When should I run my first marathon?

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


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.

One question to ask yourself every day

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


Just a quick post this week. I want you to ask yourself one question today. Then ask the same question every day from now on.

What am I doing today to make myself better?

Sometimes the answer should be a workout that will accomplish a specific purpose. Sometimes it will be an easy run to recover from a prior workout or prepare for a coming workout. Sometimes it will be a rest day. Whatever the case, you should be doing something every day to make yourself a better runner. I want you to think about that every day and think about how you can best accomplish that.

Then execute the plan to the best of your ability.

When to modify the plan

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


You are training for a race that is highly important to you. You have a detailed plan laid out. Month by month, week by week, day by day, you know what you’re supposed to be doing.

Then something happens. Do you push through or do you change the plan?

Many times, the answer is that you should push through. There are definitely times when we should push through some lingering fatigue or uncomfortable but not unsafe conditions.

There are other times, though, that we’re better off changing the plan.

How do we know the difference? Well, it’s not always easy. Experience goes a long way in determining what the right answer is. However, there are some general guidelines that you can think through to answer the question.

Is it safe?

Thanks to HillRunner.com’s partnership with the Seattle Marathon, I work with a number of runners in the Seattle area. If you haven’t heard, smoke from the wildfires in the area has been a real problem in and around Seattle. What advice have I been giving to them? Think twice about running outside. If it’s not safe, don’t do it. Take your running inside. If that’s not an option, think of your health first and don’t run. Don’t run is not a message I like sending to uninjured runners but sometimes it’s the appropriate thing to do.

Obviously, smoke from wildfires isn’t the only safety concern you have to think about. Severe weather of any kind is what most of us will most frequently face. If the weather is dangerous, don’t run. I’ve taken off or cut runs short due to lightning, snow storms creating slippery conditions where an out of control car may hit me, and various other reasons.

How will it affect my training/what is my training goal right now?

This past winter, I went through periods where I was very fatigued. I was laying my base for this year and I was far from any races, though. So I pushed through. Right now, I’m again experiencing a lot of fatigue. I’m trying to build to a peak and roughly 2 months out from my last race of the year. I’m adjusting my plan, making my easy days extremely easy so I can still get in quality work on my hard days. I’m also constantly monitoring my condition to decide if I need to skip a hard day.

Why push through in one situation and not the other? It’s all about the circumstances.

In the winter, I wasn’t trying to peak for a race. I was trying to log a lot of miles and build stamina. Fatigue was part of the equation. So I pushed through.

Right now, I’m trying to peak for 3 races in the next 2+ months. The stamina is as good as it’s going to get and I need to work on running fast. I want to be more rested so I can push my workouts and so I can ensure I’ll be feeling good two weeks from now when I’m lining up for my first race of the season. So I do whatever is necessary on my recovery days in order to both be ready for my next workout and recover from/benefit from my prior workout.

Sometimes it can be tough to know where to draw the line between these scenarios. What would I have done in June? July? That’s where experience comes into play. If you don’t yet have the experience, it’s probably better to play it safe. Very experienced runners will often just know, it’s like a sixth sense. We just need to make sure we’re doing what we know we should be doing.

Photo credit: Run by Jerzy Sobkowicz, on Flickr

Focus on one thing at a time

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


When you’re asked to think about several things before a workout or race, what happens?

If you’re like me, you get started and, when the going gets tough, you forget what you’re supposed to be focusing on.

What good does that do?

Instead, consider focusing on one key thing. Maybe it’s your stride rate, maybe it’s a powerful stride, maybe it’s running tall. Whatever the case, pick one thing that you think is the most important thing to work on and focus on that.

Build one or two key phrases around that one focus that you can remind yourself of while you’re running. For example, if you’re focusing on your stride rate, maybe you want to think "quick steps". Then, while running, you can key into "quick steps" to ensure your stride rate is where you want it.

This one thought may change over time, either as what you’re working on becomes natural and you don’t need to think about it or as your needed focus shifts. For example, on a workout day your key phrase might be "quick steps". On an easy day, though, you have a different focus and your key phrase might be "recovery" or "rejuvenation" or "relax" to remind you to keep the pace relaxed, allowing that recovery and rejuvenation you need.

Are you going to give this a try? I hope so. If you do, I’d love to hear in the comments what you’re going to try.

Here’s what I’m thinking about this week. Tuesday, during some half mile repeats, I ran with "quick steps". Yesterday was a "recovery" day and I expect today to be all about running "smooth" on my tempo workout.

Photo credit: Training by Running Across Borders, on Flickr

Even on vacation, don’t ignore your auxiliary training

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


As this post appears, I’m on vacation. I’m on a trip that involves a lot of bike riding and a lot of walking.

Don’t worry, I’m still running. I love running while on vacation because I get to explore new areas in ways I find I just can’t by any other means.

As of the time I’m writing this, I’m also planning to place a focus on stretching. Why? Because what I call "auxiliary training" matters that much.

