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What does it take to run a marathon?

How do you feel about running? Do you still get nightmares of running never-ending laps around a field or track as a small child? Or does plugging in headphones and pounding the pavement for 5, 10 or 42.2 kilometers sound like your idea of a good time? With summer on it’s way, the sidewalks are filling up with runners and I’ve been dreaming of marathons, so I thought I ought to investigate some factors that make a person fit for the coveted accomplishment of completing a marathon. 

What (or who) makes a good runner?

A considerable amount of your running speed and skill might actually be genetic, and there is isn’t much you can do about it. Some people possess a certain combination of genes that are responsible for remodeling muscle fibres to allow blood vessels to grow in between them. The increased amount of blood vessels results in more efficient oxygen delivery, which makes high-intensity aerobic exercise, like running, easier. Your best track and field event could also be dictated by your body type. Some experts believe that tall, slender people are typically better at sprinting, while shorter light people tend to excel at long distance running.

How can I be a better runner?

Step 1—Have a plan: Even if your body is naturally inclined to run at great speeds or long distances, a commitment to training is necessary to perform your best. Most introductory half-marathon training programs span at least 10 weeks, provided you are already able to run for at least 30 minutes without stopping. If you’re ready to brave a full marathon, training programs are approximately 20 weeks long. During these intense weeks of training, you put your body into practice mode to increase your maximum muscle output (also known as your VO2 max), your running stamina, and your glycogen stores.

Step 2—Carbo-load: One of the reasons that I love running so much is because it helps compensate for my love of carbohydrate rich foods like bread, potatoes and dessert. Studies have shown that the consumption of carbohydrates before, during and after running and other exercise can increase your performance. Eating before a run tops up your glycogen stores in your muscles, enabling a longer, more energy-filled run (but you shouldn’t eat right before you run otherwise you will get cramps and a full belly). Eating during a run that is longer than 1.5 hours is always a good idea to restore energy taken from your muscle glycogen, so you don’t run out of energy mid-run. That’s why you see marathon runners slamming back food or carbohydrate gel-packs during training runs and races. Experts say it’s a good idea to have a 100 calorie snack during your run if it is longer than an hour, then another 100 calories every 40-45 minutes after that first hour. Seasoned marathoners suggest fueling up mid-run with things like energy beans or carbohydrate gels. If you’re like me and cannot tolerate the texture and taste of these energy sources, you can always take some slightly better tasting snacks like mini Snickers bars, bananas or gummy bears with you on your long runs to serve the same purpose. 

Step 3—Minimize external variables: Runners try their best to reduce drag by wearing aerodynamic clothing and trimming or covering hair, this actually can contribute to faster race times. Also, the weather on race day might affect your optimal performance; some of the fastest race times have been logged with an outside temperature of 6.2°C. With that in mind, a marathon in Vancouver at the start of May is probably better for your personal best performance than a marathon in Madrid at the end of April. 

Could anyone run a marathon?

While there are countless benefits to running, it may not be the best form of exercise for you. Pounding the pavement daily or weekly can be extremely taxing on your legs, knees, back and kidneys. However, as long as you listen to your body and quit before you inflict an injury, you’ll be fine. While you might not be able to join the sub 4:00 club, you probably will be able to tackle 42.2 kilometers with appropriate training, nutrition and gear. As an added incentive, achieving this remarkable feat makes you part of the less than the 1% of the world’s population that has completed a full marathon!

Sports are full of science! Read on to find out about the bio-mechanics of soccer (or football, if you’re serious about these things), or how a bicep works in badminton!