Readers Roundtable: What You Wish You’d Known Before Your First Marathon

Reading up on LydiardMarathoning: on the one hand, it’s so simple. Just put one foot in front of the other for several hours until it’s time to stop.

On the other hand, it can seem really, really complicated, even from the moment of registration! Is there a lottery? Do you need a qualifying time? Can you even afford the registration fee? Assuming you figure all that out, it’s time to train. Which of the 4,000 training plans out there will you use? Should you opt for high mileage or run less, run faster? How long is a long run? How will you ever learn to choke down the glutinous, saccharin globs of gel that are supposed to fuel the whole endeavor? And is it even possible to finish without those supersonic $250 Nike shoes?

In other words, marathon training is full of questions. Way more questions than answers, in my experience. As I train for my first marathon (Berlin in September 2020), I would love to figure out which questions are important and which are just more noise, marketing, or other extraneous crap. I wonder, once I cross the finish line, what information will I be grateful someone told me, and what will I think was a useless waste of time?

(Alert readers may be wondering why Caraway training for Berlin sounds somehow familiar. It’s because I trained for it in 2016, but ended up injured and couldn’t run. This time will be different!)

Since I know that Salty Running readers run a lot of marathons, I’m turning to you as marathon training gurus. For today’s roundtable, tell us:

What is the number one thing you wish you’d known before you ran your first marathon? What was the most useless advice you got?

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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  1. Ooooo, awesome question! I am going to sneak in two pieces of advice, both of which come from the good friend who got me into running in the first place.

    1. Strength train as part of marathon training. Note – I did not really do this the first time around. I cramped up at mile 9. It was a *very* long remaining 17 miles or so. Strength training might be less critical for the athletically-inclined, but for my historically couch-potato self, it is critical.

    2. If you are unhappy during the first half of the race, you need to change something until you are happy. That should be the happiest 13.1 miles of your life. So true! I had a full-on panic attack on the starting line of my first marathon. I thought I would be the kind of runner who chatted it up mid-race – after all, I am really social in training. Nope. I actually walked at MILE ONE because things were so bad that I knew I needed to “fix something”. For me, putting on music and remembering to focus on the people to whom I was dedicating each mile did the trick, but I always remember her advice. In the first half, do what it takes to stay happy.

    I hope you have an amazing training cycle and race!

    1. Thank you for all of this!! I am trying to remember to strength train…and I will definitely remember that second part during the race. I love that.

  2. I second the suggestion to strength train! My advice is to have a very clear reunion plan with your friends and family. Since no one memorizes phone numbers any more, have the important #s written on the back of your bib in case you can’t find them. It also helps to wear something distinctive during the race (neon >> white) so they can spot you from afar.

    1. Ohhhh good one. My first full was a total disaster (I didn’t strength train, for one thing ;-)) and between music and the GPS, my battery would have died before I finished. I ended up swapping phones with my MIL so I would be able to connect with the people I needed to.

  3. For me personally, nothing matters more than volume (mileage). I used to think that knocking out killer workouts was the best route to a PR, but it turns out higher mileage was actually the ticket.

    On race day, celebrate your fitness and enjoy!

    1. I also have two bits of advice, if you’ll allow it:

      1. No, you absolutely cannot run a full marathon on sports drink alone, you’re going to need some more calories (I *really* didn’t know what I was doing for my first marathon). Part two to that, the calories your stomach can tolerate at mile 13 may not be tolerable at mile 23. Unfortunately, there’s only one way to learn this part, good ol’ trial and error.

      2. If you’ve got a niggle, some little thing bothering you, step back for a day or two and get a massage (or whatever you do for niggles). You’ll be back at it quicker and less likely to DNS for the full blown injury version of the niggle.

      Good luck with your training!

      1. Of course we’ll allow it! More than that, we’ll absolutely welcome it. Thank you! Totally agree about niggles. And not looking forward to figuring out the nutrition bit, but I know it has to be done :/

  4. 1. +1 for strength training! DIdn’t do it the first time, am doing it now, and my workouts are much better.

    2. This time around, I am trying to practice concentration on my long runs. The first time I would loll along listening to podcasts and just try to get through. Now I am going music/podcast free for a few miles, then listening to my pump up race day mix, practicing race pace miles later in the run, and really tuning into my body at different points along the run. We’ll find out in a few months how this translates to the race but I am feeling better and more present in this training cycle.