If you are thinking about a fall marathon, it is already time to begin planning for a successful marathon experience.

The marathon is popular, with approximately 500,000 finishers annually in the United States, because it provides a transformational experience. The actual running of 26.2 miles on race day is an amazing experience, but the four months of diligent preparation are often more impactful and uplifting.

While the marathon is certainly a challenging endeavor, I believe most people can successfully complete it, but it definitely requires significant commitment, guidance and hard work. I have enjoyed coaching marathoners, from first timers to Olympic Trials qualifiers, for the past 20 years and I am happy to share my best practices to help you marathon successfully.

If you are preparing for your first marathon this fall, consider the following:

  1. Plan Ahead: Begin training at least 18-weeks prior to your target marathon. Cramming for a 26.2 mile race into a shorter period of time often leads to injury. If you are not already running occasionally, I recommend using a 24-week build-up.
  2. Established Training Plan: Follow a training plan with a strong track record of guiding novice runners through the marathon finish line with low injury rates. There are hundreds of plans available on the internet, but I recommend following a plan from a well-established organization or coach.
  3. Run & Walk: While everyone wants to run as much as possible, incorporating a combination of running and walking into your training sessions will help you to safely: (1) progress into continuous running early in your training program and then, (2) complete much longer training sessions later in your preparation. Remember, you need to prepare for the demands of moving on your feet for four or more hours on race day.
  4. Cross-Training: It’s a terrific idea to include cross-training activities (bike, swim, elliptical) into your training to improve your cardiovascular fitness while reducing stress on your musculoskeletal system. Additionally, cross-training is a valuable training option if you are injured.
  5. Group Running: Training with other runners will: (1) help you learn from experienced marathoners, (2) help get you out of bed for early morning training sessions and (3) create strong friendships through hundreds miles of training. While runners successfully complete marathons on their own, I believe the most effective strategy is to join an organized and experienced marathon training group.

For the marathon veteran looking to PR, I recommend you:

  1. Go Longer: Slow down some of your long runs and go longer (i.e. 20-22 miles). If your mind and body are well acclimated to the challenge of running for almost 26 miles, you will be much more prepared to run 26.2 mile at a higher intensity on race day. Since running 20 miles or more is quite taxing on your musculoskeletal system, I recommend cycling the volume of your weekly long runs (i.e. 20-18-22-17 miles) late in your training to ensure adequate recovery time.
  2. Speedwork: Incorporate speedwork early in your training program to boost cardiovascular fitness and running economy. I recommend gradually progressing from interval training (5k/10k race pace) into tempo (i.e. half marathon pace) and marathon simulation workouts as you approach race day.
  3. Quality Long Runs: Add intensity into some of your long runs; for instance, add in some pick-ups at a faster pace (half marathon to 10k race pace) or gradually increase your pace for a negative split long run. In addition to enhancing your fitness, I believe mixing up your running paces during a long run can lower injuries.
  4. Log Your Training: Detail your training in a running log to keep you accountable to your goals and learn how to train smarter and more effectively. Each runner is unique and we can gradually learn to train our own optimal way. Keeping a training log is a vital roadmap to success!
  5. Coaching: The best marathoners rely on expert coaches, whose technical expertise, objectivity and passion will optimize your training program and prevent injury.

I wish you the best as you begin training for this amazing running challenge. If you are interested in group marathon training or personal coaching, Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) helps thousands of marathoners successfully cross the finish line each year.

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Kevin Jermyn is the Executive Director of the Chicago Area Runners Association, and began in Fall 2016. He has 19 years of coaching and major program experience, including 14 years at Duke University where he was the Head Women’s Cross Country Coach. Kevin holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in Liberal Studies from Duke. He has also been a runner since 1989; he was an All-American at Georgetown University, and ran professionally for Reebok.

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