Here’s What a Sports Cardiologist Wants You To Know Before Signing Up To Run a Race

Photo: Getty Images/Maria Fuchs
26.2 miles is arguably the most iconic distance of any road race. And when it comes to venues, no other race outpaces the New York City Marathon. If you, like me, spent the better part of the weekend appsturbating through coverage of the five-borough race, you might be thinking to yourself: Am I ready for a marathon? So we asked sports cardiologist at the University of Texas at Houston, John Higgins, MD, what you need to know before whipping out your credit card and signing up for the longest race of your life (so far).

As a marathon runner himself, Dr. Higgins remembers the initial pull to take on the distance. "Initially, I thought it was too long—but after [other runners] told me about how to gradually build up the miles, I was inspired," he previously told Well+Good. Research shows that your debut marathon offers unique benefits to your heart. For example, one study found that your debut 26.2 cuts four years off your "aortic age," a health metric calculated by using the runner’s age and the stiffness at three points in the body's largest artery.

Of course, even if you're keeping the heart health benefits front of mind as you consider 26.2, you still may still be feeling daunted by the mileage. Below, Dr. Higgins walks you through three easy ways to rethink the race. And remember, it's always worth chatting with your doctor before you sign up for the starting line.

Experts In This Article
  • John Higgins, MD, sports cardiologist with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth

Am I ready for a marathon? 3 Ways To Make the 26.2 Distance Feel More Doable

1. Build your mileage slowly

Running 26.2 miles is no small feat. So rather than focusing your attention on that long, long run, Dr. Higgins advises building your mileage bit after bit as the weeks go by. That way, you're developing confidence in your body's ability to take on three, then four, then 14 miles—and so on. "Just add about five to 10 percent to your mileage each week," says Dr. Higgins. That means, if your long run was five miles this week, it should be no longer than 5.5 miles this week.

Although this kind of slow build can feel tedious and timely, believe me when I say it's key to building the self-belief you need for marathon day. And besides, you shouldn't just be running during this time. As Dr. Higgins points out, strength training should also be on the menu. "Remember to do both aerobic and endurance running as well as resistance and strength training each week," he says. If you need a plan to follow, Well+Good has you covered.

2. Sign up for other races

If you want to track how your training is accumulating over time, there's no better way than signing up for other distances. For example, Dr. Higgins recommends running a 10K (a 6.2-mile distance) once you feel comfortable running 10 miles in a row, and getting a couple half marathons under your belt during the middle of your training. There's also the 15K (9.3 miles), 20K (about 12.5 miles), and 30K (about 18.7 miles) if you want even more benchmark races along the way.

Yes, these will help you take a pulse on how your training is going—and that's great. But what's even better is that these races will give you the opportunity to feed on the energy of other runners and spectators during many of your long runs (which almost always start to feel monotonous late into the training cycle). There's nothing like running in a crowd to remind you why you laced up your sneakers to begin with.

3. Divide your training into 3 different categories

Coach Bennett of Nike Run Club is notorious for the line "Running isn't boring, but some runners are." By this, he means that running is only boring when you run the same three-mile loop day after day after day. But when you mix up the speed, location, and mileage, the sport gets a lot more fun. And, what's more, diverse training is effective training. As Dr. Higgins points out, your training should be divided into three different types of runs (kind of like a quart of Neapolitan Ice Cream).

  1. Endurance Runs: "[Endurance runs are] where you start to build up your miles. Try to get up to a long run of about 16 to 18 miles," says Dr. Higgins. Bear in mind that five to 10 percent tip from earlier when deciding how long your endurance runs should be.
  2. Tempo Runs: Tough but rewarding, tempo runs help you work on the mental side of running for hours at a time. (And bonus: They also help you pick up the pace.) "Tempo runs are where you focus on your split times and ramp up the tempo with each week," says Dr. Higgins, adding that he recommends either one day of interval training or one day of tempo per week to improve your speed.
  3. Recovery Runs: Recovery runs should dominate "the last month prior to the marathon where you cut back on your total miles each week, but keep up some tempo work so that you are nice and relaxed and ready to nail the marathon," says Dr. Higgins. A recovery run should feel like you're at a three or a four out of ten effort-wise. Enjoy that easy, breezy conversation pace. You've earned it.

Try this interval training session with Well+Good's Trainer of the Month Club:

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