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How to run a marathon, according to science

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In the United States, marathons are way, way more popular than ever before. Over the past 40 years, the number of marathon finishers has increased twentyfold, and more than half a million Americans finished one last year.

This explosive increase means that tons of people are running (or trying to run) a marathon for the first time.

For most people, running 26.2 miles is a tall order. But experts — physiologists, sports psychologists, and others who take the products of research and use them to help athletes — have a number of tips that will make this feat as attainable as possible for first-timers, and as fast as possible for experienced runners.

Most of them boil down to one thing. "The really important thing for marathon runners is having a strong plan, which comes through training," says Duncan Simpson, a sports psychologist at Barry University who coaches athletes in addition to conducting research. "Everything — your goal, pacing strategy, nutrition, hydration — should be a very calculated experience." Here's a brief guide to how that advice gets applied to specific areas.

The importance of training


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All the experts I spoke to agree on this: the right training program is the most important thing for finishing with a good time, or simply completing a marathon for the first time. Nothing you do on the day of the race matters if you haven't put in the hours and miles in the months beforehand.

"The training is crucial, and it needs to be specifically targeted to the demands of a marathon," says Paul Laursen, a physiologist at Auckland University of Technology who also trains New Zealand's olympic athletes.

There are all sorts of training programs and plans out there, and different people recommend different ones. Laursen recommends long-distance running sessions intended to enable you to run at a given pace for increasing distances, interspersed with other sessions aimed at improving key physiological properties: your maximum muscle output (often expressed as VO2 max), your overall endurance, and other factors.

This training plan for first-time marathoners, for instance, includes one long-distance endurance-building run per week (starting at 6 miles), one day of cross-training a week, and three shorter-distance, higher-intensity runs.

Regardless of the particular plan you choose, you absolutely need to stick with it throughout the training period. Then, in the week leading up to the actual race, you should taper, doing shorter runs than usual before not running at all for the day or two immediately before it.

Stick to your pace

marathon 1

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After months of training, you should know the pace you're capable of sustaining for 26.2 miles. This is important.

"The first half is going to feel easy, but it's got to feel easy," Simpson says "You've got to make that first half as easy as possible and not get carried away and speed up. You need to have the discipline to do that."

Basically, this means that during the first half of the marathon, each of your mile split times should be equal to (or even a bit slower than) your overall goal. Conserving energy here will leave you enough so that you can hit that goal during the latter half of the race.

For relatively inexperienced runners that might not know exactly how a given pace feels — in terms of running speed — Laursen recommends GPS-enabled watches that tell you exactly how fast you're going.

You don't need to carbo-load


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A number of studies conducted in the 1980s and '90s led to the widespread idea that eating a ton of carbohydrates the night before a race would improve performance. The idea behind this was that carbo-loading would increase levels of glycogen (a molecule that stores energy) inside your muscles, giving you extra fuel to get through a marathon.

But more recent experiments have essentially debunked this idea. Most experts now say that you don't need to eat an especially high amount of carbohydrates right before racing.

Instead, some recommend a relatively high-carb diet throughout the training process. Combined with a tapering off of training in the days leading up to the marathon, that will be enough to increase your muscle glycogen levels to the necessary level for the race.

At the other end of the extreme, though, a few experts actually recommend a low-carbohydrate diet throughout the training period. "You want to be as fat-adapted as possible," Laursen advises. "The more fat you can burn as a fuel, the better off you are."

Still, it's unclear which of these approaches might work better, since there hasn't been a ton of research into the effects of low-carb endurance training yet. The only thing that's clear is that you don't need to eat a ton of pasta the night before you run.

Drink water — but not too much water

marathon water 2

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There's also been a similar sort of reversal when it comes to experts' advice for how much water to drink during a race. Everyone loses a ton of weight via sweat during a marathon, and for years, guidelines said that you should drink enough water so that you don't lose more than 2 percent of your total body weight.

To make sure this would happen, the thinking went, you had to drink before you were thirsty throughout a race. It was also recommended that you weigh yourself before and after training runs to calculate your exact sweat rate and drink accordingly.

But more recent experiments by Laursen and others have shown that all this isn't actually true — and might actually lead to over-drinking, which can slow you down and even make you sick in extreme cases. "You don't have to worry too much about your hydration status," Laursen says. "In general, if you're drinking to thirst, you're probably fulfilling your body's needs."

Obviously, not drinking enough can still lead to dehydration, but the key here is that if you basically just drink when you're thirsty, you'll be fine.

How to prepare your mind for pain

marathon tired

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Marathons hurt. This is true for first-time runners as well as veterans who want to improve their times. Knowing this at the outset, Simpson says, is essential. "You've got to have some acceptance that discomfort and pain will happen," he says.

One of the best ways of dealing with it, he and others recommend, is remembering the fundamental reason you're running the race, whether it's a specific time you want to hit, a charity you're raising money for, or simply a basic desire to finish a marathon for the first time.

"I like to ask clients, 'why are you doing this?,'" Simpson says. "When your legs are cramping 20 miles in, you've got to be able to answer that, because it can help push you forward."

Among sports psychologists, one big question regarding endurance-based events like marathons is what a runner should be doing with his or her mind during the race. Essentially, it comes down to two strategies: one called association (in which you think about your body, your technique, your pace, and other concrete aspects of running) and another called disassociation (in which you essentially zone out and try to think of anything else).

At the moment, it seems like there isn't necessarily one strategy that's better than the other. "There are benefits to both approaches," says Simpson. "For more experienced runners — who know what a particular pace feels like, and know the right amount of pain — it can help to pay attention to what's going on in their body. With less experienced runners, it can help tend to think about anything else to avoid all the pain that's going on."

In other words, if you have a very specific time you want to hit, you really need to be focusing on your body throughout the whole race. If you really just want to finish for the first time, you definitely need to pay a bit of attention to your pace (especially so you don't use up all your energy in the first half), but when things really get tough, just thinking about whatever gets you through the last few miles — whether it's the beer you'll drink that evening or the glory of posting your marathon pictures on Facebook — is totally okay.

How to recover

marathon finish

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There isn't a ton of research when it comes to recovery, but on the whole, experts have one main recommendation for the days and weeks after a marathon: take it easy.

Recovery times can vary widely from person to person — some people can run comfortably again within days — but for most people, it takes two to three weeks. It's often said that recovery times directly correlate with race lengths (i.e. a 26 mile race would require 26 days of restful recovery), but there's not really any truth to this idea.

The key is to give yourself as much time as you need. Your muscles will take time to replenish their stores of glycogen. Once they're no longer sore, it's a sign that they're ready to do work again, and it's best to start with shorter, low-intensity runs and gradually work your way upward.