A man runs along strips of white paint on a road
(Photo: Dim Hou/Unsplash)

Why Is YouTube Obsessed with Running Marathons on Zero Training?

Social media influencers have started a trend of posting videos of them running long distances without training. Here’s why the science says it’s probably not a great idea.   

A man runs along strips of white paint on a road
Dim Hou/Unsplash
Hannah Belles

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I sat idly at my desk, scrolling through various social media apps, feeling sluggish and unmotivated. I had a six-mile run scheduled for that afternoon, but my brain was already constructing excuses to bail. I opened YouTube and noticed one of my favorite creators, elite Norwegian rock climber and popular vlogger, Magnus Midtbø, had a new upload. Something instantly seemed off upon inspection of the title thumbnail. He was running.

In it, Magnus gazed painfully into the camera. A long, desolate road stretched far into the desert behind him. The video was titled, I tried to run a marathon in the hottest place on earth *without training.*

I watched perplexed. Why is Norway’s best climber running a marathon? To his 1.77 million subscribers, Magnus is known for his engaging climbing content and training techniques with a few novel experiences thrown into the mix, most of which center around rock climbing. While he is an incredibly fit individual, he does not produce running content, nor does he discuss any previous running experience on his channel. I’m not surprised that Magnus could cover 26.2 miles. I’m assuming as a professional climber he still tends to his cardiovascular fitness in some capacity.

So why does anyone care if Norway’s best climber can run a marathon without training? Aren’t weighted, one-arm pull-ups impressive enough?

“In the last two years, I’ve probably run four times,” Midtbø stated as he sat on the invisible finish line in the dark.

His friend laughed and asked, “What gave you this idea?”

“Because it was a good title,” said Midtbø. “And I’m a whore for views.”

In recent months, I have found myself down a rabbit hole of fitness related content on YouTube. The algorithm has led me down a relatively healthy path; I could have suffered a similar fate to my sister, who now recites anti-vaxxer rhetoric after watching one too many videos about optimal parenting techniques.

However, I couldn’t help but notice more and more suggestions of popular YouTubers running marathons without training. Last year, Nate Buchanan of Kara and Nate, which boasts 3.5 million subscribers, documented himself running 26.2 miles from the city of Marathon to Athens, Greece, without training. Natacha Oceane, 1.62 million subscribers, has two separate videos of her running a 50K as well as twenty-four hours without training. As a hybrid athlete and previous Ironman finisher, Oceane likely has the most running experience of any of the accounts mentioned in this article.

Recently, Michelle Khare, 3.68 million subscribers, took on her “most physically daunting and most dangerous challenge yet,” running a marathon through Death Valley with only four weeks of preparation. Is Death Valley just over there wondering why YouTube is so obsessed with them?

Khare’s channel is known for her attempts at “our world’s most difficult lifestyles and professions” with her series, Challenge Accepted. At the beginning of the video, Khare tells her head coach and exercise physiologist, Chantelle Robitaille, her four-week goal. Robitaille’s eyebrows raise, and responds that twenty weeks is her typical recommendation to get someone prepared for this type of experience. When Robitaille asks for Khare’s reasoning for attempting such a feat, she responds that she’s turning thirty in four weeks.

With the help of a Brooks sponsorship and a team of experts, including professional runners Scott Jurek and CJ Albertson, Khare does accomplish her goal and more. As she crosses a balloon archway finish line, she emotionally decides to push further, completing—you guessed it—30 miles. At the end of the video, the music swells as Khare finally stops running, finding a large embrace from her crew team. The video then transitions to an iPhone swirling into view as Khare says:

“If you want to go on a running challenge of your own, but don’t know where to start, I just uploaded a new beginner’s running program on my app, MK Fit.”

Damn. I’ve been influenced!

What the Experts Say

Although these aforementioned creators are quick to point out their lack of running-specific fitness and preparation, they rarely emphasize the cumulative years of fitness work that is likely allowing their bodies to survive such feats. Is not providing this disclaimer a disservice to their audience? Do these creators hold any responsibility to their less-trained audience members who might attempt a similar feat and experience harm and chronic injury as a result? Can we strike a balance between clickbait and inspiration?

“A marathon training block will look very different depending on your experience, goals, and relationship to running,” says Sarah McNurlin, DPT, Cert MDT. “Generally, the more fit you are, you can get away with being less prepared.” However, this typically comes at a cost.

