Don’t Do These 7 Things When Training for a Marathon

The idiot and his beautiful wife. (click to enlarge)

The idiot and his beautiful wife. (click to enlarge)

I ran my first and only marathon in the fall of 2008.

My wife and I were living in London, UK at the time and with numerous countries within close proximity to run a marathon, I chose one of my favourites – Ireland.

“Mark, I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland! But, a marathon … are you nuts?” said my wife.

Yes, quite possibly.

I was a very active dude with a sporty upbringing. What was the big deal?

I had rattled off a few half marathons in the 5 years building up to this point. And with minimal training I might add.

Run a half marathon…then do another and you’re done!

Yes, I was an idiot.

If you are considering running a marathon, I hope you can learn from my mistakes.

Do as I say, not as I did …

1.  Don’t Wing It

I printed off the first marathon plan for beginner to intermediate runners that I could find from Runner’s World. It was a 16-week plan that assumed a good level of fitness going into it. Seemed good enough, but not near as good as a custom plan tailored for my schedule, fitness level and my goals.

2.  Don’t Underestimate the Distance

I was fit, but I didn’t have a huge base of mileage in my legs and lungs. My “engine” was a bit rusty to say the least.

26 miles. 42.2 kilometers. It doesn’t matter how you measure a marathon – it’s a long friggin way.

Respect the distance, but don’t fear it.

3.  Don’t Change Your Running Shoes

Next I went out and bought a new pair of running shoes. For years I ran in Mizuno Wave Riders, but this time I thought I would try something new.

At the onset of running more miles than I ever had in my life, new running shoes seemed like a good idea at the time. They felt great in the store.

Epic fail.

Stick with what has worked for you in the past. Now is not the time to fiddle around with the most important piece of running equipment.

4. Don’t Ignore the Latest Tracking Technology

I felt like I could predict my running pace quite well on my runs, so largely ran for time. Not distance. My old Timex Ironman watch was my mate.

Here was Mr. Exercise Science Geek himself training for a marathon tracking nothing except his time trotting the streets of jolly London.

Get a GPS enabled HR monitor or at the very least, use a GPS enabled running app like RunKeeper.

I am using the Garmin Forerunner 410 GPS-Enabled Sports Watch – love it.

5. Don’t Just Run Long and Slow

My training plan did not include any speed, hill and interval work. All my runs were slow aerobic based runs. Seemed fine to me, but again that’s all my basic training plan included.

Naive of me I know. I didn’t even know what “strides” were. If you don’t know what strides are, I recommend checking out this post by Jason Fitzgerald – What Are Strides? Why You Need to be Running Strides

Running marathon has a massive aerobic component however, the importance running at faster speeds has numerous benefits and should not be ignored.

6. Don’t Wait to Start Running Specific Strength Training and Injury Prevention Exercises

All was well for 5 weeks or so. After having run for 2.5 hours the day before I woke up one morning, took my first step out of bed and nearly fell over. The arch of my foot felt like it was shot. The pain subsided after I showered and had been on my feet for a bit. Must have been a cramp I thought. It was a “rest day” anyway. I’ll be golden tomorrow.

The plan was to run home from work the next day. It was about an 8 km run from my office though Hyde Park and South Kensington towards my flat in Fulham. The outside of my knee started to ache about 5 minutes into the run. The pain intensified slowly for a few minutes and eventually I was forced to stop.

Even after many years of pounding on the basketball court, I never had knee problems. I hopped on the tube (subway) home – disappointed.

My alarm went off the next morning. There was that electric pain in my foot again. Just a “niggle” – part of the price to pay for training for a marathon I thought.

Another after-work run was scheduled that night. I didn’t know my running partner was going to be déjà vu.

Same outside of the knee pain. Same tube ride home.

I went to see a physiotherapist to get my body back on track. Let’s be honest – I was falling apart.

My physio diagnosed both issues quickly.

Plantar fasciitis and iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS). Bloody hell.

Sadly, both injuries could have been prevented if I was a bit more proactive.

7. Don’t Commit Without a Specific Goal

What about goals? I didn’t have a goal for my first marathon…it was just to finish I guess. Not good enough. Being specific about your marathon goal will keep your focused and motivated.

The Pain and the Glory

Fast forward a few weeks.

I was under-trained, taking almost 2 weeks off training to get a handle on my running injuries, but I finished my first marathon in 4:34:43. The last 10 km was a disaster – my legs were DONE. I had to alternate between running slowly and walking, but I finished.

