Here’s what it takes to train for and run a marathon

The B.A.A. logo at Copley Square. Photo by Artemis Huang.

By Katrina Liu
Boston University News Service

BOSTON – Before tomorrow’s run, marathoners spent this weekend getting in some last-minute dietary, physical and mental prep as part of their training programs for the Boston Marathon.

The amount of preparation it takes to run the 26.2-mile trek is immense, no matter what the runner’s experience level may be. That includes diet, which is more than vital when it comes to getting ready in the months leading up to a physical feat like a marathon, according to Boston University sports specialist dietitian Sarah Gilbert.

“As we increase our activity, we want to be making sure that we’re eating enough to fuel that activity,” Gilbert said. “The first thing people need to understand when running a long run as opposed to just a mile or two is that as they are doing more activity, we need more energy coming in to be supporting that work.”

Being able to summon that energy requires a degree of discipline and physical training that takes time to build. From Runners World to Runners Blueprint to experts interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, 16-20 weeks is the ideal amount of time when it comes to training regularly for a marathon.

First-time marathon runner Avery Phillips, who is running for charity with Boston Children’s Hospital, has been following the hospital’s own 17-week program.

“[Boston Children’s] has a training program set up for people who are running on behalf of them,” Phillips said. “It has weeks where you increase mileage, rest weeks, as well as tapering weeks where you’re resting and preparing with very little mileage.” 

But while many programs and training regimens are available, ultimately, every individual’s preparation is different, based on their bodies and prior experience. 

“When you’re meeting with someone [to create a plan]… you’re going to be looking at, ‘What are you already doing?’” Gilbert said. “For someone maybe who is new to training and hasn’t tried any of that before, it can take some experimentation.” 

After finding a regimen that works, getting into shape, and staying in shape, the runners must equip themselves for the seasonal difference of this marathon. Because the marathon is happening in October rather than April, the run may be cooler than usual, but temperature remains an important factor.

According to exercise physiologist Susan Paul, heat and humidity increase the physical stress on the body, which increases the intensity. All of this results in higher heart rates. On Monday, humidity will be 89% at the starting line.

The timing of the race also affects training regimens in terms of time and physical strain.

“Nutritionally, the biggest concern would be if you were trained to run this in April, and then it got postponed and you continue training all the way until October with no break, how are you feeling at this point in terms of energy levels?” Gilbert said.

With the exception of sleep and some dietary adjustments, like carb-loading, mental prep ends up being front and center toward the final days before the big run. 

Phillips’ biggest concern as she enters the last stages of preparation is the mental aspect. 

“The hardest thing has been the mental challenge of running,” Phillips said. “Trying to figure out ways to get back to a meditative state when I hit, like mile 10 or 11 or whenever your body starts to want to stop is difficult.” 

Runners are in the homestretch of their preparations for Monday, focusing mainly on being mentally prepared for the physical demands of running the marathon.

“The weekend before the race, people should just be trying to relax mentally, prepare and hopefully with their nutrition plan, and training plan in general.” Gilbert said. “They’ve already kind of figured out what works best for them.”

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