7 Things Marathoners Wish They'd Known Before Their First Race

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist

With the combination of warm sunshine, crisp temperatures and lush new growth, it's no wonder spring is prime marathon season. The popularity of marathons continues to grow: According to Running USA's Annual Marathon Report, there has been a 40 percent increase in U.S. marathon and half-marathon finishers over the past decade. If you're planning a spring race like we are, you're (hopefully) right in the thick of your training program. Heading into these final few weeks, it's important to avoid injury, stay motivated and keep your eyes on the prize.
To help you through the home stretch, we asked some seasoned runners what they wish they'd known before completing their first race (and I threw in a few thoughts of my own). You don't have to be in marathon territory to benefit from their insights: Whether you're training for your first 5K, going for the popular half marathon or ramping up for the the main 26.2-mile event, these words of wisdom will help you gear up and stay the course.

#1. Your body needs more fuel than you think.

Just as a car won't function at optimal capacity if it's using the wrong type (or not enough) gas, a long-distance runner is destined to hit the proverbial wall without the right fuel. If you don't feel particularly thirsty, it's easy to mistakenly assume you can skip the water stops. You might be able to get away with breezing by if you're running a shorter 5K or 10K race, but the longer courses require frequent and thoughtful hydration.
Massachusetts runner and blogger Dan Mees, currently training for his third marathon, stresses the importance of water for racing success. "Stop at every water or Gatorade stop, whether you think you need it or not. And don't run through those stations trying to be a hero while spilling half the liquid on your shirt that should all be going in your mouth. Making these multiple stops, which amounted to several quick breaks along the way, helped me finish the race strong. I ran my last mile the fastest."
Mees also suggests bringing your own energy gels instead of assuming they'll be readily available whenever you need them. "While they may be offered throughout the course, you really need to pop a gel every 45 minutes (plus one before the race)," Dees recommends. "GU is a great way to go. They really work."

#2. It's never a good idea to try something new on race day.

Dr. Bob Wilson, an ER doctor and avid marathoner, often doles out this piece of advice to his running patients. Whether it's a cute new tank you picked up at the pre-race expo, a brand-new pair of running shoes or a brand of energy gels someone recommended, race day isn't the time to experiment. Testing something for five minutes gives no indication of how it will perform or how your body will react to it for the duration of the race. By sticking with the routine that has carried you through your longest training runs, you'll minimize the chances of unwelcome surprises.

#3. You're probably carrying tension in your shoulders.

Even non-runners tend to scrunch up their shoulders slightly, and this tension tends to worsen during races and training runs. This can lead to shoulder pain, numb hands and other undesirable effects.
Dr. Patrick Labelle, a Chicago-based Board Certified Chiropractic Sports Physician for BioMechanics and a six-time marathoner himself, says shoulder tightness is the most common complaint he hears from long-distance runners. Labelle notes two main causes for this: Poor posture, likely caused by countless hours hunched over computers and phones, and the body's natural stress response to long-distance runs.
"Long training runs are stressful for your body, and stress activates a slew of hormonal and neurological responses," Dr. Labelle says. "One of the automatic stress responses is to curl into the fetal position. You’ll notice this while running, as your hands clench, your elbows bend to more than 90 degrees and/or your shoulders are magnetically drawn up toward your ears."
To prevent injury and run more efficiently, this tension must be released—but how? Dr. Labelle suggests using this five-step exercise to improve running posture and send a signal to the body that you aren't under dangerous stress:
1.     Take a normal breath.
2.     As you exhale, try to push your head up to the sky.
3.     Maintain that new, higher head position when you inhale.
4.     Repeat as needed.
5.     Say “ahhhhhh…” as the tension leaves your neck and shoulders.

#4. The journey is more important than the destination.

