7 Practical Tips for First Time Marathon Runners

Posted on February 17, 2014

I shouldn’t be able to say I’m a marathon runner today. I also shouldn’t be able to move a single muscle in my body. I should be rolling my eyes when friends ask, “when’s your next marathon?” When I say that I half-assed my training, I’m being generous. Really generous.

However, that’s not my story. Today, I’m a marathon runner. I’m walking around nearly ache-free with a big-ass smile on my face. I’m even pretty psyched about planning my next marathon. No, I didn’t shatter any time records, and sure, countless others have trained less with better results. But I learned a lot about my body and my mind. The most valuable takeaway I have from yesterday is this: treating your mind and body right can help you achieve unthinkable things.

I signed up for Birmingham’s Mercedes Marathon on Halloween night of 2013, fully ready to embrace the cold, dark after-work hours, and weekend long runs. Easy. Sounds awesome. Let’s do it! I had Tanya‘s full support behind me, and she was thrilled to finally show me the ropes.

I was on track for an aggressive, but doable 100-day training schedule. Having already built up and maintained a pretty good base mileage, I was in a good position to work my ass off to be in marathon shape by February.

Welp. Despite my best intentions, nothing went as planned. Heading into this schedule, I knew I was going to have to make some changes that I wasn’t going to like. Frigid temperatures, and leaving work in the dark meant I’d have to start pulling some early morning runs. Getting up early wasn’t the hard part though; I already start my days at 5:00 with no problem. The whole ‘get your ass out of your warm house’ part was the biggest obstacle. Save for weekends, I failed miserably every single morning.

Because of that, I struggled through mental barriers, dozens of missed runs, and watched my chances of success quickly wither. My highest mileage came on October 12, 2013. It was a 15.5 mile milestone for me. Ouch. That’s embarrassing.

Perhaps it’s the innate Jersey stubbornness in me. I wasn’t going to give up on this whole marathon thing. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to push through 26.2 miles on such limited training, but I was going to give it my best shot. As a first-time runner, I realized I had nothing to lose. If I felt absolutely miserable, I’d be smart and call it quits then and there before injuring myself.

Yesterday was all the proof I needed that a positive mindset and a healthy diet can help you achieve even higher levels of fitness. I’ve broken down a mix of physical and mental tricks to help you prepare your mind and body for running a marathon. This post is more of a supplement to your full marathon training program, and not a complete how-to.



Get Serious About Your Nutrition

I strongly believe that the best investment you can make in your life is in taking care of your body. Expect your body to return exactly what you put inside of it. My friends give me shit for shopping at Whole Foods, skipping donuts at the office, eating fruit instead of potato chips, not drinking soda, and limiting how much alcohol I drink. The irony here is that the people who usually find this “expensive” Whole Foods-esque lifestyle a waste of money are the ones who eat out more than three times per week. Yes, eating out is hurting you more than you probably know. There, I said it.

Remove processed foods out of your diet entirely. Stop finding “convenience eating” as a positive, and start realizing that our bodies are not meant to process ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Yes, you need to become that annoying person who reads ingredient labels in the grocery store. Yes, you shit it out anyway, but your body doesn’t benefit from frozen dinners, prepackaged and prepared meals, or snacks with a long shelf life.


Hydrate At Least Two Days Ahead

Your body is made up of 70% water. You learned this in like first grade. It makes me sick to watch people begin their day with a 20 ounce bottle of Diet Coke or Mountain Dew. Diet, zero-calorie, and sugar-free drinks are the biggest marketing ploys of our day. Stop falling for these bullshit campaigns, people. Wake up!

Everyone’s water intake needs are different. As a general rule of thumb, divide your body weight in half and you’re left with how many ounces of water your body needs at a resting state. If you’re active, you’ll obviously need to increase that number. I take in at least 100 ounces of water out of habit now, and my Nalgene bottle is never more than an arm’s length away from me. I should note that since I started this routine, I have not been sick even once. (That was almost three years ago.)

As for a pre-race hydration routine, I’m sure there are more scientific articles you can read on this. Start with this one. Typically, I incrementally adjust my intake in accordance with the distance I’m running beginning two days out from race day. Make sure to monitor urine color often. Seriously. If you’re peeing clear, you need to cut back. Over-hydrating screws up your body’s sodium and electrolyte levels which can cause you to struggle during race day, and even lead to death.

Bottom line, cut out the sodas and sugary drinks entirely. Be annoying and read nutrition labels. Don’t add “taste enhancing” sugar packets either—this defeats any good intentions you had about improving your drinking habits.


