Top Ten Marathon Training and Running Mistakes

By Rick Morris

No one has ever had the perfect marathon training routine or the perfect marathon race. We are all just a bit flawed. While none of us are perfect, we can take steps to minimize our marathon mistakes. Here are our top ten marathon mistakes and how to avoid them.

Starting Out Too Fast

Yep – We’ve all done this one. In the first half of the race you feel like a gazelle. Since marathon pace is below your lactate turn point or lactate threshold speed, your pace feels fairly easy. You feel strong, confident and think you can run forever. The problem is that if you are running too fast you are burning carbohydrates at a significant rate. If you run low on fuel your gazelle will turn into an elephant on your back. Stay within your planned pace – running even splits is usually the best marathon racing strategy.

Improper Taper

Bi-weekly long runs tend to shred your leg muscles like spaghetti squash. It takes 3 to 4 weeks for your muscles to completely recover from intense marathon training. You are going to perform much better in your race if your leg muscles are strong and fresh rather than resembling pounded cube steak. Begin your taper 3 weeks before your race. Avoid the temptation to get in some extra long runs in the last few weeks of your training.

Too Many Long Runs

Long runs are the bread and butter workouts for a marathon runner. They build both your base endurance and your goal pace endurance to the level you need to succeed. Yep – they are important but don’t over do it. They can also be a cause of marathon mistakes. You have other important weekly workouts. You need to do a weekly lactate turn point run, a weekly vVO2 max workout, hill training, goal pace work and sprint training. If your muscles are constantly fatigued from a weekly long run, the quality of your other workouts will suffer. Do a long run only once every other week. You will improve the quality of your other workouts, your muscles will stay strong and you will avoid the dreaded over training syndrome.

Long Runs Not Long Enough

I don’t know how the tradition of stopping at 20 mile training runs got started but it makes me nuts. If you stop your long runs at 20 miles you still have a full 10K that you are not prepared for. Gradually extend your long run to 22 or 23 miles. You will be much more prepared to race 26.2 miles.

Not Enough Goal Pace Work

Easy paced long runs do a great job of training your body to complete the marathon at an easy pace. If that is your goal – great! But, if your goal is to race the marathon or finish at a specific time or pace you are missing a critical training ingredient – goal pace running. There are two types of goal pace running you should be doing. The first are dedicated goal pace workouts of between 3 and 13 miles. The second type are goal pace long runs in which you do the first portion at an easy pace and the last portion at goal pace. That type of run is mimicking your actual marathon and trains you to run at goal pace when you are already fatigued.

Quantity over Quality

A common marathon training mistake is concentrating on a lot of easy miles with few harder training efforts. In addition to improving your endurance with long easy running you need to improve your stamina with lactate turn point training, your neuromuscular conditioning with high intensity vVO2 max workouts, your running strength and economy with hill training and your foot speed with sprint training. A balanced training regime will insure your marathon success.

Drinking Too Much Water

This one may sound crazy to some of you. It has probably been drummed into your head that you need to stay properly hydrated. That is very true – you do indeed need to stay hydrated to avoid dehydration, heat illness and keep up a strong pace. But you should be hydrating with a sports drink containing carbohydrates and electrolytes instead of plain water. Drinking only water during a marathon can actually be dangerous because it can cause a condition called hyponatremia – literally “water poisoning”. Drinking a combination of water and sports drinks will keep you safely hydrated but can decrease your marathon performance. The water will dilute the concentration of the sports drink and slow down the absorption of the carbohydrates. The best advice – drink only sports drinks.

Lack of Strength Training

The average runner takes around 42,000 steps in a marathon. With all of those steps just a small decrease in ground contact time can make a big difference. If you decrease the amount of time you spend on the ground with each step by just .05 seconds you can improve your marathon time by 5 to 10 minutes! What is the best way to decrease your time on the ground – strength training. Studies have proven that explosive strength training will not only decrease your ground contact time but will also increase your stride length. Strength training will also make your muscles more resilient and “impact proof” so you will have more muscular endurance, less drop off in running efficiency and fewer injuries.

Not Training Specifically

Training is basically practice. It is rehearsing over and over again what you want your body to do for you. If you want finish the marathon at a specific pace you need to do some goal pace running. If you want to race the marathon you need to practice running very hard when highly fatigued. The most common running specificity mistake I see is taking walking breaks during training when you want to run the entire race. If you are planning on taking walking breaks during the race it is perfectly acceptable and advisable to take similar walking breaks during training. But, if your goal is to run the entire distance you must train the same way.

Not Familiar with Your Course

Don’t make the mistake of going into a race without knowing the course conditions. Does the course have a lot of hills? Then you should be doing more hill training. Is the course on asphalt, concrete, gravel, grass or a combination? You should try to do a good deal of your training on the same type of surface. Will the race officials be supplying sufficient amounts of sports drinks and food on the course? If not you will need to plan on carrying your own. What type of sports drink will they be supplying? You should train using the same drink to avoid any possible gastric upset during your race. Don’t forget to check the typical weather in the area so you can dress appropriately. Do your homework and you will avoid any nasty surprises.