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.
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.