(Fitness)

I'm Training To Run A Marathon For The First Time — Here's What I’ve Learned So Far

It’s been a lesson in adaptability.

by Amanda Chan

When I signed up and began training to run a marathon for the first time — the upcoming 2022 TCS New York City Marathon in November — I of course anticipated that it would be challenging physically. I’m relatively new to the running world, having only started within the last year or so when my gym closed and volleyball team went on hiatus, and I needed a convenient (and cost-effective) solution to keep my body moving and my mind clear.

Enough friends had completed marathons before to give me a sense of what would lie ahead: early morning wake-ups, achy legs, and this-just-feels-impossible slogs through heat, humidity, and rain. But what I didn’t have an appreciation for was how this whole training period would test me emotionally and mentally — and I don’t just mean pushing through those last few miles during the week’s long run. I mean figuring out how to adapt my training plan thanks to the unpredictability of life (and injury); not getting in my own head about whether I’m prepared enough; trusting the advice that sometimes rest is just as valuable as completing that day’s mileage (if not more so).

Basically, this entire process has been an exercise in adaptability.

I’m finally in the last part of my 18-week training plan, and I feel like I’ve already learned a billion lessons — and I know there are about a billion more to be learned between now and race day. Ahead, just a few things I’ve come to realize — and some of the best advice I’ve gotten — since embarking on this training journey.

Adaptability Is Everything

I thought training for a marathon was as simple as choosing a plan and then just ... doing it. I was very wrong — because that only works if life is perfect.

I chose a beginner-friendly plan, one that came recommended by a few friends who used it for their first marathons. I found it straightforward to understand and not too daunting, with a reasonable build in weekly mileage throughout the plan. Basically, it checked all the boxes of what I was advised a first-timer’s training schedule should be. “If you’re doing a first-time marathon and haven’t run too many races ... make sure [your training plan is] fairly simple and not overcomplicated,” Mark Coogan, former Olympic distance runner and Team New Balance Boston Elite Coach, tells me. There’s a number of things to look for in a good plan, he says: having at least a rest day every week, and ensuring the days before and after a long run are easy days (either with a short run, or a rest day). Coogan also advises abiding by a plan where the long run is on a weekend if your work schedule has you off on Saturdays and Sunday, and then using that Monday as a rest day or cross-training day.

Simple — so just follow the plan, and all should be good, right? Again, life happens – and for me, that came in the form of two injuries: jumper’s knee that I battled starting my first week of training and a surprise bout of extensor tendonitis around week 10, all of which had me subbing in extra rest days and modifying long runs for at least three weeks of the schedule. And it wasn’t only negative things that tested my adaptability: I had a pre-planned trip to Italy — with a super-packed itinerary — during training weeks 8 and 9.

All of this made me seriously doubt myself. Especially as a first-timer — who is still learning the limits of her body — I was worried that so many detours from the plan would cause me to lose fitness and be underprepared come race day.

So far, all the plan modifications and rest days have only seemed to served me, something that comes as no surprise to Coogan. “When I design a marathon program for one of the runners that I coach, I’ll explain to them that practically no one ever has a perfect buildup to a marathon,” he said. “Having an off week or two will not ruin your fitness or your race.” And while he doesn’t necessarily recommend taking a full couple weeks off from running if you’re training for a marathon, having a down week due to work or sickness or injury “will definitely not hurt you,” he says. “You are fine if your training didn’t go exactly as you had hoped.”

Those days off from running when I was injured that I was so stressed out about? Instead of viewing them as lost training time, as I did in that moment, in hindsight I can see them as saving my body from further injury, therefore maintaining my ability to train. The modified runs while on vacation may have been less than what was on the schedule mileage-wise, but they were all uphill — and will hopefully be great training for racing the notoriously incline-heavy New York City course. There will never be a downside to listening to your body.

On a training run during vacation in Venice, Italy.Photo courtesy of the author

Nothing New On Race Day!

Your training runs are mostly about getting all those miles in, true — but they’re also about taking the time to fine-tune your running gear and fueling plan for race day. By the time the marathon arrives, you should have tested your gear and your fuel enough times to ensure you’re super comfortable with both. Or, to use the phrase seasoned runners love to repeat to each other (and themselves): Nothing new on race day!

When it comes to gear, what matters most is that it fits well and is comfortable, so you can run safely and without injury, and so you’re not thinking about and adjusting it all throughout your run. Throughout my training, that has meant a few trusty staples: ultra-cushioned New Balance Fresh Foam X More v4 sneakers, sweat-wicking Balega Hidden Dry socks, and an Apple Watch to track my time and mileage.

Also part of my toolkit: water-resistant headphones with multi-hour battery life (I’m partial to Beats wired earbuds and the Shokz OpenRun Mini bone conduction headphones), a solid running belt to hold my phone (I love mine from Athleta, though it’s now out of stock), and a hydration system that meets my needs (the Nathan Quick Squeeze 18-ounce handheld water bottle is a lifesaver, as a very sweaty person who needs to constantly hydrate).

