First Marathon Survival Guide

Rock_N_Roll_Marathon_StartA lot of you are getting closer to running your first marathon or half marathon this Fall, and taper time is near.  Congratulations on making it this far!

My first marathon was nothing short of a disaster. When two college buddies and I lined up in the first corral of the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego marathon in 2002, we had no idea what we were doing. We hadn’t been runners before we started training; we didn’t even know any runners to go to for advice.

Fit and determined, yes; informed and respectful of the 26.2 miles in front of us, not at all.

Of the countless mistakes we made that day and the previous, the worst was our pacing. How bad was it? Let’s just say the last 8.2 miles took us the same amount of time as the first 18, and leave it at that.  That day was the most physically painful of my life.

When I ran my second marathon—to this day I’m amazed THAT I ran a second marathon—I took an entire hour off of my previous time, and had a heck of a lot more fun. Not because I was in better shape, but because I knew what to expect. I knew what to do (like wearing actual running clothes instead of a cotton t-shirt), and perhaps more importantly, what not to do (taking a walking tour of the largest zoo in the United States the evening before the race).

It’s my hope that by sharing what I learned the hard way, I can save you a lot of stress, time, and pain, and help make sure your first marathon isn’t your last.

21 Ways to Make Your First Marathon a Success

  1. Don’t plan on running with a partner. It’s tempting to want to run with your training buddy, but it’s asking for trouble.  You won’t both need water and Porta Pot stops at the same time.  And what’s going to happen when one of you is going strong and the other starts to lag?  Awkward!
  2. BYOTP. That’s “Bring Your Own Toilet Paper.”  Thousands of runners + race-day jitters = bad news for the TP supply.  Stash some in your bag or your shorts.
  3. Wear technical apparel. Shirt, shorts, socks, bra.  Cotton is rotten!  RaceReady makes shorts with lots of pockets for holding gels, keys, salt tablets, etc.  Consider lubricants for chafing and blister powder for your feet as well.
  4. Don’t try out any new goodies. Especially if your marathon is a big one, you’ll get all kinds of free samples at the expo.  Just don’t use them on race day; stick with the same gels, bars, and gummies that you’ve used throughout your training.  I once tried some caffeine pills that I got at the Disney Marathon and broke out in a weird sweat, before the race even started.
  5. Count your safety pins. When you pickup your number, make sure they give you four safety pins for securing it to your shirt.  Scrambling to find a safety pin on the morning of your race is the last thing you need to be doing.
  6. Get yourself a new pair of kicks. Good running shoes last 300-500 miles, but they lose 50% of their cushioning much sooner than that.  Get some new ones and break them in during your tapering period.  I ignored this in one marathon and got a nice stress fracture in my foot to remember it by.
  7. Skip the pasta party.  Have a big meal at lunch the day before the race, but take it easy with dinner.  This gives your body time to assimilate the nutrients, and having a huge meal so close to the race is risky if you’re at all worried about stomach issues.  For more, see my post on what to eat before a race.
  8. Don’t do much the day before. Like I said, the San Diego Zoo was a terrible idea.  Take it easy on your legs and mind, and give your body a chance to relax before the big day.
  9. Don’t stress over sleep. Try to get a good night’s sleep before the race, but chances are you won’t.  But take heart, oh sleepless one: the amount of sleep you get before a race has little to do with how you’ll perform.  As long as you’ve been sleeping well during the previous week, your body will have plenty of energy to draw from.  Bonus: not stressing over this might even help you stop tossing and turning.
  10. Bring a garbage bag. A garbage bag with a few arm and leg holes is the marathoner’s Swiss army knife.  Good for keeping dry if it’s raining, keeping warm before you start, and for a little privacy if the Porta Pot lines are too long.
  11. Pack a throwaway shirt and gloves if it’s cold. Lots of races start at the butt-crack of dawn, when it’s chilly.  Once you start running and the sun comes up, your temperature will rise considerably.  To accommodate this, wear a long-sleeve shirt, and maybe even gloves, that you don’t mind ditching a few miles into the race.  Lots of races have charity bins where you can toss extra clothing, but don’t feel too bad about just throwing it to the side of the road if you don’t see them.
