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In this episode we tell you How to Go from Couch to Marathon, plus we talk with a runner from California who went from weighing 400 pounds to running his first marathon! And just a reminder that you can go through our A-Z system for getting marathon ready inside the Academy. Find out how to join here.
How to Go From Couch to Marathon
One of the things that attracts people to long distance running and particularly the challenge of a marathon is that we all have the desire to live up to our full potential and get the most out of life.
Running is one of those things that connects the mind, body, and spirit in a unique way. We find out what’s inside of us and at the same time connect more fully to our environment.
We’ve heard from hundreds of runners over the years who have confirmed that running a marathon changed their life for the better. But we know that there can be a lot of fear and anxiety connected with taking on a big challenge like this (or any new challenge).
It’s normal to wonder if you have what it takes and sometimes doubt that you’re taking the necessary steps to successfully reach your marathon goal.
There are definitely some common pitfalls that can derail runners from safely reaching the marathon finish line. A few of these have to do with external preparation like gear and training, but having the right mindset is equally important. Here are some essential components to successfully go from couch to marathon (or from desk to marathon, as Trevor says.)
10 Tips to Successfully Take You From Couch to Marathon
1. Pick the Right Gear
You don’t need all the gear, you just need the right gear. One of the most basic items you need in your marathon training is a good pair (or two) of running shoes.
When it comes to finding the right pair of shoes this is not the time to get all fancy and buy the most expensive pair you can find or the ones that look the most attractive. It’s all about comfort and fit when it comes to trainers. You should have plenty of room in the toe box and at least a half inch of space between your longest toe and the end of the shoe. I totally didn’t realize this when training for my first marathon and wore too small running shoes for the first couple of years. Who knew that your feet aren’t supposed to go numb or that your toes aren’t supposed to feel continually battered.
If you’ve never done so before, go to a specialty running store and have your feet and gait evaluated by a professional. A pair of good fitting running shoes is going to prevent some of the possible injuries that come from the wrong shoes and greatly increase the comfort of your running.
While we’re talking about foot comfort you’ll probably find that not just any pair of socks will work for long runs. For example, cotton doesn’t breathe very well and will cause heat to build up inside your socks. This heat combined with friction can leave you with some nasty blisters and have you hobbling around for days. Basically you want a sock made out of technical fabrics like acrylic, polyester, bamboo, or wool blends. Some of our favorite go-to brands include Bombas, Injinji Toe socks, and Balegas (but there are many good brands).
When it comes to shorter runs you can usually keep it fairly simple and just wear things that are comfortable to work out in. The exception for women is getting a sports bra with maximum support. But as you continue the amount of time you run you’ll find that certain cuts, fabrics, and styles are more comfortable and others leave you swearing that you’ll never wear them for a long run again.
I would definitely recommend slowly investing in a wardrobe of running clothes made of technical fabrics. Because if you sweat at all you’re going to be unpleasantly weighed down by cotton or things with obvious seams which can cause chaffing. Cotton may work fine for a 3 mile run, but if you plan on doing long runs cotton is not your friend. I’m still mystified that at nearly every marathon I see at least one runner wearing a cotton shirt.
In general you want garments that fit well, don’t have a ton of extra fabric, and don’t cause chaffing. Fabric rubbing against skin and skin rubbing other skin can cause this very uncomfortable condition known as chaffing. Use Body Glide or other anti-chafe products anywhere you may suspect that chaffing may occur. It usually only takes a few runs before you find out any potential chaffing locations.
It’s very helpful to track your distance and time (and maybe other stats) using either a GPS watch or your phone with a tracking app. If you’ve been running long enough you remember the days before GPS and the extreme focus on stats, graphs, and other metrics. When I was training for my first marathon I had a basic stop watch and drove my running routes in the car to estimate the distance. But having an app or GPS watch makes it so much easier. Some of the most popular apps include Map My Run, Run Keeper, Runtastic, Strava, Edmondo, and Nike Plus. Popular GPS watches include the Apple Watch, Garmin watches, Fitbit, TomTom and many others. They come in a variety of price points (usually associated with how many features you want).
