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10 Training Tips to Prepare for the Mercedes Marathon

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The holidays are over, and now it’s training season for the 2020 Mercedes-Benz Marathon — a three-day event that caps off with the full 26-mile run on Sunday, February 16 at Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham.

This annual test of endurance and determination was inspired by a father’s promise to his young son, who was facing open-heart surgery at UAB Hospital. Dad promised to run a marathon after his son pulled through surgery, and they both overcame their challenges. Now in its 18th year, the Mercedes-Benz Marathon is a beloved Birmingham tradition that benefits the Bell Center for Early Intervention Programs and other local children’s charities.

Running a marathon is excellent exercise and one of the greatest challenges you can work toward. However, UAB Medicine orthopaedic surgeon Michael Johnson, MD, says he sees a significant increase in overuse injuries during December and January among runners training for the Mercedes-Benz Marathon. As a specialist in foot and ankle disease, injuries, and pain management, Dr. Johnson has seen the damaging effects of marathon training first-hand. If you are planning to participate, check out these 10 marathon training tips to help protect your body as you get ready for race day.

1. Get your general health and running form evaluated by a professional. Before diving into your marathon training, it is smart to get a medical exam to make sure you are in good racing condition. Many people suffer from running-related injuries each year, mostly located at the knee, so it’s also wise to have your running form evaluated by a professional as a preventive measure.

“If you have a history of orthopaedic injury, ensure you have the strength needed to safely begin training,” Dr. Johnson says. “Neglected sprains and strains can become very symptomatic if poor running form is not corrected early. Even experienced runners often have a muscle imbalance that can lead to injury. An investment in evaluation of your running form prior to starting training can identify these issues, so that treatment can start to address them prior to any injury.”

2. Start training early before the race. Marathon training is not something to be taken lightly, as it requires months of planning and preparation to accomplish safely and effectively. Experienced runners should begin training at least 12-20 weeks before the big race. Meanwhile, novice runners often need at least nine months to safely progress to the total mileage needed to complete a marathon.

“Be aware of the surfaces you are running on,” Dr. Johnson says. “In Birmingham, roads can have significant slopes (camber), and if you run the same way every time, this slope can lead to injures from the consistent uphill and downhill slopes of the road, giving you a leg length discrepancy.”

3. Always stretch before training. Stretching is an essential part of the training regimen for any type of exercise, including before and after marathon training runs. Dr. Johnson recommends dynamic stretching and muscle activation prior to activity, followed by static stretching and foam rolling after running.

“It is important to stretch, even on off days, to maintain flexibility and protect the body from overuse injuries,” he says. “Focus on those muscles most likely to get tight in runners – calves, hip flexors, and hamstrings. Also, incorporate plantar fascia stretching and intrinsic foot muscle strengthening.”

4. Slowly build up your mileage. Safe marathon training requires a slow and steady building up of mileage, about 5-10% per week. If you increase your mileage or running intensity too quickly, you increase your risk of developing an overuse injury.

“Understand what your current capabilities and fitness are,” Dr. Johnson says. “If you’ve never run before, adding just 5% per week is safest. If you already have a stable base of mileage, you still have to progress at a safe rate, around 10% per week. Also, it’s not just mileage you have to watch for, because speed, intervals, and hills must also be increased at safe rates.”

5. Invest in supportive shoes and socks. Supportive shoes and socks are a must when training for a marathon, so consider visiting your local running store to have your foot shape assessed and get recommendations on the best options for your feet.

“It is important to buy shoes slightly larger than you would normally wear, to accommodate the foot swelling that will happen with prolonged mileage,” Dr. Johnson says. “No shoe is right for every person. Also, shoes wear out, so keep track of the miles you have on your shoes and replace them after 200-300 miles.”

6. Listen to your body when you feel pain. Most marathon runners will experience pain at some point in their training, but soreness that persists despite rest warrants an evaluation by a sports medicine provider.

“If you need to limit running to allow an injury to heal, cycling, rowing, water running, and swimming are great ways to maintain your cardiovascular fitness,” he says. “RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) is old-fashioned but still very applicable in these situations. Don’t over-train, as this can deplete your body’s resources and lead to fatigue, loss of motivation, and a weak immune system, ultimately predisposing you to illness.”

7. Cross-train with other exercises besides running. It’s easy to get caught up in running as your sole form of exercise when you’re training for a marathon, but aim to switch things up occasionally with biking, swimming, weightlifting, and other activities you enjoy.

“Specific strengthening of muscles that assist in stabilization, such as gluteal muscles and abdominal muscles, is helpful,” Dr. Johnson says. “Changing from road running to trail running for a few workouts is also helpful, as the surface is softer and the stride lengths are different, which again activates a different set of muscles.”

8. Strengthen your core and improve balance. You can do your body a lot of good by prioritizing core-strengthening and balance-improving exercises. In fact, many overuse injuries occur due to a weak core and weak hip-stabilizing muscles. “Weakness in these muscles places the knees and ankles in a poor position, thereby predisposing them to overuse injuries due to abnormal loading,” Dr. Johnson explains.

9. Pay attention to hydration and nutrition. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water and eat healthy foods while training for the marathon, because your body needs adequate hydration and nutrition perhaps more now than ever before. Training breaks down muscles, so you need to refuel your body with healthy, whole, and natural fuels that rebuild your muscles and fuel you for the next training session.

“Ensure that you are hydrated prior to your training, and avoid trying new supplements, gels, foods, and drinks on race day,” Dr. Johnson says. “Your body is not used to these foods, so they can cause untimely gastrointestinal distress.”

10. Practice good cool-down habits. When you finish a training run, don’t rush through your cool-down or diminish its value, because this is what helps lower your heart rate back down to a normal level and helps you recover, so you can keep training on a frequent basis. Stretching and using a foam roller are great cool-down habits to get into after runs. For post-training nutrition, Dr. Johnson recommends eating a healthy mix of carbs and protein 30-45 minutes after your workout to refuel your body’s depleted resources.

Click here to learn more about sports medicine services at UAB Medicine.