Marathon Myths versus Reality

by Patti and Warren Finke, Team Oregon

You've heard a lot about the marathon from other runners. You know people who swear by so and so's training schedules. You want to do one or you want to run one better. What is the truth about marathon training, running and racing? Here are some myths we constantly hear and some realities we've learned from training thousands of marathoners over 28 years to complete and compete in marathons.

MYTH: You don't really need to train to do a marathon.

REALITY: While runners and walkers do complete marathons on training that's often less than ideal, they suffer during and after the event. I have tales of stress fractures, pain, not being able to walk for a week and psychological burnout from those not well trained. A good training program takes some time and commitment to be successful. A beginning marathoner needs about 6 months of training from a starting point of 15 - 20 miles a week. They need to complete 2 -4 runs or walks of 20 miles in about the time it will take them to complete a marathon.

MYTH: To train, you start running all your miles at marathon pace and keep adding miles until you get to marathon distance. OR You can train with shorter distances if you train faster. You can slow down and go farther on race day

REALITY: The marathon takes different physiology to provide the energy to go the 26.2 miles than that of shorter distances races. Those energy systems are best trained by running long and slow. It takes runs longer than 16 miles and slower than marathon race pace to get the physiology of endurance. Training short and fast or even up to 20 miles at too fast a pace guarantees that you will "run out of gas" on race day. This is because it trains your body to favor high energy, limited supply energy systems and does not train it to utilize the longer term energy supplies it needs for the marathon.

MYTH: Run/walk is the new easy way to run a marathon.

REALITY: Incorporating walk breaks during runs has been around as a energy saving distance technique since the late 1800's. It was used first by ultramarathoners. However, any ultramarathoner knows that while it increases the distance you may be able to go, it slows your pace considerably. You won't see any fast marathons completed using this technique. Most ultramarathoners use the walk breaks when it makes sense, to walk up hills, to take in food and water or get a rest when they need it in events too long to make it practical to run continuously. It never hurts to walk, but a common marathon goal I hear is " I want to run the whole way". If runners could and would learn to slow down and train at a pace that's about 80% effort for the distance, they wouldn't need walk breaks. In our marathon clinics, we train runners at a pace that gets them the physiological changes they need without the need for walk breaks. We do suggest that runners walk and drink during training and during the marathon to take in enough fluids if they cannot run and drink.

MYTH: To get faster in the marathon, you need more speedwork

REALITY: Marathon performance is usually dictated by endurance, not speed. The endurance to maintain their desired speed is what most runners need. The body needs to be trained to burn more fat and spare glycogen to have enough energy to get to mile 26.2. Most physiologic changes (90 -95%) in VO2 max (horsepower) and lactate threshold occur from doing long enough long runs ie 20 miles or longer, at about an 80% effort. Time spent doing short distance speed work takes away from the endurance work the body needs to go the distance. The speedwork that is essential for marathons is pace work or miles done at marathon pace. That's because marathon pace is too slow to feel fast enough at the start and too fast to feel easy at the end. We've had a large number of fast and experienced runners from our clinics who've run marathon pr's from increased miles and very little specific speed work.

MYTH: You can predict marathon times by a variety of short distance times.

REALITY: The best predictor of marathon finish times is an all out race of 10k - 10 miles. However, the prediction only works if the runner has done the proper marathon specific training to run to his/her potential.

MYTH: Use the "money in the bank" theory of marathon running or since you'll slow down at the end, you need to run faster at the start.

REALITY: This is a self fulfilling prophesy. Running too fast at the start of a marathon guarantees you'll burn off too much glycogen and run out of energy at the end. Almost all national and world records for the marathon and other distances have been run at even pace or even effort if the course is hilly.

MYTH: You don't want to waste time in the marathon taking in water or other fluids or energy sources.

REALITY: The body needs water to work. Losing small amounts of fluids lead to devastating losses in work capacity. The exercising body needs a minimum of 6 - 8ounces of water every 20 minutes during exercise. This is true in training as well as racing, The body' carbohydrate stores, even when carbo loaded, can be depleted in 1:45 or 2 hours. The body can replenish liver glycogen and blood sugar from ingested carbohydrates on a regular basis. The replacement can come from sports drinks such as gatorade, energy bars, gels or candy. They need to be the proper concentration to be absorbed making it essential to drink water when using bars or gels. Start early to replace water and carbos', don't wait until you are thirsty or out of gas to replace, it's too late then.

If you'd like to join the Portland Marathon clinics for their evening seminar sessions or free training runs, check out the website schedule and on line registration at

Warren and Patti are 2 of the founders and directors of the Portland Marathon Training Clinics. They are the authors of Marathoning Start to Finish, the official training guide and of numerous articles on training for local and national publications. They have each completed or competed in over 85 marathons and 85 ultramarathons. Warren has won the master's division of the Portland Marathon and was 2nd in the Veterans division of the 1992 Boston Marathon as well as winning several marathons outright. Patti has won many age group prizes in her marathons. They are Road Runners Club of America certified coaches and coaching certification instructors.

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