21 things I wish I’d known when I started training for marathons

Training for your first marathon or half-marathon? Here are 21 things I wish someone had sat me down and told me before I started pushing myself outside of the 10k-zone.

1) Distance is (mostly) in your head.

Most people start their run with an idea of how far they want to go. Almost inevitably, discovered that regardless of the distance I was running, the last mile or two ALWAYS seemed hard for some reason.  I soon learned that it was all in my head. If I told myself I was going to run 13, then mile 12 was tough.  If I told myself I was going to run 20, then things started getting tough around mile 18.

Once you recognize that’s what’s happening, you can push yourself further than you think you’re currently capable!

2) Invest in good gear.

Running is hard enough without fumbling with bad equipment.  Get good running shorts, a good pair of socks, find something that works for you to prevent chaffing, get some good headphones, a good running watch, and most of all — get shoes that are right for you. (Go to a running store and have them fit you — don’t just go by recommendations from friends).

3) There are very few “perfect days” for running. Run anyway.

In the winter, I’d hear people complain that it’s too cold to run, and they’ll wait until summer.  During summer, people mostly complain that it’s too hot, and they want to wait until it cools down.  Too windy, too dry, too rainy, too humid.. I’ve heard it all. The reality is that if you wait for “perfect” conditions, you’ll probably only run a few days a year.

The better strategy is to have the appropriate running gear (and mental fortitude) to handle any conditions! Yes, it’s harder to run in the heat, so carry water.  Yes, running in the cold is tough, so invest in good clothing. Make every day perfect by being prepared — and just doing it anyway!

4) Marathon training is a terrible weight-loss strategy

If you made a goal to run a marathon because you’re looking for a disciplined way to drop a few pounds, you might be using a strategy that’s going to back-fire on you. The truth is that, while running is a great way to drop weight, the volume of cardio required for marathon-training can actually create a situation that can block fat burn — or cause you to over-eat. Read more about that, here..

Eating at a caloric deficit (required to burn fat) is hard enough without adding the challenges of endurance running into the mix. There are people who have done it successfully, but there are (far) easier ways to burn fat!

5) Pay attention to the data.

Casual runners don’t need to worry too much about the data — just go outside and run!! But as you look to improve your performance day to day, week to week, and month to month, the data matters, because it’s the best way to know if you’re getting better!! Get a good running watch/GPS that can tell you distance, pace, stride length, cadence, heart-rate, etc..

Tracking the data over time can be really motivational as you realize that even from day to day, you see improvements in your performance.  It’ll also teach you how to use the data as a constant feedback-loop during a race, to keep yourself focused.  (Pro-tip: Regardless of what device you have on your wrist, you should be using Strava to analyze that data!!)

(And yes, despite what people think, the Apple Watch CAN do all of this — you just need to use any one of dozens of third-party apps, instead of the built-in, but very simple, Workout app).

6) Perfect the mid-run fueling

Most people only start with enough glycogen (muscle fuel) for 60 to 90 minutes of high-intensity activity. Once your runs reach longer distances, you’re ready to start worrying about fueling mid-run.  I talk a lot about my own strategy for fueling here, but you’ll need to experiment with what works best for you!

7) Don’t start too fast.

Race-day energy can cause you to launch off the starting line quite a bit faster than you’re used to, which will come back to haunt you towards the end of the race.  Race day is no time to be doing anything different, especially changing your speed. Pay close attention to your pace the first few miles and stick to your plan, even if you’re feeling great.

8) Tapering before a race is a thing. And it works!

Once your marathon is less than about 2 weeks out, no amount of training is going to make you better, or improve your performance. From the 2-week mark forward, in fact, too much training will actually work against you.  Follow a tapering plan (google it) and you’ll find that your race-day performance goes through the roof. You’ll feel refreshed and invigorated as the race begins!

9) You run to the beat of your music. Use that to your advantage.

I normally don’t like to run to music because I find it really boring, but in an attempt to maintain the “textbook perfect” cadence of 180 steps per minute, I find that listening to music with a beat that matches is incredibly helpful during a race. (Some runners actually use a metronome in their ear for this same purpose, but I think if I had to listen to a metronome beeping in my ear for 3 hours, I’d probably understand what causes serial killers).

This site is a great resource for finding music that matches the pace and cadence you’re after.

10) Your diet massively affects your performance.

Paying careful attention to the amount of carbs you’re eating will ensure you’re performing at peak efficiency, watching your overall protein intake will protect (and help you grow) your muscles, and carefully counting calories makes sure that your body isn’t lying to you about hunger-signals it will send. (Read more about that, here).  Set up a nutrition plan and stick to it with absolute precision!!

Eat healthy. Avoid sugar. And avoid the mental trap that because you’re running, you can somehow justify junk-food in your diet. Remember, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet.

This book is a great resource for learning how to eat while training for a marathon.

11) During your marathon, fuel according to a strict schedule.