For a first-time marathoner, there is often a great deal of anxiety surrounding the main event—but seven-time marathoner and Chicago fitness coach Samantha Kellgren asserts that by the time race day arrives, the hard part is behind you.
"Although a marathon isn’t short, relative to the time and miles you put in during your training, it goes by fast," Kellgren says. "I don’t listen to music during races so I can take it all in. I paid and trained to run with others, to see a new course and to experience the entertainment and spectators. When it gets tough, just think, 'in 10 miles, all of this will be a memory.' Soak up every aspect of it, both good and bad."
Mees agrees that the journey trumps the destination. "Every first-time marathoner worries about making it across the finish line," he says. "If you trained well, you will finish, so don't stress out about that. Instead, smile at everyone along the way, say thank you to the volunteers and soak in the atmosphere." When he reflects on his first marathon (the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington), Mees doesn't mention the finish line. Instead, his memories include the encouraging crowds, the kids in the neighborhoods handing out ice pops, and the Asian drum corps providing rhythmic motivation during the big hill at mile 16.
Obviously, it's ideal to finish as quickly as possible, but if you're running a new distance for the first time, focus more on completion than the clock. Jen Miller, a seasoned New Jersey marathoner and author of Running: A Love Story, stresses that you shouldn't base a goal pace on previous, shorter races. "Don't have a time goal (for your first marathon), even if you've run a half marathon before," Miller says. "You can't just double your time from the half and make that your marathon goal. Your body can react in very different ways to a full than a half. Just finishing is golden."

#5. Pre-race meals can make or break your experience.

Eating too much, too little or the wrong foods in the hours leading up to a race can wreak havoc on your performance. Play around with different foods prior to your long training runs, so you'll know what your body will and won't tolerate.
Mees says he often had anxiety about what to eat and drink before his races. "I think the traditional carb loading the night before is a good tactic, but don't eat so much pasta that you have a stomachache and can't sleep," he recommends. "A beer or a glass of wine the night before won't hurt either, but stick to one. Also, getting up a couple hours before race time and having a bagel with peanut butter and a banana does help. Don't stuff yourself, but you need to eat and you need to drink in advance of the race."
Michelle Mudge-Riley, an osteopathic physician and licensed dietician, has run nine marathons. "I wish I would have known how important it is to eat right and to know what your food sensitivities are," she says. "Mine are gluten, wheat and apples, so the traditional advice about carb loading actually worked against me if I ate traditional pasta and bread. After figuring out my food sensitivities and low vitamin D levels, my times improved so much and I felt so much better."

#6. The day after will be brutal.

In the hours after finishing my first (and only) full marathon, I felt surprisingly good. Shaky and tired, but good. I walked around, went out to dinner in my race shirt and rehashed the race with friends and family. The next morning was another story. Once the adrenaline had worn off and my body had a chance to protest the demands I'd placed on it, the pain and fatigue sidelined me to the couch for the entire day.
Later, I learned that following proper recovery procedures could have alleviated a lot of that post-race agony. In Runner's World magazine, exercise physiologist Steve Magness recommends the following post-marathon recovery tactics: Eat a protein-rich diet to repair torn muscles, get plenty of sleep and keep moving to alleviate tightness and soreness. (He offers more running insights in his book, The Science of Running.)

#7. It's okay for it to get tough.

Kellgren mentions one of her favorite quotes: "You didn’t train so it would be easy, you trained so you could handle it when it got tough." If completing a marathon (or a race of any distance) was a piece of cake, everyone would do it.
Don't underestimate the mental aspect of running. "Yes, the physical training is what you’re focused on, but take the time to train your brain to get you through the tough parts," Kellgren says. She recommends reading a few articles on sports psychology to help prepare you to handle the mental struggle of pushing yourself past perceived limitations.
"The key to running a successful race is to meet the struggle head-on and with confidence," says Kellgren. "After all, this is exactly what you trained for.”

