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,