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How to Train for a Marathon

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 1/10/2019 Ruben Castaneda
Man jogging in rain: According to Statista, 56 million people in the U.S. participated in running, jogging or trail running in 2017. © (Getty Images) According to Statista, 56 million people in the U.S. participated in running, jogging or trail running in 2017.

For most of his life, Ryan Patena ran and dreamed. As a child, he ran for fun. In high school, he ran on the cross-country and track teams in La Grange, Illinois. When he became a young man, Patena ran in 5-kilometer and shorter distance races. Meanwhile, he dreamed of one day running a marathon, which is 26.2 miles long.

But Patena always found a reason not to try: He didn't have enough time; he wasn't a good enough athlete; the Type 1 diabetes he was diagnosed with in his early 20s would hold him back. A part of him doubted he could finish a marathon, Patena says. In 2016, Patena, a senior IT business analyst with Abbott, a global health technology company based in the north suburban Chicago area, pushed aside his excuses and self-doubt and signed up for the 2017 Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

"That made it real," Patena says. "I knew I was going to be there, prepared or not." Patena finished the marathon in just under four hours and 18 minutes. In 2018, Patena did even better, finishing the marathon in a little over three hours and 45 minutes. "It was really gratifying," Patena says. "It's a fantastic experience coming to the finish line, where you have everyone cheering you on. It's very rewarding knowing all the work you put in paid off and you've achieved your goal."

In 2017, 56 million people in the U.S. participated in running, jogging or trail running, according to Statista, which gathers statistics and studies from more than 22,500 sources. Most of these runners didn't participate in a marathon – but most probably could if, like Patena, they wanted to and trained for it, says Dr. Ernest Isaacson, a board-certified podiatrist in New York City who ran the New York City Marathon in 2017.

"As with anything else, you can always do more than you're doing, you can always push a little more," Isaacson says. "As long as you're training gradually and in a smart way, it's certainly conceivable to go from running a 5K to a marathon."

Here are strategies that can help you train to run a marathon:

1. Seek help from experts to develop your training regimen.

If you're preparing to run a marathon for the first time, it's probably a good idea to get some outside assistance to help you develop a training regimen that will give you the opportunity to reach the finish line, Isaacson says. There are a multitude of running sites online that offer training strategies, says Isaacson, who runs 10 to 14 miles each Sunday. "You can get an app to train for a marathon or hire a coach to help you develop a training routine," he says. "Follow in the footsteps of others who've done it well." As a general guideline, it's a good idea to be able to complete two 18-mile runs and a 20-mile run before you do a marathon, he says. You should probably do the latter run about a month before the marathon, with training runs in between. Wearing good running shoes can help prevent foot problems, he says. Sales people at running shoe stores can help you find the best pair for you.

2. Focus on achieving incremental goals.

To train for a marathon, Patena didn't dramatically increase the number of miles he was running during training all at once. Instead, he increased his mileage gradually and incrementally. That helped him train his body and his mind for longer distances, Patena says. "I didn't think of it as training for a marathon, but running (an additional) mile," he says. "I would think, 'Maybe I can get myself from 3 to 4 miles.' It was all about incremental improvements." Focusing on a series of incremental goals helps make these objectives feel attainable, says Whitney Heins, 37, a competitive runner in Knoxville, Tennessee. Most marathon training regimens are 12 to 16 weeks long, says Heins, who completed the Boston Marathon in 2011 but hasn't run at that distance since. She's training to run a marathon this spring in less than three hours. "A general rule of thumb is that your weekly mileage should be about double what your race mileage will be," Heins says. "So, marathon training mileage can peak at about 50 miles. Aim for a gradual increase of mileage per week of no more than 10 percent of your current weekly average."

3. Make your training routine enjoyable.

To train for his marathons, Patena ran near Lake Michigan because he likes the view and didn't want his runs to feel repetitive. "I wanted to make it enjoyable," Patena says. Running near a scenic lake helped. "I didn't think of it as a chore that I had to run 5 or 10 miles." Varying the routes you run can help keep your training fun and engaging, says Paul Greer, a coach with the San Diego Track Club. He's also a member of the exercise science faculty at San Diego City College. "Vary it up," Greer says. "If you're used to running a certain route, try running in the opposite direction. If you usually run through city streets, run through a park."

4. Visualize your success.

Positive mental images are powerful motivators that can help you keep going when you get tired, says Dr. Beth McQuiston, a neurologist and registered dietitian and medical director for Abbott's diagnostics business. (Abbott sponsors the Abbott World Marathon Majors, six of the largest and best-known marathons in the world, including the Boston Marathon and the Tokyo Marathon.) "During each run, visualize yourself succeeding," McQuiston says. "Visualize your legs pumping. Visualize the cheer zones that will line the streets on marathon day. Once your mind goes there, you maximize your results." This strategy can work for training, too, she says. "At each stage, you visualize what your run looks like," McQuiston says. "Close your eyes, visualize increasing your running from 3 to 4 miles, from 4 to 5 and so on."

5. Prioritize your training regimen.

It's important to prioritize every aspect of your health, including not just your physical fitness, but also your emotional and mental well-being, McQuiston says. Marathon training, particularly in the final months and weeks before the event, can become the equivalent of a part-time job, with some runs taking more than two hours. That means there will be times you have to take a pass on social events because you need to run. "You have to be OK with saying, 'No, I can't do that because it interferes with my training,'" she says.

6. Don't get sidetracked by discouraging days.

Keep in mind that when it comes to training for a marathon, everyone progresses at his or her own rate, Greer says. Some people may be able to run for an hour without taking a break after four weeks of training; for others, it could take four months to reach that milestone. It's common for runners to experience setbacks in their training as they increase their distance. You may not always reach your weekly goal regarding the number of days you trained or the distance you covered, but that's no reason to become stressed out about your progress, Greer says. "You might get sore and need to take a day to rest," he says. "Or your life is busy and you miss a day of training. Don't get discouraged. Just keep going; every day is a new day. Never give up on yourself – it's all about perseverance, dedicating yourself to goals and achieving your potential in everything you do, including running."

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