Running the marathon was one of the most memorable and challenging accomplishments of my life. I was proud and my wife who hitch-hiked around Dublin to follow me was sure proud as well.

If you had asked me at the finish line if I would ever run a marathon again I would have said no way. Time went by though and I reflected often of the marathon experience.

Maybe I could train smarter and run faster? I would change my approach drastically.

What? Oprah’s marathon time was 5 minutes faster than mine?!

Time for a New Game Plan

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

I recently signed up for marathon #2 – The Toronto Goodlife Marathon on May 5, 2013.

This time I want to break the 4-hour mark. I feel 4 hours will be both challenging and attainable.

I needed some expert guidance to help me reach my goal and knew I couldn’t rely on my 2008 reckless approach. I needed someone to design a marathon training program based on my fitness, running history, and past injuries that would fit within my busy schedule.

Some accountability was also needed. Left on my own, it was too easy to slack. Reporting to someone after each workout would keep me motivated to do the work.

And for those times when an injury creeps up, I needed someone to help me adjust my training plan to get back on track ASAP.

My Running Coach

I have listed a lot of marathon “don’ts” above. Here is a “do”.

Do hire a running coach.

Greg Strosaker is the man who has mapped out my training plan for a 4-hour marathon and is my running coach.

I am in the midst of week-3 of my training plan and already feel so much more confident about running a successful marathon compared to my 2008 disaster. Greg’s training plan and coaching is the reason for this.

I plan to write more about my marathon training experience and the benefits of hiring a running coach after my race.

In the meantime, to learn more about Greg and his coaching services I recommend you check out his website, Predawn Runner.

Win a $25 Gift Card from Road Runner Sports

I want to hear about your running mistakes? What mistakes have you made while training for a 5km, 10km, half marathon or marathon? What would you have done differently?

For a chance to win a $25 gift certificate from Road Runners Sports, simply leave a comment with your story below.

I will pick one winner at random. You must leave your comment by February 15th, 2013 to be eligible.

Good luck!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for the message Mark, and great thoughts on (somewhat common, unfortunately) mistakes in marathon training. I’ve made a few myself – specifically on not ignoring technology and running intervals and such based on “best guesses”. While I think that many runners overuse their GPS watches and end up obsessing about splits on days that it really doesn’t matter (which, frankly, is most days), under-running speed work (and, unfortunately, that usually ends up meaning both the pace was too slow and the distance was too short) really limits its effectiveness. And the best comment I’ve heard about long slow distance runs is they only teach you to run long distances slow, which isn’t the goal if you have a time objective in mind. Looking forward to working with you this season.

    • Mark Kennedy

      Cheers Greg. And thanks putting me on the right path.

  • Christopher Yow

    I started running just 8 months ago, and at 42 years of age, respecting the proper injury prevention drills and recovery methods are a must. I neglected daily exercises like leg lifts, planks and clamshells because I was actively performing other strength training in the gym. All training is not interchangeable. I also fell into the trap of running longer/faster too often when I felt good. Encouraged by a strong long run day, I’d find myself running longer than I was supposed to on subsequent days. That quickly digs a hole that will lead to the need for extended rest and recovery, thus killing your schedule…or to injuries that knock you out of a run all together.

    • Mark Kennedy

      Thanks for sharing your insights and story, Christopher. Best of luck with your running.

  • Alyssa Cheung

    Great insight Mark, I will definitely do as you say and not what you do! I still call myself a noob runner and I’m constantly making mistakes that my body later pays for! I think the first big mistake I made was over running, when I first built up the courage to actually sign up for the half marathon I was so excited to get running I went out and after 10 days I had completely burnt myself out! I’ve learnt it’s not about the quantity but rather quality of runs that I am going on that is going to help with my training. After burning myself out I found myself at the chiropractor or getting treatment every other day for the next week! A painful and rather expensive mistake!
    I thought my athletic ability and all those years of sprinting up and down on the basketball court were going to give me the upper hand with training but I’ve seen that both those worlds are very different and require a different type of athletic ability.
    Another big lesson I learnt over the weekend is “DONT ASSUME CARS SEE YOU!!” was inches from being smoked by a car making a right turn!! Even when crossing the road on your green!

    • Mark Kennedy

      Quality is definitely key. Thanks for your comment Alyssa. Cheers.

