Learn from my mistakes: How NOT to train for a marathon

My senior year of college, I organized a running clinic as a fundraiser for our school team. The speakers included a number of professional runners giving talks about training, racing advice, etc. Hearing them talk about their running got me FIRED UP!


Feeling inspired, I set out to start training for my first marathon.


I picked a race, laid out a training plan, and ran more than I ever had before. Five months later I found myself 22 miles into a marathon (a totally different marathon than I planned on running — we’ll get to that) with my calves cramping as I passed my friends who came out to cheer me on. “You look terrible!” one of them yelled. I can only imagine.


So what went wrong?


Well, let’s hit some of the big mistakes I made along the way in the hopes that you can avoid them yourself.



Mistake #1 — Started training too soon


When I decided to train for a marathon, I didn’t really know what I was doing (but at 22 I was sure I could figure it out). I had heard that it was good to train for 26 weeks for your first marathon, so I started looking for races that were 26 weeks away. No problem there, I had plenty to choose from.


The problem is that 26 weeks is a good length for a marathon training plan if you’ve never run before. Coming off of a collegiate track season, I didn’t need that long of a build-up. And if I DID want to start training right away, I certainly could of waited to start the higher mileage / longer long runs of true marathon training.


Instead, I hopped right in — building up my long run, adding a medium-long run in the middle of the week, and increasing my mileage to levels I had never hit before. At one point about three months into training I hit 100 miles in a week and did a 20 mile run with the last 10 miles at goal marathon pace. I was stronger than ever and felt great!


I ran the Pikes Peak Ascent around that time. I ran my best time by over 20 minutes, won my age group, and finished 21st overall. I was STOKED!


But I was also getting tired of all the early nights and early mornings that my training required and was starting to feel burnt out — with three months still to go till the race.



I think 14-18 weeks is a very reasonable length for a marathon training program for someone who is an experienced runner. It's long enough that you can get good training in, but short enough that you don't lose focus. Unless you're entirely new to the sport, don't plan for 26 weeks of actual marathon training.



Mistake #2 — Not adjusting to my life schedule


During those first three months of training, I really wasn’t doing much else. I had graduated in May and my job didn’t start until the middle of August. So I would get up, run, eat breakfast, take a nap, play some video games, eat lunch, hang around with my roommates, maybe run again, eat dinner, watch a movie and go to bed. Pretty relaxed lifestyle.


My job wasn’t particularly stressful, but starting work did change my day-to-day schedule quite a bit. I had to get up earlier to get the kind of mileage I had been doing in, and my time available to nap went way down (woe is me, right?).


On top of that, I decided with three months to go till the race, I needed to start adding speed work to my routine.


Now, if I’ve coached you before, you’ve heard me say the phrase “stress is stress.” What I mean by that is your body can only take so much stress — it doesn’t matter what the source is.


Well, here I was adding the stress of speed work on top of all the mileage I was doing, at the same time I was starting to feel burnt out, and at the same time I was starting my new job. Oh yeah, and somewhere around this time I broke up with my girlfriend of 2.5 years.


Predictably (if you’re smarter than I was back then), nothing good came of this. In the middle of a 16 mile run I stopped, turned to my friend Eric who was running with me and said “I’m done. Come back with a car and pick me up.” He talked me into finishing the run but then I didn’t run a step for over two weeks. No way I was going to do the marathon.



Work your training around your life, not the other way around. If you have time periods that you know will be busy / hectic during your training cycle, plan ahead to take some easier weeks then. Listen to your body and back off if you need to -- BEFORE it's too late.



Mistake #3 — Trying to salvage a wreck


After not running for a few weeks, I started to think “you know, it would be a shame to waste all that fitness.” I decided that instead of skipping the marathon completely, I would just switch to one that was sooner. Like in three weeks. I could do some running — whatever I felt like, nothing too intense — between now and then and at least run a respectable race.


Of course, the problem with that thinking is — well, there’s a lot wrong with it. The first thing is the idea that after 5+ weeks of not doing any marathon training, a marathon would go well (what can I say, I was 22). The second is that after two weeks of not running I had magically gotten over my fatigue and burnout. The third is that “all that fitness” hadn’t already been wasted with the time off.


Regardless, I did some light training, showed up for the race, and with all this wonderful prep work managed to run about as well as you would expect. Which is to say, somewhere around 30-35 minutes slower than I was training for during the summer.


Of course, I made plenty of mistakes during the race that contributed to a miserable experience as well. If it turns out people like reading about my youthful mistakes, I’ll cover those in another post.



Sometimes a training cycle doesn't go the way you want. You can certainly audible to a different race, but don't do it after take several weeks completely off from running. Make sure that whatever caused the training cycle to go sideways (burnout, injury, etc.) is fixed before planning your next race.



As I write this out, I realize that most of my issues really resulted from not having a well thought-out plan.


This isn’t intended to be a cautionary tale about the need for a coach, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all these mistakes happened right after I graduated college — i.e. the first time in my life I was trying to figure out my own running. Having someone to help me look at the big picture certainly would have gone a long way towards avoiding these issues.


The good news is that it was a learning experience for me — a hard-earned one, no doubt, but still very helpful. Hopefully this tale of woe can help you learn some of the same lessons without having to go through it yourself!


About Coach Carl
Coach Carl is a USA Track & Field Level 2 endurance coach who works with runners of all ability levels to reach their goals. He has been featured in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Competitor. For information on his coaching services, click here.