  12. Show up early. Traffic is always bad and there are always lines for the Porta Pots, so leave yourself extra time before the race to stretch, fuel up, and relax.  And give yourself plenty of time to get from the runners’ village to the start line, sometimes they’re far apart.
  13. Arrange a meeting spot for after the race. The finish line will be crowded, so even if your friends and family do get a good spot to watch you finish, they won’t be able to get to you very quickly once you’re done.  And you probably won’t want to carry a cell phone.  Choose a spot ahead of time where you’ll meet, and stagger over there before you collapse in glory.
  14. Put your support team to work. Know roughly where your friends will be on the course; having that to look forward to can make all the difference.  And load them up with all kinds of snacks.  Bananas, oranges, gummy bears, salty snacks like pretzels, whatever you think there’s a chance you might crave when you’re 20 miles in and those last six are seeming like Mount Everest.  Chances are you won’t eat most of it, but getting that one thing you want most will make it worth it.
  15. Take it easy on the fluids in the hour before the race. There’s a delicate balance between hydrating yourself properly and standing in the starting corral already having to go to the bathroom.  For me, this has only been a problem at the beginning of the race, since once I’m running my body tends to use up whatever fluid I can take in.  Err on the side of hydration, but be aware of this issue, especially if you have a time goal.  That said…
  16. Don’t have a time goal. If you’re like me, this is impossible.  But if you can, don’t make your goal for your first marathon any more than just to finish the race and enjoy the fact that you’re doing something incredible.  Leave the extra stress of a time goal for your next one.
  17. Don’t let your adrenaline get the best of you. At the expo of my first marathon, a famous runner gave us this piece of advice.  Of course, we didn’t listen.  We tore out of the gate and ran our first mile in under seven minutes, and with adrenaline pumping, figured we might qualify for Boston that day.  Wrong, by almost two hours.  They say that every minute too fast that you run the first 13.1 miles, you’ll lose two minutes in the second 13.1.  Don’t let your excitement get the best of you on race day.
  18. Watch out for hyponatremia. Everyone knows about the dangers of dehydration, but overhydration is a concern too.  Hyponatremia occurs when you drink so much water that you dilute the sodium levels in your blood, and it can be life-threatening.  Symptoms are very similar to those of dehydration, part of the reason it’s so dangerous.  I try to pay attention to my ankles and fingers to make sure they aren’t swelling around my socks or ring.  To avoid hyponatremia, be sure to take in adequate sodium with your fluids, in the form of sports drinks, gels, salty snacks, or even salt tablets.
  19. Consider an ice bath afterward. Especially if you haven’t done a lot of 20+ mile runs in your training, you might be in for a fun surprise when you get out of bed the day after your race.  To help mitigate muscle soreness, consider taking an ice bath once you’ve finished the race.  Yes, you read that correctly.  15-20 pounds of ice, some water, a bathtub, and 20 minutes of pure misery.  But it works for me.
  20. Don’t make plans for after the race! After my first marathon, my friends and I went back to our hotel room at about noon, stretched out on the beds, and slept soundly through the entire day and night.  If you follow the tips in this list, you’ll be much better off than we were.  But still, you have no idea what you’ll be up for after you’ve run 26.2 miles.  So keep the plans to a minimum, and play it by ear.  I’ve run three Rock ‘n’ Roll races, and never once have I made it to the post-race concert.
  21. Enjoy every minute of it. This will be easy for most of the race.  But trust me, those last few miles will hurt, and you’ll have to dig deeper than you ever have before.  But you didn’t choose to do this because you thought it would feel good.  Whatever your reason, it goes far deeper than the physical.  You’re doing something incredible; relish in that fact and enjoy the moment.

If you found this post helpful, you’ll be interested in the No Meat Athlete Marathon Roadmap: The Vegetarian Guide to Conquering Your First 26.2Click here to learn more!



