“The crowds were lining the finish corral and the cheering and inspirational signs were everywhere,” says recent Bucknell University graduate Hilary, recalling the first marathon she ran. “As I was approaching the finish line, I remember thinking to myself that the pride and sense of accomplishment of running a marathon isn’t something you feel every day, or really more than a few times in a lifetime, if that!”
Running a full marathon (26.2 miles) or a half marathon (13.1 miles) is a test of mental and physical strength. Running these races can give you unparalleled feelings of accomplishment and pride. But let’s face it – running a marathon can also be incredibly intimidating and scary! What is training and competing in one really like? We talked to real collegiettes who have participated in both full and half marathons to find out their stories, experiences, and struggles. If you’ve ever wanted to run a marathon, read on for these girls’ awesome advice.
Pick a Training Plan
Kathleen, a collegiette from James Madison University, ran five half marathons in high school and one full marathon in college. Her main piece of advice is to “follow some kind of training plan, even if it’s not to a T.” She explains, “it gives you something to guide you towards your end result and that is incredibly helpful when you’re trying to balance other things.”
Kelsey, a marathoner from Boston College, also emphasizes training plans because they “ensure that newer runners don’t over-train,” which can lead to exhaustion and injury.
In order to start training for a half or a full marathon, many collegiettes recommend using Runner’s World or Hal Higdon’s website for training plans for people with different levels of running experience.
Whether you are a beginner or an advanced runner, most half marathon training plans are 12 weeks long, allowing you to slowly build up your stamina each week. Full marathon training plans vary in length depending on your initial running experience, with plans for beginning runners lasting about 30 weeks (a little over 4 months), and plans for advanced runners lasting about 18 weeks.
Add Cross-Training to Your Plan
Cross training, or training in ways other than running to improve your overall athletic performance, helps you to work muscle groups that aren’t usually worked during your runs so that your body can withstand the pressures of the race.
Common cross training activities include cycling, swimming, yoga and weight training.
Kelsey especially recommends weight training to “target any muscles that might be weak…this helps when it comes to post-running soreness and recovery.”
Cross training, in whatever form, can help you avoid injury because it prevents muscle imbalance, which gives your overused running muscles (like hamstrings and calves) time to repair and recover from high-impact running.
In addition to cross training, you can also prevent injury by wearing proper running attire (especially shoes) and running with proper form, so make a trip to a local running store early on in your training to get the right merchandise and advice.
Get Advice From Other Runners
While picking and sticking to a training plan is important, talking to seasoned runners can be equally as helpful for your psychological preparation.
Hilary explains that in addition to following a training plan, she always talked to a friend’s mom who had just run the Boston Marathon. “The training plan was great because it outlined everything I physically needed to do to be ready, but talking to a person about running helps with the psychological and emotional preparation,” she says.
If you don’t know anyone who has run a marathon, running and training books are a great source of advice. Kelsey recommends Kara Goucher’s book “Running for Women.”
Think About Your Diet
Registered Dietitian Heidi Pflugrath recommends that collegiette marathoners focus on getting additional nutrients as a part of their training schedule.
“If you are doing any long distance running, your body will require more food than it usually does,” she says. “Choosing whole grains, eating lots of fruits and vegetables, choosing lean meats, eating plant-based fats and eating fiber-rich foods will help provide your body with the essential vitamins and nutrients it needs to help you get into marathon shape.”
Pflugrath recommends focusing specifically on three nutrient groups while running. “You need to replenish your electrolytes (sodium, potassium, calcium) because they are lost through your sweat during high intensity training,” she says. “Also, ensuring you are consuming enough carbohydrates and proteins is essential. Carbohydrates will provide you with the energy needed to run and protein will help to rebuild your muscles following a hard training run.”
Kelsey chose to visit a nutritionist after her first two half marathons to help her maintain a healthy diet, something which she recommends to fellow runners.
“I was not smart about my diet for my first two races and just kept eating the same way I always had…because I was a vegetarian, I was not getting near enough protein to support my new running lifestyle. I decided to meet with a nutritionist for my next races to make sure I was fueling my body properly. It’s important to take the time to get familiar with how an endurance athlete should be fueling her body.”
Prepare Yourself Mentally for the Race
The collegiette marathoners stress the importance of mental preparation, each using a variety of methods—from killer iTunes playlists, to mantras and meditation—to stay calm, cool, and collected.
Chloe, a marathon runner from American University, uses meditation before races to keep herself grounded. “To help myself stay calm, I meditate regularly during training,” she says. “It’s the best way to stay present in the moment!”
“I primarily use music to keep me mentally sane and motivated,” Kelsey says. She also uses the mantra “Just Believe,” which she repeats to herself when she’s struggling during a run. It really helps when I start to get a defeatist attitude and just want to give up,” she says.
If you rely on music to run, make sure to check out your race’s rules ahead of time because some races don’t let you wear headphones during the race for safety reasons. If that is the case, you’ll want to practice running without music so there are no surprises or setbacks on race day. On that note, make sure to read descriptions of the course and look at course maps before and on race day so that you know exactly what to expect when you get there.
