I have been training for a marathon for the past two years. In this post, I will summarize some of the things I've learned while trying to achieve this goal as a 20 year casual runner. If you want to get to the meat of this post faster skip the backstory.
I've been running ever since I went to university some 20 years ago. Cycling was my main means of transport when I lived in Munich. Furthermore, I started going to the gym around that time too. Balancing cardio and strength training has been a personal challenge ever since. I rarely ran more than once a week, and it was also rare that I ran more than 10 km in one session. Although I ran regularly ever since 2006 in Stuttgart, I only ran once a week and lifted weights and did other exercises in the gym 2–3 times a week because it was more time efficient.
In 2018, I had a knee injury which prevented me from running regularly. A doctor told me I could never run again, another one wanted to operate on my knee. Long story short, I stopped running and tried cycling once a week while figuring out my knee issues. A combination of massaging, stretching, and strength training turned out to be the cure here. Getting back to running wasn't easy. In the beginning, I couldn't even run 2 km anymore. After a lot of huffing and puffing, I was able to run a 5 km, then back to my most comfy distance which is the 10k. Then I asked myself if I couldn't do one of those fancy trail ultras.
1. Shoes Are Everything
Shoes are very important for runners. My first real running shoe was a Brooks Ghost 5. After that one, I got two new Brooks shoes. A Ghost 9 and a PureGrit to switch shoes. Then in 2022 I got new shoes. A pair of Rivera 2’s from Altra, and an ST-4 from Topo Athletic. Both have an incredibly roomy toe box, which I now realize was the reason my toes were getting sore in the Ghosts.
My recommendation: go to one of your local shoe stores and get your shoes fitted. Ideally go a little larger than you think.
If you have some sneakers, or an older pair of shoes, take them to the store. Also make sure to tell the people at the store what your goals are, and what you liked/didn’t like about the pairs to brought them. The shoe profile can tell them what kind of runner you are, so you get a better shoe for your feet. Get shoes that are large enough. Some running shoes can be bought in a “wide” or a “narrow” variant. Don’t believe you have to buy shoe X just because an influencer wears it.
2. Running Clothes and Other Gear
I love shopping for new gear, whether it's camera gear or sports apparel. Over the years, I've found some essentials that accompany me on almost every run.
- Running belt: Initially, I used arm bands with my Nike + iPod Sport Kit to avoid holding my phone. But as phones got larger and heavier, I switched to a Salomon Agile 250 running belt with a back pocket for a 250ml flask. It's hands-free and protects the phone against rain, making it a favorite accessory for me. Salomon doesn't sell these anymore. I hope mine never dies.
- Headphones: Currently, I use Jaybird Vista 2's, although the "thudding" sound on each step bothers me due to their design. For better sound quality, I own JBL Endurance Peak 3's that sit openly on the ears, allowing for good spatial awareness. Their impressive 10-hour battery life is a plus. Open earphones solve the thudding issue if you also want to enjoy audiobooks and podcasts during your runs.
- Socks: I prefer jogging with quality running socks. They offer better breathability, and prevent blisters, because they have added padding where shoes tend to rub against the skin. It's a worthwhile investment for a more comfortable run.
- Windbreaker/rain jacket: Discovering windbreakers was a game-changer. These thin, functional jackets keep cold air away, offering warmth in cold weather and good ones even protection from rain. Having one in my wardrobe ensures I never miss a run, even in challenging weather conditions. Combined with waterproof headphones (IP68) the only challenge left to go running is mental.
- A mask/Buff/neck warmer for winter runs: As the seasons change, I used to suffer from a dry cough. To combat this, I bought neck warmers to keep the air I breathe warm and moist, preventing bronchial irritation. For winter, I recommend the Thermonet Buffs for their breathability and effectiveness. I've tried thinner tube scarves, but they either were too thin and didn't provide enough protection, or were too thick, i.e. not breathable enough. Alternatively, cyclist masks, available on Amazon, work well too. My favorite piece is the Adidas COLD.RDY neck warmer, though it's quite warm, it stays in place and feels comfortable. When using cheaper masks in winter, breathing can cause the fabric to get wet and uncomfortably cold during long runs. Carrying an extra scarf is a helpful pro-tip.
- Food and gels: I prefer gels with stay-on flaps to avoid littering the trails. Many running coaches recommend caffeine for a legal performance boost, but I personally avoid it due to "unwanted" side effects. In Germany PowerBar sends their packages fee-free. Recently I'm enjoying Maurten and the Precision Hydration gels, as well as their chews. Less tasty, but they go down easier.
