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How To Have A Great Marathon

26.2 miles – The Marathon

The marathon challenges thousands of runners every year. It is a distance that creates both fear and excitement for many runners. Some athletes have good experiences and some a bit unpleasant. I feel with a bit of preparation and understanding, all athletes can set themselves up to have their best day possible. They may even finish with a big smile on their face.

I have noted a few key areas that I believe can increase the smile-factor and lead to a enjoyable marathon experience.


Set Race-Pace Based On Current Fitness Not Dream Race-Pace

Yor want to run a 4:00 marathon yet your body is in 4:30 shape. You can rarely fool your body over the 26.2 mile distance. Go with what fitness you have and try to maximize it on the day!

How do you determine what kind of shape you are in?

I really like using Runbayou: Jack Daniels VDOT running calculator because it provides projected finish times for 1500m all the way up to the marathon based on your current fitness level. It determines your current fitness level by using a recent race result. I would recommend using a recent 10k or 1/2 marathon result if possible. I also like that the calculator provides some training pace guides as well which can help reduce over-training and injury.

If you are not into the VDOT thing, McMillan Running highlights some marathon predictor workouts you can use to provide some feedback whether you can run the pace you desire. The predictor workouts include Fast Finish Long Run, Long Distance Race, and Yasso 800s.

For various template training programs you can check out my Training Resource and Gear page which contains links to various marathon plans which can help with the endurance and speed work.


Proper Nutrition

Some amount of calories are required for everyone running a marathon. The individual amount must be worked out during your long training runs. A decent guide would be 100-150 calories per hour. I like to use gels (Hammer Gel) because they digest easily.

During my first Ironman I ingested nearly 500 calories (don’t ask me why) in the first mile of the marathon. Bad, bad idea! I had major stomach issues the rest of the race.

I would also experiment and determine the calorie source you are going to use during the race and practice with it during some of your long training runs.

Hammer Nutrition’s fueling handbook also provides additional nutrition insight.


Proper Hydration

Hydration needs is another one of those individual components that I would recommend to test out during your long training runs. You may want to naked-weigh (exciting) yourself immediately before/after your long run to observe the amount of water loss. You really don’t want to lose any more than 2% body weight as performance and health can be greatly affected.

Also various weather conditions (hot/cold/dry/humid) will also affect hydration requirements. A general recommendation is 20-24 oz/hour. Find what works for you!

Note, over-hydration can be just as dangerous.

Hammer Nutrition’s fueling handbook also provides additional hydration insight.


Cruise-mode For 3/4 Of The Run

Your perceived exertion (PE) effort better feel like easy/moderate (“cruise-mode”) effort for the first 17- 20 miles. Being honest with yourself can often be one of the biggest challenges of race day but if your effort doesn’t feel fairly easy early on, drop your pace into that easy/moderate level. I would go as far and say it should feel mostly easy through mile 15. From miles 15-20, you can start creeping into that moderate level.

During my best executed marathon, my PE was easy up to mile 15. This early effort allowed me to save mental and physical energy for when it got real tough during the final 10k. Without this extra reserve available, I probably would have been walking.

At the Boston marathon I noticed my PE was above easy at mile seven. There was no way I was going to be able to handle the current pace for the rest of the run so I had to back off. Unfortunately I didn’t back off nearly enough and paid for it during the rest of the run. Remember that honest assessment idea I was talking about.

Do your best with what you are given on the day!


Light At The End Of The Tunnel

It is almost a guarantee that you will have at least one tough patch during the race. This is just the nature of longer endurance sports for most of us.

When you mentally or physically start feeling like poo, send your attention to the basics; nutrition, hydration, and running form. If those are all properly addressed, just keep moving one foot in front of the other and know that it will get better. For every down, there is an up. It will pass…really!

You may also want to open yourself up to the event and bring it into your awareness.

  • See the people cheering – say thank you
  • Thank all of the volunteers you pass by
  • Thank your body and mind for being healthy to start this event and finish it
  • Talk to a fellow runner (The other runner may or may not be interested, but you never know until you try.)
  • Smile – it helps, even if it is a fake one!

Before you know it, you will come out the other side knowing that you will finish this thing.


Luck Of The Irish

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”

Through proper preparation and execution you will increase your “Lucky” factor. This doesn’t mean you won’t have any challenges during the race but it does mean you greatly increase your ability to handle them.


Have Fun!

In the end all of the above means little if you haven’t been able to appreciate and enjoy the day. Be grateful for your heath, fitness, and support team(friends and family). Know that you have prepared to the best of your ability. All else is water under the bridge at this point.

Celebrate the day regardless of the result! Life is not only about results but the lessons learned along the way.


What additional focus areas have helped during your marathon(s)?

About the author

David Hanenburg David Hanenburg is the passionate dirt-lovin' creator of Endurance Buzz and has been playing in the endurance sports world since 2000 after knockin' the dust off of his Trek 950 hardtail thanks to a friend asking to go ride some local dirt. In 2007 he ran his first ultra on the trails and fell in love with the sport and its people. For more information on David's endurance sports journey, check out the About page.

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