How to progress from a half to a full marathon

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Kaitlin asks: I’ve run several half marathons and I’m considering a full marathon, but I’m a little freaked out about the double distance. Do you have any tips for me graduating to the marathon?

The fact that you’re thinking this way about the marathon distance is a great sign that you’re respecting it, which is rule number one. Although it’s the twice as long as a half marathon, the strategy is not too different - you’ll want to give yourself enough time to prepare and choose an appropriate training plan. Here are some tips for progressing successfully to the marathon distance:

Choose your race wisely

Since you’re doubling your race distance, it’s wise to choose a marathon that speaks to you motivationally and one that is more flat than hilly. Both will go a long way in maintaining your motivation and improving your success rate. I chose my hometown (Chicago) for my first because the course was flat and I had a built-in support crew of my family and friends.

Give yourself a runway

Most marathon training programs are 16 to 20 weeks in duration to allow for the build-up in long-run mileage as well as life’s little detours that tend to happen along the way. Marathon training takes more time out of your life, especially at the weekends. It’s wise to make sure you have the time to prepare before you commit. That may mean finding a season in your life that allows more time to train, like the long days of summer for a fall race.

Find a plan for you

There are a million marathon training plans out there, and it’s best to stick with the kind of plan that has worked for you in half-marathon training. That may be a plan that includes three or four runs per week or one that has you running more. The idea is to use a plan with a first week that closely resembles your current training, so you can progress right along with the recipe that has worked for you.

I design first-time marathon plans with three to four runs per week. The longest run is a single 20-miler. And, I weave in low-impact cross-training (cycling, using the elliptical machine), strength training and flexibility work to reduce the risk of burnout and injury.

Run longer

Training for a marathon means getting in longer runs over a longer season. The key to running long is to tune into your body and your effort level and train within the easy, conversational zone. For some, this may mean running slowly, while for others, it may mean using run-walk intervals to keep their overall effort lower.

Run your longer runs on terrain that simulates your marathon course, and just like you would in half-marathon training, gradually increase the distance by one to two miles every other week. I alternate between a longer, building run and a shorter “long” run, so my athletes are only going really long every other week, to allow more time to adapt and recover.

Run more efficiently

One easy way to run longer with less stress - emotional or otherwise - is to consider using a run-walk interval strategy for your long runs. It’s an effective way to break up the distance mentally, and the walk phase allows for a mini-recovery that reduces the overall impact on your body and allows you to run stronger for longer.

Since you’ve been running continuously for half marathons, try a longer interval of 8:1 (running eight minutes and walking one minute continuously). Then, on race day, you can walk a minute at every mile marker. You’ll be amazed at how strong you feel throughout.

Take it slowly

Training for and running a marathon can be daunting mentally. Print off your training log or plan and post it somewhere you can see it. Week by week, check off your workouts and visualise running further along the racecourse. Break up longer runs by running a series of shorter loops in your neighborhood and stashing an aid station along the way to replenish. Or, set your watch alarm to go off every 10 to 15 minutes on long runs and walk and sip fluids. All of these will help you mentally break down the distance and finish it.

Connect

Let’s face it: running for hours on end by yourself can get tedious. Running with a buddy or group is a great way to make time fly by, especially on those longer runs. Find a club or training group in your area or challenge a buddy to join you in your marathon quest. Either way, training alongside someone will help you get through the long runs.

Set your race day expectations

And finally, unless you’re trying to win the race, a good goal for your first marathon is to finish strong. Let go of a time goal and enjoy the experience. This is the first time your body will be covering 26.2 miles, and doing so will be personal record enough!