- Salt: Addressing this separately due to its significant impact on my running. Precision Hydration's marketing highlighted the importance of personalized salt intake. Potassium, calcium, magnesium, and table salt are common types. Adding a bit more table salt to my run drinks helped me stay fit during longer runs, eliminating the aches I used to experience after 2-3 hours of running. Salt pills from Salt Stick, Sponser, or Decathlon work effectively.
- Know where to find facilities and water: Though it may not be the most comfortable topic, being out in the woods for extended periods during marathon training requires planning for restroom breaks and accessing fresh water. I recommend researching what to do in those instances. The book "How to Make Yourself Poop," which offers valuable advice for runners, not only about pooping, is worth a read. Additionally, get a maps app like OsmAnd Maps, which provides more detailed data, including restroom locations, water fountains, parking spots, and official hiking trails. OpenStreetMaps apps generally offer more functions for users like us runners.
- Summer tips for staying cool and hydrated:
- Carry a wet Buff or towel to enjoy cool air. Pinch the towel under a hat to cover the neck and keep the head fresh.
- Increase water capacity by carrying a flask with a water filter, such as the Salomon XA Filter Flask. Fill it with 500ml of tap water at home and keep it in your running vest. The filter allows you to access water from various sources, ensuring hydration even when there are no water fountains along your planned route. Pro-tip: Hydrapak sells a 42mm filter without the flask. Simply re-use a 500ml flask you already have. And do yourself a favor and research which water sources are safer to use with your filter.
3. Train Smarter and Optimize Performance
When I progressed from 10k to my first half-marathon, I followed predetermined training plans in RunKeeper. While they were beneficial, they lacked adaptability to my current fitness level, making the experience less enjoyable. These training plans are also predetermined, which means they don't change if you get injured or sick. Over time, I questioned the effectiveness of rigid training plans, wondering if there was a better way to train.
Researching and reading various books, I discovered a common misconception among amateur runners. Many believe that pushing themselves to the limit in every run leads to better results. However, studies show that pro runners achieve significant improvements when around 80% of their runs are at a slow-to-mid comfortable pace. I cannot assess the scientific truth of this. That's why I currently use TrainAsONE, an AI-powered platform that creates an adaptable training plan – an AI running coach if you will. The app connects with sports platforms like Strava, Garmin, and Suunto, utilizing daily health data to adjust the plan accordingly. It generates an optimal training program tailored to individual needs, allowing me to run 4 to 5 times a week consistently with impressive results.
I've also learned that running smarter involves considering running form and technique. While we think running comes natural, working on technique can provide a competitive edge. Watch this video from Fredrik Zillén why working on technique is beneficial. Highly recommend his channel. Finding reliable resources can be challenging due to an abundance of pseudo fitness gurus and dubious sports science literature.
For those interested in exploring further, I recommend these books (also available as audiobooks). There's obviously more in my library, but these gave great insights:
- Run Like a Pro - Matt Fitzgerald, Ben Rosario
- Peak: The New Science of Athletic Performance That is Revolutionizing Sports - Dr. Bubbs, Marc
- Peak 40: The New Science of Mid-Life Health for a Leaner, Stronger Body and a Sharper Mind - Dr. Bubbs, Marc
- Running Rewired
4. Prioritizing Recovery
Similar to the previous point, effective training requires adequate recovery. Pro runners prioritize quality sleep, which plays a significant role in their performance. I've learned that instead of solely focusing on strength training at the gym, incorporating flexibility and mobility sessions can work wonders for injury prevention. I highly recommend Strava's Recover app and the Blackroll app for these purposes. Strava's app offers targeted recovery sessions with stretches and strength exercises for specific problematic muscle groups. On the other hand, the Blackroll app allows you to choose exercises for different body parts, including recovery, activation, strength, and mobility exercises, using simple equipment like foam rolls, elastic bands, and a tennis ball.
Slowing down your pace during recovery runs is also beneficial. Running at a conversational pace allows your body to recover more effectively. I've been surprised by how slow the recovery runs generated by TrainAsONE can be. The relaxed pace has provided a different challenge to master.
The key lesson is this: To become a better runner, I had to embrace the idea of running slowly during recovery and fully commit to running fast for faster sessions.
5. Strength Training and Recovery Techniques
Throughout my 20 years of running, I've consistently prioritized strength training at the gym. However, as time passed, I realized the importance of focusing on specific areas that truly require improvement. Training for long distances made me aware of the need to work on my calves and the muscles supporting my running. Additionally, building explosive strength is crucial for enhancing running speed. Considering the demands of trail running, targeting supporting muscles is beneficial. To help with my strength training, I discovered the Fitbod app, which offers flexible exercise plans for both home and gym workouts. Combining this with personalized recovery plans, like those from the Recover app, has significantly improved any minor discomfort or pain I experienced. I find that alternating between strength training and bodybuilding on a monthly or bi-monthly basis works well for me.