Surviving the Marathon Training Gauntlet

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The MTG = the dark days of any marathon cycle.

“Just four more weeks and I’ll be on the start line, and I won’t feel this bad!” I said to myself once a minute during every run last week.

But four weeks is a long time and I am so so tired. There are some days, even a week or two stretch during the throes of training that make me want to chuck my trainers into Green Lake and call it a day. This is The Marathon Training Gauntlet, a two to three week period during a marathon training cycle where every run feels like a marathon itself. My coach lovingly refers to it as “a bitch-of-a-three-week stretch.” I just call it hell, and for a fleeting moment I feel like a crazy person who decided to put my body through the ringer just to attempt to run fast.

The Marathon Training Gauntlet typically creeps up during peak training volume weeks, when you’re feeling more tired than usual, and usually after a particularly hard run. The lack of motivation to run when you have a big goal isn’t the easiest topic to broach when your Facebook feed is chockfull of friends posting awesome workouts, running personal bests, and gleefully proclaiming their love of running. Yes, it is great, but during the MTG we are tired. If this sounds like something you can relate to, here are my tips to getting on the other side. 

The Buddy System

When I know I’ll be having a tough few weeks of training, I purposely plan to meet up to run with people more often than I usually would. Why? Easy. I can’t bail on my friends, and good conversation takes the sting out of feeling so tired on my runs.

  • Pro-tip: Meet up with someone else who is marathon training; you’ll have someone to commiserate with, and someone else who understands your insane runger. (Bonus: this will increase the odds they will want to eat pancakes afterwards with you.)
These are my affirmations for my upcoming training cycle. I put them throughout the house in an effort to motivate and believe.
You can write your goals however they’ll motivate you the most.

Write Down Your Goals

If you’ve already written down your goal at the beginning of the segment, do it again. Really. It’s a great reminder of why you’re putting yourself through this, and through the process of revisiting your goals, you become much more mindful about your training. This simple act can work wonders and you’ll be able to see the light at the end of the training tunnel that much easier.

  • Pro-tip: Write your goal on a post-it and place it in a spot you’ll see every day. It’s a tried and true trick to remind yourself why you’re lacing up for every run.

In the words of Tom Haverford, “Treat Yo’ self”

When training for a big goal, it’s easy to tell yourself you’ll do everything right. For most people that means no desserts, drinks, or staying out late, which is great to a certain extent. But I always leave room for some sort of treat after a big workout. Whether I’m craving a huge burrito with all the fixings slathered in sour cream or a bitter IPA or two, I indulge myself. I worked hard for it. I also know a burrito or three is not going to make or break whether I run my goal time. It’s the work I put in for the entire segment that will.

  • Pro-tip: ice cream is delicious.

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It’s Okay to Cry

Don’t let Tom Hanks fool you, there is crying in baseball running. Sometimes, after a particularly hard run, it’s okay to want to cry. And then it’s okay to cry. Working towards a big goal is a physical and emotional investment, and sometimes it doesn’t go according to plan! It’s infuriating. Grieve your bad run and move on, because there’s still a couple more weeks to go!

  • Pro-tip: Perhaps after you wipe away your tears, break out that ice cream or crack open that IPA.

Take an Unplanned Day Off

Are you feeling on the verge of injury or just exceptionally bad? Maybe your achilles is feeling unusually tight? Consider taking the day off. Taking one day off to R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, use compression, and elevate) could be a saving grace later in the segment. A lot of runners fear the dreaded unplanned day off, but if anything is bugging me too much to run through, my coach is usually the first to say, “Take the day off, it’s not a big deal.” And, it’s not. Usually that’ll be enough to heal up whatever was bothering me. Additionally, by taking one (or *gasp* even two) days off from your segment, you could save yourself from weeks off due to injury. It takes a lot more than one or two days to get out of shape, especially if you’ve been training exceptionally hard.

  • Pro-tip: Unplanned days off are also great days to treat yo’self.

Get your Blood Levels Checked

Are you more tired than normal training fatigue? Sometimes low iron is the cause, which can easily be remedied. I know my iron is low when every single run feels like an uphill, hard, and fast long run. Checking your levels sooner rather than later may save your segment and catching it in time will have you feeling back to your old self by race day.

  • Pro-tip: When it comes to getting your iron checked, having a running friendly primary care physician is key. Many doctors are not accustomed to the demands runners put on their bodies and assume any level, even very low in the normal range, is fine and will not treat you. A running-friendly doctor will understand that low levels are not optimal for a competitive runner.

Revisit your Training Plan

If none of the above work, it may be time to sit down with your coach or your training log and consider your options.

  1. Can your goal be altered or modified to still be a success (in your mind)?
  2. Do you still want to race?
  3. Are there life circumstances that are standing in the way of your training and subsequent racing goals?
  4. Is there a remedy for that?

Consider all of these questions, and answer honestly.