2. Get Your Running Form Right
Running form can either make or break your experience as a long distance runner. While it’s true that no person has the exact same form due to biomechanical differences there are some general principles that can save you energy and prevent injuries.
Focus on the following:
- Run tall. Keep your head up and eyes looking straight ahead.
- Keep your torso up and shoulders relaxed and arms bent comfortably by sides. Hands should not cross the midline of your body. Make sure your hands stay relaxed and not clenched.
- The body should lean slightly forward from ankles to shoulders.
- Your landing foot should be just under the hips which is the center of gravity.
- Focus on short quick steps and don’t over-stride.
3. Plan for Your Personal Safety
Be sure that you’re cleared for physical activity by your healthcare provider before training for a marathon. Chronic issues like heart or lung problems can need specialized attention. Also, if you experience unusual shortness of breath, arm or neck tightness especially on the left side, numbness, nausea, and a cold sweat call 911 immediately. These are signs of a heart attack and should not be ignored.
At some point during your running or marathon journey you’ll probably have at least one non-running acquaintance point out all the cases of people who have died while running. Another thing you’ll run into is people predicting that you’ll need a knee or hip replacement someday. The good news is that statistically runners don’t have higher rates of osteoarthritis than non runners and keeping your weight in check will make for healthier joints. Runners also have a smaller chance of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Some additional safety considerations that you need to make a priority is being aware of your surroundings and being a defensive runner (don’t expect traffic to be looking out for you). We all know the stats of how many distracted drivers are on the roads so make sure you’re aware and alert of your surroundings at all times. You’d be surprised at how many runners don’t do some of these basic things.
Always run facing traffic (left side of the road in the U.S.) or on a side walk and make eye contact with drivers if possible. Wear reflective gear and lights if you will be running in low light and don’t block out ambient sound entirely by wearing headphones/earbuds. If you choose to listen to music or other audio make sure that you can hear well. If you’re on a path that is closed to traffic run on the right side and pass on the left. This can make sharing the path with cyclists much more easy. If you’re running with friends don’t run more than two abreast.
4. Take Time to Do Cross-Training
Incorporate strength training and other low impact exercises into your training routine from the beginning. It’s easy to just run but if you don’t build a firm foundation there’s a good chance that you will get injured. Focused cross training will help improve your overall muscle strength and allow you to become a better runner.
We highly recommend low impact activities like core training, lifting weights, cycling/spinning, rowing, swimming, yoga, Pilates, etc. These can be done on your off days from running or even on running days if you have time. As a beginning marathoner it’s best to avoid doing high impact activities every single day which can increase your chance of injury and not allow your body necessary rest and recovery.
5. Nail Down Your Fueling and Hydration
Another important aspect of being physically prepared for the marathon is dialing in your approach to fueling and hydration. This is something that you should begin experimenting with and practicing early in your training so that the only new thing you do on race day is run 26.2 miles (or 42.2km).
The challenging thing about fueling and hydration is that there isn’t a one size fits all formula for success. Many factors like your body size, gender, pace, climate, and dietary preferances will factor into your fueling and hydration requirements. Plus the way you carry your hydration and fuel during training and also on race day will need to be practiced.
Here are some general recommendations to provide a jumping off point.
Most runners will need between 16-28 oz of fluid per hour during exercise. There are definitely some outliers from this range but studies show that regularly consuming over 30 oz per hour puts you at significant risk of overhydration which can lead to hyponatremia (low blood sodium).
The fluids that you take in should be spaced appropriately (every 1-3 miles) because your gastro-intestinal system simply cannot process large amounts at once and that can lead to the “sloshing” feeling in your gut. For extended efforts and hot/humid conditions it’s wise to also use a balanced electrolyte (either in capsule form or dissolved in your hydration of choice). An electrolyte solution containing a balance of sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium helps ensure the healthy functioning of all body systems.
