Going the distance: should I run a marathon?

It’s about the most common question I get – how can I get to the start line of a marathon uninjured and ready to race? A curiosity of the running technique coaching work I do is the disproportionate number of high achievers that bring their Type A drive to the sport of long distance running. Hiding their running obsession under a well cut suit, coveralls or white coat, their steely determination and sinewy muscles only ever on show during a sneaky lunchtime run and hard-fought weekend competitions.

Not people to do things by halves, these runners look upon a 5 kilometre Park Run as being not far enough to present a meaningful challenge. Inevitably, nearly all the runners I see have completed or want to run a marathon. But is going longer the best way to develop your ability and longevity as a runner?

Running longer doesn’t necessarily make you better

Often the marathon question comes relatively early in the running love affair, charged full of endorphins after knocking off a 10km fun run, the next step is surely to run a marathon? Unfortunately the answer is no. The problem begins with the body’s annoying ability to build cardiovascular fitness much faster that it develops strength in the muscles, tendons and the bones.

I’m not saying having a long term goal to run a marathon isn’t a good thing, but it pays to spend more than six months trying to sprint towards such a difficult achievement. For an early career runner or someone coming off a significant injury break, two years might be a more realistic time frame to work up to a marathon. And even then I’d argue this isn’t time enough to maximize your development as a runner.

Even a runner with a haphazard technique can quickly improve their capacity to run further with a structured running training program. But these early gains can mislead you to the assumption that if I just do more, I’ll continue to get better. You’ll ignore those growing aches and pains as you unkindly subject your body to greater abuses, determining your way through until the body finally breaks.

Don’t underestimate the strength and coordination needed to run well

Unless you want to present miserably at the physiotherapist’s clinic nursing sore shins, knees riddled with ITB syndrome and broken feet, it’s best to attack running from a different angle. If a premature marathoner can be convinced to first develop the strength, coordination and technique to run with a stronger, more durable and ultimately faster style, they will be well placed to make a better fist of marathon training when the time is right. You want the experience to be enjoyable right?

If you run slow enough you can run long enough. It took me a few years to get my head around the concept that running short distances faster was more challenging than plodding a long way slowly. Running faster requires strength and some technical ability. A running program should always include a strength and coordination component because strength training is running technique training.

Give your body time to adapt and learn

The key is to develop fitness in concert with strength and skill, if any of these three factors get out of balance you’re headed for trouble. Unfortunately there’s no quick fix to immediately catapult you to marathon glory, the answer is in gradual progression over months and years. Running is a game of patience and quiet persistence, you can’t rush it. With the exception of those who want to tick a marathon off their bucket list, a good guideline in running performance levels that you should try and reach before you step up training and racing distances is 5 minute kilometre pace.

Can you run 5 kilometres in less than 25 minutes?

This is a great first goal for someone early in their running career or it could be a new target for a runner who feels the need for speed. Once you can run 5km in less than 25 minutes you can try and break 50 minutes for 10km, but accordingly you’ll need to be able to run the 5k in 23 to 24 minutes to crack this next challenge. Ultimately if you want to run the marathon you should try and first complete the half marathon distance in less than 1.45. If one day, as I do, you want to break three hours for the marathon, the capability to run the 5k in the 17-18 minute range is going to be necessary.

The advent of the Park Run movement is a big plus for runners with competitive instincts; free timed 5km runs in many locations in Australia and around the world are a great way to benchmark your progress in a relaxing environment. They’re on weekly, so you can do them regularly as a jog combined with some social running and every four to six weeks really open up the taps and see how fast you can move.

Enjoy running faster with less demanding training

It’s about that time of year when many have abandoned their faux new year’s resolutions and are about to knuckle down and focus in on a few specific goals. Consider making your running ambition a faster, more enjoyable experience before rushing to embrace the slog of marathon training. When you have an achievement oriented mindset, it’s easy to translate that obsessive drive into other facets of your life.

A big goal like the marathon can weigh heavily on your mind and lead you to overdo the training and progress your fitness faster than your body can safely adapt.

When you run for enjoyment and to race shorter distances such as 5 to 10 kilometres, missed days are not a crisis. Rest days sometimes seem like a trial for running compulsives, but denying your addiction is healthy for the mind and body. You want to be hungry and wanting to go on your next run, not begrudgingly hauling yourself out the door because you have to hit a new mileage target. And happily for your friends and significant others, you don’t need to spend three hours of your Sunday running and another freezing in an ice bath trying to sooth angry muscles and tendons into submissive numbness.

