Face down these common concerns, and you’ll complete 26.2 miles with confidence and soak up the high afterward
You’ve bitten the bullet and started training for your first marathon, half-marathon, or other epic run, and so far things are going well. You bought the perfect shoes, you may have a running coach, and you’re getting out to log more and more miles each day.
Still, as that once far-off race day starts to become real, more worries might crop up in your mind: "Can I really run that far? Will I reach the finish line injury-free? And what if I have to pee during the race?"
You’re not alone. Most runners have at least one if not all of the following concerns—from the totally legit to the irrational to the just plain paranoid—at some point leading up to a big race. But there's a way to overcome them and hit the starting line assured that you’ll make through all 26.2 miles.
If you don’t view yourself as an athlete, think of a time you chased a bus or small child, says former elite runner-turned-coach John Honerkamp. “If you’ve done that, you’re a runner, even if you haven’t chosen to run that much recently.”
It may seem daunting to break out of that outsider identity, but consider each mile under your belt another dollop of evidence that you do belong in your race. Chances are, you’re probably much more of an insider than you think—approximately 35 percent of all marathoners in any given race are running their first-ever 26.2.
If you’ve regularly run more than 10 miles in training, you are in good enough shape for a marathon. And even if you haven't, your training plan is designed to help prevent injury and instill the confidence that you’ll be ready to do your best on the big day. Follow it. Trust it.
In fact, according to Honerkamp, a bigger problem than undertraining for newbies is overcompensation. “First-time runners risk overtraining, mostly because they’re not familiar with how much their bodies can take. It’s easy to forget to factor sleep, stress, and even travel into training, and to adjust your program accordingly.”
If you haven’t gotten enough zzzs, your diet’s changed, work’s been rough, or you’re just feeling exhausted, take a few days off, he advises. “The most important thing during training and marathons alike is to listen to your body, even if that means erring on the side of doing too little instead of too much.”
And work out smarter, not harder. Switch between speedy and relaxed training runs to hone both fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers, which will help you avoid burnout, hoof it to the finish line, and stave off boredom. Also cross-train by tacking on strength training to the end of a run, keep rest days sacred, and give yourself enough time to prepare: Beginners may need up to six months.
Any fears of shin splints, tendinitis, or pulled muscles are probably worse in your head than in reality. Only about 2 to 6 percent of marathoners require medical attention during the race. Those who do tend to be ones who trained for less than two months or who logged fewer than 37 miles a week. In fact, coaches report they more often witness injuries during training than the big show, primarily because people are more likely to pace themselves on race day. Be careful not to increase mileage by more than 10 percent each week, cautions Jennifer Wilford, certified running coach and creator of You Go Girl Fitness. “You can’t cram for a marathon or become a distance runner overnight. The body doesn’t work that way.”
First, know this: Typically more than 90 percent of marathon runners cross the finish line. So since most runners cap pre-marathon runs at 20 miles, what helps you complete the remaining 6.2? Honerkamp points to the crowd's energy. “The enthusiasm of friends and family members on the sidelines gives a remarkably powerful mental boost," he explains. "First-time athletes in particular tend to pick up their pace about 5 to 10 percent in response.” Which means you only need to be concerned to not let onlookers’ fervor cause you to overextend yourself.
So much of endurance is mental, adds certified running coach Pamela Otero, co-owner of You Inspired! Fitness. She advises breaking the race into smaller increments: “Pick a sign or a mile marker just ahead, and celebrate when you pass it."
Given the hundreds and thousands of people who generally participate in a marathon, the chances of you being the very last are slim. But even if you do pull up the rear, the important takeaway is the sense of identity and accomplishment you feel from finishing. “Running allows people to transform, regardless of what their finish time is,” says Wilford. “Distance running is really about personal goals, improving your health, and finding a positive social outlet.”
Waking up at the crack of dawn to hit the track, trail, or treadmill doesn’t exactly pair well with late nights out or daily happy hours. True, you’ll have to duck out of a few friendly gatherings in the months leading up to race day, but a change in your schedule doesn’t rule out being social. For many runners, training with a running coach or group is equally as fun. “The people you run with are the people who see all your life changes,” Wilford says. “You get to know a lot about their lives through training with them for hours each week. They become true friends.”
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Given that you’re running for two to four hours (or more), hydrating at each mile, and consuming simple carbs every hour, you’re going to have to find a Porta-Potty, bush, or convenient way to let it out while in motion at some point during the race. To avoid any extra gastrointestinal discomfort, have your nutritional plan down pat before the big day: Don’t make major dietary changes in the days leading up to the race, and using training runs to test products so you can determine which mid-run fueling systems agree with you best.
Come race day, Wilford advises attempting to empty all your systems right before you line up and packing tissues or baby wipes should a stop be required. Trying to outrun your bodily functions can lead to serious pain (and humiliation), so pull over if you need to—the minutes lost in the process are worth your health and ego.
Nearly half of all marathoners experience some form of gastrointestinal distress during a race. If you vomit or feel severely ill at any point, head to a medical tent, Wilford says. The trained pros there will most likely be able to clear you for re-entry into the race. But if there are any signs of hyponatremia, which occurs when over-hydrating dilutes the blood’s sodium, it's best to call it a day and try another race, as this extremely rare condition can be life-threatening.
The chance that you’ll fall prey to cardiac arrest while gunning it in the last half mile is remarkably slim. Research shows only one in every 184,000 marathon runners experiences a mid-run heart attack. People with a high Framingham risk score are the most vulnerable, and they tend to be older and have more plaque built up in their arteries, despite their ostensible fitness. Get screened by a doctor to ensure you’re okay well before you start training, and listen to your body during the race. Slow down if need be and stay hydrated without overdoing it. Inadequate H20 taxes the heart by making it overcompensate for decreased blood volume and simultaneously raising blood pressure.
If 80 percent of success is showing up, then the fear of sleeping through your alarm on the big day makes sense, even if it isn’t entirely reasonable. Yet missing out on much-needed sleep because you’re checking your phone every hour to ensure your alarm is set (and the volume is up, and it’s still charging, and...) isn’t any better. Otero suggests setting multiple alarms, asking an early rising friend to give you a call in the morning, and perhaps going to bed with your running clothes on to save some morning prep time. Then rest easy knowing that you’ve trained your body and mind to take on the next day’s challenge.