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Medical News Today: Running a marathon: how to survive the historic endurance race

As the weather improves, so does the likelihood of people going out and running. While many people go running as a simple way of keeping fit, for others, it is a necessary part of a long-term project; training for a marathon.
People running a marathon.
Millions of people around the world run marathons every year, often raising large sums of money for charity.

Those who have signed up to take part in marathons this autumn are likely to have already begun training regimes. If they are going to be running in their first ever marathon, it is recommended that they should have done. Meanwhile, others whose local marathons are held in the spring may only now be thinking about participating in one.

Marathons are rightly considered to be one of the most demanding physical challenges that an individual can undertake. They require months of preparation and dedicated training for the running to be a success and not hazardous to the runner’s health.

What could possibly motivate someone to take on such an arduous task? And where should one begin when it comes to preparing to take on running a marathon? For many, running a marathon for the first time is a completely different prospect to any form of exercise they will have encountered before.

In this Spotlight feature, we take a brief look at what running a marathon involves, along with what levels of preparation are recommended for someone taking on the challenge.

Why would anyone want to run a marathon?

Last week, Medical News Today reported on two new studies that found exercising at extreme levels such as marathon running could lead to blood poisoning. Studies such as this beg the question: why would anyone want to run a marathon?

One reason is that people might wish to take part in a long tradition of endurance running. A tradition that has its roots in ancient history, inspired by the legend of an ancient Greek who ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to spread news of a Greek military victory.

Athens was host to the first organized marathon, held at the 1896 Olympics. The original distance of the marathon was 40 km, representing the distance from Marathon to Athens, but this was extended at the 1908 Olympics in London to accommodate a request from the British royal family.

This increase in distance – allegedly done so that the course started at Windsor Castle and ended in front of the royal box at the Olympic Stadium – then became the official length for a marathon; a distance of 42.195 kilometers (26.2 miles) that runners worldwide are now familiar with.

Although once a very exclusive event only open to male athletes, marathon races are now open to all and take place all over the world. In America alone, there are more than 1,100 marathons each year, including the Boston Marathon – the world’s oldest annual marathon.

As well as a desire to tackle a historical and immense challenge, marathon runners are often spurred on by charitable motives. At many marathons, elite runners will share the streets with eager amateurs running to raise money for good causes.

Marathon runners generate huge amounts of money for charity, including significant funds for various medical research groups. Last year, the Boston Marathon and the New York Marathon raised $27.5 million and $30 million respectively in funds for charities, yet these figures pale in comparison with the estimated $79.1 million raised by the London Marathon.

With figures like these, it is clear to see that marathon runners participating in these races and doing so successfully can make a big difference for charities. There is a lot of pressure to succeed, and so prospective runners do well to spend a lot of time planning out their training regimen.

The importance of well-planned physical training

Running a marathon is without doubt an extreme form of exercise. For this reason, it is recommended that people aiming to participate in one should build up a considerable amount of running experience prior to tackling one for the first time, including running shorter distance races.

It is also recommended that you inform your doctor that you plan to train for and run a marathon. If there are any personal health concerns you need to be aware of, they should be able to let you know and provide advice. You should seek medical clearance before beginning training in case you have a health condition that might make training dangerous.

“While I think that any healthy individual who is willing to commit to the training can complete a marathon, I don’t recommend that runners jump right into the marathon distance,” states Christine Luff, a running and jogging expert for About Health.

Woman going for an evening jog in a park.
Training for a marathon is a long process that should build up endurance gradually and consistently.

Instead, Luff recommends that beginners first establish a regular running habit, going out around 3-4 times a week, building up a base mileage for runs gradually over the course of 6 months. Once this has been done, runners can get some experience of endurance running by entering shorter distance races, such as a 5K, a 10K or even a half marathon.

Training for a marathon is not just about practicing running for long periods of time. Runners also need to prepare their body for the immense strain that extreme exercise will put it under. Cross-training activities such as cycling and swimming not only improve your aerobic conditioning but also boost the body’s resistance to injury.

Activities that increase the body’s strength, such as Pilates, Yoga or using weights, can also be beneficial.

A good training schedule for around 20 weeks will include runs over a variety of distances that increase gradually, cross-training and rest days. Rest days can either involve no training at all or “active recovery,” a short run at an easy pace to allow the muscles to loosen up.

Shorter training runs should be run at a moderate pace while longer runs – slowly building up toward marathon distance but never reaching it – should be taken slowly, at an easy, conversational pace.

