Running a marathon can be one of the most rewarding things you do all year. But there are also a lot of things that can go wrong. So I consulted USATF-certified running coach and 2:23 marathoner Blue Benadum about some of the most common marathon mistakes and how we all can avoid them.
Building up mileage too quickly
Easily one of the most frequent errors made by both newbies and experienced marathoners is ramping up mileage too aggressively and not giving the body adequate time to adjust. “Don’t build up too quickly relative to where you’ve been at in the last two months,” says Benadum, who recommends increasing weekly mileage by 10 percent every week and cutting back slightly every fourth week.
Neglecting speed work
While longer runs at race pace should be the cornerstone of a sound marathon training regimen, the value of short speed sessions shouldn’t be underestimated. “It’s a lot like strength training,” says Benadum. “What you’re really looking for is maximum muscle recruitment. When you body is at its maximum speed, it’s also at its maximum stride length and requiring a maximum of activation from the muscles.” Once a week, try running 20x100-meter strides.
Running recovery runs too fast
Recovery runs should be just that: recovery. Run them at 60-70 percent of your intended marathon pace. Any faster will be detrimental to your overall fitness.
Prioritizing a training plan over how your body feels
Don’t be too dogmatic about following a prescribed training plan. There’s only so much planning you can do. You’ve got to be able to improvise based on how you feel on a given day. As a highly competitive amateur, Benadum rarely takes a day off. But he knows when it’s the right thing to do. “Sometimes it takes care of itself,” he says. “If I do a really hard workout one day—say 5x5k at marathon pace—and I’m just thrashed, the next day I’ll do six miles really easy. If I’m still thrashed the day after that, I’ll take the day off.”
Training cycle is too long
The ideal length of a training cycle will vary depending on an individual’s base fitness level—elite-level athletes may be race-ready in 12 weeks, while novices may need 18—but bear in mind the old runner’s maxim that it’s better to be ten percent undertrained than five percent overtrained.
On Race Day
Going out too fast
If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. And yet, far too many runners still make the basic mistake of starting out too quickly and paying for it later on. But there’s no need to panic if your first mile is faster than it should be. “It’s not going to kill you because you got 26 miles to work with,” Benadum says. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in that first mile, a lot of excitement and nerves. If you shut it down after that first mile, you’re not going to do too much damage. But if it’s mile 2, 3, 5, 6 and you’re still hammering, you’re gonna crash and burn.”
Waiting too long to fuel
As anyone who has attempted to drink from of a paper cup mid-stride knows, fueling while racing is rarely a pleasant experience. As a result, marathoners often make the mistake of only hitting up aid stations when they feel parched, at which point they are likely to drink too much at once. Benadum says it’s always better to start early and drink sparingly at regular intervals throughout the race.
Not adjusting pace to race-day conditions
One of the drawbacks of having an ambitious finishing time goal is that you may be unwilling to compromise if the marathon gods don’t cooperate on race day. If you’re in the shape of your life and only run one marathon a year, it takes a lot of discipline to accept that that ill-timed heat wave probably means your PR is out of reach. Bottom line: be flexible and don’t be too wedded to your time goal.
It’s easy to zone out during such a long race, which often results in a crappy performance. The best way to avoid letting monotony lead to complacency is to have a pre-race strategy to stay engaged. Some runners like to break the race into smaller, more mentally manageable sections.
Overestimating your fitness
Some runners get overly optimistic after a quick 10K or half-marathon, not realizing, perhaps, that that the marathon is a different sort of race. “It’s one of the biggest reasons why I use long training runs as gauge points of fitness,” says Benadum, whose training programs will include runs longer than twenty miles, with ten miles or more at intended race pace. That way, runners are exposed to what they can realistically achieve in a longer race. “When you get to the start line,” he says, “you should be very confident about how fast you can run.”
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