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How to Train for Your First Big Race

If you're training for your first marathon or are a novice marathoner wanting to improve your time, your primary objectives should be to enjoy your training, stay healthy and be prepared to complete the race. If you follow these simple rules, training can be an enjoyable part of your healthy lifestyle, and your running can be both consistent and sustainable.


By training with a local club, coach or group, you can tap into a resource with the experience to help you train well and stay healthy. Group runs with people at your pace are great and are highly recommended.

Build Base
To successfully train for a marathon, you have to build enough endurance and execute proper pacing for the race. Gradually build up the miles per week (MPW) and do a weekly "long run." Don't increase your MPW by more than two to five miles each week. For example, if you are currently running 15 MPW, increase to 17 to 20 the next week, then 20 to 25, etc.

Run as many days a week as you find enjoyable. Seven days a week is ideal, and the minimum is four days per week. Once a week, do a long run that is 20 to 35 percent of your MPW. For example, if you plan on running 40 miles next week, your long run should be eight to12 miles. Gradually increase the MPW and the length of the long run.

The minimum to complete a marathon is as many weeks as possible at 30 to 50 MPW and to have several long runs of 15 to 20 miles. As long as you're injury-free, more is better.

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Learn Pace
What about training pace? Run at a pace that is "conversational" -- not too easy and not too hard. If you're slowing down in the second half of the run, you're going too fast. Aim to always run even pace or negative splits (second half faster than first half).

If you have a heart-rate monitor, your heart rate should usually be less than 150 to 160 beats per minute. Over time, you'll find you're going faster with no extra effort; that's the beauty of improving your fitness.

Once a week, if you feel strong, push the pace a little each mile in the second half of the run up to a heart rate of 170 to 175. This is called a "progression run." On days you don't feel as good, simply run a little slower.

Check Your Heart
Check your resting heart rate periodically first thing in the morning. If it's stable over time or going down, that's good. But if it's starting to climb, you might need extra rest and recovery. Take care of small things before they turn into big things. Something hurting? Immediately seek the advice of doctors, coaches and trainers with experience in running injuries.

Always Hydrate
Practice hydrating on every long run. It's critical to stay hydrated in a marathon. It's also important to find out what the race will be giving out for energy drinks and practice with it during your long run. Find out what your stomach can handle without distress.

Drink frequently on your long runs. Practice what you'll eat for breakfast on race morning and how long you'll give yourself after eating before you go on your run. The ideal amount of time to wait after eating will be somewhere between two and four hours for most people. Try to minimize surprises. This will all be part of your marathon fueling strategy.

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During the marathon, you will need to take in a few hundred calories so you don't "hit the wall." How much fuel you have depends on a number of factors, such as weight, pace and efficiency. Take in your main fuel between miles 11 and 20. Again, practice what your stomach can handle without distress. Too much sugar or too much water can lead to problems, so you need to figure it all out on your long runs.

The last week before a marathon cut back, or "taper," your mileage by about 20 percent. Your final long run should be eight to14 days before the race.

Execute Race
There are two methods for picking a goal pace:

Method 1:
Pick a pace that is about 30 seconds per mile slower than your best 15-mile-run pace in training. For example, if your best 15-mile run was two hours and 15 minutes (9:00 per mile), aim for a 9:30 pace for the first 15 miles of the marathon. If you maintain that all the way, you will run the marathon in 4 hours 10 minutes.

Method 2:
Run at the same pace as your best 20-mile run. On marathon day, make the race just another long run. Stay calm and don't get worked up. Run the race the same as you ran your long runs. Do not go out too fast. Be disciplined and ignore everyone else around you: Don't run anyone else's pace. At 15 miles assess how you feel. If you feel good, then maintain. If you feel lousy, ease up a little so you can finish the race.

Good luck, and remember: fun first!

--Mick and John

Readers -- Have you ever run a marathon, half-marathon or 5K? Did you have a training plan? What was the toughest part of training? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Mick Grant has been involved in running for over 40 years as an athlete and coach. He's coached at the youth, high-school and post-collegiate levels, from track and field to marathons. Mick has produced numerous national champions and All-Americans at the youth and high-school levels. He's a distance-running coach at CoachUp and writer at Youth Runner Magazine. Follow him on Twitter. 

John Molvar has been involved in running and has studied the sport for 40 years. He has coached at the youth, high-school, college Division I, II and III and post-collegiate levels. As a college head coach, he was named by his fellow conference coaches the Men's Conference Coach of the Year four times and also Women's Coach of the Year. He is currently Assistant XC and Middle Distance and Distance Track Coach at UMass-Lowell, a position he has held the past five years.

Mick Grant and John Molvar are the authors of The Youth and Teen Running Encyclopedia.

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