How does one become a better marathon runner?
I have been running for 26 years and recently retired from competitive endurance racing.
That being said, I’m going to list a few things I did to get my marathon time down and I hope will make you a better marathon runner.
I’m not going to pull any punches here.
Love or hate me.
Below will be a few mistakes I made along with some key points to be get to the top level in the marathon.
If you want to be a better marathon runner you must:
1. Stop beating yourself up over bad performances.
Get over it. The best runners in the world have DNF’s, run poorly, get beat and go home with nothing.
Life is more than just running, mile splits and performances.
I know its tough after a bad race but those who get over the quickest, assess and adjust, will be the most successful, period.
I say that because I have seen how the Kenyans react to a bad race.
They don’t spent a lot of time on it.
Are you healthy? Have a family that loves you? Can you learn from the bad performance and get ready for the next race?
If the answer to these questions is “Yes” you have nothing to worry about.
You have time and as long as you have that you have a chance to do something truly remarkable in our sport.
Remember, this is the marathon, not the 2-mile event.
It is going to take a ton of hard work.
Expect it to have its challenges.
2. Practice running at the pace you want to hold for 26.2 miles.
The Kenyans bleed red and put on their pants one leg at a time just like you.
I can tell you from having lived and trained with them and having beaten and been beaten by them that they are no different than you and I.
They spent a lot of time running at faster paces but it isn’t immediate, even for them.
I have always believed long, slow running makes for long, slow runners – Sebastian Coe, 1:41:73 800-meter runner, former world record holder in the event
The guys (and gals) I trained with over the years would start off running at race pace for 2 miles, then 4, then 10 and so on.
They were patient and knew hard, sustained efforts didn’t come overnight.
The name of the game in marathon running is conserving fuel and to do that you have to teach the body to train at ever increasing amounts of lactic acid.
The better you can clear it the more efficient you are going to run, period.
The secret is cleaning lactic acid faster than it is building up in your blood stream.
There are no magic formulas.
I wish I could tell you there was unless you want to take drugs and look yourself in the mirror the rest of your life and regret you needed to go there to prove something to yourself.
Life is more than running.
Athletes, including myself in the past, get “caught up” with trying to beat records, run specific splits and distances and can easily lose sight of it all.
Competitive athletes and people, in general, seem to have that trait
3. Study how the best runners think.
We all know that running is very much mental.
I credit mentality for having broken the 2:20:00 marathon barrier.
I was dreaming about sub-2:22 back in 2008 while it was still USATF Olympic Trials standard.
Sub-2:20:00 was always in my mind but knew the training and most importantly mindset had to be razor sharp.
You can do great training but you have to be calm and peak correctly to be a strong marathon runner.
Visualize the type of effort you want daily. I’d advise visualize yourself running across the finish line with the time you are dreaming about for a few minutes waking up and when going to bed at night.
See yourself dipping below that goal time.
Study those who have done what you want and emulate what they did.
What makes them look effortless in the race?
What are they doing?
How are they hydrating?
How do they think?
Some great questions to ask.
There is no guarantee here.
What took them a year may take you 15.
Are you willing to put in that kind of work?
How patient are you?
It took me from 1992 to 2007 to break the 2:20:00 marathon barrier…
That kind of patient.
Patience, absolutely essential to be a better marathon runner.
4. Be Patient
Cannot stress this one enough.
The key to being a great marathon runner is to be more patient.
We all want results overnight.
I know I did.
I was still a 2:43:36 marathoner and needed to be under 2:22:00 to be an official member of the US Army World Class Athlete Program.
I had many setbacks prior to running 2:19:35.
I ran a 2:40:02 at the 2007 Grandma’s Marathon after going out the first half-marathon in 1:10.
Didn’t quite cut the mustard folks for those in my chain of command who were demanding a 2:22:00 or better.
Sucked it up, took a few days off, continued to train.
I attempted it again at the 2007 Chicago Marathon going out in 1:11 only to end up running 2:51:53 in the hottest temperatures in the races history.
Took 3 days off and started again.
Perfect conditions at the 2007 California International Marathon where I finished as the top American and in 4th place breaking 2:20:00.
I don’t write this to brag.
One, I’m not what I consider world-class but I have been around and competed at a high enough level that I know what I am talking about; what I see too many runners doing.
Not patient enough and beating themselves up over something they will get perfect in due time.
This is part of the sport.
The key is being able to control your disappointment along the way and finding the positives in your setbacks.
This is why the great runners are the way they are.
They, too, have endured just as you have and they won’t let up so you had best keep that in mind and emulate them.