Know Your Race

Get as intimate as you can with your upcoming marathon course. If possible, attend preview runs with a local running group. Get a feel for the topography, landmarks, and where aid stations will be located. Is the course a single or double loop? Knowing what you’re up against can give you an advantage and help you target and plan out your training ahead of time. If you know the course has steep or rolling hills, you should mimic this in your training program. Blindly going into a race will only throw unexpected obstacles your way. That’s just asking for trouble.


Get Your Head Right

Preparing physically for a marathon is obviously essential, but you won’t have a good race if your head isn’t in the right place. Everyone will try to give you a piece of their mind by offering advice, tricks, or their own personal experiences. Hell, that’s exactly what this post is doing now. But remember that only you know what works best for you. Do more of what makes your body happy.

Realize you’re about to put your body through a metric fuck-ton of physical agony. It isn’t easy, but dammit you better believe it’s within your reach. You need to want it so bad that it makes you nauseous to think about.

Finally, it helps to figure out why you’re running a marathon. Are you proving something to yourself? Are you running for a cause or for a charity? As part of a weight loss program? Perhaps you’re running to help memorialize a friend or family member? It helps to have something to think about on the course. Give yourself a reason to push through the barriers.



Consistency is Key

Starting your first marathon a few seconds slower than anticipated can spare you the energy you’ll need at mile 20 and beyond. Your heart is pounding with anticipation, and your brain wants you to pass every runner in front of you. It’s so critical to keep calm here to be able to endure through the second half of your race.

The pace will feel painfully slow, even grueling compared to your training runs in the first half of your marathon. But you need to train your brain to relax and stick to your game plan until later in the race.

Talk to yourself throughout the race. I found that counting down the miles as I passed mile markers to be effective and motivating. Passing mile marker 20 I’d say, “10k left to go! Easy!”You may prefer to see it the other way and tell yourself, “You’ve already run 20 miles! You’re killing it!” Another strategy would be to group the miles together into 5ks or even 10ks. Whatever method you favor, try to give your brain a task. Repetitive, and positive thinking can really help you through that final stretch when your body starts struggling.


Run Your Own Race

One of the best parts about running your first marathon is that you have absolutely no expectations for what’s about to happen. Don’t make this race about your finish time, pace, or splits. In fact, it’s probably best to put duct tape over your watch. Don’t set yourself up for a miserable first experience. Take it all in—pay attention to your body, feel the crowds, and soak in the energy of the runners around you.

“Run your own race” means don’t be intimidated by how others around you are performing. Race day can be emotionally taxing, so it’s important to listen to your body. When you start relying on the pace of runners around you, you start running their race. Having confidence in your body will help you focus on getting to your destination; know your rhythms, know when you need to fuel or hydrate, and talk yourself through the rough times. If you go out too strong initially, you’ll never hit those key adrenaline releases. Ride the hell out of those bad boys. Laugh, cry, scream, hug a spectator—do whatever you have to do; your fellow runners will understand.


The Last .2 Isn’t the Hardest

My last piece of advice goes against a common theory that the final two tenths of a marathon, the .2 in 26.2, is the toughest part of the race. I call bullshit. If you go into an endurance race thinking the hardest part is always ahead of you, you’re doomed to fail. In my experience, the final .2 miles were the easiest. Finish line crowds start cheering you on, you see the finish line, you start hearing the music and the emcee. This is the best part of the entire race! Your emotions are going fucking bonkers at this point. All you can think about is how far you’ve already come. This is what you’ve trained for. This moment. The final two tenths. “You are officially a bad ass” is all that crosses your mind at mile 26.

To avoid getting hate mail from trainers and experienced marathoners, I want to close by reiterating that proper training will be your best shot at a healthy, strong race. Completing a full training program can also provide you the added confidence that you’ll want to lean on in those final miles. I believe that having a strong foundation of fitness, a proper mindset, the ability and willingness to listen to your body, along with a sound diet and hydration plan will help make your first marathon enjoyable.

Next time I’ll take my own advice; I know my Coach (read:wife) won’t let me slack when warm weather and Daylight Savings return.



7 Practical Tips for First Time Marathon Runners by

4 Replies to "7 Practical Tips for First Time Marathon Runners"

  • Julie Pearce
    February 20, 2014 (6:48 pm)

    Great post, Zach!! So glad you’re now “hooked!” 🙂

    • Zack Sylvan
      February 21, 2014 (10:54 am)

      Thanks, Julie! Now I just to have to try and keep up with you! 🙂

  • Yo Momma Runs
    February 23, 2014 (10:40 am)

    I get sick so much less when I’m eating healthy food!!! Whenever I slip into an eating rut, I get sick almost inmediatly (cold symptoms usually). There is definitely a connection there! Great post, Zack!

  • Becca Fite
    February 23, 2014 (2:17 pm)

    Well said! Great marathon wisdom and tips in a nutshell!

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