Sure, I won’t be doing my full strength training routine while on vacation, though I hope I’ll get a short routine in at least once while away. However, personally, the stretching matters enough that it will be made a priority.

Last time I returned from vacation, I was pretty sore after a lot of just what I’m doing on this vacation, bike riding and walking. I jumped right back into my training pretty well but, for a few days, my paces were off and I was feeling stiff and sluggish.

This time, I’m devoting 5-10 minutes a day to avoid that. It’s a little commitment that will go a long way toward ensuring I can jump right back into my training without any setbacks.

I always advise runners to bring their running shoes with on their vacations. I’m going to start adding another piece of advice: keep up at least a rudimentary version of your auxiliary training. It will help you transition back to full training when the vacation is over.

Photo credit: Athletic Woman – Stretches by thestrongwoman.bootcamp, on Flickr

Balancing running and strength training

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


Following my "Ask me anything" post, I received a great question that essentially boils down to balance of training.

To summarize the questioner’s dilemma, she was increasing her running training over the summer. During that time, she was reducing her strength training. She wanted to know if this was a problem. I’d like to explore that topic a bit here.

As I’ve found myself stating often recently, we can only handle so much stress in our lives. Whether it’s running, strength training, or even work or family matters, our bodies and minds can only take so much. Go beyond what you can take and bad things begin happening.

Obviously, one of the goals of training is to increase our capacity to handle stress. However, that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a slow, gradual process. In the more short term, if you are already at or near your maximal ability to handle stress and you add more in one area, you’re going to have to reduce it in another area.

When it comes to running and physical training, this often means we need to find the right balance in our training. Whether we’re balancing workouts, easy runs, and long runs or we’re balance our running with other types of training such as strength training.

This is why many runners will reduce their training volume in the late stages of a training plan as intensity increases. More intensity is more stress, one of the places we can reduce stress in order to remain in balance is the number of miles we’re running.

Likewise, if you’re increasing your running load, you can reduce your physical training load in other areas. This may mean less strength training or, if you cross train, reducing the amount or intensity of your cross training.

So yes, it is perfectly fine if you’re increasing your running to reduce your strength training. In fact, it’s the smart thing to do. I would prefer that you keep at least a base routine in so you maintain your strength but you don’t always have to do the same amount. I’d even argue that you shouldn’t.

Please lay off the NSAIDs

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


For as long as I can remember, taking some form of NSAID was a popular thing with runners. An ibuprofen late in a marathon to dull the pain or as an anti-inflammatory after a run was pretty much a given. I even admit that, before I knew better, I’d at least occasionally take some ibuprofen, thinking the anti-inflammatory affects might help me recover from races faster.

Some time during my college years, I read an article about anti-inflammatories and how harmful they can be to the kidneys. This article featured a runner who died from kidney failure and, as I recall, included the words of at least a couple medical professionals who explained how harmful ibuprofen and, really, all NSAIDs can be to the kidneys. I went off ibuprofen cold turkey after reading that article.

Over the years, as the evidence grew, I became more vocal in my quest to convince runners that the risks far outweigh the benefits. Sure, an occasional ibuprofen might not be harmful to the kidneys but, if you habitually consume them the way some runners unfortunately do, you could be causing serious harm.

And now, we have reason to believe you may also be harming your running performances.

Actually, this isn’t all new. In recent years, we’ve seen that many "recovery aids" that reduce inflammation actually affect the training response we’re all looking for, the response that builds us up stronger after we break ourselves down with workouts. In short, they sabotage our training. NSAIDs have been a part of this discussion.

But this is just more in what is a growing body of evidence for two different reasons that runners should avoid habitual use of NSAIDs. First, the harm they could be causing to your kidneys. Second, the possibility that they are actually harming your body’s response to training.

Photo credit: Advil by Mike Mozart, on Flickr

Why running slow on easy days matters

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


I find myself repeatedly talking about the importance of running your easy days slow enough. There’s a two part reason for that.

1) It really is that important.

2) Most runners don’t run slow enough on their easy days.

Why is it really that important? Let’s think about building your running fitness like building an engine. You want both a big engine that can produce a lot of power (aerobic capacity) and one that is fine tuned so it performs at its best (fine tuning for speed).

You build your running engine by running a lot. To an extent, the more running, the better. How do you run more? By slowing down so you don’t break down. The cool thing is that the aerobic engine is built just as well at slower paces as it is at faster paces. Time matters more than intensity.

Next, you fine tune the engine for speed on the hard days. Faster/higher volume at speed is better. Any guess how you maximize the speed and volume of those hard days? That’s right, by going slower on your easy days so you can recover more completely.

So what does this add up to? Building and fine tuning that engine requires making sure you’re not running too hard on your easy days.

Photo credit: Training by Running Across Borders, on Flickr

Warm weather racing

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


Summer is here! School is out, family vacations are planned, and the summer racing season is firing up!

