How to Run a Marathon

Now that I’ve run my first marathon I obviously know everything there is to know about running … or maybe not. Please keep in mind that I am a novice runner and have no formal training or certifications in anything even remotely related. The following is based solely on my own experiences, conversations, and readings.


People have lots of misconceptions about “runners.” Let me clarify this for you; runners are people who run. They may be able to run 1 km or 100 km. They may run once in a while or everyday. They may be women or men, young or old, fast or slow, slim or overweight.

When I did my first 14 km race, the Coho Run, I was surprised by the diversity of people. And even more surprised at how fast some of the old or overweight people were. You really can’t tell how good a runner is based on appearance. They were probably having the opposite thought about me … “That young lady looks fit, why is she running so slow??”

I recently talked to a man in his 70s that does a marathon (or sometimes just a half marathon) every month. You’re probably thinking that he’s been running his whole life, but the truth is he only started about 12 years ago. He said he almost always wins his age group and boasted that he has come in both first and last before. If you’ve ever thought about getting into running before and shook it off because “I’m too old to start now,” you’re going to have to find another excuse.

Not that we’ve established anyone can be a runner. What’s next?

Start running.

Set a goal that you want to accomplish and that is both doable and will require you to push yourself. If you’ve never run before, your goal could be to run continuously for 5 minutes. Or if you are somewhat active, your goal could be to do your first 5 km race.

I had done a bit of running previously, so my goal when I started running again last year was to run my first half marathon. It was a BIG goal for me as I had only ever ran 5 km before (and that was several years prior) but I was determined to succeed and passionate about my goal.

Get inspired. I recommend standing at the end of a race for a while and watch others as they cross the finish line (that’s what motivated me) or read stories about ordinary people who started running, the hardships they overcame, and the ways it improved their lives. I read a number of books when I started running including the Runner’s World Big Book of Marathon and Half-Marathon Training. It discusses how to train, injury prevention, and nutrition. The most valuable part of the book for me was the testimonials and stories from real-life people who, despite having full-time jobs and kids, found the time and perseverance to train for and run a marathon.

Watching my boyfriend complete his first half marathon.

Make a plan for how you will achieve your goal. There are tons of training plans available on the internet for all levels of runners. Figure out how the training will fit into your busy life. Is it easiest for you to run in the morning, at lunch, or after work? Schedule your runs in your phone, write them on your calendar at home and work, and tell your friends. DON’T plan to maybe go for a run on the weekend. You won’t. Trust me. Block off all your runs in your calendar or they will always get pushed to tomorrow or later.

Stick to your training plan as closely as possible. You may have a tough run or you may feel great. If you do feel great, don’t be tempted to run way more than planned because, by some miracle, you feel like you can. You risk injury by running to fast, too far, or too long. On the other hand, if you wake up one morning and your body is screaming at you not to run, you may just need to rest. Training plans aren’t an exact science and you need to listen to your body to avoid burning out or injury.

Reward your hard work (but not by stopping at McDonalds and eating a supersized Big Mac meal). This can help you to form good habits. When I finish a run, I can’t wait to sync my GPS watch to my computer and watch as it draws the map of my route. I check out my total distance ran ever, I look at the leader board for the month and see where I stand amongst my friends, and I just generally stare at all the bright colours and numbers on my screen and feel good about myself (yes, I consider this a “reward”). Maybe you allow yourself to eat a piece of chocolate, or relax and watch TV for an hour, or flex your huge calves in the mirror for a while. Whatever will get you to do it again!

Sometimes I set more exciting rewards for bigger milestones. I decided I would allow myself to buy a Fitbit Aria scale if I completed my hot yoga challenge last summer. When I was training for my first half marathon, I promised myself that if I finished it that I would register for a full marathon (again yes, I consider this a “reward”).

Be accountable. Tell your friends and family your goal, your plan, and even your schedule. I started writing about running in my blog, that way I would be accountable to the whole world (ha). I also posted my runs to Facebook and Twitter in the hopes that my friends would call me out if they hadn’t seen an annoying running post in a while.

If you hit a speed bump or a setback, don’t give up! Sometimes you get sick or injured, sometimes you temporarily lose the love for running or get distracted by all the craziness in your life and but don’t let it de-rail you! Regroup, re-evaluate your training plan, and get back on the wagon.

When you reach your goal, and you will if you want it bad enough, celebrate and set a new goal! I took me just under a year to work my way up to a marathon. It took my friend even less time. It may take other people 2 years or 5 years or 10 years. Maybe you have no intention of running a marathon because, “that’s crazy!” The point is, it is not as impossible as it seems and it is not only for elite athletes. If it is something you think you would like to try, I say go for it! You will be surprised by what you can do when you set your mind to it.

Tips, Insights, and Observations:

You literally have no excuses.

There are marathoners who are 80-years-old, have recovered from car accidents and were told by doctors that they’d never run again, have demanding careers, or are blind. There is nothing stopping you but yourself (barring extenuating medical issues). If it is something you truly want to do and if you make it a priority, you will figure out a way to make it happen!

You don’t have to sacrifice any part of your life to be a runner.

Sure, it will take many hours of your time to train for a marathon. It may even get in the way of cool things your friends are doing. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a social life (or have fun). Once you are running 10+ km, it gets very boring on your own. If you are like me, convince your best friend that training for a marathon is a GREAT idea or else join and/or you can join a running group. I’ve met a lot of people through running and I’ve had a lot of great conversations and shared some amazing experiences with them. The only part of my life that suffered during marathon training was my TV watching, and I’m pretty okay with that. And maybe a few household chores …

Try running with a group!

Don’t compete against other people.

The only person you are competing against is yourself. Strive to improve and push yourself to be better than you were yesterday. Don’t worry about how fast or far someone else is running. Strive to set a personal best, not beat someone else’s. When I mention that I ran a marathon I occasionally get asked, “Did you win?” I still haven’t figured out whether people who ask this are joking or serious but I always answer, “Yes … I finished.”

There are always people who are better off than you, and there are always people who are worse off than you.

I realized this during the last half of my marathon. I felt SO TERRIBLE but what did I expect?? Everyone felt terrible, we had been running for over two hours with no end in sight. Some people felt slightly less terrible than me, like my training partner, and some felt worse than me, like the people stretching out a muscle on the side of the path or those who had resigned themselves to walking the rest of the way. A marathon is not easy for anyone, and if it is, they’re doing it wrong!

Never judge a book by its cover.

I’ve learned that how people look like they feel and how they ACTUALLY feel can be two totally unrelated things. I’ve barely made it through some of my long training runs and been told that I looked like I was having no trouble at all! Sometimes my strongest finishes are when I can’t stand to be running for even a second more than I have to so I power through at the promise of a plain bagel and a hot cup of coffee at the finish. I think that my posture and gait actually improves when I’m struggling because I can’t stand to lose even an ounce of efficiency in my stride.

Never underestimate the power of encouraging words.

For a long time I never understood the whole “hang in there kitten” thing. But if I had ever hung from a tree limb for any amount of time with nothing but my thoughts and an incredible fear of falling, I probably would have found it truly inspirational. Sometimes things get hard and you desperately need words of encouragement no matter how silly or corny they are. Spectators cheering you on will literally make you cry during a marathon (or at least tear up). I hate to admit this but I even repeat mantras in my head when I’m powering up a steep hill or desperately trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I never thought I would be THAT kind of person. But it actually helps me.

Running will change your life.

If you make a goal, stick to your plan, and finish a marathon you will realize that anything is possible, even things you had previously thought were impossible. You will have a renewed confidence in your ability to conquer anything life throws at you.


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