What I learned while training for my first marathon
I always knew I would run a marathon someday, but never expected that I would train for my first marathon during one of the busiest periods of my life. I guess once you become a parent there never is really a good time to train for a race. But if you dive into it with the right mindset, you’ll be glad that you finally took the plunge. To have the right mentality, you need to set realistic goals, be flexible, listen to your body and mind, and create a training program that works with your lifestyle and already full schedule.
Here is an overview of the training program and workouts that worked for me. I hope this will inspire you to set big (and fun!) running goals in 2022.
After putting off running a marathon for years due to busyness/babies/life/etc, I finally set a goal to run my first 26.2 in honor of turning 40. I selected the NYC Marathon since the race day was just a couple weeks before my birthday. Plus, my bestie and coach extraordinaire, Shalane Flanagan, told me it’s the most iconic marathon in the world (she was right!). I followed Shalane’s 14-week training program that she developed for Rise & Run, but I wasn’t afraid to customize the workouts to suit my needs. Full disclosure, I did not complete most of the speed/track workouts, but I did do all of the Long Runs (more on this below). Shalane’s program is geared towards veteran marathoners with a specific time goal. My main goal, as an injury-prone runner who had not raced since college, was to get to the starting line healthy.
During the 14-week build-up to the NYC Marathon, I launched our 3rd cookbook while also parenting two young kids during covid (which means they were at home with me a lot!). Therefore, my mantra was QUALITY OVER QUANTITY. I never ran more than 5 days per week. I focused on the quality of my runs versus trying to run every day. Parenting during covid is exhausting! You don’t have as many options for playdates or babysitters and I had very limited help outside of school hours. I always run early, so that I can complete my work before the kids come home from school. Luckily for me, cooking is my job, so I was able to keep up with the nutrition demands of marathon training, which is a huge time commitment.
Ready to set a new running goal?
The LONG RUN was the cornerstone of my training. I followed the Long Run build-up schedule exactly as outlined in Shalane’s 14-week Training Program in Rise & Run. My longest run was 20 miles, 4 weeks out from race day. At first I scheduled my Long Runs for Sundays, but once I got into the thick of the program I realized I preferred squeezing them in early on Fridays. It’s exhausting to entertain small children all day after a hard run! By moving my run to Fridays, I could run, eat, stretch, and shower in peace while the kids were at school.
RECOVERY is essential when you’re training for your first marathon at age 40 (or really any age). I found that once my Long Runs got above 10 miles, I actually needed two days to recover before hitting the pavement again. I took the day after every LR completely off and then usually cross-trained the second day (yoga, biking, swimming).GRADUAL BUILD-UP
After the birth of my second baby followed by a year of nursing, it took me awhile to get back into a consistent running program. I’m glad I gave myself plenty of time to get back into running shape before I actually started the 14-week program.
The best advice ever from Shalane, “You gotta get fit to get fit.” Translation: You need a base fitness level before you begin training for a marathon. We dive into this more in Rise & Run. Increasing your mileage too quickly is the fastest way to end up injured. In January (10 months prior to race day), I started consistently running 5 miles 4 days per week—with no more excuses for skipping runs!
I remember texting Shalane about how much it hurt to get back into shape. I felt exhausted after my “long runs” which were no more than 8 miles. I ran lower mileage, but with dedicated consistency for several months. About two months into consistent running, it felt like I suddenly turned a corner and 10-mile runs began to feel really easy. By summer, I was ready for mountain adventures, which gave me an even bigger base before I started the actual marathon training.
I really enjoy mixing up my training to avoid burn-out and injuries. I wasn’t great about sticking to a strength training program, but I did follow the quick and easy at home strength exercises in Rise & Run. I also swam and/or mountain biked once a week. I don’t actually like swimming unless it’s outside, but I did get into the pool for 30 to 40 minutes of laps about 8 times during my 14-week training cycle. Swimming is an amazing cross-training activity for runners.
Hills are my special sauce. I love running up anything steep. I feel most alive when I’m running in the mountains and I’m of that rare breed that enjoys the heavy breathing/burn sensation. Hill workouts give you the most bang for your buck—a serious cardio burn with way less pounding on the ol’ body! After consistent mileage through the winter/spring, I was ready for lots of fun mountain adventures once the snow thawed. Trail running gave me a really healthy base since it works your body in ways different from road running. Thanks to all my hill training, the NYC marathon course felt flat to me—I barely noticed the uphill on the bridges.
I’m a talker and running is my social hour so I like to run at a comfortable pace where I can hold a conversation. When I started the real training, I discovered I’m actually a pretty lazy runner. Post-college, I got used to exclusively running at a comfortable pace. I had forgotten what it feels like to push yourself. Therefore, I’ll admit I skipped most of the speed/track workouts in Shalane’s program, but I did commit to a weekly tempo run at a pace slightly faster than marathon pace. My favorite tempo workout was the following: 2 mile warm-up, 3 mile tempo, rest, 2 mile tempo, rest, 1 mile tempo, rest, 2 mile cool-down, for a total of 10 miles. I did have to work my way up to this winning workout. I also did complete a few of the track sessions (8 x 400 repeats), but not as often as I had hoped.
ACTIVE RECOVERY. On my days off, I’m still active. I walk the dog, ride bikes with the kids, paddle board, mountain bike, do a 15-minute at home yoga routine, or go to a 60-minute yoga class. I believe it’s more important to move your body every day than to run daily.
NUTRITION was my secret weapon to a successful first marathon. More to come on this in a future blog post! I have a lot to say on this topic (excited to share so much go info in my live cooking class this Sunday).
I achieved my biggest goal—no injuries and getting to the starting line healthy. I’m also super proud of my time of 3:32 which was 15 minutes faster than my goal time (I attribute this to a really good race day fueling strategy thanks to Coach Shalane).
But what I’m most proud of is this: I had fun the entire race! I’ve had some truly miserable and painful racing experiences in the past (debilitating side stitches due to major digestion problems in high school and college), so to run 26.2 miles without any issues felt like a HUGE accomplishment.
Ready to set big running goals in 2022?
I hope you’ll read Rise & Run, which is loaded with thoughtful and approachable advice for every level of runner. I’m super grateful for the wisdom shared with us from our team of sports therapists and especially Coach Shalane.
For more marathon advice, check out the following chapters:
Chapter 3: Next-Level Training
Chapter 4: Play On: Mind and Body Resiliency
Read these two chapters and then skip to the muffins!
PS - JOIN ELYSE'S LIVE COOKING CLASS THIS SUNDAY (FEB 27) TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT SHE ATE FOR RECOVERY WHILE MARATHON TRAINING.