairy. I recommend making a list of foods you’re going to completely cut out of your life during training and pin it to your fridge. My list included cookies, chips, soda, and processed meat. I ate a lot of nuts, veggies, and whole wheat spaghetti during my training, but don’t forget cheat days are a real thing. I lived for my monthly Oreo McFlurry from McDonald’s.
5. Plan a Rehearsal Run
You’re going to get plenty of practice running during the months you’re preparing for your first marathon. But once you get close to the big day, you should plan on doing a rehearsal run. An experienced marathoner gave me this tip, and I’m glad I listened. The point is to avoid race day surprises and eliminate as much stress as you can.
It makes sense to use the last long run in your training program as your rehearsal. That might mean a 20-mile run, or maybe you’re only training to 18. In this case, the distance doesn’t matter as much as everything else. Do everything as you plan on doing it on race day. Wake up at whatever ungodly hour you’ll need to, and if you live nearby, you can even run part of the official marathon route. Eat the same breakfast you’ll eat on race day, and wear the exact same outfit—socks and underwear included, ladies! The last thing you want is a wardrobe malfunction at mile 16. I wore a different sports bra on race day than I did during my rehearsal run, and I ended up chafing around my shoulders because of it. Don’t be like me. Test your outfit to make sure it’s long run friendly.
6. Decide on Details Before the Big Day
Nerves were my biggest enemy the day of my first marathon. I prepared for months and made sacrifices, and it all came down to that one race. It was a big relief for me knowing I had already planned out all the details.
Plan out how long it’ll take you to get to the start line and if you’ll need to find a parking spot or have someone drop you off. If you plan on carrying water or snacks on the course (which I suggest you do) decide how you’re going to carry them and exactly what you’re going to take. I packed my Camelbak two nights before the race with Clif Shot Blocs, ibuprofen, a portable charger for my phone, and an extra pair of headphones in case mine conked out. If your family is planning on cheering you on or meeting you after, decide on a designated place to meet up. The last thing you want when you’re done running is to wander through hoards of sweaty people looking for a familiar face. There’s always the possibility that something will go wrong, but this way, your mind is free to focus on staying motivated and energized.
I won’t lie, marathons are TOUGH. You’ll probably get sore in places you didn’t know could get sore, and if you’re lucky like me, you’ll chafe so bad your skin will look slightly reptilian.(Was that an overshare?) It will take a lot out of you, but it doesn’t have to take over your life. With the right preparation, you can get your long runs in and still be the mom/wife/personal chef/chauffeur/maid/paid employee that you need to be. When you cross the finish line and feel that race bling around your neck, every early morning and every mile of training will be worth it. Running a marathon is an incredible accomplishment, and there’s no reason you can’t conquer it.