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Whether you’re a seasoned marathoner or new to the starting line, it’s important to know how to train – and race – in a way that’s safe and healthy for your body. So as you dust off your running shoes and start your countdown to race day, here are some tips about what to expect and how to make it to the finish line safely.


April 2, 2018

You’ve probably heard them before – the marathon horror stories that haunt long-distance runners. From oozing blisters to peeing blood, many runners choose to leave the tough, taxing races, like marathons, to the diehards. But for runners looking for a new challenge, or just looking for a reason to get back on track after a running hiatus, marathons can offer a unique opportunity to push bodies to new limits. And if done right, marathons (and marathon training) are a great way to build confidence, alleviate stress, strengthen the heart, improve endurance, enhance blood supply to the muscles, and so much more.

The reality is, though, that even when we’re operating at peak physical condition and doing everything right, our bodies can really take a beating, whether we’re training for a 5K, a half marathon, or the big “Two-Six-Point-Two.” That’s why it’s so important to really listen to your body and give yourself a little extra TLC in the months of training leading up to your marathon and, even more importantly, on race day. The best way to prepare is to know exactly what to expect every step of the way. So without further ado, here’s a month-by-month breakdown of injuries to look for, training tips and tricks, and self-care pointers as you train for your next big race.

3 Months Until Race Day

It’s official. You’ve paid the fee and held your spot in your first-ever marathon. Now comes the hard part – training. Where to begin? How do you kick off your training, both safely and effectively? Is it even possible to avoid those common beginner’s injuries? And speaking of injuries, what’s normal when just starting out? Never fear, we’re here to help answer those questions and get you up and running (see what we did there?).

a runner stretching his arms behind his head

At the very least, it’s a good idea to start training three months before race day – and even more if this is your first marathon. This gives you ample time to slowly ramp up your mileage – and we mean slowly, people! It can be challenging (thanks, runner’s high!), but running too far, too fast, is a common mistake that can lead to injuries, especially for runners who are just starting to hit the trail, and possibly leave you out of commission for the rest of your training. Shin splints, for example, are a very common running injury among beginners who kick-start their training plan without any build up. Luckily, you can set yourself up for success at the beginning of your training with these tips.

MedExpress Pro Tip: If you’ve never run competitively before, it’s best to start small – with a 5K or half marathon – and work your way up to a full marathon. Training for any race, no matter the length, can be tough on the body, but starting with a more attainable goal in mind can be beneficial for both mental and physical strength.

Listen to Your Body

It’s really important to listen to your body as a beginner, especially during those first few crucial weeks of training when you’re getting used to the repetitive motion of running, which can be tough on new runners. That burning feeling in your legs during a run, for example, is your brain’s way of telling you that you’re working hard. Most of the time, you don’t have to let a dull burn cut your run short – it can actually be beneficial to push through it so that you build up the endurance and strength that you need to run longer. But if pain persists or becomes sharp, take a break and stretch.

Sometimes, though, when your body is telling you to slow down or stop, you really should. Sharp, sudden pain, or pain that doesn’t go away after you stop running, is often a sign that you’re more than just sore. Many beginners, for example, will experience a stress fracture, or tiny cracks in a bone, often caused by repetitive motion and force that comes with running long distances. The pain from stress fractures usually starts slowly and worsens over time, with tenderness around a specific point. A stress fracture can take anywhere from six to eight weeks to heal – so it’s important to talk to a healthcare professional as soon as you notice pain so you can get back on track faster.

Mix It Up

Once you fall in love with running, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. But there is huge benefit, especially for beginners, in mixing up your workout with some cross-training. Give your knees and frequently-used joints a break by trying your hand at swimming, a great no-impact option that builds muscle, increases flexibility, and improves heart health, all while working out different upper-body muscles that might not get as much love during a run.

Playing soccer or tennis is another good way to get that same cardio workout you would from a run, while also adding in side-to-side movement that exercises and strengthens a wide variety of muscle groups. Be careful, though, because these types of activities may put you at higher risk for muscle sprains and strains if you plant your feet wrong or take a misstep.

Don’t Hit the Ground Running

You wouldn’t go into a presentation at work without preparation – so why would you train any differently? Warming up before a run and cooling down afterward are two very important steps to successful and safe marathon training, but they are often overlooked by beginners. Warming up shakes out stiff legs and increases blood flow to important muscles, preparing them for the longer, faster run ahead. Cooling down is equally important, and allows for a more gradual recovery and return to regular, resting heart rate. Any drastic stops or drops in heart rate and blood pressure can be dangerous for runners, so always remember to take a nice, leisurely jog around the block before heading home after your workout.

MedExpress Pro Tip: What does an effective warm up routine look like, you ask? For long runs, walk or jog slowly and gradually for 5 to 10 minutes. For speed workouts, it’s best to jog for up to 20 minutes followed by “dynamic” stretches, like high knees, side lunges, or leg swings that aim to loosen muscles and lubricate joints.