In the final weeks before the marathon, it is important that training is tapered, cutting back on the amount of training that is done in order to allow the body and mind to recover. After 18 weeks of training, fitness is not going to improve any further, so the focus should be on keeping the body as healthy as possible.

Three weeks before the marathon, runners should run their last long run, treating it as a dress rehearsal of sorts. The subsequent weeks should see training reduced gradually, with less attention paid to cross-training and more on easy runs and resting.

Be prepared: eat and dress appropriately

Of course, there are other measures that need to be taken when preparing oneself for a marathon. Improving fitness is crucial, but runners can give themselves a huge advantage by eating properly and wearing the right clothes.

Every runner should have proper footwear. A runner’s feet are crucial to their training and their ability to complete the marathon, and so aiding and protecting them with a good pair of running shoes can make a massive difference to a runner’s prospects.

With running shoes, there are a lot of factors that need to be taken into consideration when deciding what pair to go for, so discussing the available options with staff in a running store is a good place to start. Runners will need to take into account the running surfaces they will training on when making a purchase.

Appropriate clothing is also important, and women should be sure to find the right sports bra to ensure comfort while running. As a marathon training schedule is likely to take in a variety of seasonal climates, clothing that fits well, allows for good air ventilation and dries quickly is ideal. Again, the staff in a running store will be well-placed to make suggestions.

Eating healthily during the training period is beneficial, but food choices on the day of the marathon – both before and during – can have a big impact too. Dr. Ed Laskowski, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, states that hydration and energy-boosting carbohydrates help toward running a healthy race with a low risk of injury.

In the weeks close to the marathon, a runner’s diet should involve eating plenty of complex carbohydrates, such as wholegrain bread and pasta, and drinking lots of fluids. Around 65-70% of total calorie consumption should ideally come from carbohydrates. Alcohol is best avoided as it can dehydrate and disrupt sleep.

To increase fluid absorption during exercise, runners should start drinking fluids at least 4 hours prior to beginning. On the day of the race, Dr. Laskowski states that water, milk, fruit juice and sports drinks can be consumed up to 1 hour before the start.

Sports drinks are a good source of energy while running as their sodium content can replace electrolytes lost through sweat. Other options for mid-race sustenance include energy bars and gels.

When the going gets tough

Everyone who runs a marathon will have different reasons for doing it and different expectations for what they want to achieve. It is important to focus on what you personally want to get out of running a marathon, especially if it is your first time running one.

Of course, some people like to take the challenge further, particularly in the name of charity. At many marathons, spectators are likely to spot participants dressed up in costume eliciting huge cheers from onlookers.

Person in a gorilla suit running a marathon.
Wearing appropriate, comfortable clothing can be crucial to marathon running success.

These costumes are rarely made for the purpose of endurance running and so present extra challenges for the runner to overcome. They can be hot and heavy, they can chafe and they can restrict vision and breathing. As such, additional preparation is needed for people taking on this extra challenge.

“Training for a marathon is always tough. I’m not the most disciplined runner in history, but adding a 10 kg hippo suit to the mix has certainly given me food for thought,” Martin Neal told The Guardian, ahead of running last year’s London Marathon.

In order to prepare himself for the rigors of running in the suit, he decided to travel to Disney World Florida for a long-distance running event at higher temperatures than he was used to. He also went for several runs while wearing the suit to get his body accustomed the challenge. “It was really hard going, incredibly hot and I used muscles I didn’t know I had,” he stated.

Meticulous preparation is key to running a successful and enjoyable marathon. Runners should work to prepare both their bodies and minds for all eventualities. Seeking advice from experts – trainers, doctors, people who have ran marathons before – is a great way to do this.

It is important that prospective marathon runners should be well aware of the health risks of the task ahead before beginning and also listen to their body when the going gets tough.

“Pain associated with joint swelling or that causes the joint to feel unstable should be checked,” advises Dr. Laskowski. “You should also seek an evaluation for pain that persists or intensifies after rest from running or pain that causes you to compensate, change your running, or change your gait.”

Running a marathon when not 100% healthy can be dangerous. Runners should not put their long-term health at risk by forcing their bodies to do things they are not adequately prepared for or able to do.

Marathon running has grown hugely in popularity over the last few decades. Around 25,000 runners were estimated to have finished marathons in the US in 1976, and by 2013 this number is believed to have risen to 541,000. With appropriate preparation, anyone can add to these numbers and if you intend to, good luck!

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