I’ve never understood it. Men and women reach middle age and it hits them. They tell their friends and family, “I’m running a marathon!” Whether it is the need to get in shape or an attempt to prove viability, running 42.195 kilometers (26 miles and 385 yards) has become the standard benchmark. Train for and run a marathon if you wish, just be aware that you’re not necessarily doing your body any favors.
We know two things about running a marathon. A) The ability to participate in a marathon means you’re in shape to jog or walk really far, and b) you are breaking your body down. From mcmilllanrunning.com:
Research indicates that the muscle damage from running a marathon can last up to two weeks. The research also indicates that soreness (or the lack thereof) is not a good indicator of muscular healing. In other words, just because you aren’t sore anymore doesn’t mean that you are fully healed. This is the danger for marathon runners: Post-marathon muscular soreness fades after a few days but submicroscopic damage within the muscle cells remains. If you return to full training too soon–running more and faster than the tissues are ready for–you risk delaying full recovery and the chance to get ready for your next goal.
Ughh. Seeing that it will take two weeks to recover from a marathon should give you pause. It inherently tells us that we’ve done significant damage. What’s the reward? To say, “I did it”? If that is gratifying, by all means, make it happen. There will be a mental cost, however. From the New York Times:
How can you judge recovery except by measuring performance in another exercise bout similar to the one that initiated the fatigue?” Dr. Noakes said. “Since we can’t ask people to run a marathon again, we never really know when full recovery has happened.”
So Dr. Noakes relies on the experience of great runners, who tell him that there is a large psychological component to recovery. Many elite marathoners run only one or two races a year. After a marathon, he said, it “probably takes at least six months for the mind to recover fully.
My dad ran a marathon in his fifties. I don’t recall the race as much as the photograph of him crossing the finish line, knees wrapped in flexible ace bandages. He has always been quite fit, but if I were advising him now, I’d still ask him to look at this logically.
“Dad,” I’d say, “Why not take that 26 miles and spread it out over a few weeks, every other day? You can build in recovery and implement a regular running routine that won’t be nearly as hard on you. Perhaps when you’re done, you decide to knock out ten miles a week on a going forward basis. You can derive the true lifestyle benefits without the damage.”
Look, I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m just suggesting a deep examination of your personal motivating factors. If sustainable invigoration is your net result, go for it. If it is to get in shape, I recommend a more efficient method like consistent exercise of any kind in moderation over time. Marathon training isn’t it. From runnersworld.com:
after the marathon–as most of us run it–we’re essentially injured, often sick, and require a month before we return to the level we were at before we started the training program. Add to that the two-to three-week taper, and we’ve taken a big step back on any long-term progression goals. Given this, many frequent marathoners never progress, simply ramping up to finish their next 26.2, then returning to the same base.
In fact, if you’re looking to reap the numerous benefits of exercise and better fitness, you might be better off searching in a different direction. From Mike Gleeson, professor of exercise biochemistry:
In periods following prolonged strenuous exercise, the likelihood of an individual becoming ill actually increases. In the weeks following a marathon, studies have reported a 2-6 fold increase in the risk of developing an upper respiratory infection
I’d prefer to spend those months under the weight bar instead of sick under the covers. As always, you should make the decision that is best for you. Don’t be bound by some arbitrary number.
I’ll see you at the finish line,
Often lost in the discussion of marathons is the legend that the original Marathon runner (Pheidippides, who ran from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of victory in war) died shortly after completing his journey. To those who do them, kudos to you for your dedication – just be careful!
Gabe Kapler says
Thanks, Dan. Appreciate you stopping by.
Kap, everyone is different and waking up one morning in your 40’s and 50’s and saying, “I’m going to run a marathon” isn’t the smartest way to do it. Most of the elites spent years running shorter distances building up to the marathon distance. To do it right and build and protect your body, you also have to mix in strength training and “pre-hab” work on not only those muscles that are going to take the brunt of the activity but your entire body. This will give your body support and overall better posture for running. I didn’t run my first marathon until 30, after years of shorter distances and competitive cycling. Sixteen years and 14 marathons later, I’m running faster than ever and feel stronger and fitter than ever. It takes work – both running and overall fitness and strength training. Also moderation. I’ve never run more than two marathons a year and now I will only run one a year or none (this year) if it doesn’t fit into the schedule. The running craze is huge but I think most people go into it recklessly without being armed with the knowledge of what needs to be done to the body over many years to build up to that distance. It’s like waking up one day and saying, “hey, I’m going vegan” something I’d never recommend especially for a distance runner. Great post and people need to know the drawbacks of building up too quickly because if you do, the reward of finishing can come with dire consequences. Keep on runnin’!