Don’t wait until you feel like you need glucose to eat, or water to drink (by then it’s too late). Stay ahead of your fueling by using a strict schedule. Set an alarm on your watch if you need to.  Once you “bonk”, it’s over.  Your long-run training days are the time to experiment with this and perfect!

12) Not paying attention to electrolytes will wreck you.

This might be one of the biggest mistakes that beginners make. They assume that they’re getting enough sodium, potassium, magnesium, etc. by drinking “sports drinks”, and call it good.  If you’ve ever gotten that “light headed” feeling as you get an hour or two into a long run, or you tend to gain several pounds of ‘water weight’ the day after you do a long run, you probably have a serious electrolyte issue.

A lot of more experienced runners use electrolyte pills and take them on a regular schedule during their long runs.

13) Really work on your stride and foot-strike. Really!

It took 3 marathons before I finally realized that my stride-length was causing big problems with some recurring injuries I had been dealing with.  Shortening my stride and changing my foot-strike made a huge difference.  Almost all beginning runners that I see are using a stride-length and/or foot-strike that is probably going to cause problems for them as their volume goes up.

YouTube has lots of great videos that demonstrate proper stride length and foot-strike!!

14) Most of your runs don’t need to be fast.

Check out this book, which talks about why 80% of your runs should be fairly slow, and only 20% of your training should be at a pace that really pushes you. Keeping it slow requires a little discipline… but when it’s time to go fast…

15) Speed work is how you get speedy.

Running more often won’t make you faster. HIIT training, however, will!! Check out this article for more information on how to build speed-work into your weekly routine!

16) Something rubbing you the wrong way? Fix it!

It seems like beginning marathoners (and I was no exception) always have something hurting them — blisters, toenails, chaffing, you name it). The truth is that there’s no reason for the little things to cause you problems, since there are lots of great solutions.  If your toenails are turning black, consider a different pair of shoes (wider toe-box maybe?), or a different lacing technique. If you’re dealing with chaffing, invest in some body-glide. Blisters on your foot? Sometimes a great pair of running socks is all it takes.  Once you get this dialed in, you should be able to run a fairly pain-free marathon!

17) Don’t try to compete with anyone but yourself.

Never compare your abilities to anyone else. Running is a deeply personal sport, and we are each at a different place in our own journey.  You are the only person you have to compete with. Your only job, as it relates to everyone else, is to support them with kind words and encouragement!

18) Taking a rest day often takes more discipline than running

I once went almost 100 days in a row of running at least 6 miles a day.  While it sounds like an amazing accomplishment, the truth is that my muscles ached non-stop, my immune system was shot, and my overall performance started to degrade over time. (In fact, the streak was broken because I got very, very sick).

Rest days are a critical component to improvement. The days you don’t run are the days when your muscles get bigger, and your body recovers. In fact, the more disciplined you are about taking at least 1 to 2 rest days a week, the faster you’ll be, and the better your endurance will become.

And yes, sometimes it takes more discipline to NOT run on your rest days.

19) Pacing bands are a thing. You might want one!

If you’ve got a specific time goal in mind for your marathon, get and use a pacing band! The idea is to tell you exactly how fast you need to run each mile of the race in order to achieve our goal time, effectively giving you a mile-by-mile plan for achieving your end goal! The good ones are “course specific” and take the elevation changes of the course into account.

You can order a pacing band for your next race, here… Or just use the data they provide to make and print your own.

20) Race day is all about routine. Never do anything different.

This MIGHT be the top mistake that beginning marathons make.  The truth is that race-day should perfectly mimic whatever rituals you’ve already established during your training. Everything from what and when to eat before the race, carb-loading the day before, what shoes and socks to wear, when to fuel during the race, all the way down to how your shoes should be laced.

If you’re changing something.. anything.. on the day of your race, you’re flirting with disaster.  Even something as simple as lacing your shoes differently can result in injury. Very small things can become very big things over 26.2 miles.

21) A marathon is it’s own beast.

I was standing around the fire-pit for my 4th marathon in 4 months, waiting for the starting time, when a stranger gave the group a bit of advice that turned out to save me, mentally, when that particular race blew up on me at about mile 16. (I had to walk the rest of the way to the finish line).

She said, “A marathon it’s it’s own beast.  In order for a person — ANY person — to successfully run 26.2 miles, everything has to come together perfectly. You can control 80% of it (your training, your nutrition, your fueling, etc. are all within your control), but the other 20% aren’t up to you.”.

You have good training days, and you have bad training days — and you don’t get to choose which days are which.  And, as much as we hate it, sometimes marathons land on our bad days. And YOU will have marathons land on bad days.

The best thing you can do when this happens?  Ask yourself what went wrong, and how you can prevent it in the future! There are no amazing runners who haven’t failed 1,000 times.  Those failures are what teaches us the secrets we need to succeed.  You can learn 100 lessons from a single failure, and as long as you use those lessons to become a better athlete, those failures are priceless!

Just remember… at the end of the day.. there are always going to be forces you can’t control.