Half marathons and marathons can be over in a matter of hours, but runners, both newbies and elite, often spend months training for the 13.1- and 26.2-mile races. Robert Chapman, director of the Human Performance Laboratory in Indiana University's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, and coach of Brook Team Indiana Elite, discusses four common mistakes runners make when preparing for these major races.
Mistake #1: Discounting the importance of the weekly long run.
For the half-marathon and marathon, the weekly long run is one of the most important components of training. The adaptations that take place physiologically and psychologically during the long run are critical in helping the runner complete the race distance, as well as helping the runner achieve a goal time. Key adaptations that take place with the weekly long run:
Mistake #2: Selecting a race without considering the weather or lifestyle considerations for training.
Most marathons are held in the spring or fall because of the milder temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere. Most experts recommend a training buildup of 10-16 weeks for most experienced runners prior to a marathon, perhaps a few weeks less for a half marathon.
For athletes who select a spring race, this will mean completing a large portion of their training during the thick of winter -- where cold temperatures, snow and ice, and limited daylight hours can all have a dramatic effect on the quality of training and motivation for completion. Runners with work and family commitments, who have to train in early morning or evening hours, may find preparation for a spring marathon challenging. For athletes who select a fall marathon or half marathon, the bulk of the training load will come during the heat and humidity of summer. For most runners, training in extreme heat is more challenging than training in cold weather, where additional clothing can be worn. While it may be considerably easier to get runs in during early morning or late evening hours, summer is typically full of family vacations and weekend outings that can make sticking with a rigid training routine more difficult.
In the end, when deciding on a marathon or half marathon, each runner should take a look not just at the time of the year of the race, but the logistics of how well they will be able to complete their training in the three to four months prior to the event.
Mistake #3: Failing to "practice" the race day routine.
After weeks and weeks of training, many runners end up failing to finish or meet their goals -- often due to some simple, small detail that was overlooked regarding race day routine. Here are some examples:
Many of these questions can be worked out during weekly long runs, such as clothing and breakfast choices. Runners also can contact race organizers for details about sports drinks and then try out the drinks during training. The weekly long run is not just an important component for training adaptations. It is also a great "dry run" for the race.
Mistake #4: Starting the race too fast.
Three athletes who Chapman coaches qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and another won the Columbus Marathon in her debut at the distance. In all four cases, the athletes executed a "negative split" strategy -- where the second half of the race was faster than the first.
Based on the paces completed in training, runners should have a strong idea of what pace they are capable of executing for the race distance, with slight modifications based on changing race day conditions such as weather. Once that pace is determined, Chapman recommends a conservative approach, especially if the goal is simply to finish the race. Even if a runner has a goal time in mind, a conservative, negative split approach will often lead to best performances, typically without the late race discomfort that normally accompanies a more aggressive pacing approach.
Starting out at a conservative pace can often be a challenge with the excitement of the race start, the bands and music, and even fireworks that are present when the gun fires. However, the most common recipe for disaster in a marathon is going out too fast.
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