Conclusion

Completing a marathon is a worthy achievement, but it doesn’t define your ability and character as a runner or a person. If running is something you love, take the time to smell the roses, running shorter distances with a spring in your step can be a rewarding and ultimately more enjoyable way to run.

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12 Responses to Going the distance: should I run a marathon?

  1. Missy March 21, 2012 at 6:02 am #

    I really like this fresh perspective. As my running form has been improving, I have been toying with the idea of adding a marathon as a goal this year. In the past I have targeted increasing my distance, I think in part to compensate for “not being a fast runner”. I think I will accept your challenge to make running a faster, more enjoyable experience, rather than going for the multiple hours of a Sunday LSD. I know my husband and kids will appreciate it.

    Cheers,
    Missy

    • Brian March 21, 2012 at 8:27 am #

      Hi Missy, great news! Yes take up the challenge, while running for endurance can be satisfying, going a bit quicker is, in my opinion, more fun. If you train for 5k you can cap your Sunday long run at 75-90 mins, depending on how you recover from the rest of the week’s training. More energy for a bit of speedy stuff during the week! Brian

  2. Rob March 20, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    I guess I am one of those type A people. Having retired from football and carrying about 6kg more than I should, i decided to buy a heart rate monitor and start training again. I trained for 15 weeks to do a marathon – having only ever done one 10km fun run 4 years earlier- and completed it in 3:23. I think my key was that I stuck rigidly to my training program. Over the whole training time i missed only one session which was in a mid program rest week. I think the whole idea of training 6 months is what makes the marathon so daunting. I didn’t pay it much thought and just got on with it. I am all for taking baby steps if you are starting from zero running experience but if your history is of a mid range fitness level just have a go. You will also find the shorter fun runs a lot more enjoyable afterwards.

    • Brian March 20, 2012 at 9:51 am #

      Hi Rob, haha yes you are a Type A, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I think given your strong finishing time and comparatively short build up indicates a fair amount of running talent. Part of the idea for this article is to encourage those without great mechanics to spend some time getting stronger and fine tuning their technique before committing to the marathon training. Shorter races and training make it easier to do this. But as your story illustrates it is possible to jump in there and succeed with the long stuff. Brian

  3. seda March 20, 2012 at 12:24 am #

    Hi Brian,

    I’m already convinced to run short races. In fact, after reading your ebook – a book which I believe that every runner must read- this was the first time that I concentrated this much in strength training and finishing some short races with personal best times. And I got the reward yesterday with the happy end of a full marathon. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • Brian March 20, 2012 at 9:43 am #

      Thanks Seda and congratulations on your marathon achievement, getting in done in the heat and humidity up on Thailand is no easy feat. If you can give up the lure of that amazing dragon trophy you won next step is to take on the comparative sprint of the 5k! Brian

  4. charles March 19, 2012 at 8:05 pm #

    Sound advice Brian – another good article. One that should generate much feedback/debate.

    • Brian March 19, 2012 at 8:24 pm #

      Thanks Charles, I appreciate the feedback. I know you’ve mastered the marathon on a number of occasions and understand just what a tough event it can be both in training and on race day. Brian

  5. Jonathan Cahill March 19, 2012 at 9:50 am #

    Should you run a marathon?
    Yes Yes Yes BUT dont under estimate the beast.
    I liken it to eating an Elephant. Just take small bite size chunks and eventually you will get there!
    I remember crossing the line in my first marathon (Melbourne) and it is a very emotional time, one experience that every runner should experience at least once in a life time.
    As the ad says, JUST DO IT!

    • Brian March 19, 2012 at 10:00 am #

      Haha nice one Jonathan, I like the Elephant analogy. I agree the marathon is an emotional quest as much as a physical challenge and definitely not one to be taken lightly. I’m happy for people to have a crack, but it’s good to do so after a good solid long base of consistent, injury free running. I enjoyed your marathon performance at Melbourne 2011 and looking forward to seeing the sub three hour version next! Brian

  6. Kris March 18, 2012 at 10:31 am #

    Thanks, this really put the relationship between the various race distances into better perspective. Every time I tell people I’m training for a half-marathon (my second, in late April) they tell me the marathon is next. But when I race I want to finish on my terms, not just jump to the next distance. So I’m not eager to run a marathon yet when my first half time was 2:07. So thanks for the perspective.

    • Brian March 18, 2012 at 11:04 am #

      G’day Kris, thanks for the feedback. That’s the perfect attitude you’ve got the marathon, taking your time to improve will definitely make it more enjoyable when and if you decide to run. Running a half-marathon is equivalent in time and relative effort for many runners when compared to top marathon competitors, many of whom would never contemplate running a race of four to six hours duration. Brian