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How Not to Train for a Marathon

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Updated May 26, 2014

Seattle Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Starting Line - Full Size

Seattle Rock 'n' Roll Marathon Starting Line

Wendy Bumgardner ©

You pick up a flyer that promises to take you from the couch to the marathon finish line in just six months. Or, you sign up to do a marathon with a charity marathon program, with only six months to both train and to raise thousands of dollars. Marathon directors warn that they see the price people pay for this.

Beginners: Take 18 Months, Not 18 Weeks

If you are a stranger to regular exercise, you need to build base mileage first, before beginning marathon training. It is wise to take a full year to first start regular walking or running before starting a marathon training program. My marathon training course is 19 weeks long, but it assumes that you have been walking regularly for up to six miles before you begin it.

If you literally are just beginning to run or to walk, give yourself six months to a year to first build up your base mileage. Start a program such as my Let's Get Walking or my Walk of Life 10-Week Program first.

The Risks of Marathon Training

Walking or running over six miles requires both a base - months of building up - plus cautions. Longer mileage has more risks of simple things like blisters and overuse injuries such as iliotibial band syndrome, stress fractures, and plantar fasciitis.

Marathon directors say they see as much as 75% dropout from those who register from a commercial marathon training program or a charity marathon training program, far higher than the dropout rate of individuals who register for their marathons.

Too Much, Too Fast

The first problem seen are those who try too much, too fast - they are not regular runners or walkers, but they leap into marathon training as part of a charity program or as a fitness goal. Without the base, they are at more risk of injury.

Not Training Enough - Stick With the Schedule

The second problem are those who enter these programs, but don't strictly follow the schedule. A sound marathon training program is based on heavier weeks and lighter weeks, alternating. Some people never put in long enough sessions - it is common to hear them say they haven't trained beyond a half-marathon distance. This is a set-up for injury. Others skip weeks entirely and try to walk distances too great for their level of training, again with greater risk of injury.

Burn Out

Fatigue is also a big factor when people enter a marathon training program without enough preparation. The commitment it takes to train properly means that one day every weekend must be dedicated to longer mileage and time away from family.

The Charity Trap

Some charity marathoners drop out because they are unable to raise the dollars to participate in their charity program. They may have trained physically but are behind in the fundraising. They could drop out of the charity program and do a marathon on an individual basis, but feel guilty about failing to meet the fundraising requirements.

More dangerous are those who have raised the funds, but not done the walking or running training. They feel required by their donors to go and finish a marathon they are not prepared for physically. It is wise for a charity marathoner to only promise to complete what they can do safely, without sacrificing their own health.

The Unprepared Endanger Marathons

Each marathon has its own time restrictions. Marathon directors from the Napa Valley Marathon and the Big Sur Marathon have to reopen the road to traffic within a stated number of hours, and set their required finish times accordingly. However, each year they see unprepared runners far from the finish who refuse to get picked up by the sweep vehicles. This endangers their ability to host the marathon in future years. It endangers these runners because those roads do not have appropriate shoulders for both runners and traffic. The only recourse for race directors may be to require proof of a prior finish time of a marathon or half-marathon, which then restricts their events for first-timers.

Choose the Half-Marathon Instead

Those who want a good training goal who have only six months in which to begin training should choose a half-marathon. The 13.1 miles of a half-marathon is a challenge for both walkers and runners, yet it is a safer achievable goal for beginners. Many charity programs are awakening to this and adding half-marathons to their list of choices.
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