How do you know if you're ready to run a marathon

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Chicago Marathon 2012 (with Kelly in the right pic)

If you’re in Chicago and you aren’t running the Chicago Marathon this weekend, you might be feeling major FOMO – fear of missing out. (Or maybe not, since it’s supposed to be a little warm tomorrow.)  And if you’ve never run a marathon before, you might be feeling a major itch to sign up for it next year. Watching the 2011 Chicago Marathon was what finally pushed me from “maybe I’ll do that” to “I HAVE TO DO THIS NEXT YEAR, WHEN DOES REGISTRATION OPEN… I’LL COMMIT TO A CHARITY TEAM NOW.” But, if you’ve never run a marathon before, you might be wondering how you know you’re ready. To me, it comes down to three things – physical, mental, time.

But, if you’ve never run a marathon before, you might be wondering how you know you’re ready. To me, it comes down to three things – physical, mental, time.

Please note that I am NOT a running coach, I am merely a hobby jogger who has been doing this for ~7 years, and I talk to a lot of other runners, online and off, and read a lot of running resources. 

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Mile 17 during the 2016 Chicago Marathon

Physical Readiness

There are some crazy people out there who will start a marathon training plan from 0 miles. Who have never done a single road race in their life. Maybe they like crazy challenges. Maybe they are running for a charity. I don’t know. I would never recommend someone go from 0 miles to 26.2 in four months. I went from 0 to 26.2 in about 34 months – I was physically ready well before that, but not mentally ready. I personally think 18-24 months is probably better, but it also depends on your fitness at the start, and how consistent your running schedule has been. Most marathon training plans start with a long run of ~6 miles and 15 miles per week. If you’ve built your base to the point that you have been running at least 20 miles per week for a few months, and can do a long run of 8-10 miles (or have done a few half marathons), you should be ready physically.

I personally think 18-24 months is probably better, but it also depends on your fitness at the start, and how consistent your running schedule has been. Most marathon training plans start with a long run of ~6 miles and 15 miles per week and quickly build from there. If you run at least 20 miles per week and can do a long run of at least 8 miles (or have done a few half marathons), you should be ready physically.

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AB and Declan at the 2013 Chicago Marathon 

Mental Readiness

This is where it took me awhile to feel ready, but I’m also the type of person who has to feel really ready to put myself out there and do something. (No surprise – it also took me longer than my burlesque friends to transition from student and group acts to doing my own solos.)  I look at the half marathon as a good gauge for marathon mental readiness. If you finish a half marathon and feel like you still haven’t “nailed” the distance, you probably shouldn’t graduate to the marathon just yet. What I mean is, have you figured out how to pace yourself to run a PR? To finish feeling like you gave it your all, but you aren’t completely wiped out and in pain? Have you figured out your fueling/hydration? My first marathon was kind of a disaster and I failed all of those things. I started off way too fast and had to walk the last 5 miles. (Yes, I was walking at mile 8 and couldn’t run anymore.)  I thought I was taking in enough water, but I didn’t know what GU or electrolytes were, and my hands were so swollen when I crossed the finish line because I was so dehydrated. I clearly had a lot to learn about endurance running. My second half marathon went a lot better, but I was super conservative because I had made so many mistakes the first time. By my third half marathon, I felt better about everything and finished feeling great. I finally felt like I “got” the distance and was ready to go farther.

I look at the half marathon as a good gauge for marathon mental readiness. If you finish a half marathon and feel like you still haven’t “nailed” the distance, you probably shouldn’t graduate to the marathon just yet. What I mean is, have you figured out how to pace yourself to run a PR? To finish feeling like you gave it your all, but you aren’t completely wiped out and in pain? Have you figured out your fueling/hydration?

My first marathon was kind of a disaster and I failed all of those things. I started off way too fast and had to walk the last 5 miles. (Yes, I was walking at mile 8 and couldn’t run anymore.)  I thought I was taking in enough water, but I didn’t know what GU or electrolytes were, and my hands were so swollen when I crossed the finish line because I was so dehydrated. I clearly had a lot to learn about endurance running. My second half marathon went a lot better, but I was super conservative because I had made so many mistakes the first time. By my third half marathon, I felt better about everything and finished feeling great. I finally felt like I “got” the distance and was ready to go farther.

My second half marathon went a lot better, but I ran it very conservatively because I had made so many mistakes the first time. By my third half marathon, I felt better about everything and finished feeling great. I finally felt like I “got” the distance and was ready to go farther.

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Pete at the 2013 Chicago Marathon

Time

I’m not going to lie – marathon training can take over your life. You’re running 4-6 times per week. Your weekend long run takes hours, and you kind of have to schedule your entire weekend around it. Plus, you need to factor in additional time for recovery, cross-training, stretching, strength training, proper fueling and more sleep.

A few things to consider (I’m going to assume your training pace is 10:00 per mile and you’re running the Hal Higdon Novice 1 program, which is a somewhat low mileage plan. Adjust as necessary):

  • During the week, you’re running three times – two short, one long-ish, which could take you anywhere from 50 minutes to an hour and 40 minutes each during your peak weeks.
  • Your long run builds from five to 20 miles. So, during weeks 10-15, your long runs are taking roughly three hours or more. But add in the hour or two before the run you need to wake up, eat breakfast, drink coffee, wait to poop, drive to your running location, and then afterward – stretch, drive home, stretch some more, eat another breakfast, foam roll, ice bath, warm up, shower, eat lunch, nap. (Well, even if you can’t nap … you’ll want to.)  PLUS, keep in mind you’ll need to go to bed early the night before. If you’re doing your marathon training during the summer, know that you’re basically giving up one weekend night every weekend to go to bed early. And the weekend night you can stay up? If you didn’t get that nap, you might be pretty tired.
  • In addition to running, if you’re like me, you need to add in regular yoga and weight lifting or pilates-type workouts. That’s an additional hour at least two days per week.
  • Your body is also going to need more sleep overall. I don’t remember what the formula was, but the more you work your body, the more you need to recover, and that includes sleep.

When I was training for the marathon, I was working full-time and had a horrific commute that took up and additional 3-4 hours of my day. So my life was basically:  Work, Commute, Run. That was it. I didn’t have any other hobbies. I don’t have kids, so I didn’t have to take care of anyone else or work around anyone else’s schedule. (My husband and I had similar work schedules.) I was also following a relatively low-mileage plan.

Me in 2012 / My late Uncle Tom in 1988

That all being said – running a marathon is a wonderful experience that I recommend to anyone who wants to do it. However, it will be a much better experience if you wait until you are ready. It’s a huge commitment of time and mental and physical energy. If your heart isn’t in it, and you have to talk yourself into it … it’s not going to stick and you’re not going to enjoy it. And if you’re not yet physically ready, it’s probably going to hurt.

The marathon will always be there. If you’re not ready to do it this year or next year, it’ll be there waiting for you the year after. Distance running events aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Do yourself a favor and do it when you can do it right.

Any other advice or tips? Share in the comments!