This is why I’ve always preferred the half-marathon. The need to be vigilant about working out is still there, but I can still run/workout after. I usually give myself a couple of days to recover and don’t necessarily workout quite as hard the next couple of weeks, but I’m not beaten down. The wear and tear isn’t really there as long as I’ve been cross-training properly and not just focusing on logging miles to prepare.
Ryan Briggs says
I have cut down my distances from 5-6 miles every other day to your sprints and short runs 2-3 miles. I’ve never felt better and just hit THE BIG 4-0 . I have more time and energy to throw BP and hit fungos to my 2 boys. My 10 year old daughter is loving your running ideas as well ,we’ve modified it for her age and her Hoops game is growing! Big Thanks and phenomimal job pre and post game commentary at the World Series !
Kap what do u think of Himalayan salt? Is it a fad? Can’t remember if it’s been blogged yet
Gabe Kapler says
Like that topic, Colt. Look for a post.
Prayer answered. Have been giving a full marathon a lot of thought lately. Last year finished a half marathon and was thoroughly disappointed at the time off required post race for recovery. Recently I felt like I was ready to make the jump, and finish a full marathon next Spring,but was having doubts due to progress made under the weight bar on the 5×5 Kap lifting program.
This couldn’t have come at a better time, and I will be sticking to the hour a day gym sessions I enjoy so much, and skip the weekend sucking, 2-3 hour training runs.
Thanks as always, Kap.
Quick story; a buddy ran the S.D. Rock & Roll marathon. He was at the time interested in experimenting with his body’s limits. Post-race he ate only a banana; the next day he ate only a banana — just to build toughness in his mind and body. Crazed.
Kelly Morken says
Being a marathoner, I would have to say it certainly involves a lot more than “walking for a really long way.” And though you’ve pulled two quotes from quasi-reputable sources, which may or may not have studies backing them, I must disagree with the statements which say running makes you sick or mentally weak. I would have to argue just the opposite! But there would be no point in me pulling off a number of different quotes from all the same sources arguing these points.
You said it right in this article when you stated “I don’t understand…” and “I’d prefer to…”. That is the great thing about exercise – we get to chose what makes us healthy and happy – and as you said choosing the best decision for YOU. I like to lift; however, it does not provide me the same stress relief and accomplished feeling that endurance running (not fast walking…actual running) does. I agree, it’s certainly not for everyone, nor is lifting an hour a day. But as long as people are moving their bodies, then I say, “Nice work!” Compete with yourself, do what you love, help make people better no matter what venue they choose to pursue their fitness goals in.
I’ve often heard that you shouldn’t expect to train hard for the same number of days as miles you ran in the race – i.e. 26 days after a marathon. I’m making a completely uneducated guess that the suggestion is very conservative, but the 2 week minimum didn’t surprise me at all. I don’t think marathoners particularly become couch potatoes, as I see most of the ones I know engage in active rest type of exercise, which seems to help them recover faster. #notamarathonrunner #barelyajogger. =)
Great post, Kap. After a few years of college football, I got into the running craze, as I thought it would help me lose that lineman weight. The lbs came off and the miles piled on, so I signed up for that inevitable marathon. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. It wasn’t the race or distance that was the issue, it was the preparation, or lack thereof on my part. I wasn’t in tune with my nutrition, my hydration, or my emotional and social stresses and I didn’t do enough training to get ready.
That all being said, I have now, with support from this site and many other resources, gotten those aspects of my wellness in check. I know my body; I know when to take a step back and acknowledge the signs my body shows me when I don’t eat right or get enough sleep. My goal after completing the marathon was to complete the 2015 Ironman Triathlon. I am fully registered and am taking on the mental preparation for the journey. It will take countless hours of runs, bikes, and swims, along with recovery practices, but I feel I am more in tune as an athlete than ever before in my life. A systematic approach and a strong support of nutrition and wellness practices are the only way I will have a successful race. As I said before, this is a goal I set for myself. My dream is to be a healthy and happy, long-living individual; goals are stepping stones to dreams, not the final destination. I checked my ego at the door, I won’t be looking back.
Kyle G. says
Cardio kills your gains (and your body as evident in this post)… Stick to sprints and lifting!
Very timely post! My softball team has a lot of distance runners on it. Several have run Boston, and one who puts everyone to shame runs 50 and 100 mile races, and wins on occasion. One of our youngest members finally did his first, then played a game 3 days later. He couldn’t even begin to chase down routine fly balls, and needed a courtesy runner when he got a hit. My longest was a 30k, and quite frankly I just got really bored! Stick to 5 and 10k’s now.
Kevin McNeil says
Just wondered if you are still thinking of doing the Ironman?