If your answers are “1. no 2. no 3. yes 4. no”, it may be time to reconsider your plans. No one is forcing you to run this race (and if they are, send them my way and I’ll straighten them out). Only you know when it’s time to retire the running shoes for a bit, and it’s your choice.

  • Pro-tip: Running should enhance your life, not drag you down. Only you know the right balance between the demands of training and the demands of the rest of your life and if something is off there, there’s no blame to be had in fixing it.

Even if the Marathon Training Gauntlet feels like it’s dragging on forever, it’ll be just a blip on the radar when you look back on your training after you’ve met your goal. Soldier on, and your legs will come around. Come race day, you’ll line up knowing you’ve put in the work and can capitalize on those heavy weeks of training.

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Under normal circumstances, I absolutely love to run and compete. I enjoy training and seeing my progress steadily chug along workout after workout. I get an immense satisfaction from plugging away week after week, month after month to let it all loose on race day. But sometimes even I have trouble getting myself out the door, even if I know I want so badly to race well. This time, rationally, I know this stretch of hard training will end, my taper will mend all matters, and come October 9th in Chicago, it’ll all be worth it to know I’ve done the work. But I must first face the training gauntlet to get there.

Have you ever experienced the Marathon Training Gauntlet? How did you get through it?

I'm running as fast as I can so I can continue to put off law school. I was 39th at the US Olympic Marathon Trials in February, and now am focused on running some road personal bests. Further in the future, I’m looking forward to running a quick fall marathon. I mainly write about the physical and mental aspects of racing at an elite level, trying to navigate the post collegiate running world, and setting aside other life goals for one; running fast.

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11 comments

  1. Thank you–this is exactly what I needed today!

    My first marathon will be Portland on 10/9, and I am SO. BURNT. OUT right now. I kind of think that just knowing that this is a thing and it happens to other people, too, was even more helpful to me than the tips.

    1. Tina, you can do it! The light is at the end of the tunnel. I like to think we’re “doing it right” if we’re all feeling pretty rough right now, haha. That means we’ll actually have a *true* taper. Portland will be a great first marathon- I’m in Seattle and I have a lot of friends who have run Portland and have nothing but good things to say. Good luck, and enjoy it!

  2. Love the tips! Especially the one about the burritos :) I had some tough runs this training cycle, but did not get into the zone where thinking about running made me want to cry because I was so tired. Been there done that, however, in other training cycles and can say that for me when it gets to that point, it’s time to take a few days off and chill out!

    1. Burritos have essentially become their own food group for me this segment. I had a planned day off earlier this week, and I think it saved my sanity!

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Paprika. It’s so hard not to get down on yourself when your motivation wanes, and it’s nice to know that it happens to everyone, even people who train at high levels. I’ve been in kind of a slump for months now (so much so that I’m not training for anything for the first time in two years), and the only thing that has worked has been backing way off and reminding myself that if my running has become a burden instead of making my life better, I need to let go a little bit. Good pro tips too!

    1. Thank you, Zest! Oh yeah, definitely happens to everyone. Unfortunately we don’t always get to see the unmotivated/ unglamorous side of top tier runners, but I know it’s there, ha!

  4. Great article! This could not have come at a better time. This past week I have been so freaking tired. I have run the most miles in my life during this training cycle (60’s-high for me!) and I realize that my energy levels are affected by stress. I passionately put all my energy into one thing when it comes up (music or running)….when both peak at the same time I get exhausted, as has been the case lately. With the stress of performing/auditioning and extensive travel I sometimes find it hard to balance. That is why I am going to tone down my running after the marathon until my energy levels are restored. You are totally right-running should enhance life. When it does not, it is time to take a step back.

    1. I’m so glad to hear it came at a good time, Cayenne. And kudos to you for recognizing you should take a step down/tone it down. Most runners I know would just keep on keepin’ on until an injury, ha! I’ve found when I’ve taken a step back, the running bug and motivation usually creeps back at the appropriate time.

  5. I call this phase “the grind.” It’s more work than play but you still want to be doing it — hopefully — because you know the payoff will be worth it. I think we all have a 2-4 week period of peak training that fits this description. I love these strategies, especially revisting your goals/mantras. My top strategy? Massage. This counts as recovery AND treat-yo-self, and can help fill an unplanned rest day OR be an incentive to wake up early to run so you have the afternoon free! Pro tip: Find a massage therapist who is either an endurance athlete themselves or who knows the lifestyle. Then you can ALSO complain to them. Bonus tip: it might hurt so bad you cry, which might help release some of those pent up emotions described above.

  6. Right there with you my friend – my marathon is October 16. I just ran a half PB as a tune-up race so that is helping with my motivation a bit, but the last couple of weeks before felt very real.

    1. Too funny Jesse- I just did the same thing! I ran a half marathon this past weekend to practice marathon pace. We can do it! We’re so so close. :)