Seven Elements to Marathon Training (that have nothing to do with running)

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Your author running the 2010 Cleveland Marathon

I’ve had a few people ask me lately about marathon training programs.  While they are typically looking for specific advice on workout schedules, I think it helps to first step back and take a look at the overall mental approach to preparing for a marathon or any other running goal.  Here are seven elements you need to keep in mind before trying to fit a training program into your busy lifestyle.  I also posted this on my Constant Cogitation blog as Seven Leadership Lessons from the Marathon if you are interested in a different twist.

Set Specific Goals

It may seem intuitive, but to reach a goal, you first have to set one.  All too often, actions are taken without a specific goal in mind because they seem like “the right thing to do.”  I spent much of 2009 just running with the general goal of losing weight, but not committing to a specific target.  While exercise is certainly noble, without combining it with a better diet and monitoring calories, there may be little weight loss.  When I got specific on my goal to qualify for Boston, I determined losing 20 pounds by May would be a key objective along the path, and it became easier to control my diet in addition to increasing my calorie burn.

Commit Yourself Publicly

If you don’t make your goal clear and visible, you lose a valuable source of incentive to reach it – your pride and the encouragement of friends, colleagues, or employees.  How can anyone offer you support if they don’t know what you are working towards?  In the case of qualifying for Boston, I first committed to my wife that I would get there (and she developed an enthusiasm about going to Boston next year), and then to my friends on Dailymile, who offered further support and encouragement for reaching the goal. The fear of failing to reach a publicly-committed goal can be a powerful motivator.

Get Buy-in from Other Stakeholders

If you need the support of others to reach your goal, they must not only be “informed” of it, but actively understand and agree with it.  If your goal doesn’t inspire others, support will be lacking. If my wife viewed my goal of reaching Boston as purely selfish or perhaps even unachievable, then she would resent my early morning or late evening runs that interrupt her sleep or take away our time together.  Of course, the fact that I also recognized the other commitments I have as a father and professional makes it easier to gain support for my goals, by making it clear that the family and work roles come first.

Plan the Work, but Know When to Be Flexible

Training for a marathon requires establishing and following a plan.  You can’t simply go out and run a random distance at a random pace and expect to achieve your goal. Each day has a purpose, be it working on your pace, improving your stamina, or resting and recovering.  However, circumstances like weather, work conflicts, injury, or family commitments will interfere with the plan, in which case you need to have an open mind to making adjustments within the context of still achieving the training you need (such as running at a different time, shifting days in the schedule around, or lengthening or shortening a workout).  It’s even better if you can have coping mechanisms identified in advance, so you can react quickly, with minimal stress, to these disturbances.

Establish Appropriate Metrics and Use the Right Technology

In running, there are two or three metrics that matter – time, distance, and (if you follow this method) heart rate.  If you cannot accurately measure these, then you will be unable to track your progress.  Investing in the right technology, such as a GPS-enabled watch, is important, if not essential.  In addition, it is helpful to test your progress towards your goal occasionally; in running this is done through specific workouts designed to test your ability to hold a desired pace over a specified distance.

Stay Focused on the Goal and Ignore Distractions

Working towards a goal means that you have to forego other opportunities.  In running, it might be a very tempting race, or it might be a night out with friends before a big run.  While you may occasionally have the capacity to take advantage of such an opportunity, this must be weighed against the risk of losing progress towards your ultimate goal.

Proceed with Confidence

If you doubt your ability to reach a goal, your probability of doing so drops dramatically.  You can find countless references to the benefits if “acting as if” you have already achieved your goal.  While this can certainly bleed over into overconfidence, there is a lot of value in pursuing your training aggressively, with the belief that you are already at the level you need to be to succeed.  In my case, I certainly didn’t go so far as to book a trip to Boston, but I did explore the timing of the race next year and the process for registering.  And, I confess, I drafted this blog post two weeks before the race.

The above steps are essential in maintaining your commitment to your training and achieving your goals.  If you don’t set and communicate goals, energize others towards achieving them, set a plan with appropriate metrics, stay focused, and act with confidence, the probabilities of success in your pursuit suffer grievously.

Did I miss anything that you have found to be an essential “non-running” part of preparing for the marathon (or other significant goal)?

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  • http://brucemcintosh.blogspot.com/ Bruce

    Great post. It really can be hard to let everyone know your running goals, especially something has hard has the marathon. But nothing makes you more commited then being held accountable.

  • http://brucemcintosh.blogspot.com/ Bruce

    Great post. It really can be hard to let everyone know your running goals, especially something has hard has the marathon. But nothing makes you more commited then being held accountable.

  • http://runningrecon.blogspot.com Drew

    Great post, Greg. I’ll start training in July for my first marathon and was pleased to see I’m in line so far with your advice. If I had anything to add to your post it would be to seek out advice and support from those that have already been where you’re going.

    BTW, thanks for having me on your blogroll. I was surprised to look at my own and see I didn’t have you on it. I’ll be taking care of that shortly. :)

  • http://runningrecon.blogspot.com Drew

    Great post, Greg. I’ll start training in July for my first marathon and was pleased to see I’m in line so far with your advice. If I had anything to add to your post it would be to seek out advice and support from those that have already been where you’re going.

