Reader Question: What is a Marathon?

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A Quora member recently asked this deceptively simple question, “what is a marathon?”. Just what constitutes “a marathon” is a source of confusion for many runners new to the sport as well as for people not involved in the sport. Below is my attempt to explain the issues and hopefully resolve the confusion. Enjoy! 

Within the sport of Track & Field (Athletics for all you non-Americans) a marathon is a foot race of the standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. The story behind the odd distance has to do with the 1908 Olympic marathon finish line placement, which made the course come out to that distance. The then governing body of the sport later adopted this distance for all marathons and it has been so since. Had the Games not been moved to London for 1908, the marathon distance probably would have eventually been standardized at 40k or 25 miles, or possibly left as it was for each race to determine.

But the confusion over ‘what is a marathon’ also stems from the fact that the word marathon, like many words, has more than one definition. We runners and track fans cringe when someone says they ran a “5k marathon”; no, you ran a 5k, not a marathon. However, one of the definitions of ‘marathon’, that long predates the adoption of the official marathon distance in Track & Field, is simply “any long distance running race”. Of course there are other uses of the word ‘marathon’ which are used for any event that requires prolonged endurance of one kind or another, such as a dance marathon, a sales marathon, or even a ‘marathon meeting’ (one that drags on for hours, or seems to).

One could therefore argue that technically, as purely a matter of grammar, a “5k marathon” is not incorrect. But of course since it is a running event, it is incorrect in that context. Personally, while I find it cringe worthy, I try to understand that the person saying it may be a new runner, so any correction should be gentle and constructive rather than of the “OMG, how dumb are you?” variety. We can’t expect people outside of – or brand new to – any field of endeavor to know its nomenclature and culture.

From what I have witnessed, actual race directors using terms like “10k marathon” to describe a race is more common in some parts of the world than others. I could be wrong, but this seems to be a fairly common practice in some Asian countries. In the US, you really only see it used by people putting on a race if they are having a charity fundraiser “5k Marathon”. Most serious runners know to stay away from these events, since they are probably not being conducted by someone who knows much about running as a sport, so there are often numerous problems (e.g., improperly marked and/or measured course, untrained volunteers, no traffic control, incorrect results, etc.)

I’m not sure if my answer directly relates to the reason the question was asked, but the subject comes up often enough that I hope my response is instructive to others who may be confused about the use of the word marathon.

 

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Reader Question: How do I train for my first ultra marathon?

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That’s another of an infinite number of training questions for which the answer is “it depends”.

What does it depend on? (1) It depends on your current level of fitness; (2) it depends on what the distance of the ultra will be, (3) it depends on what type of course it will be run on (flat road, flat trail, hilly road or trail, mountain, high elevation, etc).

By definition, an ultramarathon is any distance longer than a standard 26.2 mile marathon, but in practical terms 50K is usually considered the standard entry level distance. Training for a 50K (31 miles) is quite a different proposition from training for a 100 mile or longer ultra. I highly discourage anyone from jumping into a 100 mile or longer race as their first ultra. (Occasionally an overly enthusiastic but sedentary sort will decide a “couch to ultramarathon” plan is a good idea; it isn’t, in a drunken “hey, Bubba, watch me jump off the barn into the kiddie pool!” kind of way.)

I’m going to assume you are the smart sort and aren’t planning to run anything longer than a 50K as your first ultra (or jump off the barn), since that is most common and makes the most sense. It allows you get a feel for the logistics (hydration, eating, footwear and other gear) and the ethos and unspoken rules of the ultra community without spending two days in the woods fooling with broken headlamps, nausea, blisters, hallucinations, and other super fun things.

I’m also going to assume you have run a few marathons and/or have been regularly running at least 30 -40 miles per week for most weeks of the last few years (i.e., you are in good shape to start with, and could finish a marathon distance run right now or with minimal further training).

I will further assume you know that your best bet for a pleasant first 50K will be to find a race that is not on super technical trails (bad footing and such) and not run in the mountains at high elevation. (I’ve only run a handful of ultras, mostly 50Ks, with a fairly flat Florida trail result of 5:15, and a mountain race in New Mexico all above 9000 ft altitude, with a climb up to 11,300 ft, in well over 8 hours. The latter was much tougher than a 50 Mile run I did in Florida (but with a bit less sand in my shoes). It was a great adventure, but I had a handful of longer races – and lots of time running mountain trails – under my belt before I did that one. (I was ill and injured the previous year and dropped out half way while coughing my lungs out; had I gone on I could have had serious health problems on the climb to the peak – people do die in the mountains when they do dumb things.)

So check the ultra race listings and read the course descriptions and reviews to find a ‘first timer’ friendly race. Most are run on trails, but a few are on pavement. I suggest you’ll have a better time on the trails, as long as you can train on trails.