I promise you that if you persist you will do some tremendous things in our sport.
5. Have an un-shatterable belief in yourself.
No one is going to believe in you more than you.
You absolutely have to maintain your focus regardless what the conditions are outside or what you have to deal with.
I ran 2:19 for the marathon while working a full-time job in the military.
The Army didn’t care that I was putting in 100-140 mile weeks.
My chain of command didn’t care that I was getting up at 2am in the middle of field training exercises to do 18-mile runs while everyone else was sleeping in their warm sleeping bags.
I remember the work.
I remember the cold early mornings with the moon light shining down on the highway while I putting in the hard efforts.
So you have to care and know and expect that there is going to be some tough times ahead.
This is the nature of the marathon and what makes it so special.
It test your mental and physical capacity.
Marathon training is not easy but if you know what you want and what are willing to do whatever it takes to get it than it isn’t that tough.
Forget the naysayers.
Your goals are too high.
Take it easy on yourself.
There are no limits.
We put limitations on ourselves.
A great leader once said “All things are possible to him who believes”.
He didn’t say some things but all.
Obviously, you can’t jump off a building and fly but you can motivate yourself and do things you didn’t think you thought you could.
I have to admit when I was still a 2:43:36 marathoner I was very much aware of how big of a jump a sub-2:20:00 marathon effort was.
The marathon and I never were friends.
I had a 50:54 10-mile PR and 1:07:06 half-marathon best but had never been under 2:43:00 for the marathon prior to 7 December 2007.
Several failed attempts and even I, at times, was questioning if I could ever get it right.
Persistence paid off.
Belief you can do it.
This is the best advice I can give to anyone seeking to be a better marathon runner.
The belief in yourself to commit 5 to 10 to 15 years to see that breakthrough in yourself come about.
I started running in 1992.
I had never envisioned being a marathon specialist and I really only got the marathon right twice from 2002 to 2011.
My second fastest marathon time behind my 2:19:35 is the 2:26:42 I ran for 5th place at the 2011 Monumental Indianapolis Marathon.
My next best times after that are a 2:32 and 2:36.
The rest of my efforts were experiments which brings me to point number 6.
6. Don’t be afraid to fail.
It was world-renowned exercise physiologist and olympic coach who once told me,
Nate, never be afraid of competition, it will bring out the best in you
He was 100-percent correct.
I have lost count of the amount of times I failed over the years trying to go all-out in races.
Success comes about from failed attempts.
Everyone loves success and successful people look as if they have something you and I don’t.
I can tell you what they have.
An absolutely fanatical, relentless, unwavering love for what they are doing and they won’t let up.
It doesn’t come about from stopping when you miss the mark a few times.
You may continue to miss the mark and start to question what you are doing out there.
Listen, if you want to be a better marathon runner get out there and experiment a little.
You have to test yourself and see what you can really do.
Ever heard that one?
You’ll continue to hear it.
“Run smart” is another one of my favorites.
There is truth to the both of these but sometimes you just have to get out there and say
F it, I’m going for it
You’re never going to know unless you try and as long you have put in the work then it is perfectly legitimate to experiment and see what you are capable of.
My PR for the marathon prior to running 2:19:35 was 2:40:02.
My best for the half-marathon before dipping under 2:20:00 was 1:07:06.
I hit the half at 1:07:09 (3 seconds slower than my best for the same distance) when I ran 2:19:35.
I just said, screw it, I’m fit, I’m going to run with these cats.
There are so many people that have so many different viewpoints about racing.
I won’t be the first and I surely won’t be the last runner writing about how to be a better marathon runner.
That being said, hopefully being a 2:19 marathoner and being honest enough to say that, yes, you are going to fail at some attempts, will remind you that it is part of the process.
I’m not going to sugar coat for anyone reading this.
It was damn hard over the years trying to push the limits in this event.
You are going to experience some days in training where you are truly going to either want to quit or seriously question what the hell you are doing.
Remember, it’s just training.
A good night sleep, some time with a loved one, even a glass of wine and some time off, if need be, will do the trick to keep you fired up.
The marathon is not like a 5K where it is a few minutes and over.
The marathon is a thinking man or woman’s event and to be a great marathoner runner your mindset has to be on the end goal.
7. Keep it fun.
Find the good in the hard efforts.
Doing 20-mile long runs at hard efforts takes a lot out of you.
Get in with a solid group to train with if you can.
If you don’t have anyone to run with put in some music and enjoy the fact that you are healthy and can do what you can do.
Continue to remind yourself of what you want.
Is it to lose weight?
Is it to break 4 hours?
How about 3 hours?
