We’re guessing you already know that running a marathon is a mammoth undertaking, and we’re not here to tell you otherwise. Because, well, we don’t want to lie to you – running a marathon is hard.
However, with the right training program, nutritional plan, pace, mindset, and recovery, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t achieve your goal of running a marathon.
In this article, we will present you with the facts and stats about running marathons and their intensity to help you decide if taking one on is the right call for you.
Training Is Key To A Successful Marathon Run
Just as Rome wasn’t conquered in a day, you can’t expect to run a marathon without a serious amount of miles behind you. What we mean by this is training, and training for a marathon requires you to run, and run far.
Although you should never run the full 26.2-mile length in training, you should work your way up to convincingly running a 20 – 22 mile by the end of your training program.
You can find a whole plethora of training programs online these days, some paying, some not, all telling you why their program is the best one to follow.
What we recommend is finding a program that has been built by someone who you can connect with, and a proven track record always helps.
Knowing casual runners have come before you and successfully run a marathon using the same program will help put your mind at ease.
One thing that all marathon trainers can agree on is time. Starting your marathon prep too far out from the big day will have you feeling burnt out and open your body up for a greater risk of injury.
Not giving yourself enough time to properly train is a one-way ticket to either gaining a nasty injury or not finishing.
So what’s the sweet spot? 18 – 24 weeks is considered the optimal training time for building up to a marathon.
This doesn’t mean you can just kick back on the couch right up until your training commences, quite the contrary in fact.
If you are already running 10 miles in total per week in the lead up to your marathon-specific training, this will allow you to hit your training program running (pun intended), and consequently cross that finish line.
Although a lot of training programs will feature their take on your nutritional requirements, you need to make sure it’s working for you.
Focus on fueling your body with sufficient amounts of whole grains, healthy fats, lean protein, fruits, and vegetables.
If you do this you will notice that your training program will feel significantly more achievable than if you stick to your regular diet.
Try to eliminate alcohol, caffeinated drinks, full-fat dairy, candy, saturated and trans fats, fried foods, and sodas when in training mode for a marathon.
These foods and drinks are not considered beneficial macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, fats). Instead of aiding your training, these foods will actually hinder your performance tremendously.
It’s not rocket science, but having a clean diet in training will significantly raise the chances of you reaching your goals and the marathon feeling a whole lot more achievable.
How Long Does It Take To Run A Marathon?
Unless you are an elite athlete whose driving force in life is running long distances, then sub-four hours is considered an incredible achievement.
The bulk of runners will finish their marathon between four and five hours, which translates to a 9 – 11.5 minute per-mile pace.
If a runner has hit the wall in a big way and has resorted to walking it out, then their day could quickly turn into a six or maybe even seven-hour epic.
The First 18 Miles
Now that you’ve got a clearer idea of how important a training program is, and your expected time on the asphalt, it’s time to take a look at the 26.2 miles itself.
As long as you stick to your predetermined pace and don’t let the day’s excitement get the better of you, then the first 18 miles of a marathon can actually be enjoyable.
You’ve trained, you’ve eaten well, you’ve rested well, and when that starting gun goes on your first full marathon, your body and mind will hopefully forget about everything except the road in front of you.
Sure, running 18 miles isn’t easy, but compared to the back third of a marathon, the first 18 will feel like a light and breezy blessing.
The onset of fatigue will start to creep in for most runners around the 18-mile mark as this is when the energy levels get truly tested.
Hitting the Wall
We’ve all heard the term “hitting the wall” before when discussing marathons and other long-distance endeavors, but what exactly is hitting the wall?
Where marathons are concerned, if a runner is going to “hit the wall” it will almost always take place between miles 18 and 23, with the 20-mile mark being the most common.
You may think the wall is something that the mind needs to overcome, and maybe in some respects this is true, but it is very much a physical wall.
Depending on a runner’s fitness, the pace they have set, and how they have fueled their body pre and during a marathon will determine their likelihood to hit the wall, or not.
Even though the “how” and “when” of runners being confronted with the wall are different, one thing remains the same, and that’s the why.
When the body runs out of its carbohydrate and glycogen stores (stored muscle energy), the subsequent feeling that floods the body is what has so poignantly been described as the wall.
So, in the precarious event of hitting the wall, what does the body fuel itself off? In short, fat stores are what the body turns to in dire times of severe need.
