How Not to Train for a Marathon

Highway sign - Learning from mistakes

Last summer I set out to train for my first marathon. With great exuberance I devoured article after article, resource after resource and poured over every first-person narrative I could find. Perhaps clouded by a fog of overconfidence, I soon realized that I had skimmed over some of the most important take aways. My recklessness set in motion a series of mistakes that led me down a primrose path.

Before I knew it, a MRI revealed two classic overuse injuries, a severely inflamed IT band, as well as a medial tibial stress reaction. To put it diplomatically, I was humbled. Expressed more candidly, I felt a tornadic swirl of anger, frustration and self-pity. Over the course of the subsequent year, the emotional winds eventually dissipated giving way to a calming air of clarity.

As I again embark on a marathon training journey, I’m reminded of the expression, “Mistakes repeat until we learn.” Since last year’s effort I’ve worked to catalog my compounding training mistakes to avoid a repeat outcome. In retrospect, these embarrassingly basic errors can provide a lesson in how not to train for a marathon:

1. Choose your own training plan adventure. When I sat down to map my marathon journey I reviewed a number of plans, and began to merge bits and pieces of several into a single “master plan.” By not appreciating that each, on their own, had been developed to deliberately and safely increase both weekly milage and the long run distances, I had stripped out any sense of a “plan.” What was left was nothing more than a spreadsheet filled with a haphazard collection of dates and numbers. By choosing my own training plan adventure, I had unknowingly sealed my fate before I started. The end result was certainly a road map, but with “Knee Injury City” as its final destination.

2. Only the New York Yankees need a base. As a new runner, my training approach was anything but thoughtful. I’d sign up for a race, and during the weeks leading up to that race my sole focus would be on ensuring I could successfully cover the distance. Thus, my weekly milage ebbed dramatically; I didn’t understand what it meant to develop a “base.” The low to moderate milage routine may have allowed me to get to the start line of 10K, 15K or half marathon without incident, but it was doing me no long-term favors. Since my body had not truly adapted to a consistent running regimen, I was particularly susceptible to the errors of my marathon training ways.

3. Early and often 20-milers! Overeager to prove my endurance, I signed up for some long training runs well before I should have. Like one of those warning tags that accompanies a new mattress, I completely ignored the fine print that advised one should only complete the long run milage in accordance with their training plan. In preparing for an October marathon, I had no business finishing either of two 20-mile training runs in July and August.

3. Be consistently inconsistent. Marathon training requires dedication and time. For various reasons, adherence to my “plan,” as poorly developed as it was, became consistently inconsistent. Rather than adjust the mileage after weeks of falling far short of the amount proscribed, I would again pick back up- albeit inconsistently. Sure, any marathon training program is intended to serve as a guide, but mileage should progress smoothly and not rival the track of a roller coaster.

4. Knee pain? Consult Google MD. When injury struck and I found myself unable to run farther than a few miles before debilitating knee pain set in, I scoured the web for answers. I’d take a week off, and set out again the following weekend. With the pain persisting, it was only after several weeks and the exhaustion of every quick-fix solution I could find that I finally made an appointment to see a sports medicine professional. The delay in seeking a proper diagnosis and treatment meant that by the time I was able to resume running, completing a fall marathon would have to wait until the following year.

5. A foam what? Until my overuse injury, I had never heard of a foam roller. Whether for rehab or prehab, this ridiculously low-tech miracle muscle device ought to accompany every marathon training regimen. I can’t help but wonder whether a roller might have balanced out my inherent mistakes during my failed training effort.

As I once again prepare to complete my first marathon, I am reminded that before one can cross the finish line, they must first make it to the start healthy. My 2013 marathon hopes may have been short-lived, but I believe the resulting lessons have made me a better, smarter runner. Come the morning of November 2, the reverberations of the cannon will not only signal the start of the New York City Marathon, but will serve as the sweet sound of redemption.


4 thoughts on “How Not to Train for a Marathon

  1. Great advice! The only reason I think you should “create your own training plan” is when you seek the experience of a coach or trainer who knows you and your limitations. Otherwise, I agree completely…follow the plans of people who have tested it and made it tried and true!

  2. Pingback: 2014 Fitness Goals Check-in | Miles by Riles

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