Training for a marathon is more than just logging your miles, you guys.

By Cassie Shortsleeve
Updated: February 20, 2018
Photo: Dan_photography/Shutterstock

Growing up in Boston, I've always dreamt of running the Boston Marathon. So when I got an amazing opportunity to run the iconic race with Adidas, I knew I wanted to do it right. The last thing I wanted was to burn out, be ill-prepared, or (worse) get injured. (P.S. Here are the best hotels to book for the Boston Marathon.)

I turned to Amanda Nurse, a Boston-based run coach and elite runner herself (her marathon time is 2:40!), who taught me that having someone qualified (who knows your running background, past injuries, training goals, and work-life schedule) make training a whole lot easier.

It's easier than you think to find a qualified run coach either in your area or remotely. You can search for someone through the Road Runners Club of America site or stop into a local specialty running shop (many have their own coaches). The RUN S.M.A.R.T. Project also connects runners with coaches digitally. Usually, a coach will go through your running history with you as well as your goals, create a training plan for you (and alter it as you go), and check-in with you on a regular basis (either in person via group or one-on-one runs or by phone or email) to see how you're doing. If you hit bumps in the road, they're usually available to talk through solutions and strategies. (See also: 26 Thoughts You Have While Running a Marathon)

Some other lessons I learned:

Hills really do matter

While you might dread them (or skip them, or not know where to find them), running hills ups the intensity of your workout, increasing both aerobic (endurance) and anaerobic (speed and high-intensity) capacity, explains Nurse. "The knee raising and leg drive required to climb a hill can improve your running form and helps build strong muscles needed to increase power while running."

But it's not all about huffing and puffing up. "A big part of hill running is the downhill component," says Nurse. Take the Boston Marathon-many people think 'Heartbreak Hill', a half-mile stretch of uphill in Newton, is the hardest part. "The reason it feels so hard is because of when it falls during the race (at mile 20, when your legs are very fatigued), and because the first half of the race is essentially downhill, putting a lot of stress on your quads, tiring your legs out faster than if the course was flat."

Lesson learned: By training both uphill and downhill, your body gets used to the workload and will be stronger and more ready to tackle them on race day, Nurse explains. If you're not sure where the best running hills near you are, consider groups like The November Project, which often utilizes hilly spots in cities for workouts or local run shops, where running groups will likely be quick to share routes.

Don't skip your speed work

Mixing in weekly interval training or tempo runs improves the way your body processes oxygen, helping you to run faster and more economically, Nurse says. Think of them as "quality" runs (over quantity). "These speed workouts aren't long, but they're just as challenging because you're working harder over a shorter period of time."

Lesson learned: On my training plan, Nurse listed out different paces for me-from endurance to sprint. Sticking with a particular pace (everyone's will be different depending on your goals) during different parts of the speed workout is what's key. Start with a five-minute easy jog to warm up, then alternate going fast for one minute with going slow for a minute 10 times (or for 20 min total). End with a five-minute recovery jog or walk to cool down.

Plan travel accordingly

When you're training for a big race, you're likely going to have some travel-related obstacles. For me, this meant five days away in Aspen (about 8,000 feet elevation) toward the end of my training as well as a week-long trip to California.

At altitude, your training runs will likely be a little bit slower, says Nurse. Since being in a high-altitude environment decreases the amount of oxygen your muscles get (and you might find it harder to breathe), your mile times usually lag by 15 to 30 seconds. (This site can help you determine your times depending on how high up you are.) "For runners who are traveling and simply need to do their training at higher altitudes, just be aware of the added strain it puts on your body and don't overdo it."

Lesson learned: Plan "down weeks" (weeks with less mileage) around your travel. "It's beneficial to take a down week every three to five weeks, it depends on the person," says Nurse. "During this week, many marathoners drop back on their long-run length and generally reduce their total weekly mileage by 25 to 50 percent of their highest mileage in the training cycle thus far." This will help you feel more refreshed and ready to tackle your next big week of training, she says.

Take time for recovery and listen to your pain

A few weeks into the beginning of my training, a knot in my calf started to act up. "Not listening to your body is the biggest mistake runners make, especially those training for their first marathon or race," says Nurse. Problem is, running through small nagging aches (for fear of falling behind in your training plan) can lead to bigger injuries that'll set you back even further later on.

Fortunately, with Nurse's help, I was able to make a chiropractic appointment (her husband, the official chiropractor for the Boston Athletic Association also owns Wellness in Motion, a sports chiropractic firm where he treats elite and recreational runners on the reg). After a soft-tissue treatment that helped break up some scar tissue in my leg and cutting one long run in half, I was back on the pavement.

Lesson learned: If you notice something, whether it's your IT band or the bottom of your foot, that doesn't feel quite right, deal with it right away, says Nurse. "It's better to miss a workout and get treatment for it or rest than train on it and make it worse." Even better: Pre-schedule massages about once a month and make ice or Epsom salt baths, to aid recovery and decrease swelling, post-long run routines, she says. Other forms of recovery-cupping, foam rolling, ice baths, stretching-all aid recovery time, too.

You need to fuel your long runs

Even if you've run a half-marathon with nothing but a few sips of water (guilty), proper nutrition and hydration prove crucially important as you tick up your mileage. Your body only has so much energy-and eventually, it runs out. But any ol' food or drink won't cut it. "Some of the best advice I was ever given when training for my first marathon was to try out my race day fuel during my long runs," says Nurse.

Lesson learned: Figure out what works best for your body (some nutrition, for example, can cause stomach issues for some people). Planning on using the Gatorade along the side of a course? Find out what kind they use (in Boston it's Gatorade Endurance Formula) and order some for yourself to practice with.

Running with other people makes everything easier

I love solo jogs. But long runs can be really, really long-even with a podcast, an endless supply of music, or phone calls via earbuds. "My coach is amazing at connecting his coachees to other runners," says Nurse. "So if I have to do a hard speed workout, he syncs up my workout with others', which makes it so much easier."

Lesson learned: Local running stores (Heartbreak Hill Running Company here in Boston hosts Saturday a.m. runs, some of which are along the Boston Marathon route), workout studios, or athletic retail shops often host group runs where you'll find like-minded people who are probably training for something just like you are. "I have formed great friendships with runners this way," says Nurse.

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