However, there’s a problem with fueling the body solely off fat. Fat converts into energy at a much slower rate than glycogen and carbohydrates.
So, although most runners won’t fall flat on their face when presented with the wall, their pace will drop off, they will feel extremely fatigued, exhaustion will set in, maybe some confusion, and even disorientation.
To push through this sheer exhaustion is extremely difficult, but just know that even elite marathon runners aren’t exempt from hitting the wall, and if they aren’t, then nobody is.
To avoid the wall, make sure you are able to take on energy snacks and carbohydrate-loaded sports drinks as you run. This is a great way of keeping your carbohydrate and glycogen stores up.
But to do this you must train your gut to take on food, without worry, while running, and to do this, it must be built into your training program.
Pushing Further Than You Did In Training
Okay, so your glycogen levels are at an all-time low and you’ve just gritted your teeth to push past what you presume is the wall, this is super commendable, but you’ve now got a mental challenge ahead.
Not only are the last six miles of your marathon going to be a massive physical challenge, but they are going to require serious mental strength as well.
As we previously mentioned, in training, you should never run more than 20 – 22 miles, as running the last four-six miles is never worth the risk of injury.
This means reaching unchartered territory typically poses a serious mental hurdle for a lot of runners.
Setting yourself positive running mantras and coming back to them as the going gets tough is a great way to overcome the mental hurdle of the 22-mile mark.
This mile is also considered the toughest because four miles to the finish line can still feel like an eternity once your body is depleted and your brainpower is waning.
When You Smell The Sweet Scent Of Success
One positive to take away from this is once the 22nd mile is in your rearview and you enter your 24th, you may feel a final wind of energy, so to speak.
Having already overcome the physical wall, having already overcome the mental challenge of pushing further than you’ve ever pushed before, once you get to the 24-mile mark, you will sense the finish line calling your name.
Sure, your body is probably hurting in places you never knew it could hurt, and yes, your mental capacity is probably being held together by a thread. But, this is the time when runners liken their state of being to an almost euphoric feeling.
Maybe they can already taste the champagne, hear their family’s finish line cheers, or the idea of success is so sweet that it gets them through.
Whatever it is, once a person has run 24 miles, the last 2.2 miles to finish is pushed along something far greater than any amount of training can achieve. It’s driven by their human will and spirit.
Every runner loves digging their heels into training and giving it their absolute all on the big 26.2-mile day, but what happens after that?
The things you do post marathon will have a huge impact on your recovery time, risk of injury, and consequently, whether you’ll want to run a marathon ever again.
Straight after the marathon, you will want to avoid static stretching and hanging around in your sweaty kit.
Wrapping a thermal blanket around you straight after you finish can reduce the risk of your sweat turning cold and you getting an unshakeable chill (especially if you are doing a marathon somewhere cold).
Skipping on anti-inflammatory painkillers, excessive alcohol, and ice baths post-marathon is also clever.
As is loading up on carbohydrate-packed foods like granola bars, energy bars, bananas, and maybe a big plate of pasta for dinner.
Although you’ll want to avoid running on the days following your marathon, a light session in the pool or on the bike is key to keeping the muscles and joints from stiffening up (which will greatly reduce your risk of injury).
Refrain from even a light jog for at least one-week post-marathon. This is super important as your muscles have just been through what is likely the most strenuous activity that you’ve ever subjected them to, and they could use a break.
Your muscles can take up to four weeks to fully recover from a marathon, so taking it easy and mixing up your fitness routine for a month post-marathon is essential.
This will help to ensure that you don’t look back at your experience as if it was hard. More than that it was an achievement of a lifetime and one you’d love to do again.
As you are now well aware, running a marathon isn’t easy. If it were, it wouldn’t be such a life achievement that people hold in high regard.
So, if running a marathon isn’t easy, then, unfortunately, that means it’s going to be hard. We are going to go out on a limb here and say that 99% of runners can and will agree on the fact that running a marathon is hard.
The important thing to remember is the “how hard”, well, that depends on you. If you train correctly, eat well, stick to your pace, and take it easy after the day, then there’s no reason why you can’t complete your first marathon.
We hope this article has helped you realize whether all that effort is worth the sweet satisfaction of crossing the finish line. If so, then you know what to do!