[Srdjan here (hi!). Today I have a very cool guest post from my good friend Jeff Sanders – a raw vegan marathon runner with killer marathon track record. Since I’ve been getting a lot of requests from readers on how to train for a marathon, I decided to ask Jeff – the marathon expert – to share his knowledge and experience on the subject. If you’re a marathoner or you’re just looking to get into the game, you’ll find this post very useful. Take it away Jeff!]
Marathons are crazy hard. It doesn’t matter how much experience you have or how “in-shape” you are – running 26.2 miles is tough.
In the last five years I have run 12 full marathons, 3 ultramarathons, two, 200-mile team relay races, and around 20 half-marathons. After each race my conclusion has always been the same: I should have prepared better. I should have trained more.
I don’t mean to shed a negative light on marathon running. I LOVE running and marathons are the ultimate test of my passion, training, and physical fitness.
However, as any marathoner can attest, the physical toll on your body is nothing shy of a full-on car accident. The effects of a marathon on your body are immense and unforgettable.
The funny part is that’s also the most addictive aspect of running. Feeling like you just got hit by a train is what draws runners back again and again.
Today I’ll give you a bit of insight into what it takes to prepare your body and mind for a marathon.
You’re Going to Get Beat Up
If you are new to running, or if you are considering your first marathon, you might be curious as to what you’re getting yourself into.
One study from the Journal of Neurological Science concluded that “both the intensive training for, and the marathon itself, induce inflammation and muscle fiber necrosis that significantly impaired muscle power and durability for up to 14 days post marathon.”
In other words, it may take a full two weeks to rebuild your muscles and your strength.
There are also many studies that point to a relatively recent debate about whether or not extreme endurance sports like marathons cause damage to your heart.
Most researchers conclude that running is tough on the body, but the debate rages on as to whether marathon running is necessarily harmful.
Depending on who you talk to, there are many examples of healthy people having heart attacks as well as chain-smokers living to 100.
However, at the end of the day, being fit is better than being fat.
So, assuming you are on-board with running this crazy 26.2-mile race, what will it take to physically prepare your body to withstand the inevitable?
As I first mentioned, the most-obvious conclusion I draw from every race is that I should have prepared for the long run more intelligently.
The Boston Globe reported that runners who don’t train well are essentially doomed.
What they meant to say was that runners who prepared well had the best chance for a great race with minimal recovery time and optimal results.
The study they analyzed concluded that marathoners who ran at least 45 miles per week, for many weeks leading up to the marathon, had the best chance of success.
Any runner who ran less than 35 miles per week was likely to have poor results and an extensive recovery period.
From my own personal experience I can verify that this is spot on. The more you run, the better. You will have to put in the miles, every week, without fail. The more you run over the long-term, the better you will be.
The difference between the great runners at any race and the amateurs always comes down to miles. The experts run a lot and the amateurs try to wing it on race day.
The 10-Mile Flop
A few years ago I was running the Country Music ½ Marathon (13.1 miles) in Nashville, Tennessee, where I live. This was not my first ½ marathon, but I wasn’t in peak condition.
On the day of the race it was hot. I was feeling a bit unprepared and I wasn’t sure if I would meet my goal time.
At the 10-mile mark I noticed an ambulance and a runner who had passed out on the side of the road. Then, another runner fell over, and another. Runners were passing out everywhere.
In the confusion I started paying attention to the runners around me. I was surrounded by beginners. The elite athletes had already crossed the finish line and I was running with newbies.
Because of my slower pace that day I was running with thousands of first-timers. They were new to the ½ marathon and obviously unprepared for the heat and the distance.
This is what happens when runners think they have what it takes without putting in the proper amount of training.
To their credit, it was a hot day. However, I have never forgotten that scene and it is a clear reminder to me that I need to be physically prepared for every race.
If you have trained well, the first 15-20 miles of a marathon are relatively easy. It’s the final stretch that will push you harder than anything you have ever done before.
I like to think of it like this: the first 3 hours (or 20 miles) is all in my legs, while the last hour (6 miles) is all in my head.
An average runner can get by on energy gels, bananas, and Gatorade for a while, but not forever. The physical challenge will eventually be too tough and the only thing you will have left is your determination and mental fortitude.
The question is, how can you fully prepare your mind for a marathon?
Here’s the secret: your mind is infinitely stronger than your body.