So let’s assume you are more or less ‘marathon fit, and you are going to do a relatively non-technical trail 50K. There’s not really much of a secret here; if you have had success with a marathon training program, your 50K training won’t look all that much different (still, hiring a coach makes things much easier – they think, you run). Again, this is assuming you picked a ‘beginner friendly’ type of 50K – training for a tougher 50K will diverge a lot more from marathon training.

I submit you could use a marathon plan to prep for the 50K and get to the finish line. But you will feel better and be more confident about putting in those extra ~ 5 miles if you modify the marathon plan to increase the length of a few of the long runs, and simply put in more “time on your feet” as they say.

There is debate among ultra runners as to the utility of many of the types of training runs used for marathon and shorter race training, such as “threshold” runs (to improve anaerobic threshold), “intervals” (to improve maximal endurance, i.e. VO2max), and “repetitions” (to improve raw speed). I come down on the side of including threshold (aka tempo) runs at least, even though you will likely never run anything faster than your usual “easy run” pace in the ultra. Being more fit translates to the easy pace being, literally, easier – less effort to run the same pace. Just as for marathon and shorter training, I recommend running a handful of strides after a couple of easy runs each week to keep a bit of speed in the legs and to improve running form.

Others disagree and have had a lot of success doing lots of miles and training as close as possible on the type of terrain they will race on. The truth is there are multiple ways to reach the same ultra goal, so a lot depends on what you are comfortable with and what gives you the most confidence that you can finish in a vertical posture.

A good book to consider is called Relentless Forward Progress. It discusses many of the topics I’ve covered, and a lot more, and includes a lot of advice and opinions from experienced ultra runners. It has sample training plans, too.

I’ve never been very keen on the marathon for myself, and found myself in agreement with many others that a 50K with friends in the woods felt much easier than any road marathon. Chose your race well, train properly, stay off the roof and you likely will have a great time.

Good luck!

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Reader Question: Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

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A quora user asks:  Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

NOVA had a great documentary a few years ago which followed several ‘novice’ marathoners through their training programs. Marathon Challenge — NOVA | PBS

(It looks like you can also find the full documentary on Youtube.)

It’s been a while since I watched it, but I recall that only one of the participants lost any substantial weight, and that was because she was purposely trying to lose weight. That meant she was being careful to watch her caloric intake and was doing a lot of supplemental exercise that the other runners were not doing. Some of the runners were surprised they hadn’t lost much or any weight, but as Bruno said, losing weight is hard even for runners.

You have to run a lot for it to affect your weight; for example, world class marathoners will put in sometimes 120 – 160 miles per week of running, along with strength training, cross training, and flexibility work. At that level, it becomes difficult for most people to maintain a healthy weight, that is, not lose too much weight. Very few people can withstand that kind of training. Contrast that with what ‘mere mortals’ do; novice marathoners usually run from 3 to 5 times per week, averaging 25 – 40 miles per week, and may or may not do some cross training and other exercise. Intermediate marathoners might do 40 – 60 miles per week, and more advanced but still not elite marathoners might do 50 – 70 at most (all gross generalizations, but about average). Most then go back to their sedentary jobs in an air conditioned office. As exercise science and obesity expert Steven Blair, himself a fit but somewhat rotund gentleman, has said, we evolved using a lot of energy to survive, but in modern society we no longer have to work hard physically to obtain our food and shelter. Instead we try to “graft on” a bit of artificial (non survival related) physical activity which we call exercise to try to stay healthy. If you think about it, most runners are sedentary 22 – 23 hours per day. That was a luxury our ancestors could not afford.

It just takes A LOT of physical activity to lose weight, which is why it is important to reduce calories in an intelligent manner; one that doesn’t result in lower metabolic rate, which is difficult to do while training. I recommend the book Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald for runners who could benefit by losing a few pounds in a sensible manner. Dropping weight by cutting too many calories too quickly will only lead to reduced ability to train, and possible injury, which defeats the purpose.

Keep in mind also, that a lot of those ‘overweight’ marathoners you see have lost a substantial amount of weight as part of adopting a healthy lifestyle, for which running is only one part. Some will have leveled off and some are still losing weight, but nearly all are generally more healthy than the majority of “normal weight”  sedentary people. It is more important to concentrate on health and fitness than weight loss per se when setting goals to improve one’s health and well-being.

Another factor is that marathons have become both more popular and less “elite” over the last couple of decades. The latter means that many races have extended the cut-off time for completing the course to 6, 7, 8 or more hours, which gives a lot more people time to finish. A few decades back when only a few hearty souls, nearly all men, ran marathons the cut-off might have been 4 hours, which today is faster than more than half of all marathon participants run. (For perspective, the world record for men is under 2:03 and for women is about 2:15.) The great thing about running is how inclusive it has become, and that fact that the elites cheer for and support the back of the pack runners. It’s a wonderful thing.

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