      • Alyssa Cheung

        You wrote about using technology, I’m currently just using the Nike + GPS watch with the ability to also track the heart rate. I spoke with my doctor about all the running I am doing and she recommended I use a heart rate monitor. I am prehypertension, and since I already am quite active and eat very healthy don’t see signs of this going away. Is there an alternative product/cheaper way to track heart rate since I’m on a shoe string budget as a full time university student?

  • Jamie

    Last May I strained a hip flexor two weeks before my second marathon. I rested it for 2 weeks then ran the marathon injured. Stupid, stupid girl. 12 very long weeks later, I could finally run pain-free. My mistake: thinking the race was worth it. It was not worth an entire summer of no running.

  • Bruno Hallais

    I’ve completed four half marathons and have finally mustered up the courage to attempt a full. I’ve got a friend with whom I have friendly competitions with that swears he can just “wing” the marathon. He’s fairly fit and does CrossFit and that has been enough for him to wing two half marathons and actually come out ahead of me, who trained religiously for one. He’s under the impression that because he’s completed and bested me (by about 90 seconds) in the two halfs we ran together, the same will apply to a full marathon.

    As for myself, I’m in week 3 of a 16-week program and I feel great. I obviously wish no harm to my friend but I have a feeling he’s in for quite the surprise believing he can just willpower his way through 26.2 miles.

    • Mark Kennedy

      Congrats on gearing up for your first marathon Bruno! Which marathon are you doing?

      Great stuff. Hey you never know, your friend may grind through it, but your approach is setting you up for a much greater chance of finishing and enjoying the experience. Best of luck!

      • Bruno Hallais

        I’m doing the Colfax Marathon in Denver, CO. And you’re right, it’s quite possible that he can finish it but it just seems against all advice out there, including your own!

  • FlamingJune1967

    I do wish it was easier to figure out the whole running thing. I have spent so much money since I started on Massages,Chiros and PTs… and yet I can’t give up. The biggest thing I am being forced to learn is that giving your body enough time to fully heal, actually reduces total recovery time. I keep going back to running too soon thinking that a “little pain” won’t hurt me.

    • Mark Kennedy

      It’s definitely a fine balance. Staying strong with running specific strength exercises is key – check out it’s what I am using right now. And it will save you money in the long run – less visits to the physio, etc. Good luck!

  • Erica Agran

    For my first marathon, I did not respect the distance. I never did the long miles. I paid dearly in miles 16-26.2. Subsequently, I have done 34 more successful marathons. My toughest challenge – don’t start too fast. The solution: practice running just slower than marathon pace and picking up the last few miles of long runs to MP or faster.

    • Mark Kennedy

      Hi Erica. Wow…35 marathons! Amazing stuff. Thanks for the pacing advice.

  • Nisha

    Very nice article !! . I would say one should be also wary of pushing mileage too quickly and increasing speed at the same time , a recipe for injury … , which from experience I can say is not worth it . It happened during my half marathon training – my first one , I joined a running club and wanted to join the faster runner with no base mileage /speed workouts/ Hill repeats . I live in a hilly area and on all my runs , I only cared about keeping the pace , had no idea on maintaining same effort not pace on hills . I ended with a ITB injury and a calf strain since I was not focusing on form as the miles started increasing . I did 3 more half’s after that … (really stupid I know !! ) . Ended with 2nd degree calf strain and could not take a single step without my calf bothering me ( Hated climbing the stairs) . I had take off for 3months , but it was a humbling experience , currently starting training and making sure I don’t repeat the mistakes again …

    • Mark Kennedy

      Thanks for sharing Nisha. Live and learn, right? All the best.

  • Mark E

    Great writeup!

  • Will Hillier

    Interesting article, athough did you run the shoes in first? If not that’ll explain it! However, they only have a shelf-life of about 6 months if you’re training for and running for a marathon, so if you use old shoes you’re likely to damage your knees due to rubber compression. New shoes = very important, just give yourself time to wear them in!

    • Mark Kennedy

      Never ran in the Brooks before. Should have stuck with my Mizunos for sure. Thanks for your comment. You training for anything right now, Will?

  • Andrea

    Thanks for the great article. I am experiencing the same issues with plantar fasciitis and ITBS. What were some of the exercises/stretches that helped you over come. I don’t want to just rest as I am training for my first marathon in December!