Prepare for the Struggles
Running full and half marathons is motivating and rewarding, but training can often get difficult, especially when you’re also taking classes, holding down an internship, getting homework done, and trying to have a social life. Every collegiette that we talked to struggled with making time for running on top of everything else in their lives, but promised that their effort paid off in the end.
“The hardest part about training while still in school was that I could never find a consistent running time,” says Nicole, a marathoner from New York University. “I couldn’t motivate myself to get up early enough to run before class, and after school and work, going for a run was the last thing I wanted to do. I really had to push myself. I’d remind myself why I signed up to run the marathon in the first place and remember how good it felt when I got a solid run out of the way. It was also hard to have to avoid parties and late nights during the weekends because I knew I had to run 15 miles the next day. My friends tried to be supportive, but mostly, they just thought I was crazy.”
Kathleen found it difficult to find time for long runs in the middle of the winter in Virginia. “The hardest part about training in college was waking up early on Saturdays and Sundays to get my long runs in for the day,” she says. “I have found that if you wait, you won’t do it. So wake up early, put your shoes on and just go.”
Leading up to Race Day
Food & Water
Pflugrath recommends that you begin bolstering your diet two nights before the race with “a good protein dinner.” She explains, “it takes your body longer to digest proteins and complex carbohydrates, so eat a steak (red meat also has the best source of iron for your body to use) or a chicken dinner. This is also the time to start ensuring proper hydration. Drink lots and lots of water – you can never drink too much!”
On the night before your race, she recommends eating something familiar that works with your body. “Eat something you know works for you, and that you’ve tried before a race,” she says.
On the morning of your race, Pflugrath recommends eating simple carbs that will digest quickly and won’t sit in your stomach during the race, like an orange, dried fruit, or energy gels. During the race, consume electrolyte drinks (like Gatorade, or whatever you are used to) offered at hydration stations along with water. This will help your body to replace the electrolytes lost during the race more quickly, and will help give you that extra oomph you need during those last few miles.
“I always joke that the best food I’ve ever eaten was the banana I had during my race at mile 20,” Nicole says. “My body was exhausted and craving real food so badly, the banana was literally heaven.”
After you cross the finish line, make sure to take care of yourself while you celebrate! Pflugrath reminds collegiettes to replenish their bodies’ nutrients after such an exhausting physical experience. “As soon as you feel up to it following your race or training run, eat a protein and carbohydrate combination snack… to provide your body with missing nutrients and to help start muscle recovery,” she says. Some options she recommends: chocolate milk, peanut butter and crackers, a granola bar, apples and nuts.
At the Start Line
The start line is often the most overwhelming part of the race because people are pushing to get ahead, your mind is spinning with doubt, and adrenaline is pumping. Our marathoners recommend letting yourself fall into a natural pace until the crowd disperses.
“On race day it was a bit overwhelming at the start line,” says Elizabeth, a Mt. Holyoke collegiette and marathoner. “There were a lot of people running the half marathon that I ran, so for the first four minutes or so, there was just this huge pack of people trying to fit through the start line! It really thinned out though by the time I finished the first mile.”
It’s also important to remember that things may not go quite as smoothly as you planned on the morning of the race.
Kathleen was almost late to her marathon because of traffic, but ended up laughing about the experience because she was able to take it all in stride. “Always expect the unexpected and breathe,” she says. “I got to the race area 10 minutes before my wave began and had no time to warm up and stretch. But hey, it’s 26 miles! I can warm up along the way right?!”
During the Race
Actually running the half or full marathon can be a blur, but each marathoner has moments that she will never forget about her race.
“I remember that when I first started the race, I was thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” says Mary, a collegiette at St. Ambrose. But she soon became motivated by how long she was able to run without stopping to walk, which became one of the highlights of her race. “I was running with my sister, and I ran 9 miles before I walked for a bit – I never ever thought I would be able to do that!”
“My goal was just to finish the Boston Marathon, so I made sure to enjoy every second of it,” says Kelsey. “Since it is basically the marathon of all marathons, the crowds are amazing… the best part was running through the Boston College area, since I got to see all my friends! The last 5 miles were kind of painful (okay they were REALLY REALLY painful), but my Dad joined in and ran them with me! I’ve never felt as accomplished as I did when I crossed the finish line and was given my medal.”
The Bottom Line
“Don’t immediately assume you can’t run a marathon because you aren’t a runner,” Mary says. “I rarely ran before I decided to do my half marathon… after running through the finish line, I was so proud of what I accomplished!”
Nicole feels that running a marathon can make you a more dedicated and motivated person. “Sure, it sounds clichéd, but when you’ve got hours of running to think and tons of physical obstacles to overcome, running a marathon is an opportunity to push your limits and grow,” she says.
Elizabeth agrees. “Not many women in college can say that they did something that took training, endurance and dedication. It’s a great experience and gets you into great shape. Be proud that you did it no matter what your time is!”
Inspired yet? Yep, me too! To find a marathon in your area, check out the calendars on marathonrunner.com.