The countdown is on. You’ve signed up for the race and circled the date on your calendar. Now you need to actually do the training for your upcoming fall marathon.
October or November may still seem far away, but experienced runners know that the weeks fly by, and before you know it you’ll lace up your running shoes at the starting line surrounded by thousands of other people.
“The day of the marathon is going to be a 26.2 mile party and celebration,” Dave Zimmer, owner of Fleet Feet Sports – Chicago, says. “But the hard work starts now with marathon training.”
In fact, most marathon training programs last between 16 and 22 weeks, which means training could start as early as Memorial Day, but you should keep up with your general fitness goals before starting any formal plan.
“You wouldn’t want to get to June having no base level of fitness and just expect to jump into things right away,” running coach Seth Kopf says.
The crown jewel of the fall marathon season in the city is the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9, but it’s a tough ticket to get.
Last year 54,800 runners applied for the Chicago Marathon lottery, but only a little over half of those runners got in. As running continues to grow in popularity, the numbers may be just as difficult this year.
If you don’t get into the marathon through the lottery, you don’t necessarily have to wait until 2017 to run it. Last year, more than 10,000 runners ran for 170 different charities, raising money for causes on a local and global level through the race’s only domestic guaranteed entry program open to first-time marathoners or those without a qualifying time.
Often charity runners can get their entry fees covered in exchange for a fundraising commitment, says Kopf, who partners with more than a dozen charities each year.
“It’s a great option if you have your heart set on the Chicago Marathon,” he said.
If you want a break from one of the most popular marathons in the nation, head out to the suburbs for the Prairie State Marathon in Libertyville on Oct. 8 or the Naperville Marathon on Oct. 23.
If you want to get away from Chicago and make your marathon weekend a mini-vacation, head to central Illinois for the Springfield Marathon on Oct. 16, the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis-St. Paul on Oct. 9, or the Lakefront Marathon in Milwaukee on Oct. 2.
Once you decide which race to run, you need to decide on a training program. A quick search online can bring up endless “best” training programs, but working with a running coach also has benefits, including a level of individualization you can’t find online.
“Sometimes when people try to train by themselves, they neglect some things they may not think are as important as running, such as stretching, cross training, flexibility, staying hydrated, eating the right foods, getting enough sleep,” Kopf says. “All of those things matter too.”
When building a personal training plan, coaches like Dan Walters take more into account than just your running strengths and weaknesses.
“We talk about the climate where they will be training, what their family is like, what their goals are,” he says. “No matter how knowledgeable you are, you need to have someone step back and look at the big picture.”
A coach can also keep you from making a mistake that sets you back, like training too much.
“More is not always better, fast is not always better,” Walters says, adding that it is important to increase your mileage slowly to give your body time to adapt.
Your body will also need to get used to the weather similar to what you can expect on race day, which in Chicago could range from perfect to a heat wave to freezing rain.
With a fall marathon, you’ll do most of your training during the hottest months in Chicago. That means getting up early on weekend mornings to get in a long run before the heat of the day reaches the city.
If you need a break from hitting the pavement, going shopping for gear can be a practical, and fun way to make sure you’re ready for race day.
Make running shoes your top priority when it comes to gear. Go to a running store, have an expert look at your feet, try on several pairs and practice walking and running in them before you buy, Zimmer says.
For women, a properly fitting sports bra can be just as important, he adds. Zimmer says research shows that 80 percent of women wear the wrong size sports bra.
Invest in sweat wicking, synthetic clothes from your socks up to your hat. With the possibility for difficult weather in the fall, you don’t want your body retaining moisture that can keep you chilled. Overdress rather than underdress, because you can always shed a few layers on the route if it gets too warm.
While shoes need to be selected for fit and function, runner can have a little more fun when it comes to the rest of their apparel.
“I believe people can make real, definite statements about their personality by the socks they wear,” Zimmer says. “When it comes to apparel, have as much fun as possible.”
Get your gear early, Zimmer says, so you can try something different if you don’t like your original purchase.
“Being able to train with what you’re going to use on race day is very, very valuable,” Zimmer says. “The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a long run with something you’ve never tried before.”
Finally, work on mental preparation, which experts say will help carry you to the finish line.
Whether it’s your first marathon or your 15th, a 26.2-mile race can be overwhelming, so Kopf says to just embrace the fear a little bit at a time.
“You go in knowing that it’s going to be challenging, knowing that there are going to be peaks and valleys,” Kopf says. “Take it one day at a time, one workout at a time, one mile at a time.”
Walters says that method comes in handy during the actual race when you still have 12 miles to go and self-doubt starts creeping in.
“Focus on the mile in front of you; let future you deal with the 25th mile. Stay in the moment and don’t get ahead of yourself,” he says. “People have to take a big leap of faith in the back half of the race. Trust that your plan has prepared you and that you are ready.”