Marathon runners share their insider tips for running your first race

Seasoned marathoners share the wisdom they wish they'd known before their first big race.
Image: Marathon Runners.
Serial marathoners say crossing the finish line is one of the most exhilarating, and challenging things, they've done.vgajic / Getty Images
Get the Better newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Wendy Rose Gould

Perhaps you were inspired by stories from the New York City marathon last month, or running a turkey trot has you setting your sights on a loftier goal. Or like many, the annual surge in motivation that comes with waving goodbye to one year and entering another may have a longer race or marathon on your resolution list.

The majority of those who have successfully checked the marathon box will talk about a feeling of accomplishment like no other — but they don’t sugarcoat how challenging the road to completion can be. Luckily, those who have been there, done that have accumulated some wisdom that can save you from having to learn the hard way.

We asked a handful of long-time marathon pros what they wish they would have known going into their first big race. Here’s what they had to say.

Be honest with yourself about your fitness level

The general rule for marathon training is to begin four to six months in advance. However, while it’s technically never too soon to start, there is such a thing as starting too late. “Trying to make it to the marathon finish line when you are undertrained will usually result in a miserable experience, as well as a disappointing end result,” warns 49-year-old Michelle Walker, who’s completed over 150 marathons and penned the book, “If You Give a Mom a Marathon.” “There are no shortcuts when it comes to building cardio endurance — the marathon distance should be respected.”

Matthew Graham, a 30-something based in Phoenix who runs about five marathons every year, agrees. “One year I ran the NYC Marathon with very little preparation or long runs. I finished, but boy did that hurt, and I was in bed the rest of the day sore and swollen,” he says. “A year later I ran the Marine Corps Marathon, and while it was the same distance as the NYC Marathon, it was a totally different race. I was healthy, strong and didn’t get sore or fatigued.”

Before registering for a race, assess your current fitness level to determine if you have enough time to adequately train. Even serial marathoners train extensively for each race.

Get in your car and drive the course ahead of time

Every experienced marathon runner will tell you how vital it is to familiarize yourself with the course. Doing so helps you prepare both physically and mentally, says Gerald Mayes, a 34-year-old personal trainer and runner based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He failed to familiarize himself for his first race and after that, made it a goal to drive or bike the course for subsequent races. “Knowing the course ahead of time instantly made me more confident [since] I was able to visualize myself doing the course prior to actually doing it,” he explains. “Overall it made the race less nerve racking because there were less unknowns. I was able to connect to the race both mentally and physically prepared. It definitely made the whole experience better.”

Graham adds that while all marathons are the same distance, each is drastically different when you take elevation into account. By knowing where the hills are, you can get strategic by planning for them during training, and by knowing when to walk uphill to prevent leg burnout.

Have a reason to keep running ready to fall back on

Get the better newsletter.

Walker dedicates each of the last six miles to special people in her life, which helps to divert attention away from tired legs.

In addition to the physical hurdles, you will undoubtedly hit a few mental walls; it’s common to have negative thoughts, discomfort and even pain while training and racing that can hinder our motivation. Walker says that it’s important to proactively nip these thoughts in the bud.“Don’t beat yourself up over a bad training run. Marathon training is a microcosm for life. Not all will go as planned,” she says. “Remind yourself that training for a marathon is a long process. Your fitness level will progressively improve if you keep at it.” On the day of the race when the going gets tough, Walker dedicates each of the last six miles to special people in her life, which helps to divert attention away from tired legs.

Don’t buy a fancy new race-day outfit

Serial runners say to keep your marathon shopping simple. “There are many fad shoes — minimalist, individual toes, super padded — but those are just fads created to sell more shoes,” says Graham. “When I first got into running, I wanted to try the minimalist shoes with individual toes. The company claimed it was more natural, but personally I found that I had knee pain any time I ran more than three miles in them. I quickly got rid of those shoes in favor of traditional shoes.” Bottom line: Stick with the basics and don’t get swayed by trends when investing in a pair of sneakers.

As for clothing, don’t feel like you have to spend lots on a trendy outfit here either. To the contrary, marathoners say to dress in cheap layers that you can throw away. “Before a cold race, I recommend going to a thrift shop and picking up a sweater or something to stay warm, then throw it on the sidewalk when you’re a mile in and warmed up,” says Graham. “Most races collect the clothes and donate them afterward, so it’s a cheap and easy option to keep you feeling warm.”

Invest in Anti-Chaffing Supplies

Spend the money you’ve saved on apparel and buy some anti-chaffing supplies. Mayes says he learned this the hard way after running the Marine Corps Marathon. “After the race my inner thighs, under arms and around my neck were raspberry sorbet red and itched and burned like poison ivy,” he says.

Treat your feet — but don’t get a full pedicure

Long-distance runners come in all shapes and sizes, but one factor they all have in common — outside of fierce motivation — is their feet. Walker is no stranger to the beating your feet take when logging 26 miles; she says her toenails “have become disfigured and some have turned black” due to bruising. Before race day, make sure your toenails are trimmed back, and if you get a pedicure leave the calluses alone since they can provide extra padding and protection. Walker also recommends scheduling a foot massage beforehand. “A good massage therapist will be able to help alleviate tight muscles in the bottom of the feet. This can help prevent one of the most common runners’ injuries, plantar fasciitis,” she says.

Do a “dress rehearsal”

While it can be tempting to save any new apparel you’ve invested in for race day, those who have been there say don’t. Instead, consider your last few long runs a dress rehearsal for the race. Walker says, “Not only should you try out what you are planning to wear during the race, but you should also practice race day nutrition during your long runs. Race day nutrition includes what you will eat for breakfast, as well as what you will take in during the race.” In that vein, don’t deviate from other aspects of your routine on race day. You want to feel comfortable, relaxed and familiar with everything you’re wearing, drinking and eating.

You may want to skip the provided energy gel

The aforementioned advice also means saying, “No, thanks!” to the energy gels that are often handed out throughout the race course. “Although I finished my first marathon, I did not have a pleasant experience. Part of my race day misery came from using the energy gel that was offered on the course, rather than the gel I had trained with,” says Walker. “I didn’t think it would make much of a difference, but it almost cost me my race. My stomach was that upset.” Mayes had a similar experience: “Upon squeezing the [energy] goo into my mouth, I immediately knew that I had made a mistake. I had to run the second half of the race with that horrendous taste in my mouth fighting back the urge to gag,” he says.

Don’t get amped up on adrenaline and run too fast

A common mistake that newbie marathoners make is taking it too fast right out of the gate. “I started [my first] race at a faster pace than what I hoped to average over the entire course. Once I hit mile 17, not only was I trying to keep the contents within my stomach from spewing out, I was shuffling to the finish line,” says Walker. “It’s hard to fight the instinctual urge to run hard when a race starts, but practicing a little self-control can yield positive results.”

Beware: You might just get addicted

There’s a reason why marathoners always have another race lined up — the process is downright addictive. Each course offers its own appeal and reward.“It is impossible to get tired of racing,” says Graham, who combined his love of running and traveling and set a goal to run a race in each of the 50 states. “There is always another race that is challenging in another way, whether farther, higher elevation, more hills, or on a trail. There are also races that are exciting in other ways, whether they have music, tourist sites, are moving parties, or full of costumes. There is always a new challenge you can give yourself with running, and that is a motivating factor for me to always push myself to see how far my body can go.”

More Running Advice

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.