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4 Mistakes First-Time Marathoners Make (and How to Avoid Them)
There’s a right way—and a wrong way—to tackle your first 26.2. These tips will help you nail it.
Let’s get one thing straight. Your first marathon isn’t going to be a perfect race. From dressing too warm to crowded corrals to having an oh-CRAP-I’ve-gotta-go moment, there are a million mistakes to be made over 26.2 miles.
That’s not your excuse to blow off your prep work. In fact, knowing your first marathon will likely be a little rocky is even more motivation to make sure you’re as ready as possible before you wake up (way too early) on race day.
Sure, some first-time marathoner mistakes can’t be avoided. But you can sidestep four biggies and crush your first 26.2 with these tips.
Mistake #1: Going Out Too Hard
With the energy of the crowd and the adrenaline of race day pumping through you, those first few miles flew by way faster than your planned pace. You’re feeling fast AF and you figure you might as well hold that pace (and your runner’s high) right through the finish line.
Um no, says Cortney Logan, certified running coach and co-founder of Brunch Running in Denver, CO. “Pacing is one of the hardest things for first-time marathoners,” Logan explains. “You’re feeling great in those early miles and are really pushing yourself, but you need to save energy for that second half.”
Fast Fix: “Find people in your training group who are aiming to run similar times as you during the race,” advises Steve Stonehouse, USATF Certified Coach and Director of Education for STRIDE in Los Angeles. “Stick with them early to ensure you’re on pace.” If you’re still feeling fresh at mile 20, let those legs fly, baby.
Or, keep it simple and run even splits, suggests Thomas Watson, UESCA-certified running coach, ultra-runner and creator of the Marathon Handbook. “Target a constant pace throughout your run,” he says. “This strategy works well and is easy to follow. It means you'll typically be holding back in the first half of your marathon but will have more energy in the second half.”
Mistake #2: Doing Anything New on Race Day
That’s literally anything. Gear should be broken in, breakfast should have been tested and digested on numerous runs before today, and your pump-up playlist should be cued and fully charged. “By the time you get to the start line of your marathon, you should have tested out all your gear and nutrition several times in training,” says Watson.
It’s tempting to suck down the new flavor of energy gel they’re handing out at the start, but that’s a shortcut to the port-a-potty waiting to happen. Stick to what you know.
Fast fix: You probably aren’t covering the full 26.2 in training (especially for your first race), but you should treat a 20-mile long run as a dress rehearsal. Wear the exact outfit you want to race in (down to the sports bra and socks), and have your race day breakfast a couple of hours before you begin. It’s a killer opportunity to figure out what works and what needs fine-tuning.
One semi-exception: shoes. After all the training you’ve put in, your running shoes are going to be pretty worn down by race day. While breaking in a brand-new pair of shoes during the marathon could lead to blisters, you want ones that are nearly just-out-of-the-box.
“I tell my runners to buy two new, identical pairs of shoes when they begin their marathon training,” says Watson. “They should do the majority of their training in the first pair, then a few weeks before the marathon, start to cycle in the second pair once in a while.” They’ll feel new-ish, but not totally virgin, come marathon day. (Plus, an excuse to buy two sweet-looking pairs of shoes at once is every runner’s dream.)
Mistake #3: Hitting “The Wall”
The dreaded wall—marathoners all over the world moan about times they hit the wall during major races and commiserate over what made them “bonk.”
Hitting the wall is largely a result of not powering up with enough carbs, says Watson. “When you’re running for hours on end, carbohydrate stores get depleted until there's nothing left—then the body starts to burn fat,” he says. “That’s a less-efficient process for fueling your muscles, and suddenly you feel totally fatigued, making you want to just throw in the towel.”
Fast Fix: Stay ahead of your ever-diminishing stores of carbs by fueling as you run—even if your stomach doesn’t feel hungry. “Start by having a high-carb snack 15 minutes before the start, then top up every 40-60 minutes during the race,” says Watson.
Gels, bars, bananas, and nut butters are all solid options—just be sure to practice eating them while running during training, too. While you’re at it, stay hydrated and get some calories in by drinking the sports drinks at aid stations throughout the entire course.
Mistake #4: Overlooking the Mental Game
If you think you’ll breeze through your first marathon listening to your perfectly curated playlist, well, it’s possible. But 99 percent of first-time marathoners will tell you that blissful ignorance and awesome tunes alone are not enough when the going gets tough at mile 18.
“Many first-time marathon runners think motivation will get them through the race,” says Molly Armesto, a running coach and owner of All About Marathon Training. “But motivation can be in full force one minute and leave you utterly bereft the next.”
Fast Fix: Like a soldier going into combat, you’ve got to train yourself to be mentally tough as hell and ready to kick your own ass when your motivation starts to flag. “The key is knowing that you will most likely have a couple of miles during the race when you want to do anything but run,” says Armesto. “Once you have this expectation, create an action plan to fight through it.”
That might mean positive self-talk (“You got this!”), aggressive self-coaching (“Get tough, woman, let’s go!”), visualizing the finish line or saying a mantra over and over. Armesto’s final advice: “Don't underestimate the power of your mental attitude to shape your entire race.”