When I tell people that I run marathons for fun, one of the most frequently asked questions I get is, “How much does that hurt?” The answer is simple. It hurts a lot. And it hurts in places you wouldn’t think of. Like the top of your shoulder. The marathon is a strange experience; just like it’s sibling the half-marathon. And one thing you have to accept if you are considering endurance racing is the fact that it’s going to hurt.
No matter how well you train, or how long you’ve been running. Covering double-digit miles on your own two feet is not easy. There are certainly things you can do to make the pain less debilitating. You can fuel and hydrate appropriately. You can train intelligently. You can apply lots of anti-chafe product all over your body (and you should). But no matter what you do to prepare, running a marathon is going to hurt.
So, if you can wrap your mind around that fact as you are going into training and racing, you’re going to be much more prepared for the discomfort when it comes. Here’s what I recommend to get you ready.
Understand Why It’s Going to Hurt
In order for you to learn to manage the pain and discomfort that comes along with running an endurance race, it’s helpful to know why it hurts to begin with. There’s the obvious fact that 26.2 miles is a long way to run; so is 13.1. A marathon distance is definitely not a leisurely jog around the neighborhood. But aside from the obvious, there’s a few other reasons that endurance racing hurts.
For starters, when you are training for an endurance race you aren’t going to run the race distance until you are actually running your race. Most training plans will cap out around 2-6 miles shy of the goal race distance. And for good reason. The further you run, the more likely you are to become injured. One of the most difficult parts of training is balancing the need to train your body to run far with the need to prevent you from injuring yourself.
To accomplish this, you won’t run the full distance in training. So when you run your race, it’s going to be a shock to the system. Even if you’ve run half or full marathons in the past, it’s not likely you’ve run one recently (like in the past month). And once you’ve gotten a few weeks into training, you’ll learn pretty quickly that every new long run distance brings with it some new aches. So it makes a lot of sense that when you finally run that full endurance distance, it’s going to hurt in fun and new ways that training probably didn’t.
It’s also fairly likely that you will be running harder in the race than you did in most of your training runs. Whether or not this is intentional is somewhat irrelevant. There’s a whole lot of reasons you tend to run faster and harder during a race than during training. There’s a bunch of other crazy people running faster than you, and humans have a hard time not competing with whoever is around. The ego is a delicate thing.
There’s also the excitement of running a race that you’ve spent months training for that can make it difficult to keep your pacing somewhat reasonable. And really, you should capitalize on the excitement and allow some of that to carry you a bit. Not that you should sprint across the starting line like you’ve just seen your boss on a Saturday, but races are meant to motivate you to see what you’re capable of.
And likely this will mean that you will run just a bit harder than you did during training. Which is great. But, it also hurts. For every yin there’s a yang, right? It’s important to understand that there is no training plan that will make marathon racing not hurt. Certainly you will hurt significantly less if you take a good 16 weeks to increase distance in a reasonable manner than you would if you decide to run a marathon the week before the race. But it’s still going to hurt, either way.
What It Means to Hurt
Now that you have accepted the fact that running an endurance race is going to entail some amount of pain, here’s what that pain means. It means that you’re racing hard. You’re pushing and giving your all in a distance that is demanding and challenging. Racing hard isn’t comfortable. So if you’re uncomfortable and not feeling great, you’re doing exactly what you’ve trained to do. Race hard.
You need to also know what the pain does not mean. Experiencing pain during a full or half-marathon does not mean that your training plan failed. However, in the process of running a really far distance, your body is going to become angry with you. It will start to demand that you stop what you are doing and find the nearest burger, immediately. In order to coerce you to veer off the course and find that fatty goodness, your body will begin to tell you lies.
It will tell you that the soreness in your feet means that you need to stop and rest. It will tell you that the burning in your lungs means you are not in “good enough” shape to hold this pace. It will tell you that you are not strong enough to race as hard you are. It will tell you that your training plan didn’t get you in shape for what you’re trying to attempt. It will tell you you are going to die if you don’t freaking stop right freaking now.
Your job is to recognize that all those thoughts are lies. They are your body’s way of prioritizing Shake Shack over your goals. But you have to know better. You have to know that you trained well, and you are strong. You have to trust your training more than your feelings. And you have to tell your legs to shut up, and make promises to your mind that you will get a burger and shake as soon as you cross the finish line. But the pain, it cannot stop you.
What to Do About the Pain
So besides telling the pain to take a back seat and shut the hell up, what else are you supposed to do? Well, for starters, you need practice being ok with discomfort in training. You should have some hard runs programmed into your training plan; long runs, track workouts, tempo runs, etc. There should be runs that force you to push when you want to give up. And doing those runs, your job is practice accepting the discomfort and keep pushing anyways. The more you practice, the easier it will be to do on race day.
You also need to reframe how you think about discomfort. Most of us have a natural tendency to want to pull back and away from pain and discomfort, and that’s reasonable. But it’s not ideal in endurance racing. If you can stop thinking of pain as a signal that you need to quit, it’s a lot easier to keep moving when the pain comes along.
So what does pain actually mean if it doesn’t mean that you need to stop? Well, like I alluded to earlier, it means that you are pushing hard. And that is a good thing. In training, it can also mean that your body is getting stronger. Growth is uncomfortable. Getting stronger requires some amount of discomfort along the way. So when you’re in the midst of those middle miles, and your body is screaming to stop and find that chocolate shake, remember that these mental hurdles are a signal that you’re doing your job and gaining strength.
Know When Discomfort is Dangerous
Now, I’ve talked a lot about how pain isn’t a reason to stop, so I think it’s important that we discuss a little caveat here. The caveat of injury. There is a difference between the discomfort that is required for growth, and the pain of an injury. And it’s extremely easy to conflate the two. That’s part of the reason that runners are prone to overuse injuries.
But here’s a few signs that your pain might be a developing injury:
- When it hurts to walk. This is an obvious signal that what you are dealing with is not growing pains. If it hurts to walk and doesn’t completely go away within a few minutes, you are probably knocking on injury’s door.
- The pain is very localized. If you’ve got a muscle cramp, the whole muscle will likely feel tense. If you’ve got a muscle tear, you will probably have significant pain in a smaller area than the entire muscle. If you’ve got one spot that is tender to the touch or hurts when you’re not running, you may have an injury going on.
- It hurts more after warming up. Usually muscle soreness will loosen up after a warm up, whereas an injury will likely hurt more.
- It is changing your form. This is never a good sign, and if you’re not injured now, it’s likely that you will end up injured if you keep going.
So now that we’ve covered that, you have some decisions to make. If you’re developing an injury during training, the smart decision is to rest, ice, and see a medical provider. However, if you feel like you’re working on an injury mid-race, you’ve got some different choices to make. I encourage clients to consider their post-race goals, how far into the race they’ve gone, and how close they are to goal pace currently.
If you’ve got 2 miles left, and you have a 3 minute cushion to your goal race time, you probably want to suck it up and deal with the consequences afterward. Because you’re so damn close. If however, you’re 5 miles in and there’s no way you’re on target for you goals, you may want to drop or just run the miles without a time goal in mind.
Whatever the case, if you think you’re developing an overuse injury, always remember that there will be more races and opportunities to grab that PR. You don’t have to break your body to do so. But even if you aren’t working on an injury, racing will still hurt.
But now we know that’s ok. In fact, it’s a good sign, usually. Start working on that mental framework change now. So that when the time comes and we’re finally able to race again, the fact that it’s going to hurt won’t scare us, it will motivate us.