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KATHYJO56 12/18/2020
interesting Report
REDROBIN47 11/10/2020
Good article. Thanks Report
AZMOMXTWO 11/10/2020
thank you Report
CECELW 11/10/2020
I've never run a marathon Report
JDSMMS 11/10/2020
I’ve read this article several times yet keep going back to it as someday I’d love to do a full (have done over 20 1/2’s). Love the fact that you don’t listen to music; neither do I. My zen is running and I love taking in the sights and the sounds and enjoy the journey in that manner. Report
LIS193 11/10/2020
Thanks Report
NEPTUNE1939 11/10/2020
ty Report
Thanks! Report
LEANJEAN6 11/10/2020
I used to do Marathons--- wish I had this info then Report
FERRETLOVER1 11/10/2020
I have no interest in doing a marathon, but these tips were still interesting to read. Report
RO2BENT 11/10/2020
Ouch! Report
JANIEWWJD 11/10/2020
Thanks for all the tips!!! Report
KITTYHAWK1949 11/10/2020
can't imagine doing a marathon after how I felt doing a little 5k but training would make a difference. Report
VHAYES04 10/22/2020
Ty Report
interesting Report
Good need-to-know information, thanks! Report
Thanks for sharing this one! Excellent Article!! Report
I found it very useful to try new shoes for my marathon. I'd ran on them for less than a minute at the shoe store & I just knew. I usually don't start taking fluids & food during the race until around the halfway mark b/c of all the issues with trying to use the bathroom during a race. But sometimes you just get lucky. You can do everything right & still DNF. You can do so much wrong and still finish. It's really trial & error sometimes to see what works. Best wishes to everyone working on their first (half or full) marathon! Report
Thank You................. Report
Thanks for sharing. Report
Interesting. I won’t start my running program for a few months yet but I really would like to sign up for a few races once I get going. Report
So been thinking of this 👍. Great article Report
Great article Report
Great article Report
Good info Report
Great info! I’ve completed 8 marathons and a few half. but I didn’t take care of my knees Report
I believe it would be all about the training. I run a lot but I don't think I would ever run a marathon. 6 miles a day is enough for me. Report
if only.... Report
For me, it seemed that I did soft-tissue damage to my knees. I was unable to walk, run or train for 3 months afterwards. -- I had trained to 22 miles. That last 4.2 miles of the actual marathon were "killer". : ( Report
It's all about the training! I'm going to blog my thoughts very soon on my first Marathon at 67! If you live a healthy lifestyle, get a sign off from your doctor, and start a proper 26.2 teaining program,, you will cross the finish line. Before every traing run, I ate a sandwich thin with NATURAL peanut butter and honey, and a half glass of milk. Race day the same, and sipped on electolyte water until 30 min before race start. I could go on and on so lookfor my 26.2 Reflections. Your 1st should not be about speed. It's all about the finish! I'm a Marathoner and no one can ever take that away from me. ;-) Report
I ran my 1st and 2nd Marathons in 2016. I got injured about a month before the 2nd and thanks to my new podiatrist at that time, i learned training too hard can create injury. I am training for my 3rd Marathon this year and will only follow my scheduled training runs to prevent the over-training injury i had previously. Report
I also have a core power shake before I walk since I'm not a runner Report
Great tips. Report
I have the same thing before any race: Core Power Protein Shake, a banana and a cliff bar. My body is used to it and I refuse to change it up.

I also want to add that you want to add mustard packs in your shorts to alleviate cramps. Report
What is good to eat when on race day when you will not have a lot time to prepare breakfast? Report
What is an energy gel? Report
Great article! Although it's a few years away, I can't wait for my first marathon. Report
I've only run 1/2 marathons but still want to comment. Listen well to the #2, don't try anything new on race day. I wore a new pair of shoes that I'd only worn for a few hours the days before my race. I got blisters on the tips of my toes and under the nails. It's been five years and my toenails and feet will never be the same.

I thought I would share another marathoner's comment that I love. He said he never runs 26 miles.......he runs one mile 26 times. It feels more doable in small increments. Report
Yes, I agree with all of these! Also, make sure you drink enough of your tested fluids (extra, even) on race day and don't let yourself start out too fast. ;) Report
The R&R Seattle Marathon was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life (including the training). Maybe pick a local marathon for your first so that if you didn't train consistently enough, you're only out $50 and not a whole trip (flight+hotel) unless you want a vacation. Don't get sucked into others' paces. Also, it is no joke about knowing what your body likes for fuel during the race. I made the mistake of not using many energy goos during training but overdid them on race day. Your intestines will definitely pay for a mistake like that - trust me! For me, that last 6.2 miles felt just as long as the first 20. But I finished!!! Report
I have been running for over 5 years, but am still too scared to participate in a marathon, or even a half-marathon. Report