Are you thinking 2:30?
Anything can be done.
If I can do it so can you but I can promise you this one point if you are wanting to be a better marathon runner.
8. Be ready to work your ass off.
The marathon is 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers and no one running 5 miles per week is going to prepare for what they have coming if they aren’t willing to put in the work.
I started my freshman year in high school running the mile in 5:30 and the two-mile in 11:36.
I was fortunate that I found something that I loved and put my heart and soul into in order to see how hard and far I could go.
There was no indication, based on those times, that I would ever become a 2:19:35 marathoner nor would I have had I not been willing to work harder than most other athletes.
This is what I want for my readers.
I’m very adamant about getting out of your comfort zone.
You will see articles here on the importance of entrepreneurship for a reason.
Some folks like being an employee.
More power to them but life is short.
78 percent of the population here in America are living paycheck to paycheck.
You have to think outside the box with this sport.
Easy running is fun.
Running fast, for long periods of time, is an art.
Paint your masterpiece.
Don’t expect the sculpture to just appear.
Good luck with that.
Be willing to put in some sweat equity.
I suppose that is why I write so much about entrepreneurship because there is nothing safe and secure about it.
Jobs are great.
They pay the bills but you have to keep showing up, whether you hate or love what you do for a living, in order to get paid.
Get out of your comfort zone and I can promise you it will be more fun for you along the way.
There isn’t anything fun about doing less than what you are capable of.
Start a business i.e a side hustle while you work that job you love (or hate) and build your residual income.
9. Let go of failed attempts.
You don’t need to explain bad races to people.
If they are real they will know you are going to keep fighting whether you nail the perfect race or you fail miserably.
I know because I did too.
I’m writing from experience here.
If you want to know how a 2:19 marathoner thinks I’m being real with you.
Let it go.
Your best years are ahead of you.
If you are older that doesn’t mean you can still improve.
I am 41 and there are 41-year old in the world who can still run faster than my 2:19:35 best.
We all have different goals, aspirations.
Yours might be just to finish a marathon.
I salute you.
You are a badass.
Do you realize how many people around the world who will never even attempt to do what you are willing to do?
We all sit on the fence on so many things.
Escape from reality?
Wondering what people will think if we fail?
If you have a bad race it simply means there is something missing that you have to find out along the way.
It may be lack of miles you’re putting in or lack of miles at fast enough speeds.
To be a top marathon runner spending longer period of time at uncomfortable paces will create results.
Recovering from those hard efforts are equally important.
Perhaps you have a muscle imbalance that needs corrected.
You may not by hydrating well enough in your longer runs and in the race.
You could be low on iron or a mineral which is causing you to fatigue in the race.
It could be a number of things that are causing you issues as a marathon runner.
If you are younger you simply need more time on your feet and in the ring, period.
Endurance sport demands unending, relentless and undying focus toward a goal.
You absolutely must want this and you have to keep in fun along the way.
Let it go if the race didn’t go the way you wanted it to go.
A month, year or decade will go by and that one failed attempt will be an after thought.
I can promise you had I quit after running some of the slower times I put up I would have never broken the 2:20:00 marathon barrier.
I’ll be honest, there were many days I wanted to.
Marathon running is not for the faint of heart.
10. Be thankful.
Remember your “bad race” may be someone else’s dream effort.
I always tried to keep that perspective when I was competing.
My last official race was 8 October 17 and you know how it ended?
Being thankful for life and my health.
A Soldier passed out next to me and I was able to catch him before he hit the pavement.
I jogged in to the finish after spending about 15 minutes with the guy before perimedics arrived.
No one cared that I was a 2:19 marathoner or made two world armed forces cross country teams.
I came home to a wife that loved me.
A brother and nephew came to see me finish.
Those two facts alone were worth more to me than anything I have done in this sport.
So, love the effort and do go after the big goals; just remember what is really important.
It puts things into perspective when someone’s life is on the line.
Puts you in your place real quick, fast and in a hurry.
Those mile splits you were concerned about or that age group championship you were chasing isn’t so important anymore.
It reminds us all that being a great marathon runner is simply attempting to do something difficult but also having our health.
It’s great to aspire to do the unthinkable and have the work ethic to see it through.
What is more important is knowing you have more worth than the times you are chasing.
No one was born ordinary.
We all choose to push the limits or sit on the cliff as Steve Harvey says in the video above (watch it!).
You are already a great marathon runner.
If you are not there yet it simply means you need to be a bit more patient, be willing to put in a few more years of hard training and to be able to handle the ups and downs that are coming.
You are not doing something that is easy but something that is hard.