Last weekend’s Marine Corps Marathon was my fourth marathon finish, but in a way, you could say it was a first.

It was the first time I didn’t study the course map for days before the race.  I didn’t plan out when to take each gel, how much water to drink at each station, or where I’d see my family along the way.

For the first time ever, I cared more about going out and having fun than I did about when I would be crossing the finish line.  I wanted it to feel more like a group run (with nearly 30,000 of my closest runners) than a timed race.

And I have to say, it worked.  I had a blast running with my friend David, chatting with other runners and spectators, and soaking in everything the third largest US marathon has to offer.  Even though I was about as close to a PR as Congress is to passing a budget, the run was a success.

24 Lessons From More Than 31 Marathons

Twenty-one miles into the race, my mind started reflecting back on the past miles and considering how this approach was working, and how it wasn’t.

When I sat down to write those thoughts out, a Dos and Don’ts list naturally started to form.  While the two approaches to training and race day were incredibly different (and produced totally different results), they both taught me a lot about racing this distance; how to prepare, how, and how not, to execute the race, and how to enjoy every step along the 26.2 mile journey.

But after putting my list together, I knew my experiences alone weren’t enough.  So I reached out to some of my favorite runners and writers to see what advice they thought was a must share.

What resulted was an amazing list of 24 Dos and Don’ts that will help get any runner through their next marathon.

Together we have 31.96 (don’t ask) marathons medals around our necks.  That’s more than 836 miles of marathon racing.  And probably almost that many lost toenails.  Yikes.

Below you’ll find advice on what to do, and what not to do during marathon training and on race day.

The Dos and Don’ts of Marathon Training and Prep

1) Do get in all your long runs. They are arguably the most important part of marathon training.  Whether it’s your first race or your fifteenth, getting in the long miles builds confidence, trains your legs, and prepares your body.

2) Don’t skip on the speed work either. If you hate it like me, it’s easy to skip, but speed work will be the difference between hitting your goal time and not.

3) Do rest your body when you need to.  Skipping a single training run or cutting a Tuesday easy workout short isn’t going to keep you from finishing the race, but it may help keep you injury free.

4) Don’t rely on music too much for long training runs. Mental strength is crucial in running a marathon, and developing it before race day can keep you from searching in vain for the right tune on your mp3 player when your body is falling apart. For that matter, don’t listen to music in a marathon. What your senses take in during your race will last you a lifetime, and you can listen to “Return of the Mack” anytime. Tip from Charlie, Editor in Chief of RunWashington Magazine

5) Do something other than running.  Good runners run a lot.  Great runners do other things as well.  Cross train by catching a yoga class, joining a pick-up soccer game, or even just commuting a few times a week on the bike.

6) Don’t forget that marathon training is long and hard.  Watch running movies, run with training groups, or do anything else that keeps you motivated during a training lull.

7) Do practice your marathon fueling during your last few long runs. They should be a dress rehearsal for the big day! Tip from Jason of Strength Running

8) Don’t be that guy (or gal, but let’s face it, guys are more likely to do something this stupid) who buys a new pair of shoes at the expo, wears them during the race, then complains for the next two weeks about his blisters.

9) Do an overdistance run if you are shooting for a moderately-challenging time goal, about three to four weeks out. It doesn’t have to be fast, but if you’re going to be focusing on running a certain time, you want to be sure you can at least run 26.2 miles. Survival will be less in doubt.  Tip from Charlie, Editor in Chief of RunWashington Magazine

10) Don’t piss off all your friends by skipping all social events and only talking about training when you actually do hang out.  From time to time, work your training plan to fit around other activities or you’ll burn out before you reach the starting line.

The Dos and Don’ts of Marathon Race Day

11) Don’t deal with bag check. Bring some warm clothes you’re willing to donate at the start line right before the gun goes off. If you can’t part with any of your own clothes, hit up a thrift store before race day and buy some warm clothes. Staying warm AND donating to charity is a win-win for everyone.  Tip from Jamie of DC Runster

12) Do take your gels/energy shots/Gatorade before you think you need them. When you think you need them, it’s too late.  Tip from Mary of Minutes Per Mile

13) Don’t get pissed when you have to stand in line for the porta potty.  You’re turn will come.  Take that time to stretch, relax, visualize the finish, but not to freak out about getting to your corral.  Same rule applies to baggage check, standing in your corral, or whatever else happens before the race.

14) Do allow yourself to open up after mile 20.  If you’ve got something left in the tank, don’t sit in idle.  Smart pushing can lead to big gains.

15) Don’t panic when you hit a low point.  Take a few deep breaths, down a gel, and relax.  The low points pass if you let yourself get by them.

16) Do smile at and thank the volunteers at aid stations. I mean, they deserve a medal. Tip from Jennifer of Redwoods and Running

17) And on top of that, Do take care of your spectators. They are giving up their day (maybe even weekend) to come watch you run by every few miles. As I talk about in Jason Fitzgerald’s free Race Tactics eBook,

“Make them their own race bag, packed with snacks, water, maps, and sign-making supplies. Throw in a cowbell for some added excitement. The more fun they are having, the more fun you will have.”

18) Don’t go out too fast.  The advice that’s shared by many-a-weary marathon finishers.  But it’s legit.   Creating a time buffer at the beginning isn’t the way to run a marathon.

19) Do have fun with it. Unless you are really concerned with a BQ or a new PR, a 3:10 isn’t much different than a 3:15, a 4:25 isn’t much different than a 4:30, and a 5:15 isn’t much different than a 5:20. Have fun! Stop and say hi to your cheer squad. Thank the volunteers who came out to provide you with water.

20) If you do listen to music, don’t listen to music for the first mile, which is usually crowded with runners who are trying to weave in and out.  Tip from Mary of Minutes Per Mile

21) Do bring some baby wipes in your race bag. Those porta potties, honey buckets, whatever you want to call them, can run out of TP. Enough said. Tip from Jennifer of Running and Rambling

22) Don’t be hesitant to ask for medical help at the finish, if you really do need it. The medical volunteers can work magic if you let them! And always be sure to thank them when they get you back up and moving. Tip from Jamie of DC Runster

23) Do check back in on your form throughout the race. Three, four, five hours is a long time to be running, and efficient running form can really help when you’re left digging deep over the last few miles.

24) Do remind yourself it’s just a run. When I went to bed the night before this year’s MCM, I fell right to sleep. That is very rare for me before race day. But in the end, no matter what happened, it was just a run.  Relax.

Thanks to TomTom for letting me try out their new GPS watch, the TomTom Runner, and for sponsoring my entry into this year’s Marine Corps Marathon.

Also big thanks to Mary, Jason, Jamie, Jennifer, and Charlie for sharing their expert advice.

Photo Credit: Randomduck

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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