Moving Up From the Half to Full Marathon

by Karl Gruber
One of the beautiful things about running is that once one goal is completed, there is a natural desire to move on to a bigger and more challenging goal. The usual progression that most runners go through when it comes to their racing goals is 5K, 10K (or the “Quarter Marathon” that seems to be all the rage these days), 15K, half marathon, and then full marathon. Whether you intend to then move on into the “ultra” distances is another article for me to write!

This decision to increase your race distance really does seem like a natural progression, at least from a runner’s perspective. If you think back to your very beginnings as a runner, a 5K run seemed daunting at the time. Once you ran that very first 5K, however, you realized that you are now more fit than before you were a runner. 

Then the next time you hit the trail with your running buddies, inevitably the conversation turns to the big 10K race that is coming up in a month or two and you all agree to sign up for it. On your way home after your run, you think, “Oh man! What did I just commit to?” So the gauntlet has been laid down, and you say, “Oh what the heck, I’m in decent shape. I’ll bet I can run 6.2 miles!” 

But it doesn’t stop there. Just imagine the same scenario I described with your running buddies after each longer race you run, repeated over and over until you decide you can run 26.2 miles.

Running a race, let alone a full marathon, may not be one of your goals no matter how in shape you are. I have a good friend who has been running for well over 40 years and never races! It’s just not his thing. He just goes out five or six days each week, gets his five to seven-mile run in and is totally satisfied. 

That being said, I am speaking in terms of the general population of runners. The desire to gradually race longer and longer and farther and farther just seems to go hand-in-hand as your fitness level and running ability increase exponentially. Once you eventually get to that half marathon level of racing and successfully conquer the 13.1 mile distance, you’ll more than likely feel the hunger to do the full marathon distance. And as millions of runners around the world have proven since the running boom of the 1970s, 26.2 miles is certainly doable.

Still, there is a very important issue to pay attention to when considering the move from a half to a full marathon – the marathon is much, much harder! Double the distance, double the pounding, double the amount of time (maybe), double the effort, and double the amount of required training. Consider this evidence. 

Your half marathon time does not necessarily translate to its equivalent in the marathon. For example, I have a number of running friends and runners I coach that can race a 21:00 (6:46 per mile pace) 5K and a 1:45:00 (8:09 pace) half marathon, but a full marathon takes them 4:40:00 (10:41 pace). This is not all that uncommon for first time marathoners, because they find out how very hard running 26.2 miles can be. 

After my many years of running, working in running specialty retail and coaching runners, I’ve found that some runners still don’t understand that to get your half marathon time to translate to its equivalent in the marathon, they really have to raise the bar of their overall training. 

As a runner and coach, I am an advocate of running lots of miles every week to get in marathon shape. When I ran my very first marathon, my peak mileage training week hit a total of 87 miles – and that is not even as much as some of the better marathon runners do. Now that I’m a bit older, I usually peak my high mileage week in the upper 50s. 

Running lots and lots and lots of miles teaches your body just how to handle longer and longer distances, along with how to endure the suffering and effort of a hard race such as the full marathon. The idea is to get your body to not think that an 18 or 20-mile training run is all that hard to handle. Putting in an 80-mile week, and multiple long runs of 18, 20 or 22 miles, then becomes a normal routine for your body. So when it does get to mile 25 or 26, it is not a surprise and it is in shape to deal with the intense demands.

I understand, however, that not every runner has the time or desire to run high weekly mileage and make such a deep investment in their running. If you’re OK with running a 4:40:00 marathon or even a 5:40:00 marathon, that is completely fine. I’m just glad that you are running! But if you really do want to run a full marathon as well and as fast as you do shorter distances, then you have to commit to raising the bar for your training.

As a running coach, I can tell a runner who wants to race 26.2 miles that “you need to do this, you need to do that, you need to make a serious commitment,” but then they just go out and do their own thing. They simply don’t believe that all of it is needed – that is until they stagger across the marathon finish line feeling like they just got hit by a truck.

When that time comes for you to decide if you want to run a full marathon, decide just how well you want to run it. Do you want to run it the best you possibly can or do you just want to endure the distance? If you choose the later, that is totally fine. But if you choose the former, then make the commitment to train like you’ve never trained before.

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