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  1. This are great tips! I have yet to run either (a half or a whole) but would really like to. I am book marking this. Hope you guys are having a great weekend
    .-= Erica´s last blog ..A Simple Appetizer, Cookie Friday =-.

  2. #4 is key!! The morning I ran the Philadelphia marathon it was very cold, so I decided to wear leggings I had never run more than 5 miles in, instead of shorts. Talk about CHAFING! The last thing you need during a 26 mile race is something making it even MORE difficult.
    .-= PoweredByProduce´s last blog ..The Dirty Six =-.

  3. I completely agree with all of the tips!!! This is a great resource. Thanks 🙂
    .-= Runeatrepeat´s last blog ..Muffin Friday! =-.

  4. i can’t thank you enough for providing this list! i’m gearing up for my first half in october, and i plan on printing this list out and seriously following it to a T! thank you again! 🙂
    .-= Lizzy´s last blog ..early =-.

  5. thank you, thank you, thank you Matt!

    i am quite nervous for the big day, so this was totally needed right now! some tips i am definitely going to heed: get good, breathable running gear (hey, it’s a reason to go shopping!), show up early, get the fam + friends (aka support team) in position and take er’ easy after the race. unfortunately, the ice bath is out of the question. i am a huge cold water baby.

    this is awesome, great post 🙂
    .-= Holly (The Healthy Everythingtarian)´s last blog ..So Much To Do =-.

  6. your tips are wonderful – thank you so much! i’m running my first half marathon in november and i’ve already printed out your list so i don’t forget any of it! thanks again!
    .-= jessy´s last blog ..gluten-free agave sweetened carrot-zucchini-walnut muffins =-.

  7. I love this post so much!! Such sage advice and plenty that I haven’t considered before. I’m running a ten miler race in marathon season and while some of those tips therefore don’t apply as much it still feels big to me and this was the perfect time to hear some much needed tips and exciting encouragement!
    P.S. can’t believe you walked round San Diego Zoo the day before your first one! Ha ha ha ha.
    .-= Angharad´s last blog ..Fiesta Friday and Super Saturday =-.

  8. Thanks so much for these amazing tips! I’m running my first race, a half marathon in Nov and these are really helpful. I sure hope I won’t have to use the garbage bag, though.
    .-= Mia {runs and rests}´s last blog ..Let’s Get This Party Started =-.

  9. Those are great tips that I wish I had known! I always tell people to remember their sunscreen!
    .-= Nobel4Lit´s last blog ..She went shopping again! =-.

  10. Great advice, thanks for it all! My friend who runs marathons gave me very similar advice when I was training for my races.
    .-= Sagan´s last blog ..Calzones and Potential Blogger Meet-ups =-.

  11. Great tips!!! I just finished my sophomore year of college and me and some of my college buddies just ran the 2009 San Diego Rock N Roll marathon (my first marathon!!!!) Sorry your experience was a little rough, but I’m sure many people will be able to learn from your mistakes : )
    Thanks for sharing!!!

  12. A seasoned marathoner friend of mine sent me a list of tips before my first marathon. Number 13 on the list was “Don’t get upset when the fat boy passes you.” I laughed a bit, thinking it was a joke. Then about miles 15-20, I ended up almost neck in neck with this guy about my age and a good 30 lbs overweight. Of course, at mile 21 I faded and hefty-boy left me in the dust as he continued on. Lesson learned? Don’t worry about others, run your own race. =)

  13. hey there! its my first time at your blog, and i am excited to keep on reading

    thanks for all the running advice! i am getting ready for my very own first longer run (well, long for me)

    its an 8.5 mile run, over in the mountains, at a 3400 elevation. I have been running about 6 days a week for maybe 4 years now (except when im at school, then i alternate with swimming .. miss it!) and i usually go about 5 miles a day. i never thought about doing a long distance run / race until recently, so i am super excited about it. who knows, after this, maybe i can work my way up to a half marathon!
    .-= dee (the apple hill adventurer)´s last blog ..Energy Snack Trail: Bonk Breaker – peanut butter and jelly =-.