RELATED: How Much Will a Gap in Training Hurt Your Race?

Most training plans advise beginner and intermediate runners to have at least 16-20 weeks of consistent training in order to develop a strong aerobic base and build the mental strength needed to get to the finish line. A solid training block increases the odds of overall success, plus it helps provide a more enjoyable experience during the event itself. Unfortunately, a long training block doesn’t make for the sexiest YouTube video.

Surprisingly, there is little conclusive research as to what factors are actually predictive for injury. However, there is evidence to suggest that if you have had a previous running related injury in the last 12 months, you are more than 50 percent likely to have an injury again, and a 20 percent chance that it is in the same area of the body. McNurlin also states, “Sudden changes in mileage also come up in the literature. Big jumps are going to increase your risk of injury.”

Jimmy Picard, DPT is a physical therapist and running performance coach based in Salt Lake City, Utah. When asked how he would approach a client wanting to tackle a marathon distance with less than four weeks of training, he responded: “We’re not going to try to cram four months of training into one month.” Instead, Picard suggests increasing mileage slowly and consistently, despite the lack of time. “You need to know you’re going to be undertrained and just try to survive the race, if that is your goal.”

Despite the risks, both clinicians emphasize the innate resiliency of the human body. “We can do stuff we’re not prepared to do because humans are incredible,” McNurlin states. “But sometimes there are limitations.” Picard argues that the risks may also be less visible. We tend to only post the highlights as opposed to sharing any negative outcomes that may have occurred as a result.

What Non-Influencers Say

Unsure if this trend was limited to YouTubers looking for engaging content, I reached out to my own running network to see if anyone else had tried to run a marathon without training. Kevin Nguyen, from Dallas, Texas, signed up for his first marathon on a whim because of an episode of How I Met Your Mother, where Barney agrees to run a marathon with one day to prepare.

“My sister offered to pay for my registration and one month of free rent if I did it,” said Nguyen. “I was cramping the whole time and, at mile 25, I almost gave up.”

The choice to not train will almost always present with higher amounts of unnecessary suffering, fatigue, and prolonged recovery. The event then becomes a matter of survival. Is the misery worth the effort? Despite the negative emotions during the race, Nguyen found the experience surprisingly motivating. “Since then, I’ve actually trained for and run 10 full marathons or longer,” he said.

Heather Sapiro, from Salt Lake City, signed up for her first 50K without training, when her best friend from high school asked Sapiro to join her. Due to external factors, Sapiro was left with only a couple of weeks to train.

“I figured I could make a good attempt and probably finish. It was more about spending time with my friend.” She had studied the course, made sure she was comfortable with dropping, if necessary, and didn’t place any additional goals for the race. “I ended up having such a positive experience,” Sapiro said. “I’m planning to sign up for another and actually train this time!”

For several others, the experience of running races on little to no training was a way to push themselves past any preconceived notions they had about their abilities. Photographer and filmmaker Alex Kereszti, who admitted growing up with a deep hatred for running, found a new passion and community after completing her first 50K on minimal training. She also documented her experience on YouTube.

“Personally, I’m inspired by these videos,” Kereszti said. “It’s less about the actual act, and more about seeing people try something outside of their comfort zones and push through hard moments.” However, both Kereszti and Sapiro, noted that these creators with larger platforms should have a responsibility to acknowledge their privilege and potential risks.

“Social media in general is very clickbait-y,” McNurlin says. “But it doesn’t have to be so sensational. A lot of able-bodied people can probably do this and find success in it. I would argue there’s perhaps just as much risk to staying on the couch.”

The internet is full of contradictions, and we must therefore weigh the costs and benefits for all of our decisions, not just our athletic ones. And while experts of training science confirm that running a marathon with minimal training is generally ill-advised, success can still be found without executing the perfect training block.

In an effort to serve an algorithm, social media often traps its audience into cycles of comparison, coercion, and consumerism. But sometimes it can also provide authentic community and inspiration. After watching these videos, I am more eager to lace up my shoes and find my own challenges to grind through, without placing so much pressure on myself. Thousands of comments on these videos echo a similar sentiment, and I can’t help but consider that a net positive.

Perhaps we can all take a skeptical note from these influencers, for as long as the risks have been carefully considered, we can push ourselves to do hard things—even the ones for which we’re not perfectly prepared.

Lead Photo: Dim Hou/Unsplash

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