One amazing thing about the human body is that we have fat stores to kick in during prolonged periods of exercise or fasting. But unless you’ve trained your body to perform in a fasted state having a steady intake of carbohydrates is going to allow you to have the physical and mental energy you need to run your best.
However, the intake of too much fuel or with the wrong formula you may run into things like nausea and GI distress. Typically fewer calories per hour can be processed by runners because much of the blood supply is shuttled away from the GI system into the major muscle groups. But in general, most runners need between 120-200 calories per hour, divided in a way that keeps your energy levels stable.
Here is a video about how I fuel with Generation Ucan
6. Remember, you can’t cram for a marathon
Shortcuts undermine the process and often compromise your health. An essential part of your marathon foundation is building a solid running base. To stay injury free you will want to start your training out slowly. There’s a tendency when you’re excited about something to start off too hard. Remember that each person gets in shape at their own rate so don’t compare yourself to others. Make sure you find a running schedule that works for you.
You may want to begin by running three days per week at first and not run on consecutive days to allow your body recovery periods. Remember that your body gets stronger and adapts during periods of rest. It’s also okay to start with run/walk intervals and to stick with the run/walk method if that works for your training.
Another important tip is not to run too fast during training runs. Every run should not be attempted harder and faster. You’ll want to maintain a conversational pace as you build your endurance, especially during “easy” and long runs.
7. Always Listen to your body.
One of the best things about becoming a marathoner is that it gives you a different relationship with your body. You begin to have a new appreciation of what your body is capable of. And to fully appreciate and support your body you need to listen to it and intervene when necessary. Take care of any issues or niggles early before they turn into a bigger deal (like an injury or overtraining).
Listening to your body includes things like getting the amount of sleep that your body needs (marathoners need more sleep than the average adult), fueling your body with the foods that lead to muscle growth and decreased inflammation, taking regular days off, and rolling/icing/soaking any areas of concern. It’s also important to seek professional help early if you have a health concern. Doing so will give you the best chance of getting to the marathon finish line and more importantly being a healthy runner for life.
8. Examine your motivation
Your “why” is very important as you deal with the challenges of training. There are some “whys” that are better than others. Some of the common reasons why people take on the marathon include the following:* to challenge themselves, *lose weight, *have more energy, *get into better shape, *fulfill a bucket list item, *to better keep up with their kids, and even because of *pressure from other people. Some of these are good motivations and some may get you going but won’t be reasons to keep you going when things get tough.
9. Don’t fixate on a time goal for your first marathon
Fixating on a time goal is one of the biggest mistakes that I see new marathoners making. They get an idea of an ideal time in their minds based on other people’s first marathons or based on a shorter race time that they accomplished. Instead of setting a time goal try to focus on running strong and healthy and enjoying the experience. Don’t compare yourself to others. Yes, there are a few runners who qualify for Boston during their first marathon but that’s the exception, not the rule.
10. Don’t let fear hold you back.
Moving toward your fears is one important way to becoming a stronger and more resilient person. One thing that often holds people back from marathon training is that they don’t see themselves as a runner. We often get a specific idea in our heads about what a runner looks like. For example, everyone would agree that Shalane Flannigan who won the NYC Marathon last year and sprinter Usain Bolt, also known as the fastest man in the world, are bonafide runners. But there is no one body type that’s necessary to become a runner or marathoner. If you run, you’re a runner. It doesn’t matter how often you run, how far you run, or how fast you run.
Also Featured in This Episode
In this episode we also talk with MTA podcast fan James Lacher whose transformation is definitely one of the most impressive we’ve seen!!
“After topping 400 pounds in 2014 I had bariatric surgery in 2015 and lost over half my body weight. I started rumning 18 months ago and on Sunday I ran my first FULL MARATHON. The pics are me day of surgery and holding up the front page of the local newspaper. I was the cover story on race day. The race was a life changing experience . . . I soaked up every moment and finished in 5hr 25min . . . Thank you Angie and Trevor for all you tips and wisdom I’ve learned from listening to numerous podcast episodes.” -James
James was profiled by the San Luis Obispo Tribune here.
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YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES!