Lessons Learned From a Marathon Vet

I’m in the final rounds of editing my marathon book, and my editor, Iris Sutcliffe, suggested I add a chapter about the biggest lessons learned as a grizzled vet.

I’m not sure I like being referred to as “grizzled,” but I can certainly share the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the course of running 16 marathons. Here’s a sneak peak.

Use common sense.

When my little boy Luke was about two months old, he developed a bad cold and I took him to my pediatrician in a panic. Her diagnosis: “Throw away the parenting books and use common sense. Treating head colds and other common illnesses isn’t rocket science.” Though I do advocate reading books like the one I’m about to publish for inspiration and guidance, there will be many time times during the course of marathon training when you simply have to use common sense. Don’t drink a six-pack of beer the night before a long run. Try to get plenty of sleep, especially late in the training schedule. Don’t do a speed workout if there’s a layer of ice on the road. You get the point.

Listen to your body.

With no disrespect to doctors, trainers and nutritionists, you know your body better than anyone. So listen to that body when it tries to tell you something! There will be days when you don’t feel like doing a speed workout or running that extra mile or two. Maybe you worked late, are feeling stressed or the weather’s bad. The world won’t come to an end if you run 3-4 fewer miles that week.

Similarly, if you’re feeling unusually tired later in the schedule when the mileage increases, or you think you might have an injury, it’s better to take some time off now and try to recuperate before race day.

You can’t know everything.

Especially when running your first marathon, there’s so much you’ll learn about your body, your abilities and even yourself along the way. You can’t know what you don’t yet know! Don’t feel threatened by the unknown; instead, soak it up and enjoy the experience. Even after running 15 marathons, at this year’s Boston Marathon, I had no idea how my body would respond to 85-90 degree heat. Would I finish? How much should I drink? How much should I walk? I had to feel my way through the race and figure it out.

Don’t deny injuries.

At this point in my running career, I have learned which injuries are chronic and which require immediate medical attention. If you are just starting out, however, you may not be able to differentiate between the two. If you are experience knee, hip or foot pain, play it safe and seek the opinion of a doctor. You don’t want to incur an injury that might jeopardize your running and/or athletic future.

It’s ok to say no.

Much like my first marathon attempt when I developed a stress fracture and had to stop training, if you’re injured, you may have to postpone your marathon dream for another time. You don’t want to do permanent damage to a body part, and it’s no fun to run in more pain than need be. There are inspiring stories like Elise Nelson and Tricia Minnick, but not everyone can grit through marathon training with knee problems!

Practice makes perfect.

Almost. As you progress in your training, you’ll develop more endurance and adapt to the mileage. You’ll learn what foods to eat the night before a long run and how much time you need for food to digest the morning before a run. You’ll determine how much to eat and drink during a run to avoid tummy distress. And you will figure out what shorts or pants are ideal for all those miles.

Don’t vary the routine on race day! It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and believe there will be a miracle serum for surviving and thriving. Stick to what has worked in training. You’ll be glad you did.

Drink more!

It has taken me many years to appreciate the importance of hydration. And just when you think you are consuming the proper amount of fluids, you might be surprised! Though it’s important to balance the risk of hyponatremia, you may wish to experiment with drinking lots of fluids on long training runs, and observe your performance and recovery. I’ve spent years dealing with tummy distress after long runs. Many of my friends have as well. It wasn’t until this year’s Boston Marathon, when I drank 2-3x more fluids than prior races, that I experienced no post-race tummy pain. I owe it to water and sports drink!

Rest your legs.

One of the best things you can do the day before a marathon is to kick back and rest those legs. Though it may be tempting to tour a new city if you’re travelling hundreds of miles to run your race, you’ll regret it if you do. In fact, I like to arrive at my destination city early enough to pick up my race packet two days beforehand. Those expos can suck some time and leg energy if you wait until the day before.

Melinda Hinson