The Truth About Marathon Training With Melissa Williams

Training for a marathon can be so rewarding, but it may seem overwhelming and daunting at times. If you want to get your butt in gear and finally commit to a half or full marathon but don’t even know where to start, don’t worry you’re not alone. Even the most seasoned marathoners still struggle with that inner voice trying to bring them down from time to time. Sure, we see photos of happy faces crossing the finish line, but what about everything leading up to that glorious moment? Turns out it’s not all rainbows, butterflies and effortless 20 mile runs. We wanted to see what it’s really like training for a marathon, so we turned to avid runner Melissa Williams to give us an inside scoop about her ups and downs and lessons learned.

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Melissa Williams is a mother of two, personal trainer, and group exercise instructor. The self proclaimed “obsessive runner” and avid marathoner is currently an ambassador for The Giant Race. On her site, Fit with Liss, and her blog she provides race recaps and documents her marathon training experiences. She also provides great product reviews for all your running necessities. 

One Foot in Front of the Other… Running taught me that. Marathon training taught me that.

I’ve yet to find a sport more exhilarating and more humbling than the sport of running. One simple run can take you to the highest of highs, or leave you stumbling so hard it takes days or weeks to find your footing again. Running is mental. It’s a gamble, and if you’ve ever toed the start line of a half or full marathon, you know what I mean.

This November, I will be running my 4th full marathon — my first 26.2 since having my two boys. In the days leading up to that, I will be crossing my 25th half marathon off my list as well. In the training process I’ve learned things about running, and about myself, that enable me to keep pushing forward and testing my limits week to week.

I haven’t run a full marathon in six years, but over the last year I have brought my half marathon PR from 1:56 to 1:39 (with myself as my only coach), so I know that experience paired with strategic mileage is making me a better runner.

The first full marathon I ran in was in 2007, and to say that I was under-trained and ill-prepared would be an understatement. Although I was running 4+ times a week in preparation, I ran shorter distances. In the days leading up to that marathon, I did one 17 mile long run and that was it.

My first marathon was the San Diego Rock N Roll Marathon. It was the first day of June, and although it was San Diego, our weather here is not always as desirable as everyone assumes. It was brutally HOT. I coasted through the first 18-ish miles fairly comfortably, but once I hit mile 20 – I rode that struggle bus ALL the way to the finish line! It was at mile 20 I knew exactly what a friend of mine meant when he told me, “A marathon is the hardest 10k you will ever run.” At the time, I didn’t really piece it together. When I hit mile 20 that day, otherwise known as “The Wall”, I was like, “Ooooooooooh, just another 6.2 to go even though everything hurts – what do ya know, he was right!” I hobbled along that last 10k, feeling the wrath of all my rookie mistakes.

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The errors I made that race day left me physically and mentally immobilized in the weeks that followed. Here are a few things I learned from that day:

Fuel & hydrate properly on race day

I don’t remember exactly what I ate that morning, but it was not the right thing. I know it involved peanut butter. I have since learned that although I love peanut butter, I can NOT eat it before a run or race – it’s disastrous to my digestive system! Take the time to find out what works and doesn’t work for you and create a tailored marathon training diet. You also need to make sure to drink enough fluids and take in calories/nutrition during the race like the GU gel packs and also add electrolytes in with your water.

Never try anything new – gear or food wise

Your short-mid distance training runs are perfect for introducing new foods or running gear to test out. Try it out for a shorter distance, if that goes well, you’ll know you can increase your distance with it. I mistakenly wore a brand new pair of socks on the morning of my first marathon and as a result staggered into the med tent at mile 18 for them to pull off my shoe and sock and find a blood blister that covered my entire heel, literally almost the size of the palm of my hand! They bandaged it up and at that point my pure stubbornness carried me that last 8 miles.

Train consistently and don’t skip long runs

Skipping long runs is only going to put your body into shock as you approach the higher mileage during a race. Your legs and your mind will be ready to quit on you because they’ve not been acclimated to those distances. I remember my sister was waiting somewhere around mile 22 for me, and when I passed her, she jumped in and ran a couple miles with me. I needed that, and I cried — I was so ready to give up, but when I saw her, I knew I had to finish what I started and she would help me.

Keep moving after the race

This is so important. After finishing a race of that distance, your body wants to sit or lay (while stuffing your face with a plate of tacos) but you need to keep moving. I went home and got in bed for a “nap” the morning after my race and I woke up 14 hours later with 15 missed calls and a ton of messages; everyone was wondering what happened to me! To my surprise, when I tried to get out of bed I collapsed to the ground. I was unaware of the strength of lactic acid that literally brought me to the ground. You’ve got to get up and walk around, and stretch out your legs at least every couple hours after the race to keep the lactic acid from building up.

Good running shoes

I haven’t personally struggled with this but I know many have. There are so many products out there for runners nowadays – if there’s one thing you need for running it’s good running shoes. It’s far and beyond more important than anything else. Go to a running shoe store and get fitted/analyzed for which shoes will work best for your foot. I have only ever run in Asics, because I love them and it’s what works for me. I never have to “break them in”. I have done 10+ mile runs in a brand new pair with no problems. Fortunately I’ve never been injured while training in them either. Remember, it’s important to switch your running shoes out as they start to rack up mileage to help prevent injury. Also, make sure that your running shoes are just for running, don’t cross train in them. Various types of activities will have your feet landing differently on impact and can break them down incorrectly, causing them to be less supportive during your runs.

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A couple other things I personally swear by during the training process are:

Treadmill Training — I know most hate the treadmill, but as a working mom with 2 toddlers, my workouts start at 4-4:30am during the week. Other times they may start after 7pm once my boys are in bed. The treadmill has actually been a great training tool for me. Doing speed and incline workouts on it has made me a faster and stronger runner.

Training Schedule — I find it helpful to print a Month at a Glance calendar for my fridge with all of my runs for that month. If the rest of my life gets in the way of my training schedule, I just rearrange it (while keeping it within the same week). I highlight the workouts as I finish them and by the end of the week it’s all done — even if the order got jumbled a bit. I’m a visual (and OCD) person, so this method is just something that works for me and ensures that I stick to my mileage.

The tricky part is fitting all this training into the puzzle we call Life. You know — work, kids, spouses, etc. — it’s tough to train for this sport. Planning is key. Early mornings or late nights are going to be crucial to fitting all the pieces together.

This week my 17 mile long run was executed via treadmill because my kids have been sick all week and I had no one to watch them. It all just comes down to how bad you want it. I believe that putting myself through these tougher circumstances is all part of what is helping perfect my mental strength.

Marathon (or any endurance sport) training is the biggest roller coaster you’ll ever ride. Not every training run will go as planned. You aren’t going to feel as good and strong on every single run – there are peaks and valleys to ride out throughout this process.

Even if I struggle a bit mentally or physically during a run, I never regret finishing it. The reward is far greater than the sacrifice. (From my first marathon to my third, I shaved over an hour off my time!) I’m eagerly awaiting heading into this next 26.2 stronger, faster and ready to apply all that I have learned and gained mentally. Although this marathon is going to be the same distance, it’s a whole new race.

We lose ourselves in the things we love, and we find ourselves there, too.

Be sure to follow Melissa on Instagram and Facebook for more great fitness tips and insights into the wonderful world of running!