The summer racing season is a fun time. All runners, from high schoolers to masters, come together at the same races. We’re all out of season as the younger runners are thinking of the upcoming cross country season and the older runners are planning out their fall marathons or other fall plans. However, we’re all together giving it all we have in the summer.

I love that aspect! One of the drawbacks of the spring and fall road racing season is that you see very few runners younger than about 22 at these events. Not that there is any problem with older runners. I am one of them after all but I for one enjoy seeing those younger runners out there.

This is a fun time of the year but it can also be challenging. The heat and humidity that comes with the summer racing season can take its toll on us. So how do we prepare for this?

Step 1: Training

In training, embrace the heat. Don’t shy away from it. If it’s hot on race day, you don’t get to hit the treadmill to run the race. While sometimes it might make sense to do so in training, if you do this all the time, you’re not going to be prepared for the heat. Generally, it’s going to be best to get out there and face and even embrace the heat. There are physiological changes that will help you handle the heat and the psychological benefit of knowing you’ve faced that in training can’t be overlooked.

Throughout the summer, as you should ideally be doing all year, make sure you’re staying well hydrated. Hydration isn’t something you can do part time. To be properly hydrated, you need to be consistent. That means throughout the day, every day. Develop the habit.

Step 2: Pre-race

Even before race day starts, you need to ensure your hydration is where it should be. Again, this isn’t something you can just do a crash course for. You can’t properly hydrate starting a few hours or even a day before a race. It’s a long term thing.

On race day, you may want to rethink your warmup. Especially if the race is longer, ask yourself whether you really need to spend as much time warming up as you do when it’s cooler. In some cases, the answer may be yes. In others, you may come to the conclusion that it’s better to not extend yourself in the heat before the race even starts.

Step 3: Race

In my opinion, the most important thing to keep in mind during the race is that you will be slower. Accept and embrace it. This is where running by effort, which I’m a big fan of, comes into play. If you are running by effort, your pace will automatically adjust to the conditions. If you insist on checking your splits, I can’t tell you how much to adjust because we all handle the heat differently. However, make sure you do adjust. If you don’t, you will pay the price later and, in the heat, it can be a hefty price to pay.

Don’t be shy about grabbing some water at aid stations. Even in short races, I do this when it’s warm but I don’t drink the water. I pour it over my head. I’m sure you’ve seen runners doing this when racing in the heat. It feels good. Some research also says it is beneficial, potentially more beneficial in cooling than drinking it (and, if you’re running fast, you don’t have to worry about actually getting it down or choking on it). Also, if sprinklers are out, use them. The same for shade. It may even be beneficial to run a little farther to get shade rather than running a shorter path but in the sun if those are your choices.

Step 4: Reap the benefits

So what does all of this get you? Well, beyond the thrill of competition, there are actually benefits to running in the heat. You’ll be a faster runner when fall comes around (and not just because you kept your training up).

So get out there and race this summer! Just make sure you’re well prepared and you have a race day plan.

Photo credit: Castlepollard 5KM 2014 -The race start by Peter Mooney, on Flickr

We are all individuals

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.


Where are the training plans on HillRunner.com?

I get asked this frequently. My answer? I hate pre-canned training plans and will never place one on HillRunner.com.

Ok, hate is a strong word. Maybe I don’t "hate" them. I just strongly dislike them. Never is a long time. I guess I can’t completely rule out the possibility. But don’t count on it.

Why do I so strongly dislike pre-canned plans? Because those plans assume everyone will benefit from the same things. In short, they assume we’re cookie cutter people. We’re not.

So what do I like better? I like building around a core set of principles, then adjusting to the strengths, weaknesses, and needs of the individual runner.

What does this mean in practice?

Start with core principles. If you’re going to run a marathon, you need some good long runs. For any distance race, you need a base of aerobic conditioning. You need some running at or very near race pace. You need to run faster than race pace at times. You need to run slower than race pace at times.

Don’t tie yourself to any one philosophy. Lydiard had very good ideas. Igloi had very good ideas. Coe had very good ideas. Daniels has very good ideas. The Hanson brothers have very good ideas. I could go on and on. All of these people and many others did things a little differently but they all had very good ideas and applied them in very thoughtful ways. Also, if you get to know how they worked with runners, they adjusted their core ideas to fit the needs of the runners.

Adjust according to your individual needs. Personally, I respond very well to long runs and tempo runs. I need some shorter interval work to run my best but too much burns me out. So I do a lot of long and tempo runs and use intervals sparingly. Others are just the opposite and may need a more steady dose of intervals with fewer long and tempo runs. Some people need a big base of weekly mileage to run well, others are at their best with lower volume. The key is to figure out what the best balance of variables is for you. That does mean some trial and error is necessary. Some mistakes will be made. Learn from them, improve, and move on.

In the end, there are no plans on HillRunner.com because there is no plan I can write that will be the best possible for everyone reading it. Instead, my goal is to give you the tools you need to come up with your own plan.

Photo credit: pappie by Cor Mol, on Flickr