So you want to run a marathon, but you don’t really know where to begin.
That’s a sentiment Craig Segal hears from time to time. The co-founder of Runner’s High, a popular running store based in New Jersey, has completed the 26.2-mile race seven times. His best effort of 2 hours, 25 minutes is upper-echelon material, but every day Segal interacts with runners from all parts of the spectrum.
With the marathon season already underway since the Boston race on April 17, there’s still time to get into shape for the hundreds more that are headed our way this summer and fall. (A list of U.S. marathons can be found at usamarathonlist.com Locally, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon is slated for Oct. 8; the Fox Valley Marathon in St. Charles on Sept. 17; and the Chicagoland Spring Marathon and Rockford Marathon both on May 21, to highlight a few.
Here is his advice for the casual runner, or the non-runner in reasonably fit condition, about tackling the ultimate race.
Training: Get those long runs in
The general training buildup before a marathon lasts 12-16 weeks, depending on person’s experience level. Although Segal might log 100 miles a week during the peak of his buildup, those whose lone goal is to finish the race could top out around 50 miles per week.
The key is a once-a-week “long run” that should be about 20 miles.
“A good barometer beforehand is making sure you can get to that 20-mile mark and be OK,” Segal said.
He recommends mixing up the scenery between parks, trails and the road. It’s well-known that softer surfaces are easier on the knees, ankles and feet.
“The more you can get on that soft stuff, the better off for your overall training, but you’ll want to mix in some road, too,” he said. “The marathon is going to be on the road, so you do want to prep your body for how it might feel when doing 20 miles on the road.”
For beginning marathoners, the pace of training runs doesn’t matter much. It’s mostly about getting the mileage in. As race day approaches, Segal recommends a 10-14 day “taper” — a gradual decrease in mileage to rest the body for the big test. The more novice the runner, the longer the taper should be.
Stretching and sneakers: they matter
“Ultimately, the goal is to stay healthy through the whole thing,” Segal said.
Stretching is key. Five to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching — stretching through active motion — is recommended before runs.
“Especially if you’re running in the morning,” Segal said. “You get out of bed and your muscles are tight; touching your toes might not be the most beneficial thing.”
After runs, Segal will cool down with a couple of minutes of classic stretching (known as static stretching).
As for footwear, “obviously I’m a little biased, but it’s important to go to your locally owned shops and get fitted by an expert.”
By assessing the contours of someone’s feet and watching them walk and run — the biomechanics of the stride — Segal and his colleagues can recommend the optimal fit.
“Generally a shoe should last the person the duration of the [training)] buildup,” Segal said. “If they invest in a second pair to be ready for race day, that’s good, too. Think about a car tire. You don’t want to be driving your car with a flat tire, and on race day you don’t want to be running in a shoe with 500 miles on it.”
Nutrition: no surprises
“The biggest thing we tell people is ‘nothing new on race day,’” Segal said. “Everything you eat that day or the night before, you should have planned out already for weeks.”
Throughout the buildup, if someone takes long runs on Sundays, then each Saturday night they should eat the same thing. Repeat the pattern on the eve of the race.
“The night before you don’t want to eat super heavy: something basic like pasta with chicken and broccoli,” Segal said. “In the morning maybe an English muffin and some Gatorade or electrolyte drink.”
During the race, hydration is obviously critical. Segal also recommends energy gels (known as “goo”) for replenishing burned-away calories. Use them on your long run, and test out what specific product agrees with you most.
The intake timing also is important. The idea is to anticipate the body’s needs by paying attention to such things on those weekly long runs.
“One thing we tell people is, once you feel like you’re hungry [during the race], it’s already too late,” he said. “There’s no way you can consume enough calories to put you back on course.”
For example: If Segal is racing a 10-miler, he won’t eat goo at mile five. But in a marathon, “I’m taking nutrition at mile five, because I know I’ll need it by mile 20.”
Race tactics: Don’t overdo it
“There’s an old saying that the marathon is a 20-mile run and then a 10K race at the end,” Segal said. “That last 10K (6.2 miles) can really make or break a person physically and emotionally.”
For newcomers, the best way to avoid getting broken is to set a conservative, comfortable pace.
“What I try to impress upon people who are doing their first one is, make sure you’re doing it at a pace where you’re going to enjoy it,” Segal said. “You want to cross the finish line with a smile on your face. If you don’t, you’ll never want to do another one.”
Jerry Carino, USA Today Network