The coveted 26.2: Many people, whether seasoned runners or racing newbies, are allured by the marathon. Some hope to cross it off their bucket list, others do it to come home with a shiny new PB, while some people simply want to claim bragging rights.
But hold up! While many people get hooked once they first experience a runner’s high – those feel-good chemicals released in the brain while pushing your body to its limits – that elation can lead to too much of a good thing.In fact, marathon runners are especially vulnerable to exercise addiction. Think of running like medication: People use it to stay healthy and prevent a handful to chronic illnesses. But like with a drug, there is a chance of overdosing. Even without the risk of addiction, marathon training puts a ton of stress on the body, especially since most running plans are in the 16– to 20–week range. Research suggests the benefit of physical exercise has its limits, and overdoing it can lead to weakened heart health and even tamper with longevity. If marathon training is approached the wrong way, it can lead to some serious health hazards, not to mention the risk of not making it to the starting line.
Of course, runners can still enjoy that high (and a shiny new medal). It’s all about understanding the warning signs of overuse or overtraining.
So how do runners train hard but not too hard? How do you know when you’re pushing your body past its limits? I break down the dangers of overdoing it, plus offer smart training tips.
How Much Is Too Much?
To start off, many running problems stem from overtraining, an almost impossible-to-avoid symptom when on the journey to a 26.2. It’s a good idea to be able to identify the signs of overtraining as soon as they strike and take some much needed and well-deserved rest.
The tricky part about understanding “how much is too much” is that the optimal level of exercise for each person is relative and fluctuates over time. The big rule of thumb is to listen to your body to avoid any of the symptoms described below.5 The facts below are based on scientific research, but every injury or sign of physical and mental stress from marathon training should be brought up with your clinician.
Muscle strain: Muscle swelling or bruising could be a red flag for a muscle strain. Also known as a pulled muscle, this pesky pain refers to the tearing of muscle tendons and fibers attached to a muscle. Sometimes bruising or even local bleeding occurs because a torn muscle can also damage tiny blood vessels. The best treatment for a strained, pulled, or torn muscle is rest combined with ice and heat.
Joint pain: Joint pain is discomfort that comes from – you guessed it – a joint, or the point where two or more bones meet in the body. In runners, joint problems are common in knees, the spine, ankles, hips, and even the big toe. The jury is still out if distance running (such as marathon training) actually increases the chances of joint problems. In fact, one study claims endurance running doesn’t up the chances of joint issues in the knees and hips. Still, it’s something to be conscious of, so take note of swelling, which is the biggest sign of joint pain. To ensure joints stay healthy, avoid pounding on hard surfaces (try trail running), maintain proper running form, and wear the right sneakers.
Runner’s knee: Many people complain that long bouts of running can be really bad for the knees. There is a good amount of conflicting research on the long-term effects of running on the knees, but it is safe to say that many runners have experienced “runner’s knee” – a tender pain right at the kneecap. One culprit is repeated pounding on pavement (especially downhill running), and another cause could be weak hips. The best way to deal with this pain is to ease up on the mileage for a few days, or run on softer surfaces if it’s near peak week in your training cycle.
Plantar fasciitis: The Plantar fascia is a band of tissue that connects the heel bone to the toes, and is very vulnerable to injury – especially when logging many miles every week. If the fascia becomes inflamed, you’ll feel the annoying pain right on the bottom of the foot. The best way to treat plantar fasciitis is to wear supportive shoes with extra cushion. Or to help stretch the heel out, roll a tennis ball over the ball of the foot.Some doctors also recommend night splints.
Shin splints: Most runners of any distance and skill level have probably experienced the nagging and stabbing pain of shin splints. Many marathon trainers experience this pain since running down hills puts extra force on the shin’s tibialis muscle. Technically speaking, shin splints are an inflammation of the muscles and tendons covering the shinbone. A great way to treat the ache is to ice them for 20 minutes after a run.12
While there is a laundry list of potential running injuries from marathon training, the above-mentioned are the most common and treatable with rest and rehabilitation. These next two running woes are not as likely, but are important to recognize especially if you’re a serious endurance athlete:
Oxidative stress: All types of exercise cause a bit of oxidative stress, which is when cells are damaged from free radicals released in the body. In small doses, oxidative stress is actually good for the body: The body’s response to oxidative stress is to produce antioxidants to defend itself. But some research suggests long bouts of intense running can cause too much oxidative stress, which means recovery is key for extreme runners. Warning signs include extreme fatigue, brain fog or memory loss, and a decrease in eyesight.
Social woes: The symptom that’s mentioned less at the doctor’s office is how marathon training can get in the way of everything else in your life. Aside from the physical time it takes to run (especially long runs), marathon training means you may have to choose training over social activities, cut back on alcohol, require more sleep, and be fatigued. It may get really hard at times to choose a five-mile run over a dinner date with friends, or call it quits at the bar before everyone else. But the reality of marathon training is that it’s riddled with sacrifices to ensure you hit the line healthy and ready to run.
