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What I learnt from my first full marathon

A runner discovers that focus, cross-training, mobility drills, stretching, hydration and the right nutrition can go a long way towards finishing a full marathon

You first full marathon is likely to  be full of surprises
You first full marathon is likely to be full of surprises (Unsplash)

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The Australian marathoner John Farrington once said, “Marathoning is like cutting yourself unexpectedly. You dip into the pain so gradually that the damage is done before you are aware of it. Unfortunately, when the awareness comes, it is excruciating."

So here is me, sharing my newfound wisdom with all of you so that you do not make the same mistakes before your first marathon. 

I started my training for the marathon sometime in October. Given that I was running after a summer-induced break, I should have built up to a distance. But I jumped directly to 10km runs and often pushed too much. I saw people posting on social media about their Sunday long runs, got inspired and tried to do the same. As a result, I developed tight adductor muscles which forced me to rest for longer between runs. After this, I asked a friend to make a proper schedule for me and I followed it till the day of the race. 

Also read: Why you shouldn’t suddenly increase the distance or the pace here 

Yes, it is your first marathon. Or maybe even your first run. You should focus on enjoying the run. But that does not mean you just copy someone else’s training plan, or worse, mix up several plans to make up your own. Have a goal in mind;  this can be time,  the distance you need to conquer or even something as simple as running the whole thing without taking walking breaks. Every goal counts. 

Lesson: Do not train aimlessly

It is not a secret that I like long runs. But I focused only on those for a really long time, with no days kept for speed training. As a result, when I had a 10k race in between my training schedule, I needed to put in much more effort than I normally do. This also impacted me mentally for the actual 42km race on Tata Mumbai Marathon (TMM), where I was too scared to push my pace - lest I get tired too soon. 

Get a good mix of slow runs, speed sessions (intervals or fartleks) and tempo-paced runs. Each of them has a place in your training schedule since each has a different role to play - from building your aerobic engine to increasing your speed. This way you also avoid getting bored of doing the same thing over and over and over again.

Lesson: Mix different types of runs in your schedule

I am also someone who likes lifting weights. But be it after a run or after a workout session, I don’t generally do a cool-down stretch (unless someone forces me to). But stretching, foam rolling or using bands for mobility greatly impacts your recovery after a difficult run. 

I started including mobility drills only in the last two months of my training. By then it was too late to make any changes in my running style. But the drills did help in working on my coordination and strengthening certain muscle groups. 

Also read: Why you should stop ignoring your running drills

Lesson: Include mobility drills and stretch after your runs

One thing I learnt from previous races is probably also the first rule of running. Do not try anything new on race day - that goes for everything from strategy to food to your t-shirt! And it is even more important to follow it for your first big marathon.

I made sure I practised my nutrition and hydration way before the run. For any run that was more than two hours long, I had an energy gel during the run. This was a good idea because I realized after two runs that my body cannot digest one whole packet of gel. So I tweaked the practice by taking a sip/ bite every 20 minutes after the first 45 minutes). For hydration, I switched from plain water to electrolyte water which also helped me get rid of post-run dehydration symptoms such as headaches and cramps. 

These things helped a lot during the actual race. On 15th January, while running TMM, I started taking sips from my electrolyte water every kilometre - even though I did not feel dehydrated or thirsty then. The gels too were taken like clockwork. There were various foods being offered by bystanders to the runners (as is the norm with Mumbai’s runs) but I chose to stick to the things I had packed in my hydration bag, lest I develop cramps or want to throw up. 

Lesson: Practice your race day hydration and nutrition during training

This brings us to the actual run. Was it fun? Sure! Was it what I expected? Not really. And the fault was mine. 

Running on an unusually chilly morning (by Mumbai standards) made me feel confident. I started strong and could continue that pace for at least the first 18km. Sometime around sunrise, I realized I was slowing down a little, but would still be able to reach my target time. In my naive mind, I thought that maybe I could push a bit right now to make up for the lost time (and avoid running in the bright sun for too long). This sapped me of my energy reserves and within the next 10kms, I slowed down to a trot. The last 12 km felt the hardest. I walked often, jogged for bits, looked for any shaded spots in the route and managed to finish the run a good 20 minutes slower than my initial target. 

While I am happy that at no point did I think of giving up, I do wonder if I should have just done a slower pace through the run. Would that have saved me from walking and given me a better time overall? Maybe it would have meant more time under the sun, but physically I wouldn’t be as tired. I am not entirely sure.

Lesson: Don’t push too soon just because you are feeling strong. 

I am writing this article with the intention of coming back to remind myself of these lessons the next time I train for a marathon. There is no one solution for all of us. But I am hoping many mistakes now will mean fewer of them in the future. One can hope, at least. 

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