  14. I’m so glad I stumbled across your blog! Those are some excellent tips 🙂 I’m just training for a 10k now, but am thinking about doing a half marathon in February in Sarasota, Florida. I’ll definitely bookmark this 😀
    .-= Paige @ Running Around Normal´s last blog ..Perfect Day for a Run =-.

  15. ahh #16 and 17 = IMPOSSIBLE! 🙂 great list and advice though. i would add “actually do long runs in training”. i definitely skipped that part when “training” for my first marathon. whoops 😉 obviously i didn’t respect the distance either. funny how we had some terrible first marathons and yet were nuts enough to do it again, and again, and again…
    .-= lindsay´s last blog ..the great gu giveaway =-.

  16. Great list. Here is a lesson that I learned the hard way: Practice hydration and fueling during training, form a hydration/fueling schedule, and stick to it as close as possible on race day. When training for my first half, I hydrated with my own water bottle and figured out that I only needed to take a couple sips every 4 miles. For race day, I decided to forego my water bottle and use the aid stations instead, thereby breaking the cardinal rule against trying something new on race day. Apparently a nervous drinker, I ignored my hydration schedule and I took Gatorade at every single aid station, which was every 2 miles. By mile 11, I felt like I was going to hurl. I had to slow my pace down considerably. Next time, I will know better!
    .-= Veggie Runnr´s last blog ..Plantains =-.

  17. Love it! I think you should send it in to runners world mag. 😀

    I can’t wait for the day I’m training for my own marathon! For now I need to just focus on the 10k… 😀
    .-= Sarah (Running to Slow Things Down)´s last blog ..Weekend Highlight: BREAKFASTS! 🙂 =-.

  18. I’m glad we can all learn from your mistakes. 😉
    Joking, but seriously, thank you for posting this! These are fantastic tips for someone about to run their first marathon in October! (Yikes!!!!) Also, I am training for the marathon and trying to stay on my raw food diet…oh the challenges we give our bodies and minds.
    Thanks again! And I’ll definitely be checking on your website more often!
    .-= Lori´s last blog ..Raw Food =-.

  19. Thank you so much for this post! I just signed up for my first half (in October) and I can use all the tips I can get!! Love your blog!
    .-= Michelle´s last blog ..Coquette Lace Tube Top =-.

  20. Great post and a very helpful list. I’m going to pass them on to my husband as well. It is always helpful to get tips and advice from more experienced runners.
    .-= Lori´s last blog ..Pots, Pans and Foodie Souvenirs =-.

  21. Regarding #19…I would rather run (5) 20+ milers than have to take 1 ice bath. I just can’t do it.
    .-= Madison´s last blog ..Day 8 – Monday =-.

  22. Thanks for posting this! I bookmarked it…I’m trying to mentally prepare myself to committing to a full marathon (doing my first half in Oct) and this was a great post!
    .-= Rachel´s last blog ..Hump Day Treat: ASpray Deodorant =-.

  23. Great tips! I’ll be running my first marathon in NYC this year…need all the tips I can get! (found your blog from Caitlin’s at healthytippingpoint)
    .-= That Pink Girl´s last blog ..Sing it, Patsy =-.

  24. Great tips! I’m running my first half this Sunday (!!) at the Virginia Beach Rock’n’Roll Half. I told my boyfriend what you wrote about never making it to the after-race concert (The Black Crowes are playing this one) – and now he’s got his fingers crossed that I’ll be able to make it – otherwise, he says he’ll go without me! (He’s not running the half). Ha! Here’s hoping I’ll be able to make it!

  25. AWESOME thank you!

  26. Thanks for the great tips! I’, running my first marathon on Nov 1st (NYC) and will definitely follow these.
    .-= Lisa´s last blog ..Sneakers in the Suitcase =-.

  27. This website is really Great! I work with your sister in law, Colleen:) She’s the one who gave me your site, and this January I’ll be embarking on my first marathon! I’ve been running for years, but I’ve only been a vegetarian runner for a year. Thanks for all your great info…and if you want to check in on my progress check out my marathon site.

