When should I run my first marathon?
by on Thursday, September 7, 2017  (8 comments)

Shortly before the finish of my first marathon in 2002

This is a question posed by many new runners. It seems like such a straightforward question. Unfortunately, the answer is not as straightforward and, honestly, not what most beginning runners want to hear.

First, there is the question of what your goals in running are and may be in the future. Very few people run a marathon in their first few years of running and go on to reach their ultimate racing potential.

Second, age is a factor. There are countless stories of people running marathons in their teenage years, just to not keep improving beyond their early 20s. Considering the fact that many marathoners don't reach their peak until their mid 30s, this doesn't seem to be ideal.

Finally, there is previous exercise levels. Someone who never got off the couch before taking up running is going to take longer to become prepared for a marathon than someone who came from an athletic background, especially if that athletic background was in endurance sports.

What are your goals?

As I stated, the first question is of your goals. If you are not interested in trying to reach your racing potential and instead "just want to finish" a marathon, that is quite different than if you want to race marathons or other distances and want to try to reach your potential.

People who reach their full potential tend to build up to the marathon. They start with shorter races, like 5k and 10k, develop a good ability in those distances, then build up to 10 mile and half marathon type races, eventually possibly even working up to 25k, 30k, or 20 mile races. Once they have reached a high level in the shorter distances, they step up to the marathon. For many runners, their first marathon may come 10 or more years after they began running. Personally, my first marathon came after I had been running for nearly 12.5 years.

On the other hand, not everyone has goals like these. I still think it is a wise idea for anyone, regardless of goals, to build up to the marathon. I would love to say that nobody should run a marathon on less than 3 years of running but I know a lot of people don't want to accept that. What I will say, and some people don't even like this, is that you are not ready to run a marathon unless you have been consistently running for at least a year and have been building up for a marathon for at least 6 months.

Age - a touchy subject

Age is a much debated factor. Some people will tell you that a person should never run a marathon before the age of 25. Others will give stories about themselves or people they know who ran a marathon at 16 or 17 years old.

Personally, I fall more toward the first group, although I won't give a definite age. To put it simply, I think a teenager has more to lose than gain by running a marathon. You have your whole life ahead of you to run marathons and you will be better prepared to run marathons if you wait a few more years.

As I said above, if you want to race marathons and push for your full potential, by all means, take your time. Many elite marathoners don't run their first until they are in their late 20s or even early 30s. Even if you don't want to race, your body will be more ready to handle the stress a marathon puts on it if you give it more time training.

Also, you shouldn't look past the mental aspect. As a teenager, you are still mentally and physically maturing. The longer you give that mental and physical maturity to develop, the better your first marathon experience will be.

Experience matters

Finally, the experience factor. A lot of experienced marathoners take heat on this topic, in large part because of training groups that advertise that a person can go from inactive to running a marathon in 6 months or, recently, even 12 weeks.

I'm sorry to inform you but the large majority of people who try this come out of it with a bad experience in the closing miles. Sure, maybe they say it was the accomplishment of a lifetime but ask them how the last few miles felt. I've heard many torture stories.

Marathoning doesn't have to hurt that badly if you give yourself adequate time for training. My suggestion is to not even think about running a marathon on less than a year of consistent running. I would love to say more but I know most people will just ignore my suggestions if I do. You need to give your body time to adapt to the stresses of running. Going from 0 to 26.2 in even a year's time is a tall order for anyone. Doing so in 6 months time is playing with fire. Doing so in 12 weeks is downright dangerous. Once again, if your goal is racing or trying to become the fastest you can become, consider taking much longer.

In the end, only you can decide what time is right for you to do your first marathon. I stated my feelings on it here and I hope you will consider what I have to say. Weigh all the advice you are given, who it is coming from, what they stand to gain or lose by your following their advice, and make an informed decision.

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I did my first and so far only marathon at just shy of 33 years old. I did it about on about 6-7 months of training. I hadn't run at all since about a decade before that where I ran very short runs in the Army. I ran for (I don't remember) 2-3 months of just getting 2 miles runs every day. Then I followed a 16 week plan on Runner's World.

I trained to run all my runs at an 8 minute per mile pace.

I ran a 5K, 1/2 mary and a 10K (in that order) before running in the Lakefront Marathon (Milwaukee).

It was tough and I did very well finishing in 3:35:36 which is a hair over an 8:00 mile.

I want to run Lakefront again most likely in 2017 and try to qualify for Boston.

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Solid effort Ed!! How is February going? I never have run a marathon, but one day I ll, maybe I enjoy shorter distance instead of that long race called marathon:)

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Cesar, there's no problem with not running a marathon either. I haven't run one in over 10 year. For me, it's simply a matter of achieving at a high level and being left where I'd have to work very hard to achieve a standard I'd expect of myself and probably still end up looking back disappointed at how far I am from where I once was. It's much more reasonable at this point in my life to do "well enough" at shorter distances with admittedly a lot of work but not as much as a marathon at the level I would expect of myself would require.

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Thanks Cesar! Like Ryan said - it is OK to never run a marathon. Although, if healthy enough (and well trained) I would recommend it - as finishing it will give you a tremendous sense of accomplishment and self worth. I was overcome with emotions when I crossed that finish line as I nearly collapsed in my wife's arms. I still look back on that moment with very fond memories. Which is why I want to do it again.

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Chris (Guest)

Great article, I am 45 and going to run my first marathon this year. I got subdued in the lottery cut the MCM so needless to say I am pretty pumped! Any words of advice are greatly appreciated. Chris

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Chris, I'll offer a little general advice. Obviously, advice tailored to you would require much more knowledge of your unique situation.

First, don't hesitate in preparation. This is the time to start, if you haven't already. You don't need to be out there doing 20 mile runs in April but this is the time to lay the groundwork so you are ready for those 20 mile runs when (or if) they come.

Second, everyone likes to focus on the peak. What was your longest long run? What was your highest mileage week? More important in my opinion is how consistent you've been. What was your third longest long run? What was your fourth highest mileage week? What was your highest mileage month? Anyone can hit a high peak, more important is how consistently you've been doing the work.

Finally, make sure you enjoy the experience. Both the preparation and race day itself. This is something you're doing as a recreational pursuit. It's supposed to be fun. Enjoy the experience!

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xcrunner1999 (Guest)

I am a 17 year old (high school senior) who has run cross country and track for the past 3 years. I have mainly run 5k in cross country and 800m/1000m/mile guy in track. I do long runs of 10-12 miles so by no means am I the "get-off-the-couch-and-run-a-marathon" guy. But, I want to move up to the marathon because I prefer longer distances (as well as being better at longer distances too.) I want to continue running and dont want to peak at 17, but I feel like starting early will give me a jump start. Any ideas?

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Hi xcrunner1999,

It sounds like you are in a very similar position to where i was my senior year of high school. If you're going to college, I would encourage you to consider running there. Cross country is 8K to 10K for the men, depending on the division. For track, you have the opportunity to run up to 10K. I personally think that, if it's an option, running collegiately is an experience you should not pass on.

That said, if collegiate running is not in the cards for you, my suggestion would be to move up incrementally. You mention you've run the standard scholastic distances. Have you ever done a road 10K yet? Half marathon? If so, I would strongly suggest doing at least a few 10Ks before moving up to the half and at least one or two half marathons before moving up to the full. I'm not saying that because I want you to take forever to move up but because experience in those intermediate distances will make your first marathon experience much better.

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