    BTW, thanks for having me on your blogroll. I was surprised to look at my own and see I didn’t have you on it. I’ll be taking care of that shortly. :)

  • Greg

    Thanks Bruce, sometimes helping them understand why the goal matters to you can be just as hard as coming up with it in the first place.

  • Greg

    Thanks Bruce, sometimes helping them understand why the goal matters to you can be just as hard as coming up with it in the first place.

  • Greg

    Drew – nice addition to the list – we all need some coaching as we set off on a new objective. One challenge I have found is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with advice on running, so it’s good to find a few trusted sources who have been there and can let you know what they found most helpful, keeping in mind that everyone is a bit different so some will respond to various programs and activities better than others.

  • Greg

    Drew – nice addition to the list – we all need some coaching as we set off on a new objective. One challenge I have found is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed with advice on running, so it’s good to find a few trusted sources who have been there and can let you know what they found most helpful, keeping in mind that everyone is a bit different so some will respond to various programs and activities better than others.

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  • http://www.theactiongeek.com Billy AKA Action Geek

    Great post. #1 and #2 are critical for me, and the main reason I started blogging. In the past when I’ve had any sort of goal to aim for (whether it’s a 10K, a marathon or something else entirely) I’ve found it easy to train, but when I don’t it feels many times harder and I come up with excuses and miss sessions.

    Same with “committing yourself publicly” as you put it, and that’s the reason I started blogging. I’ve been wanting to do an Ironman for years but knew I would struggle with that level of commitment and training. So I started a blog and I’ve committed to that goal and have been blogging the training progress – I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to push themselves!

  • http://www.theactiongeek.com Billy AKA Action Geek

    Great post. #1 and #2 are critical for me, and the main reason I started blogging. In the past when I’ve had any sort of goal to aim for (whether it’s a 10K, a marathon or something else entirely) I’ve found it easy to train, but when I don’t it feels many times harder and I come up with excuses and miss sessions.

    Same with “committing yourself publicly” as you put it, and that’s the reason I started blogging. I’ve been wanting to do an Ironman for years but knew I would struggle with that level of commitment and training. So I started a blog and I’ve committed to that goal and have been blogging the training progress – I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to push themselves!

  • Greg

    Thanks for your comment Billy. I ran marathons in the early ’00s and seemed to lose focus as I stopped setting and communicating aggressive goals, eventually giving it up. I’m finding it much easier to believe that I’ll stick to training this time around as my commitments are much more visible, and there are so many tools between blogging, Dailymile, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to build a support network.
    Good luck on your Ironman. I enjoyed your blog post on getting out the door in the morning (after all, it fits the theme of this blog) and am planning my own article on how to do so more efficiently, for which I’ll certainly link to your recommendations.

  • Greg

    Thanks for your comment Billy. I ran marathons in the early ’00s and seemed to lose focus as I stopped setting and communicating aggressive goals, eventually giving it up. I’m finding it much easier to believe that I’ll stick to training this time around as my commitments are much more visible, and there are so many tools between blogging, Dailymile, Facebook, Twitter, and the like to build a support network.
    Good luck on your Ironman. I enjoyed your blog post on getting out the door in the morning (after all, it fits the theme of this blog) and am planning my own article on how to do so more efficiently, for which I’ll certainly link to your recommendations.

  • Jay

    Enlightening post Greg. These great lessons in goal setting and follow through is quite valuable for fledgling entrepreneurs like me.

  • Jay

    Enlightening post Greg. These great lessons in goal setting and follow through is quite valuable for fledgling entrepreneurs like me.

  • Greg

    Thanks Jay, and thanks for stopping by here. Good luck in your new business!

  • Greg

    Thanks Jay, and thanks for stopping by here. Good luck in your new business!

  • http://www.theactiongeek.com Billy AKA Action Geek

    Yeah I definitely agree that online tools like blogs, Facebook and Twitter are a great help – especially if you don’t have that many “active friends and need some support from other athletes! Just being in contact with others who have done it, or are gonig through the same training journey as you is huge, even if they are spread all over the world!

  • http://www.theactiongeek.com Billy AKA Action Geek

    Yeah I definitely agree that online tools like blogs, Facebook and Twitter are a great help – especially if you don’t have that many “active friends and need some support from other athletes! Just being in contact with others who have done it, or are gonig through the same training journey as you is huge, even if they are spread all over the world!

  • Greg

    The only drawback to the social tools available for runners is that it is easy to get overwhelmed with advice. One has to be confident enough to trust in their own plan yet wise enough to make subtle adjustments when necessary, and not go chasing every suggestion that gets presented on these sites.

  • Greg

    The only drawback to the social tools available for runners is that it is easy to get overwhelmed with advice. One has to be confident enough to trust in their own plan yet wise enough to make subtle adjustments when necessary, and not go chasing every suggestion that gets presented on these sites.

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