The fueling plan has also been a journey to figure out, especially as someone who previously always ran fasted for shorter runs, and never placed that much focus on carbo loading or eating for recovery (much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of sports nutritionists everywhere). When I was training in the summer, I followed Coogan’s advice: Hydrate regularly, especially during long runs or really hot runs where I’d be sweating a lot, and drink what I was planning on drinking on race day. He had the especially smart advice that for my “10-, 15-, or 18-mile runs before the NYC marathon, try to find what they’re having at [the marathon] for drinks, and try drinking that on a training run” to see how it feels, since “if you don’t do it in training and you do it in the marathon, that won’t be good and you want to make sure [your body] is used to it.”

Coogan also advised trying different chews and gels during my runs to see what my body responded to best (ultimately I’ve come to find Gu Energy Chews work best for me — the watermelon flavor is my favorite). To avoid the dreaded “bonking” — an endurance sports term for when glycogen stores are so depleted that you are suddenly and completely without energy to go on — Coogan emphasized the importance of fueling during the race, the morning of the race, and during the actual race. “Sometimes you don’t feel that hungry the morning of a marathon because of nerves, but you must get some fuel into your body,” he says. “Make sure you take in fluids/fuel during the race before you are even craving it. It is OK to slow down at an aid/fluid station to make sure you get something into your body that will fuel you.”

He also provided some clarity around a common misconception with what to eat for dinner the night, or even nights, before a big run — basically, “carbo loading” should be a little more thoughtful than just having a giant bowl of plain pasta and calling it a day. “You want to have a healthy diet ... you want your carbos, your protein, your fats,” he says, and “you wouldn’t want to just focus on carbohydrates, especially if this is the first time you’re [running a marathon].” That’s because protein is also super important to having your muscles recover and adapt, he notes — another reason why having a recovery chocolate milk or a bar right after a long run is also uber-important. His advice has also led to me being mindful and deliberate with my pre-long-run dinners, using them as practice meals for what I’ll eat the night before the race.

Understand The Why Behind The Workout

I’m one of those people who has to understand the why behind what I do, and it’s no different when it comes to marathon training. Some of Coogan’s best advice to me was about the level of effort I should exert in the training runs — specifically, why not always running at an “A effort” level, or at an all-out, heart-rate-through-the-roof pace, is actually a good thing: “We talk about doing a lot of our workouts at B+ level, and we don’t do a lot of A+ things, because if you do that all the time you’re almost overdoing it,” he says. “You get fatigued or dinged up or sick — so we do B+, B+, B+ workouts ... but A+ races.”

And on that same topic, that’s also why it’s important to let easy runs be easy runs. “The purpose of easy or mid-easy runs is to run every day and get your body used to it — your muscles stronger, getting oxygen to your legs and lungs, and get your heart pumping,” he says. Especially for novice marathoners, a big point of training is to get your body to a place where it can better deliver oxygen to your bloodstream, and in turn to your muscles.

And on the flip side, he adds, rest days are on a schedule for a reason, and whoever designed the plan made sure to include them strategically. But even then, “the people I coach or work with, I tell them: If you feel fatigued, it’s not the Olympics, and chances are you probably do need a day off,” he says. “So say you’re really tired on a Tuesday, and Wednesday, you’re supposed to have a workout. Then maybe we skip the Wednesday workout, or do half of it on Thursday. You have to be able to roll with the punches a bit as you prepare ... to go with the flow and listen to your body.”

Finally, most training plans involve cross-training — and that’s on the schedule for a reason. While a super intense weight training program probably isn’t necessary for a newbie like me, Coogan says, still getting in some other forms of exercise — whether it be walking or cycling — as well as some core-strengthening training is important, especially when it comes to maintaining good running form especially when I get tired.

The Marathon Training Journey Will Teach You New Things About Yourself

Sure, not every run is 100% pleasant. But on a whole, this experience has given me so much more than I realized beyond the physical. Running a new distance that I’d never run before gives a sense of confidence, even when nothing else that day seems to go right or I’m being especially down on myself for other reasons. As someone who has never been super sporty, I’m realizing now how exhilarating it is to push your body to new limits — more so than I ever thought it would be.

But even greater, the experience has taught me how important — and wonderful — it is to rely on your support system and community. The advice I’ve gotten from fellow runners, the support and selflessness of my husband who accompanies me on long runs, and the encouragement I’ve received from friends and coworkers has helped me realize that even though running is a solo sport, it’s not really solo at all. I’ve even grown to appreciate how lovely it is to run with a friend, as someone who’s long been low-key self conscious about my running pace — it makes the miles go by so much faster, and is also an added opportunity to grow friendship. I’ve realized that running isn’t just about the fitness or the accomplishment aspects; it’s also about connection.