  28. As a novice, vegetarian running her first marathon next month, I wish I had come across your site earlier. I was looking for an all encompassing food/run site and hit the jackpot! Thank you!

  29. Hi Matt! I was just checking out some of your best posts and realized that you and I ran our first marathon together! I did the same one in 2002. I made a lot of newbie mistakes and that’s why I’m running my second marathon in 2010 … a VERY long time later!

    • Alison, that’s so funny. I think I made ALL of those mistakes that day. I wonder if we ran near each other? My second marathon came 4 years later. Not 10, but still a lot.

  30. Greg Swallow says:

    Have to disagree with #6. New runners: nothing will give you blisters better than a spanking new pair of shoes through a 26.2 mile race. Do get “new” shoes, but DO break them in for 70 miles or so before you take them out for such a long run.

    Running a muddy trail run? Obviously, wear old shoes, provided they’re not on their 650th mile. You want your new shoes to last a while, eh?

  31. Hey Matt,
    I’m starting to get those HUGE pre-race butterflies before my very first and had to come here for like the 80th time to re-read your advice and take a couple deep breaths. Just wanted to say thanks! Any updates on baby?

    • Hey Amalia, thanks for the comment. I’m glad you’re finding the post useful. You might be the first you have read something I wrote 80 times 🙂 Good luck in your race. When/where is it?

      No baby yet. It’s due Monday, so it could be any day.

      • The BIG ONE…Boston! 🙂

        Race expo opens tomorrow, so excited to get my shwag on. Can’t wait until next year to hear your perspective on it when you get up here!

        PS. please pray for sun!

  32. I think your advice about all of this is spot-on and I now have to think about not running with my training partner at some point. What you say makes sense though.

    Your other blog notes about eating is essential reading, especially about eating well the week before the race. I wish I read this before my first 1/2 marathon, where I pigged out the night before….big mistake. Thanks for the tips!

  33. tracey English says:

    such great advice – my first 1/2 is in two days…never been a runner…had my 4th baby 7 months ago exactly on race day…if i can do labor, i can do this, right? 😉

    • Tracey, so glad it has helped you. Good luck in your race, the first one is so exciting!

      That’s so funny about labor. Even though I have no idea what labor is like, I’ve been telling my wife (who is due any day now) the opposite: that if she can get through marathons, she can get through labor. I hope that’s true!

  34. tracey English says:

    You have such a great site that Ive read often since stumbling upon it! 🙂 Did well in my first one – will do better in my next. Am enjoying the feeling of “I did it. I can do anything!” that Ive never experienced before!

    Ive taught group fitness for 14 years and this, by far, was my biggest accomplishment fitness-wise! 🙂

    • Tracey, yes, the second one is so different. You just can’t really prepare for the big day without having experienced it once before. I get better every time I run one as I learn more about the signals my body is sending me and what I’m capable of.

  35. This is a comment I left at NYCRuns. I realize from your site that you have taken the don’t-be-stupid/train-properly to heart; it can’t be said too often for people (like you as a newbie) who say, “hey, let’s try a marathon”:

    Couple of things.

    First, no. 14 is, well, illegal. If you can carry it at the start, you can use it. Otherwise you can only get aid from official aid stations. Of course no one will really care, but it is a race and how would you feel if you were running behind someone who was given stuff from the side? Bring enough gels for the trip (carry them from the start) and get water and Gatorade from the stops. If the race doesn’t have enough of them, consider another race. Cheering is good. Beyond that, no.

    Second, no. 16. Can’t agree with this one. Why? If you haven’t trained to run a marathon you shouldn’t be at the start. It’s serious stuff and the one thing to remember: respect the distance. Run enough shorter races so you’ll have a sense of how fast you can run the marathon and be disciplined enough to pace yourself accordingly.

    That’s the most important thing. Build up to it. Get a good training book so you can train for it.

    Other than that, these are all good considerations.