How to Train Smart
Not every person training for a marathon is going to have to deal with the multiple physical and emotional pains of endurance running. Even something as committed as marathon training can be balanced. We’ve broken down the best ways to combat and avoid potential health hazards when hitting the pavement.
Make running social: While long distance running can have social drawbacks, there is a bright side. The running community is known for its warm embrace, and it’s fairly simple to find local running groups, online forums, and even apps so you don’t need to go it alone. Consider asking a friend to run the first few miles with you on a Sunday long run, or do slow recovery runs with pals so you can simultaneously catch up on each other’s lives. There’s nothing quite like a post-run cold beer or smoothie, so treat yourself by ending a run at a bar or other favorite stop every now and then.
Cross train: A foolproof way to reduce all of the hard pounding on your muscles and still get in additional cardio is to cross train. This includes many activities such as biking, swimming, rowing, or even paddle boarding. Schedule at least one cross-training workout per week to give your running muscles some rest while still improving cardio and strength.
Strength train: A runner’s secret ingredient to increased performance and decreased injury risk is to spend some time in the weight room. The benefits of strength training for runners are huge and complement a running training plan quite well. Weak muscles and joints (especially the hips) are the sneaky culprits of aches in other parts of the body, so strengthen them to help keep injuries at bay. Start with these strength exercises.
Follow a plan: Consult experts to help create a smart marathon plan for you. A crucial component of a running plan is a safe increase in mileage so the body isn’t introduced to too much, too soon. The famous 10 percent rule in running is a great guideline to follow.Simply put, no runner should increase their mileage by more than 10 percent from the week prior. A smart running plan should also have a healthy dose of cross training, speed workouts, hill repeats, strength sessions, and, yes, an ample amount of rest. For starters, check out Hal Higdon’s marathon training guides, Jeff Galloway’s plans, and guides provided by Runner’s World.
Eat well: Bad habits in the kitchen can leave you feeling pretty crummy when working out. It’s crucial for marathon runners to stick to a diet with a hefty amount of vitamins, minerals, and calories, including carbohydrates. Food is fuel, and carbs, protein, and fat are necessary for muscle repair and growth.
Rest: Every day of marathon training has its purpose – rest included. Rest days are essential for the body to rebuild the muscle tissue that breaks down with every run and strength workout. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the number of days off a runner should take each week, but one to two days is a good rule of thumb. Listen to your body and take rest when you need it.
Mix it up: A common cause of overtraining is repetitive movements (i.e. running day after day). A nice rule to follow is to wait two days before hitting the same muscle groups again.21 So that means avoiding hill repeats two days in a row, or skipping back-to-back tempo workouts. If you ran with a similar intensity multiple days in a row, squeeze in a yoga class or swim session to break things up.
Change your shoes: There’s no way around it, especially when training for a marathon: Replace running shoes every 300 to 500 miles.2 Those miles can creep up on you, so keep a training log to ensure you know when it’s time to purchase a new pair. It’s also essential to run in the right shoe for you, so stop by your local running store and talk to an expert. A shoe expert will examine your foot and the way you run on a treadmill to figure out what type of shoe fits your foot best. It’s useful to try on lots of different pairs and feel comfortable knowing you made the right choice.
Get enough sleep: If there’s one thing we can’t emphasize enough, it’s getting enough slumber to maximize recovery time and reduce fatigue. Sleep is necessary for the body to heal and be energized enough to meet weekly mileage goals. Most people need seven to nine hours a night, but if you’re marathon training, it’s normal to need a few more.On some nights, try adding in an hour more than you normally would, or squeeze in an afternoon nap. To fall asleep with ease, stick to a regular schedule. Strive to go to bed and wake up at the same time every night and morning. And watch out for runs too late in the evening: Late-night workouts can make it difficult to fall asleep.
Don’t forget the taper: No runner can forget when it’s time to taper. Tapering is when runners start to cut back on mileage so the body can fully recover and prepare for the big race day. Ending those long, 20–mile weekend runs sounds like a reward, but many runners struggle with tapering after following such a regimented routine.(It may also feel scary to cut back so close to race day.) Still, it’s necessary to stay healthy for the big day.
In general, overtraining requires some serious time to recover (we’re talking weeks) so make sure you see a sports-medicine specialist if the miles have taken you too far. And after you’ve crossed the finish line, give your body ample time to recover before lacing up the sneakers again. Experts say you should give your body at least one week to rest after completing a marathon.
At the end of the day, your best tool is your runner’s intuition. Stick to what your body is tells you, speak with your doctor, and try to enjoy the journey to a happy and healthy marathon day.