1-2 Months Until Race Day

Congratulations! You’re a couple of months into your marathon training, and you’ve likely already gotten over some major hurdles and many bumps and bruises. You’re probably ready to significantly bump up your mileage and take your training to the next level; but with that comes a greater risk for injury and other health concerns, like dehydration. Here are some important tips to keep in mind as you start to train a little bit harder… and longer.

Don’t Forget to Hydrate

woman filling up a water bottle at an outdoor water fountain

The sooner you learn to do this, the better, because it will benefit you in the long run (another running pun, what can we say). As you begin to run farther in your second and third months of training, you may find it challenging to manage your hydration and fluid intake – because, hey, how are you supposed to hydrate during a run, anyway? As you start increasing your mileage, it’s a good idea to start making it a habit to bring along a water bottle, or invest in a hydration “belt,” which allows you to easily carry fluids while keeping your hands free.

Always make sure you’re properly hydrated before, during, and after your run. Try to drink about 16 ounces of fluid about an hour before you hit the trail. During your run, drink between 5 to 12 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes. Within 15 minutes after your run, start to rehydrate. Rehydrating effectively can be different for everyone, so it’s a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional about how to do so safely. As a general rule of thumb, it can be helpful to weigh yourself before and after you run. Then, you’ll want to drink about 16 to 24 ounces of fluid for every pound of water weight you lost during your workout.

Water is always an important staple for any well-hydrated runner, but for people running longer distances, it may not be enough. That’s because your body requires calories, potassium, and other nutrients to adequately refuel. So as you bump up your mileage during months two and three, consider supplementing some of your water intake with a sports drink. The electrolytes in sports drinks can help keep you energized over a longer period of time, while the sodium helps you rehydrate faster.

MedExpress Pro Tip: Bored of water? Try packing your plate with fruits and veggies! Snacking on strawberries, peaches, spinach, celery and tomatoes throughout the day is a great way to stay hydrated and mix up your hydration routine.

Time to Taper

Many athletes have a love-hate relationship with “tapering,” or reducing the intensity, length, or number of workouts leading up to the big race. And it makes sense – once you hit your goal mileage, it feels like you’ll lose momentum if you back off. Contrary to popular belief, however, starting to taper about three weeks before your race offers a healthy balance between resting up and maintaining the fitness you’ve worked hard for over the last few months. A little extra R&R allows your muscles to recover so that you’re able to run with “fresh” legs when it matters most.

Race Day

people cheering on man as he runs a marathon

You’ve made it. Today is the day. You put in the work and you feel ready – but, still, race day won’t come without its own unique set of challenges. Here are some tips to remember before you hit the starting line – and after you cross the finish.

Chafing, Blisters, Side Cramps, Oh My!

It’s the ugly truth, but no matter how hard you train, you will probably feel a little bit uncomfortable during your run on race day. The good news is that there are steps you can take to be proactive; think about what your body might need at mile 12, and make sure you have it before you head to the starting line.

Chafing and blisters, for example, are common amongst runners, and occur when the repetitive motions of running cause your skin to rub against clothing, socks, or shoes, resulting in painful bubbles, rashes, and cuts. To prevent one of these running woes from popping up mid-race, choose a synthetic, wicking material for your race ensemble. Avoid cotton, which absorbs sweat and stays wet, putting you at risk for uncomfortable chafing. And if you’re prone to foot blisters, try wearing two pairs of socks. This can help give a little extra padding between the fabric of your shoe and the tender skin of your foot. But don’t try wearing anything new on race day! Always run in something you’ve run in before so you know how it feels every step of the way.

And finally, the dreaded side cramp. Most runners know the feeling all too well – the sudden, sharp pain that really puts a damper on the whole “I’m running 26.2 miles” thing. The good news is that there are ways to prevent side cramps before and during your run. Make sure you have a light breakfast that’s low in fiber and fat about an hour before the start, and allow yourself plenty of time to warm up before the race starts. Stretch out any tight or tense muscles so your running form is loose and relaxed.

MedExpress Pro Tip: Try eating a banana about a half hour before your starting time. They’re chock-full of potassium to help replenish lost electrolytes, and magnesium, which can help balance and regulate the liquids in the body during the race.

Bundle Up

Ever wondered why runners wrap themselves in those foil blankets post-race? While they look a little goofy, the blankets actually serve a very important purpose – to prevent body heat from escaping too quickly post-run, which can cause hypothermia. If foil isn’t your color, you’re in luck – you don’t necessarily need a foil blanket to prevent hypothermia. Just bring an extra set of warm clothing – a sweatshirt, long pants – so you can change out of your wet, sweaty clothes after the race.

Seeing Red

Of the horror stories that you’ve heard about marathon running, peeing blood is possibly one of the scariest. And while blood in the urine should never be ignored, it is something that many long-distance runners experience, especially after a race when the body has been pushed to its limits. It’s known as hematuria; dehydration, bladder problems, or blood cell breakdown are likely the most common causes. After you cross the finish line, be on the lookout for blood in the urine – and try not to be too alarmed. When in doubt, talk to a healthcare professional who can help determine severity, cause, treatment, and future prevention.

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