So, you want to run a marathon, but you have a lot of questions. Should you load up on carbs before your race? Should you try going barefoot? Should you follow the “10 percent” rule, increasing your milage by no more than a small margin each week?
A lot of the conventional wisdom about running is changing, and it’s less than three months away from the Baltimore Running Festival. But don’t worry. We’re here to help.
We’ve convened a panel of area running coaches — exercise physiologist and Baltimore-based running coach Brian Hand; Amy Horst, the head track coach at Loyola University Maryland; and Dave May, co-owner of CrossFit Frederick and a certified endurance coach — to give their advice on how to run long distances effectively and efficiently.
Over the next 10 weeks, you’ll need to get the right gear, learn the correct technique, eat clean and, most important, put in the work. But it’ll be worth it. When you’re finished, you should be leaner, closer to your ideal body weight and in better overall health. The panel’s advice is for people already seriously training for a marathon, but it can be applied to someone doing their first 5K. And there are marathons all year long, so even if you’re not ready for Baltimore on Oct. 15, another city might be calling your name.
Here’s what our experts had to say:
You need to know exactly what type of shoes, socks, shorts and shirt work best for you. This is an important decision, because the wrong type of shoes or socks could leave you with big blisters on your feet and the wrong type of shirt could leave you with, well, gross bloody nipples.
GET EVALUATED: Hand and Horst recommend going to a running store, such as the Falls Road Running Store, and getting yourself checked out before choosing a shoe. “Get the proper cushioning, support and stability,” Hand says. May recommends getting a lightweight shoe, something that is close to barefoot running (popular because it avoids knee injuries by running with the natural groove of your foot) while still protecting your foot; he recently wore his Inov-8 while completing a 50K trail run. Both Hand and Horst currently train with Brooks shoes designed to fit their feet. (Both Brooks and Inov-8 shoes cost upwards of $100.)
GET A SECOND PAIR OF SHOES: Horst recommends switching between two pairs of shoes during your training runs. Your shoes will last longer, she says, and you’ll figure out which pair to wear on race day.
WATCH OUT FOR CHAFING: The longer you run, the more likely you are to chafe or get blisters. Hand recommends using wicking fabrics — for instance, a running sock like Swiftwick — and avoiding cotton socks and cotton shirts.
BEAT THE HEAT: On race day, you’ll need places to store your gels and other fuel, such as shorts with a small pocket or a belt. But you’ll also want to avoid the sun. Horst recommends wearing sunglasses and a hat.
Most people don’t think of running as a technical sport, such as, say, golf, but there’s a good deal of technique used. Most important, poor running technique can lead to injury — and your marathon training is supposed to help your body, not hurt it, right?
DON’T HUNCH OVER: Hand recommends runners try to “run tall” and “engage their abdominal muscles.” Proper form will make you go faster and decrease the chance for injury. “I would use quick, light steps, almost like you’re landing on egg shells. You don’t want to land hard. Take shorter steps,” he says.
DON’T HEEL STRIKE: Most athletic shoes put most of their cushioning in the shoe’s heel, which encourages runners to land there, something Hand does not recommend because it can lead to knee pain. “Land on your mid foot,” he says. A lightweight shoe also helps a runner avoid this problem.
RELAX YOUR ARMS: Runners should keep their hands and shoulders relaxed, swing their arms front to back and keeping their hands around waist level, Hand says. Moving your arms from side to side creates a turning motion that slows you down and causes hip pain.
KNOW YOUR PACE AND FORM: May says runners should be conscious of their times, so they can realistically pace themselves on race day. He also recommends runners make video of themselves running, so they can be aware of any technical deficiencies. If you’re not knowledgeable enough to spot errors in your own running, ask a running coach to evaluate you.
STICK WITH WHAT WORKS: Race day is not the day to try something new. Use the techniques that have proved successful in training, Horst says. “It’s not the time to try barefoot running or running on your toes,” she says.
Most of your health benefits will come from your pre-race workouts, not the actual race. Plus, it’s a great way to release stress.
GET IN THE MILES: Hand recommends running three to four times a week, eventually building up to a run of around 20 miles. Horst says runners should reach about 22 miles during their build-up. The idea is to run slower than you would on race day, so you’re running for about the same time as a marathon.
BUILD UP SLOWLY: Though the running coaches weren’t strict observers of the “10 percent rule” — which says one should increase millage by only 10 percent per week — they were believers in building up slowly. Increase your distances gradually.
COMPETE IN SHORTER EVENTS: 10Ks, long trail runs and half-marathons are great ways to get ready for the big day, the coaches say.
DO SPRINTS: A marathon is a long, slow run, so how could sprints help? All three coaches recommend interval training, including hill sprints and hill intervals to help you go faster on race day. “Leg strength is very important,” Hand says.
HAVE A DOWN WEEK: At least once a month, take it easier. Run fewer miles — no more than, say, 12 for the week, Horst recommends. This helps your body recover from the longer, most intense training weeks.
RUN WITH FRIENDS: Even though training isn’t the most fun thing in the world, having some running buddies helps. The more you run with friends, the more likely you are to stay motivated, coaches say. Another way to stay motivated is to write down your running and fitness goals and post them on a wall you can see every day.
Runners should be skinny and lean without much muscle mass, right? Not necessarily, says our panel. Each recommends strength training as a way to help avoid injury and get faster.
DO BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES: Lunges, squats, push-ups, abdominal exercises and other “functional” body weight exercises are great for running, Hand says. “You want to have a strong upper body. You’re carrying yourself. Your arms need to be strong,” Horst says.
DO CROSSTRAINING: Other endurance sports can be great for runners. They let your feet recover, while keeping your cardiovascular system in shape. Hand recommends swimming and biking.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO LIFT HEAVIER WEIGHTS: Early on in training for a race, runners shouldn’t be afraid of putting some weight on the bar. “Everyone thinks you have to be thin, but stronger people can perform longer, better and faster,” May says. “It also helps avoid injury. The stronger I am, the better I run.”
Much as shoes (lighter with smaller heels) and training strategies (shorter runs with more sprints and weight-lifting) have changed over the years, different nutrition advice is also recommended these days. A good nutrition plan is key for your running, and also your long-term health.
DON’T CARBO LOAD: That old advice about slamming down spaghetti the night before a race doesn’t work, the coaches all say. “Runners should be fueling their body all week, eating a well-balanced diet,” Hand says. That means lots of vegetables and fruits and going lighter on the pasta.
EAT PROTEIN: Horst says good nutrition for a runner focuses on a 4-to-1 rate between carbohydrates and protein. May prefers even more protein in his diet than that. Eating protein is particularly important for runners who train more on the street than on grass, because studies have shown they lose iron faster, Horst says.
STAY HYDRATED: This is not just important advice for race day, but for runners everyday. Horst recommends her runners at Loyola carry a water bottle with them constantly. She also says you should plan your training runs with hydration in mind — knowing where water fountains are in the park or placing a water bottle where you grab it to get a quick drink. Getting dehydrated is the quickest way to derail a successful marathon. Maintaining constant hydration will help you on race day.
There. Now you’re ready to take on 26.2 miles.
Who’s up for an ultramarathon?