8 Common Marathon Mistakes to Avoid
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Follow this expert input to achieve optimal results on race day

By this point in your running experiences as a clickbait-wary knowledge consumer, you might automatically balk at articles claiming to describe the 12 best costume-themed races, the 5 most magical sports drinks or the 6 must-do gym workouts. If so, welcome to Team Skeptical.

That said, it’s critical to repeatedly hammer away at the most glaringly avoidable training and racing errors—especially when it comes to the marathon—because so many of these mistakes are seductive, tugging at the most vulnerable aspects of athlete psychology. I know from sometimes-painful experience as both a runner and a coach that long-distance events are a great place to nurture an array of detrimental habits while managing to frame them as well-intended and even productive, chalking up their ill effects to bad luck or other externalities (“I could have held 6:40 pace if not for the drizzle…” “I think I flew into town too early…”).

For example, because prepping for a marathon provides an ongoing and plausible-enough rationale for overemphasizing volume and avoiding speed work, you might find yourself focusing more on clicking off prodigious mileage totals and losing or maintaining your weight than on how you actually feel and trying to achieve the vital balance between recovery and workload—something even elite athletes can go their entire careers without mastering.

In an effort to achieve some consensus on what the sport’s nimblest and most-invested minds see as the everyday runner’s greatest impediments to success in the marathon, I consulted with Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite coach and founder and 2:18 marathoner Ben Rosario; Boulder Track Club coach Clint Wells, who ran 2:21:27 at age 42 in December 2017; and 361 USA-sponsored 2:32 marathoner and McKirdy Trained coach Sarah Crouch. What follows is a distillation of their ideas into eight basic categories.

The advice here is predicated on principles that are no secret to most readers: You need focus, dedication, and smarts to succeed in the marathon. The problem is people’s deftness in not keeping their plans and behavior aligned with these principles. Hopefully, this survey of expert analysts serves to underscore just now successful most of us can be at subverting our real needs to better suit our foibles, often at less than fully deliberate level.

With apologies to every handy list previously conceived by distance runners, please consider your relationship to…

A failure to adjust to race-day variables and constraints

Only a handful of entrants in any marathon are looking to win or place high. The overwhelming majority have some sort of time goal in mind, even those who “merely” wish to finish. As a result, when weather conditions prove unexpectedly adverse, most runners are not merely reluctant to settle on a back-up plan; thanks to mentally rolling the dice, they don’t even have one. Wells says that a lot of runners simply don’t adjust their race goals or strategy when the weather is too hot or too cold, a classic instance of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.

If the weather is too warm, cold, windy, humid or rainy to allow for a reasonable shot at your goal, take advantage of the opportunity to race intuitively and learn from the aspects of the event you can still control. Examples: Was your hydration and fueling plan sound? Did your racing shoes treat you well for 26 miles?

Improper pacing

The most obvious definition of “going out too fast” is “going out faster than intended,” with the usual culprits being overconfidence and overexcitement. Often left unexamined, however, is that sometimes “intended” is off the mark, because owing to the other issues on this list, runners often don’t really have a strong idea of the pace they’re truly prepared to run for 26.2 miles.

“My belief,” says Rosario, “is that you should actually go out slower than the training data would suggest you’re capable of.” This means that if you’ve targeted a time of 3:20 on a flat course and are in shape to achieve it, you’re more likely to get there by running the first half in 1:41 than you are to bank a minute. Countless examples from the elite world support this idea, yet few pack runners seem to fully embrace it.

Unwisely chosen goals

This often takes the form of being too ambitious, but as Crouch notes, some runners set their marathon goals too low out of unwarranted fear of the distance. Wells points out that, perhaps because of the sheer rigor involved in racing a marathon, few runners are able to view attaining a marathon goal as a stepwise process (more on this below). Runners who look to immediately fulfill lofty marathon expectations founded chiefly on the promise of their 10K or half-marathon times, rather than committing to a methodical immersion in the rigors of dedicated marathon training over a period of years.

Rosario also points to the tendency for runners at all levels to set pseudo-arbitrary race goals. “Pro men want to run 2:10. Pro women want to run 2:30. Age-group athletes want to run whatever their BQ time is,” Rosario says. “In other words, they pick an overall time and go chase it instead of building fitness gradually and letting the fitness dictate a goal time.” While it clearly makes sense to scale your goals to your perceived or desired fitness level, you shouldn’t allow numbers beyond your control to dictate your aims.

Nutritional shortcomings

Not taking in enough nourishment during the marathon itself is a problem, but Rosario points out that overemphasizing an in-race nutrition plan may come at the expense of behaving as though the days before the race aren’t crucial too. “I see so many folks run out of glycogen stores on race day and then turn around and blame it on not taking in enough calories,” he says.

Taking this further, in my own experience, runners who pay strict attention to marathon-day or marathon-week fueling may nevertheless neglect the basics or cut corners during everyday life. Most marathon runners put in a solid amount of mileage and, with the next fad sports diet due to hit the Internet about 15 minutes after you read this, then chronically struggle with what to eat and when. If you’ve been putting the biological equivalent of cheap gas in your tank for the three months before your race, the most high-octane petrol on race day won’t compensate for what you’ve done to your engine.

Concerning race fueling, I remain amazed at the number of accomplished athletes who simply don’t plan around this variable even though it can make the difference between absolute success and abject failure. “A fairly standard rule is to pop one gel every 45 minutes during the race, but so many athletes deviate from that,” Crouch says. Whatever your preferred means of getting some carbs into you—liquids, gels, or even pieces of candy—you need to test your regimen in training and be sure you can stick to it during the race. Relying solely on the fluids and gels distributed at the race aid stations is risky at best, especially in major events with tens of thousands of runners. Plan to carry something with you or, if possible, enlist the help of friends along the course.