  36. One other thing, unrelated. I looked at your running glossary. I think your “interval,” “repeat,” and “rest” definitions aren’t right. Take a look at Daniels’ Running Formula.
    .-= Joe Garland´s last blog ..Stuff =-.

  37. Thanks for the tips. I am training for my 3rd marathon, and I am always looking to enhance my experience.

  38. I’m running my first Marathon next Sunday-Twin Cities in Minneapolis, MN. I’m nervous about GI issues. Its been an issue in training. I saw my doctor and was diagnosed with IBS. Funny that I’m more concerned about where the toilets are than about making it to the finish line. I’ve read that taking Imodium before the race can help with “trots”. Any advice?

  39. Matt,
    Thanks a lot for such a wonderful advice. I am planning to run my first marathon after two weeks. Your all suggestions looks very much helpful to first timers.

  40. Just signed up for my first marathon! Chicago Marathon Oct. 9, 2011!!!

    I will be on this site often for advice!


  41. Angela Tubb says:

    Very useful nicely written and put my mind to rest as have my first marathon tomoz. 🙂

  42. cindy fantuz says:

    My husband and i are a week away from our first marathon and all of our worries and concerns and more are in your tips. I am sooo relieved to have found this it answered alot of my questions without me asking thank you thank you

  43. i am running my first half-marathon on Sunday.. the more/fitness women’s half.. so glad i found this.. thanks for the solid tips..

  44. Anibal Garcia says:

    Matt, I just want to thank you for your article. I’ll be running my first marathon this coming Sunday in Madrid, and I stumbled upon your article from a search on marathon last-minute advice. I’m so nervous and anxious, I have so many questions about the mechanics of he day not to mention about the running itself… Your article has given me a good measure of peace. That’s the best way I can explain it. THANKS!!!!!

  45. Thanks for all your great tips. I’m running my first half-marathon this weekend. Your blog has lots of helpful stuff!

  46. I having been training for a sprint Tri (August 11th) but I am also planning on doing my first marathon (December 3rd St. Jude). I am starting to second guess my decision to train for a Tri so close to increasing my marathon training. Currently, my long runs have gotten up to 7 miles. I have about 20 weeks until the marathon and I will have about 16 once the Tri is over.

    My questions: Do you think I should switch gears to focus more heavily on running? If I don’t switch gears is 16ish weeks enough time to train for the marathon? I have been considering buying your training plan, if I can do 7 miles am I ready for your 16 week plan?

    I really love your blog thanks for all the great information!

  47. Throw your long sleeve shirt that keeps you warm in the morning “To the side of the road?” Dude, how about a public trash bin instead. Can you imagine 23,000 t-shirts in the gutters of LA?

  48. I found this article at 11:45 pm the night before my first marathon as I was tossing and turning trying to go to sleep from either anxiety, nerves or excitement. This article helped me so much! I finished my first marathon the next day with flying colors. Thanks so much for the encouragement; I really needed it!

  49. Great tips indeed!
    I ran my first one a week ago, and planning another one already 🙂

    If I may add a few things from that first experience:
    – follow the pacers.
    Having trained alone, I found out it was a lot easier to follow a pacer, as it takes a lot of worry out of your mind.
    Just follow one and you needn’t wondering if you’re going too fast or too slow.
    It’s also easier to run as part of a group.
    – the last 6 miles are harder than the first 20.
    Keep some energy + an extra gel for the end.
    – bring a salty snack for after the race as to avoid possible headache.
    Not all races provide one in the goodie bag.

  50. Thank you for this. I’m running my first marathon this October in Chicago. I hired a running coach and she mapped out a great program to get me there. I’ve been working on my nutrition during my long runs and my pace increases every week. I needed to read your advice about enjoying the journey and not running for speed. My competitive nature can be my worst enemy, but thanks to your advice, I’m not going to allow it to get in the way. 🙂

  51. Great resource! I completely agree with all these tips, especially the point of not having a time goal. Focusing more on running rather than time goal will be what gives you the results. And this is something I follow for every race that I prepare myself for. Thanks a lot for sharing this Matt.

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