If you're among the half a million Americans planning to run a marathon this fall, you are (or should be) deep into training. If you're among the other 313.5 million, you might be wondering why anyone would choose to run that far.
The continued demand to run the legendary 26.2-miler reflects a mind-over-matter appeal, says Ryan Lamppa, media director for the nonprofit Running USA. "The human body is designed to go 20 miles," he says, explaining that the body stores enough glycogen, or energy, to run that far if you pace yourself accordingly. The extra 6.2 miles is more metaphysics than physics, more will than power. As Lamppa explains, it tests physical limitations: "That's the beauty and the horror of the marathon, that it has that sense of, 'Am I going too fast? Could I blow up? Am I gonna hit the wall?' And there's something about overcoming that."
Lamppa pegs the "first running boom" to Frank Shorter's 1972 Olympic-gold marathon win in Munich. The trend, which attracted serious racers, leveled off in the mid-1980s, he says. The so-called "second running boom" got its start from Oprah when she ran the 1994 U.S. Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. Oprah symbolizes a new and broader running population concerned primarily with "health and fitness and completion," he says. "They're competitive in the sense that they're high achievers ... They want to have that marathon on their life résumé."
But how healthy is it to run in the race? "I think that's a complicated question," says Phil Stewart, editor and publisher of the newsletter Road Race Management and a 55-time marathoner. "Certainly the training is demanding, and it is a lot of pounding," he says, rounding out the point with a quasi-joke: "There hasn't been enough evolution since the invention of concrete to have the human body adapt to it." Then again, he says, "If it makes you feel psychologically better about yourself, isn't that an element of good health?"
"If you're exercising for health, it's more than you need to do," says William Roberts, a professor at the University of Minnesota Department of Family Medicine and Community Health and medical director for the Twin Cities Marathon. "You shouldn't do a marathon if you're not trained well for it." And if you have prepared yourself? "It's probably safer than driving a car in rush hour in most cities," he says.
With so many new runners gearing up for the ordeal, here's a few tips for how to prepare:
Leave yourself enough time to train, especially if you're a first-timer. "I don't think it's wise to say 'I'm gonna run a marathon when I turn 40 at 39 years of age if you've never been a runner," Roberts says. He recommends first-time marathoners run a couple of 10- or 13-mile races before training for a marathon. And then, "follow a pretty standard ramp-up to a marathon over a period of 12 to 20 weeks." Training too hard, too fast increases the risk of injury like stress fractures, he says. "You haven't toughened your body for the stress of a marathon," he says, "nor am I sure that you've conditioned your heart very well."
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Don't run solo. "I think the best thing that anybody can do who's starting out is to find a training group," says Stewart, who suggests seeking out local running clubs at running stores or through the Roadrunners Club of America. The social structure can provide strong support for beginners, who may feel self-conscious about their abilities. "What you discover, when you overcome that hurdle in your thinking, is that there are an awful lot of people out there just like you," he says.
Hydrate, but not too much. The rise of recreational runners in marathons has led to longer finishing times. For some of the slower runners, hydrating at every aid station can result in drinking more than they are sweating, Stewart says. That can induce a life-threatening electrolyte imbalance called hyponatremia, he says, noting that it's important to distinguish this condition from heat exhaustion by getting screened at a medical tent.
Make sure you're acclimated to the heat. If marathon day is hotter than you're accustomed to, consider skipping it, Roberts says. Even if you've trained in the summer heat, you've likely lost your acclimatization in the cooler fall weather. It only takes two to four weeks to de-acclimate - "kind of like money, hard to get, easy to lose," he says.
Listen to your body. If you feel pressure or pain in your chest, don't run the marathon, Roberts says. And if you start to feel sick or strange while you're running, stop. "It's OK to quit," he says. "There's always another marathon."