READ MORE: How to Develop a Race-Day Fueling Strategy

An overemphasis on immediate gratification

Wells says that runners typically undervalue gaining basic experience in the marathon and seeing each race and training run as taking steps towards a goal, and instead try to hit the times their shorter-distance performances suggest are possible on the first try. Along these lines, Wells says marathoners who get antsy make the mistake of “going for it” too early, either in training or in the marathon itself. That means if you have a goal of three hours and get to the 10-mile mark on pace and feeling great, you shouldn’t take this as a sign to pick it up by 15 seconds a mile. Similarly, it’s a bad idea to race marathon-pace runs or go flat-out in build-up races your coach has scheduled you to run at 95 percent effort.

One adverse corollary of seeking immediate gratification in your running itself is failing to limit some things that feel good in the moment but can erode your chances of success on the roads. “Marathon training is a lifestyle and successful marathoners make training a very high priority,” Crouch says. “Late nights and overindulging in sweets and alcohol and other vices during a marathon build up is not wise.” If Crouch is emphasizing this at age 28, imagine how much more strongly it applies to those of us who are well up the north face of Mount Geezer.

A general lack of commitment

While few of us ever see a marathon training block go anywhere close to perfectly, some athletes have had the experience of “popping one” in a 5K or even a 10K despite knowingly slacking in some aspects of our preparation. This can engender the idea that we might be able to find marathon-day race magic despite cutting corners, or hitting the booze a little too hard, or not sleeping quite enough. But the unique rigors of the marathon make it virtually impossible to run anywhere close to your best if you haven’t given it pretty much everything you can.

“Some runners don’t run enough,” notes Rosario. “This one is pretty blunt and it’s often not the fault of the athlete. So many plans out there seem to be centered around how little you can run and still complete the marathon. But in my opinion, the worthwhile challenge of the marathon is that it’s not easy, that it does take a lot of hard work.”

A lack of marathon specificity

While a trend toward longer marathon-pace runs has been in play in the American ranks for perhaps 15 to 20 years, a lot of athletes and coaches still have one foot planted in the traditional training for shorter events. This, in practice, may be one foot too many. “While workouts like 10 x 400 and 6 x 1-mile and 3- to 4-mile tempo runs may make someone feel very fit,” says Rosario, “they’re not specific to the marathon. We need to replace those with things like 5 x 2 miles, 3 x 3 miles and steady-state runs of 10 to 16 miles. And that’s for any ability level.”

Being willing to hurt—at the wrong times

While the marathon is classically about sacrifice and a certain level of suffering, runners have to choose their discomfort wisely. Rosario cites overly long training blocks (“24 weeks is a long time to concentrate on one goal”) as a big problem. Wells says that it’s common for runners to not taper properly because they fear it will cost them fitness—another error it’s easy to make repeatedly because it’s hard to isolate in any given marathon postmortem.

Them, of course, is the endemic issue of pushing too hard on easy days, a common bane of milers and marathoners alike. “About 90 percent of the athletes who come to me for marathon training are running their easy days too hard,” Crouch contends. “The only reason I’m able to put in 120- to 130-mile weeks is that my easy days are often three to four minutes per mile slower than my marathon race pace.”

John Treacy, who won an Olympic silver medal in his first marathon in Los Angeles in 1984, was reputed to run most of his easy mileage at 7:30 pace, which was considerably slower than his race-day pace of 4:57 when he finished that day in 2:09:56 . If “dogging it” in such a manner is good enough for athletes at the level of Treacy and Crouch, it’s probably appropriate for the rest of us, too.

READ MORE: How to Turn Running Setbacks into Strengths

Not dealing with the pain of the race in a useful manner

In terms of being tough in the marathon moment, or even in your more rigorous training sessions, Crouch suggests using mantras that you’ve chosen in advance and are tailored to your personality and background. “If you are a woman who has had a child,” she says, “you might prepare ahead of time to use the word ‘childbirth’ at mile 22 to remind yourself that you have gone through something incredibly painful before and can handle this pain just as well.”

As hokey as the suggestion to use mantras may strike you, my own experience and that of many others underscores how valuable this strategy can be. The pain of a marathon is rarely acute like it is in a mile or even a 5K; instead, it’s a slow burn that encroaches on mind and body in an insidious way. As such, it lends itself perfectly to being managed in real time through a steady flow of well-chosen inner chatter.

The advice here is predicated on principles that are no secret to most readers: You need focus, dedication, and smarts to succeed in the marathon. The problem is people’s deftness in not keeping their plans and behavior aligned with these principles. Hopefully, this survey of expert analysts serves to underscore just now successful most of us can be at subverting our real needs to better suit our foibles, often at less than fully deliberate level.

If there’s a unifying message within these observations, it’s that marathon training and racing simply doesn’t allow the same margin for error as other events sometimes do. You’re not likely to get away with skimping on sleep, avoiding higher mileage, or hitting the sauce even a little too often. The longest standard running race of them all grants the narrowest latitude when it comes to avoidable training no-nos.

READ MORE: How to Overcome a Bad Race Result

Kevin Beck
Kevin Beck is a longtime contributor to various endurance-sports publications, including Runner's World, Competitor and Triathlete. A former 2:24 marathoner, he has coached a range of athletes from high school to professional the professional ranks, and is the co-author of "Young Runners at the Top" and the editor of "Run Strong."