Thinking about a marathon? Here’s how to do it and why you can

The marathon – 42.2 kilometres – is considered the Holy Grail of running and a popular bucket list item, but what does it take to complete one?

Andrea Doney used to be a “real couch potato”, struggling with anxiety and uncomfortable with her weight.

But in April 2021, she achieved something only a small percentage of people do, crossing the finishing line of her first marathon after more than five-and-a-half hours of hard, but exhilarating slog.

The 50-year-old describes the feeling at the end of the event as “amazing – it’s almost indescribable”.

If you can walk, you can run

Andrea has now been running for about 10 years, and specialises in helping beginners – particularly “older, bigger and slower” people – in her business, Run with the Slow Coach.

She says she’s never identified with the stereotype of a runner – which she describes as svelte, with a perfect ponytail and crop top.

“I’m just not any of those things, so crossing that finish line is a real validation of what an ordinary body is capable of, and an ordinary brain for that matter,” Andrea says.

“It’s also a gift really.

“I keep thinking that one day when I can’t run, I will always be able to remember that once there was a time in my life when I could and I did and I treasured it.”

Why the marathon is so intriguing

Many runners will attest that completing a marathon is as much – or more – a mental challenge as it is physical.

“They say that the muscle that works hardest in a run is the one between your ears,” Andrea says.

A study published in 2017 identified a number of factors motivating people to challenge themselves to physically demanding tasks, including self-esteem, recognition, affiliation, keeping fit, competition and personal goal achievement.

Andrea believes it’s about people having a benchmark to measure themselves against.

“Some people like to achieve a certain level of promotion at work or have a certain work title, some people like to have a certain amount of money in the bank – it’s just one of the many ways you can benchmark yourself,” she says.

“If you can call yourself a marathon runner … it gives people a lot of pride, a sense of accomplishment, something to chat about barbecues, all those things.”

Can anyone run a marathon?

Anyone has the potential to be able to run a marathon if they’re able-bodied, free from injury and generally healthy, says Andrea.

However solid preparation is required.

“It’s not something that anybody can get up and do tomorrow.”

Then there’s the headspace – and time – required for training, especially those “long runs” on the weekend that can take hours.

The challenges of running a marathon

Sally Lynch, the coach behind Let’s Run, has completed more than 10 marathons, and says the number one challenge is getting to the start line.

“People tend to undertrain or overtrain, and don’t listen to their bodies,” Sally says.

“Something starts to hurt and they think if it still hurts in a month’s time, I’ll go see someone,” she says, noting you shouldn’t ignore these warning signs.

The mental challenge of a marathon

Andrea says you’ll need to learn how to embrace being uncomfortable for hours on end.

That takes a lot of practice because running hurts.

“You want to stop and you want to sit down and you want to have a beer and you want to go to bed, and you can’t.”

Why strength is the backbone of a marathon

Not all training for a marathon should be running, says Sally, pointing out strength work and cross training can also be an important part of the equation.

“A lot of people think ‘I’m going to run to get fit’, whereas it really is the other way around,” she says.

“You’ve got to get fit to run, because you’ve got to strengthen all the muscles and the tendons and even the bones to manage the load you get when running.”

Tips for running a marathon

Along with strength training, which doesn’t have to involve the gym but should include squats, calf raises and deadlifts, Sally says cross training – such as cycling, walking or swimming – is essential.

You should also mix up your speed during training, ensure you get plenty of hydration, good sleep and stick to a program (usually around 20 weeks).

Then there’s nutrition.

“Don’t go out and do your three-hour run then go have an egg and bacon roll and a couple of Cokes,” Sally says.

“If you nourish your body well it will perform better and recover faster.”

Written by Larissa Ham.