You have more resources between your ears than you ever will in your legs. When you fully embrace this reality, you are unstoppable.
There is a 100-mile mountain ultramarathon in Leadville, Colorado that is easily one of the hardest footraces in the world.
The Leadville race slogan perfectly exemplifies this point: “You are stronger than you think you are. You can do more than you think you can.”
Though I have not yet run the Leadville race, I think about that slogan every time I feel like giving up. It’s the perfect reminder that I have more in me than I realize.
The best method for building mental toughness is following the physical preparation model: just run more. Over time, run more and more and more.
The more you run, the better you will be.
You have probably heard of “carbo-loading” as the best pre-race meal. Honestly, I’m not a fan of that strategy, but either way, one meal doesn’t really make the difference.
Preparing for a marathon with your diet starts much earlier than the night before a long run.
I eat a predominately low-fat, raw vegan diet. What that means is that I eat a lot of uncooked fruits and veggies. I don’t have protein shakes and I don’t chug down large quantities of supplements.
I prefer to get my nutrition through the best mother nature has to offer.
Does this strategy work? Yes.
In fact, besides running dozens of miles per week, my diet is the most important part of my pre-marathon strategy.
Marathons are all about slow, consistent energy maintenance. As opposed to a 100-meter sprint where a jolt of caffeine could make a huge difference, marathons require consistent energy over a long period of time.
Throughout your training and in preparation for your big race, eat as many raw fruits and veggies as possible. You don’t have to cut anything out of your diet that you currently eat – just focus on adding in as many healthy foods as possible.
Fruit smoothies are perfect. I tend to eat significantly more bananas than the average person, and that has made a big difference.
Whatever you decide to eat, make sure you train with the same food you will eat on race day.
Rest and Recuperation
During training, rest is important but there is one strategy here that will make the biggest difference – sleep.
Your body will rebuild tired muscles when you’re sleeping – not resting. This is an important distinction.
Many people believe that if they take a few days off between workouts that their muscles are resting. Acually, your body recovers best during many hours of sleep, not just lying on the couch watching TV.
Most importantly, the night before the race is when you need lots of sleep.
If you want to excel during the race, especially after running for 4 hours or more, then try to sleep for 8-10 hours the night before.
This same practice is critical after the marathon as well. In order to recovery properly from race day, sleep as much as you can for the next two weeks.
Building a Better Body Through Marathons
Take a look at this photo of Michael Arnstein. He is a highly-successful raw vegan ultramarathon runner. Two years ago he finished the Leadville 100-mile ultramarathon and then two days later he won a marathon.
His success is remarkable, but the body he built while doing it is even more incredible.
There is hardly an ounce of fat on him and his strength is impressive. What might also be a little surprising is that Michael doesn’t lift weights. He just runs.
His training schedule is one of the most intense I’ve ever seen (around 150-200 miles per week), but he is a shining example of what running can do to build a sleek, strong, and sexy body.
I will also note that marathons are not necessarily an ideal solution to a perfect body. Running will certainly burn calories, but it won’t build huge muscles.
If you want to have a stunning six-pack or big biceps, you will likely have to maintain a disciplined low-fat diet and do other exercises as well. Srdjan’s focus on the kettlebell is certainly a great choice!
Mike Arnstein is not an exception to the rule, but most people don’t have time for 200-miles per week. Keep that in mind as you work towards your first marathon and a better body.
Before your next big race, or your first one, remember to keep these pointers in mind:
- Run at least 45 miles per week for multiple weeks before race day (if you’re a beginner, you’ll want to work your way up to this),
- Eat healthy fruits and veggies starting now,
- Increase your amount of sleep for recovery,
- Mentally embrace the challenge and stay focused on slow, consistent progress over time.
If you have any questions about marathon training or preparation, feel free to leave a comment below!
[Srdjan’s notes: I’d just like to send a big thank you to Jeff for putting this post together for Bloom to Fit. I think there are a lot of gold nuggets in there for people either preparing for a marathon or looking to give it a try. Personally, I’m not a fan of running (especially long distances) and I have zero experience with training for marathons. I have, however, read the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (which talks a lot about the Leadville race Jeff mentions). It’s an excellent read for anyone interesting in marathons (and ultramarathons) or anyone who loves to run. Again, you can find Jeff at JeffSanders.com or your can check out his podcast, The 5 AM Miracle Podcast, on iTunes.]