The idea of running your first marathon can be exciting, exhilarating, inspiring—and terrifying. As much as you’re psyched to go the distance, if you’ve never done it before, it can be hard to imagine covering 26.2 miles without a car.
When you first start thinking about it, the marathon distance can seem like an impossible goal, says running expert and co-author of “Train Like A Mother,” Sarah Bowen Shea. “But remember, no one is asking you to run that far today,” she says. “It’s something you work towards gradually, over a period of time.”
The main thing marathon newbies should focus on is not the race itself, according to Shea, but their daily training regimen. By taking it step by step—one mile at a time, one workout at a time—the prospect of the actual race will seem less daunting.“
There’s something lovely about having a mini-goal set out every day and putting a checkmark in your workout diary when you complete it,” Shea says. “All along the way to the big goal you’re undertaking smaller goals. It’s so incredibly fulfilling and such a good way to build up your confidence for race day.”
For vital advice on running your first big race—from finding your best training schedule, connecting with a charity you believe in, to getting advice from seasoned runners, read our seven sage tips, below. Each tip serves as a jumping off point to expert running websites that’ll give you deeper dives in each area.
1. Be consistent.
You’ll be better prepared on race day if you stick to a regular training schedule versus doing the occasional long run and nothing more, Shea advises. Besides building the fitness and stamina you need to complete 26.2 miles, consistency gives you numerous opportunities to experiment with pace, hydration, shoes and basically everything else that should be second nature by race day.
Get Started: Find your best training plan and at Cool Running. They offer training tips, a running log and tips on nutrition and gear.
2. Race shorter distances.
When it comes to running a race, practice helps make perfect or at least helps you avoid some obvious missteps, according to Shea. She recommends signing up for several shorter stints like 5ks and 10ks in the weeks leading up to your race to simulate the feel of marathon day. “These can serve as a sort of dress rehearsal,” she explains. “They give you a chance to experience everything from pre-race jitters to lining up at the start to kicking into the finish line.”
Get Started: Find all the races in your area at Running in the USA, an online directoy of races, results and clubs.
3. Consider running for a cause.
Deciding to run a marathon is one thing. Finding the wherewithal to get up every morning to run is another. “Sometimes a little extra incentive like raising money for a charity or dedicating the race in someone’s honor can be just what you need to get fired up,” Shea says. Fortunately, there are tons of “team in training” organizations to choose from. As a bonus, many offer reduced race fees, training groups and coaching.
Get Started: Find a cause you believe in at Run for a Cause. You can search for a charity and build a fundraising page to help promote your cause.
4. Talk to experienced runners.Need to know the best way to pin your number bib onto your shirt or how to handle the pain of hitting the wall at mile 20? Ask a seasoned running vet. Someone who has already done a few marathons has learned what it takes to overcome obstacles that invariably pop up along the way during training and racing, Shea explains. So why not learn from their mistakes?
Get Started: Connect with seasoned marathoners at Let’s Run, an online support community for runners. Find other active and supportive forums at Runner’s World, Running Ahead and Reddit’s Running Sub-Reddit.
5. Listen to your body.
Following a well-thought-out training routine as closely as possible is a wise move. However, Shea says you should know when to respect your own boundaries. “If your knee aches or your body feels really worn out, consider cutting back or taking an extra day off even if it isn’t part of the plan,” Shea says.
Get Started: Before you lace up your training shoes, read these 5 important tips to avoid injury for runners.
6. Study, plan and strategize.
Every race has its own unique personality, whether it’s that hilly stretch between mile five and six or that tricky turnaround point at the halfway mark. “Learn everything you can about the race,” Shea advises. “Read about it, ask runners who’ve run the course in previous years, and do some training runs on parts of the course if possible.” Manage your energy levels and expectations by eliminating any surprises, she suggests.
Get Started: Here’s some information on your day-of-race checklist from Runner’s World.
7. Get it together.
By a week before the big day, all of your miles should be in the bank—meaning, you should be trained and ready to go the full distance. “You can’t make up for lost time a few days before your race,” Shea says. “If you haven’t done the work by then, it’s too late.” Also, don’t leave anything important until the last minute, including choosing your race outfit, getting directions to the starting line and packing your post-race bag. After that, there’s only one thing left to do: Run your heart out.