Autumn is the peak of marathon season–which also makes it the peak of marathon-envy. Not only is it a time when elite athletes test their own ability to conquer long miles of pavement, it’s also a time when friends and family of marathoners think “Huh, I could do that.” But before you start an ambitious new marathon training schedule, there are a few things you should probably know.
Because here’s the thing about a marathon: You probably can do it. However, without a little bit of guidance, it might be much more difficult and even dangerous than it needs to be. So, to help out, I called in some professionals.
David A. Levin is a level one coach with USA Triathlon and USA Track & Field. He’s also the co-author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Marathon Training. Together with marathon runner and writer Paula Petrella, he helped me quell together a few unusual but extremely helpful tips that are great, both for first-time marathoners and dedicated distance runners. Here’s what I learned:
Go slow–really slow
“If you feel that you’re beating yourself up, you are, and you need to knock it off,” Levin told me. “The biggest mistake we all make–and I mean professionals and new runners alike–is that we don’t do enough low-intensity workouts.”
Levin says a focus on race pace and going faster can actually hamstring your ultimate goal, and make it harder to finish the entire 26.2 miles.
“Low intensity is the most important intensity level that anybody can do. It’s really where you get your fitness for endurance.”
Levin explained that running slowly–so slow, he says, you “feel like you could run at that pace forever,”–is not only great for helping develop the mentality of going long distances, it also helps build the smaller, slow-twitch muscle fibers of the legs, which improve the fitness and stamina of your body overall.
“The irony is, most beginner runners can’t go slow enough to do effective training,” says Levin. But after three or four weeks of forcing yourself to go very slowly, he says, you’ll actually be in better shape than if you’d been gunning it and wearing yourself out every day. It’s basically like cross-training…except it’s still running.
“You should be able to carry on a conversation,” he told me. “We have a rule in our training programs: You must talk and tell bad jokes.”
Because, aside from helping you stay motivated, a running group or buddy is a good way to make sure that you’re staying at that comfortable, low pace, says Levin.
And finding someone you can tell bad jokes with is pretty important for your mental state. In looking for a buddy or a group, Petrella says, find one who is “reliable, is at a similar running level to you, and is generally in good spirits. It should be someone you’re comfortable spending a lot of time with, whether you’re talking or not.”