Finish Your First Marathon: Your 7-Step Plan

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March 5, 2019
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These simple fueling and recovery tips will keep you energized—and safe.

Marathon Refueling

So you’ve decided to run a marathon. Now what? Training, of course.

Make no mistake: Logging miles is important. But if you skimp on the ancillary stuff—like cross-training, fueling, hydration, and recovery—your chances of finishing 26.2 miles at your goal time goes way down. Even more important, your chance of running the race safely and enjoyably approaches zero.

“This is the dilemma for many marathon runners and other endurance athletes,” says Ryan Campbell, a training specialist at Anytime Fitness of Southern Wisconsin. “The sport requires so much time practicing the event that many other parts of training properly get pushed to the wayside.”

Here, we highlight seven marathon training to-dos that can move you from the sidelines to the spotlight:

1. Turn to Carbs Before and During Exercise

“Our food choices fuel our bodies and our energy,” says nutritionist Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., author of The One One One Diet. “We need energy, and that comes from healthy carbohydrates.”

That goes for both cross-training and running workouts. But timing plays a big role too. When performing any endurance-based workout for more than an hour, try to load up on carbs about 90 minutes before warming up.

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As for how many carbohydrates: You should eat about one gram per kilogram of body weight per hour of planned endurance exercise. So, if you weigh 68 kilograms (150 pounds), aim for roughly 68 grams of carbohydrates before an hour-long run. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are your best bet, Batayneh explains.

Getting in some pre-workout protein can help you get a head start on muscle recovery, but try to keep fat intake low before workouts. It can slow down digestion and increase the likelihood of having mid-run tummy troubles.

It can also be beneficial to consume simple carbohydrates—like dried fruit, energy chews, or sports drinks—halfway through your run, especially if you’re doing double-digit mileage.

By keeping your energy tank full, mid-run carbs can help you hit new personal records. What’s more, getting small amounts of sugars during exercise can help your body better absorb the fluids that you drink to keep you hydrated.

2. Hydrate Like It’s Your Job

Speaking of hydration, did you know that about two-thirds of your body weight is composed of water? Meanwhile, losing as little as 2 percent of your water weight—via sweat, panting, a toasty core temperature—can hinder your athletic performance.

Drink 8 to 10 ounces of water 15 minutes before exercising, and another 8 to 10 ounces every 15 minutes throughout your exercise routine. Note: If you’re running long distances, hitting these numbers could require strapping on a hydration pack.

And water isn’t the only thing we lose, Batayneh says. Electrolytes like sodium, chloride, and potassium need replenishing after long runs. Sports drinks contain these electrolytes, but not at a level that will keep you sufficiently hydrated if you’re running for several hours.

Rehydration beverages like Pedialyte and electrolyte tablets are far better sources. Pedialyte also contains a small amount of sugar to further encourage rehydration.

3. Focus on Protein After a Run

Your muscles don’t get stronger during your workouts—they break down. It’s after you stop sweating that your muscles truly build. And protein consumption makes that happen, feeding your muscles the amino acids they need to repair, recover, and strengthen after a long run, Batayneh says. Aim for 30 to 40 grams.

Fortunately, and contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to get your fill of protein within an hour of cooling down. As long as you fill up within a few hours, you won’t compromise your recovery.

Opt for lean sources of protein, including chicken breast, fish, dairy, eggs, tofu, beans, and legumes. No time to prep a big meal before or after a run? No problem. These three no-cook foods that pack almost 30 grams of protein apiece should have you covered.

4. Strength Train to Protect Your Body

There’s a saying that running doesn’t make you strong, but you need to be strong to run.

Runners should prioritize total-body strengthening, Campbell says, including compound movements such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, and presses. Doing so prepares the body for the miles ahead while helping to ensure that the repetitive nature of running doesn’t lead to muscle imbalances and injuries down the line.

It’s great to include strength training in your workout routine year-round, but it can be easiest to think of your training in terms of “seasons,” he says. The pre-competition season is a great time to hit the weights three, four, five times per week.

However, when you get within about four months of race day, you’ll likely need to cut down to about two days of strength training per week to accommodate all of the miles you’ll need to run. However, if you built a strong base in the prior months, you’ll be good to go.

5. Prioritize Active Recovery

Recovering from workouts doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t) mean sprawling out on the couch. Rather, active forms of recovery—such as yoga, low-impact cardio like biking or swimming, mobility drills, stability work, and foam rolling—can help the body recover better and faster than complete inactivity would.

While static stretching prior to a workout gets mixed reviews, most experts believe that standalone static stretching routines on active recovery days can help promote flexibility and mobility while easing some aches and pains, Campbell says.

When doing static stretching, he recommends lengthening the muscle until you feel slight tension in it, then holding that position for 30 seconds. Take deep, diaphragmatic breaths, inflating your stomach rather than your chest, throughout. Repeat two to five times for each muscle stretched.

6. Get More Shuteye

Perhaps the most underrated part of workout recovery, sleep is a critical part of giving your body the opportunity to recover from the mileage you’re putting on it, Campbell says.

Set a strict bedtime schedule during training, and stick with it, making sure that you get at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night. However, realize that as you increase the amount of training you do, your sleep needs will also likely increase. If you’re still having trouble snoozing, be sure to cut out these 12 sleep-killing foods a few hours prior to bedtime.

Carving out enough time to recover can sometimes mean rearranging your schedule or social commitments, but it’s worth it for your body’s health.

7. Invest in the Right Running Shoes

“Don’t get sucked in to the hype of the $150 running shoe,” Campbell says. “Ask a professional, such as a physical therapist or podiatrist, to help determine if your foot has special needs like a wide toe box or pronation support.”

Most specialty running stores will also be able to help you find the best shoe for your foot type and running form. Expect to try on lots of pairs, and potentially to run on a treadmill while someone videotapes your gait to help determine the best style for you.

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Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.

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