I prefer 26.3, as the extra .1 gives me my mental edge
If there was a “like” button I would hit it now… Hilarious.
A VP I work for recently asked me if I’d be joining him for a 5am run. I asked him if there was someone chasing us???
It all depends how you train and eat and hydrate, I guess. I ran a half-marathon last fall and cramped up really, really badly. I decided to try a full marathon (San Francisco) this summer and it was a completely different story. Felt great the whole way, ate a burrito afterwards, and was walking around the city that afternoon.
It’s certainly not the most efficient way to lose weight, but it’s a big goal and having goals is what keeps us on track.
Started running a few years ago when a friend from college asked me to run the a half marathon with him. Love the stress relieving elements of getting out on the road/trail. While it does break down your body considerably(just got done with my second marathon a couple weeks ago and still feeling it) I don’t know that I’ll be able to stop. Like you’ve said before, do the workout that you’ll continually do and enjoy. Love the blog, especially the nutrition info that you share.
Winona Farms Plants says
Your topic on running marathons is interesting to me. I just ran one a week ago in the Tri-Cities
in Wa. I think it was my 9th or 10th one, so I’m not just a dude that felt like he needed to accomplish
something. I love running, and a marathon is one way that love gets expressed.
I whole-heartedly agree that running a marathon is terribly expensive to the body. I’m giving myself
a couple weeks to rest and recover, both mentally and physically. And when I start to run again, I won’t be doing any crazy high-intensity workouts for a while after that either.
The allure of the marathon is much more mental than physical for me. The one last week was the
toughest one I’ve ran to date. I had a goal for a sub-3 hour time. I trained diligently for 18 weeks, feeling myself running stronger than I ever have. My goal – one I’ve had for 13 years – was clearly in grasp. I get emotional just thinking about making that time.
Fast forward to 7am on race day. A wind storm had started the night before, and was still strongly in place. For the last 10 miles of the race, I had to go directly into a 15-20 mph sustained wind. It was brutal. Physically, I could only go as fast as my training allowed me. Instead of 6:45 miles, I was at 7:30+. And that’s when the mental games began.
Normal rigors of a marathon are one thing. Driving oneself into headwind after 16 miles of running is oppressive. Taken with the fact that my sub 3 hour goal was out the window, it was everything I could do just to finish, to keep my mind from checking out. But therein lies what the marathon is for me. I was at my lowest as I began to churn into the wind. It was a challenge to me and my mind. How
mentally strong was I? Who was I going to be in this moment?
These were questions I continued to answer for the last hour. Blisters on my feet, muscle tightness, and the onset of cramps were all there. But it was that damn wind, never giving an inch. Just tantalizing my mind to give in. That it wasn’t my day. “Just start walking, it will be easier!”
I saw my wife near the finish line. I began to tear up, realizing that this race was nearly, mercifully, over. I had somehow bent myself towards completing this race to the best of my ability, even while most everything that could have prevented me from it was placed in front front of me like obstacles. I crossed the line at 3:08 and immediately broke into tears. From the sense of accomplishment, but also the culmination of 18 weeks of hard work and discipline. I had once again missed my goal, and it hurt like hell.
Then, the race director came over and got me up off the ground, onto a training table to get stretched out. A wonderfully cheery man, and he began to lift my spirits. I slowly began to process the race, what had happened, and put it into perspective. I found out the winner had come in at 2:56. That’s a really slow time for first place. Then, I saw that he was the only one that finished under 3 hours. The wind added 10-12 minutes to my time. Knowing that, I actually felt a sense of accomplishment that I kicked
that race’s ass, rather than the inverse (though, it sure felt like the inverse.)
The next day brought even brighter news for me. I found out that I actually finished 5th overall and 1st in my age division. It absolutely blew me away. I never dreamed that I would ever finish as high as 5th in a marathon. Instead of feeling down and broken, I was uplifted! Instead of thinking that the 3
hour mark was a barrier, it was now too small. Why focus on 3 hours? I can run this damn race in 2:50!
In that moment, those 18 weeks of training became fulfilled. All the times I had to re-work schedules, run at night and early morning to get my training in, The sprints that pushed my limits, the tempo runs that drained me. They all were worth it. The mornings I didn’t want to get up. The days when it was raining and I didn’t want to step outside. But I did. Suffering through runs on little sleep and after long work days. Facing that monster in my head telling me to not do it, and still keeping on with my word
and discipline to the plan. I won that 18 week, 26.2 mile mental battle and the reward was 5th overall in a marathon.
That is what the marathon is to me. It’s as close as I’ll get to a World Series win after enduring spring training, regular season, and the playoffs before finally raising arms in victory. I will always savor and long for that feeling.