On November 5, 2017, Shalane “Freaking” Flanagan became the first American woman to win the New York City marathon since 1977.
Finishing in a heroic time of 2:26:53, the four-time Olympian has finally reached the moment she’s been dreaming about since grade school cross country meets.
“My coaches told me that it was possible—the training I put in was the best I’ve ever put in,” Flanagan told the New York Times. “These are the moments we dream of as athletes. This is going to feel good for a really long time.”
Runners novice and professional should share those good feelings with Flanagan. We Americans should rightly feel inspired to put on a pair of running shoes and to put in the work to our goals.
The marathon is a daunting undertaking, and it demands the respect of each participant, no matter how fast or how slow. But it’s far from an impossible goal. In honor of Shalane’s historic feat, here’s how to get the ball rolling on signing up for your first marathon.
Be realistic about your limits. It’s easy to have eyes bigger than your stomach or dreams beyond your current limitation. But the 26.2 miles in a marathon put you at a significantly higher risk for injury than your daily jogs or even racing a shorter distance. It’s important to build up to the distance and check with your physician before embarking on training.
Start early: We’re inspired by Shalane’s victory, and inspiration can trigger impulsive race registration. That’s great if it’s getting you out the door but jumping from couch to marathon is a recipe for injury. Conventional wisdom recommends that aspiring marathoners run consistent base mileage for at least a year before diving into a marathon-training program.
One of the most common causes of injury is building weekly mileage too soon, too fast. Before you begin a rigorous training plan, make sure you are comfortably and consistently running around twenty miles a week.
What Marathon should I run?
Marathons range from quiet, low-key races on backcountry roads to spectator-lined urban races with tens of thousands of runners. Some even happen on lonely trails, winding up and down mountains. When deciding between trail and road or low-key and historic, it may be a good idea to run some smaller-distance races to get in some solid training and get a feel for what suits you. Do you want to run a marathon through New York City and ride the high of thousands of spectators cheering you on? Or would you prefer to enjoy the solitude of a dirt road and take on the challenge in a quiet environment?
There is no wrong way to run your first marathon, and jumping in a few 5k-half marathons is the perfect opportunity to instill confidence in your training and find out what kind of running you like best.
The Essential Building Blocks of Marathon Training
I always recommend hiring a coach or following a prescribed training program when taking on a marathon, especially for your first. However, if you want a sneak peek of what your training might look like, here are key elements of marathon training:
1. Base mileage. Build your weekly mileage over time, running three-to-five times per week. Experts recommend increasing mileage no more than 10% per week.
2. The long run. Do a long run every 7–10 days so your body can adjust gradually to long distances. Make sure to build up to each distance. Every long run should be a little longer than the last!
3. Speed work. Practice intervals and tempo runs to increase your cardio capacity. It’s hard to get used to, but can be a fun way to break up the monotony of the everyday jog.
Rest and Recovery
Rest. The most underrated element of training, but arguably the most important. Rest days mean no running. They let your muscles recover workouts and help prevent mental and physical burnout.
If you have a little time and inactivity is as torturous as any grueling workout, cross-training is a great alternative. Cross-training includes hiking, cycling, swimming, yoga, lifting weights, gardening, playing with your kids and even walking to the pub to get a beer. That’s right, if you walk to the pub to get a cold one, I’m calling it active recovery.
Tapering: In the two or three weeks leading up to the big day, scale back on weekly mileage. The taper lets your body rest up leaving you primed for race day when the gun goes off.
Race Day Tips
Don’t try anything new on race day—no new shoes, new shorts or a new shirt. Don’t eat a plate of alfredo if you haven’t touched pasta since 1990. The health benefits of an extra serving of vegetables won’t outweigh the fibrous consequences. Your long training runs are when you should be fine-tuning your clothing, gear and fueling strategies. If you’ve followed your training plan, you’re ready. All that’s left is to do the damn thing.