Couch to Marathon

The science of physical activity is exceptionally good — particularly if you compare to less understood lifestyle sciences, like sleep, stress, addiction, behavior, and nutrition — so there isn’t much that a non-expert like me can add to the conversation. But since I’ve done it, I went from zero to running a Marathon, I can share my own experience, talk about my own mistakes and the mistakes I’ve seen done by people around me who tried and failed.

It’s worse if you are physically fit

I can’t tell you the number of times I heard a story of a fit person who never ran and get badly injured after start running. The worse case I know of is an acquaintance that broke a bone. These people share a common trait, they have been exercising for a long time, so their heart and muscles are in top shape. They start running and don’t get tired as a typical new runner would, so they push themselves. But their biomechanics is not accustomed to running, so they get bones, ligaments or tendons injuries.

It happened to me to a certain extent. I started running in 2011, but I was a couch potato. I wasn’t overweight, but I didn’t exercise more than playing sports once in a while. I signed up for a half-marathon to find motivation — it worked — and went to do a first test run. I was able to run 5K (walking + running) so I was excited that I could start my training at that point. Two weeks in (after 5 or 6 runs), I had a foot injury. I could barely walk, and after going to the doctor I was put on run-rest for two weeks and get orthotics.

One of the things training plans designed to get you started on your first 5K do is to make sure you start super slow. It can take easily six to eight weeks for you to adjust to running, even if you are super fit, so taking it slow is critical.

Knee pain

Nine out of ten friends who tried to run and quit tell me the same story: my knee hurts. It actually happened to me. Halfway my four month training to my first half-marathon, I was crossing the 6-mile long runs and I started feeling knee pain, in just one knee. Every weekend would be the same thing after that, run 7 miles, have knee pain, limp back to the house, ice it, put Icy Hot and be OK in a couple of days. I had no problem during the 3 or 4-miles run during the week, but after 6 or 7, it was always bad. When I run my first half in June 2011, after mile 10.5, my knee was in so much pain that I had to walk the rest of the race. It was incredibly painful, disappointing and unsatisfying!

Running is a repetition sport. You do the same movement 60–100 times per minute. Each minute adds up a little. A slightly unbalance in a muscle strength or posture, even if just a millimeter after a while starts to create inflammation. This is not different than carpel tunnel / tendonitis in your hand if you use a mouse or keyboard for too long. Personal trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists and chiropractic, particularly the ones who specialize in sports medicine, are exceptionally good at identifying biomechanical problems and prescribing a set of exercises or stretches that will address your need.

For me, like for a lot of runners, it was a weakness of the IT band, a muscle that connects from the hip to below your knee. It’s the muscle that becomes weaker and weaker the more you sit. Guess what? We sit a lot in our lives. Knee pain, the vast majority of the time, it’s nothing else than an indication of an IT or hip muscles problems. Train those muscles and you are good. A few typical exercises are very good for those muscles, including squats, rollers, monster walk (yeah, that’s a thing), etc. Search for IT band or hip muscles stretches and you’ll find excellent tips online. I also started using a standing desk. Hard in the first few weeks, but then you get used to it.

Finally, posture during running makes all the difference. When I registered for the Chicago Marathon in 2013, I knew that I needed to step up. The knee pain — still present but less so — and everything that I didn’t know about running wouldn’t take me to the finish line. So I’ve got a personal trainer. Among the many things, he pushed me to see a physical therapist.

My first visit to the physical therapist, she did a gait and posture analysis in a treadmill setup with laser sensors and camcorder. Holy shit, it was bad. They showed me all the wrong things I was doing, from raising my feet too much to turning my feet outwards on each step, and from leaning a little to the left to hitting the ground with my heels.

I won’t go into too much detail, but the secret that worked for me is to run leaning forward (as if you are about to fall forward), hitting the ground with the middle or front of your feet, never with your heel, and having short strides so you don’t spend too much energy lifting your heels at each step.

Holy shit! It worked amazingly well. In July 2013, it was the first time in two years that I ran more than 7 miles and had no knee pain. Zero. Not only that, but because of my better posture and new running style, I felt a lot less tired because I was spending a lot less energy. It worked!

My training to the Chicago Marathon was exceptionally motivating because I was able to focus on endurance and training the parts of my body that needed training — lung, heart, circulatory system, liver, etc. — instead of worrying about muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons.

Endurance is different

I had done three half-marathons before I decided to do a full marathon. Turns out there is a huge difference between a half and a full. Going from a 5K to a half-marathon is just about more of the same. I believe almost any person can run a half-marathon if they train for it. For some people, it will be harder if they are obese, but it can be done. A full marathon, on the other hand, it’s a different sport in my view. It’s about endurance.

Having muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons in top shape is just table stake. It won’t take you to the finish line. To train for a full marathon, you’ll need to learn a lot more about nutrition (before, during and after runs), about hydration, about electrolytes and lactate. Marathon training is about training your liver, lungs, heart, kidneys and many other systems of your body so that it’s using energy and producing/consuming lactate in the most efficient way possible.

There is a common expression in endurance running called “hitting the wall”. In colloquial usage, hitting the wall means that you are really tired and can’t continue anymore, but in sports medicine hitting the wall is a lot more scientific than that and it’s explained by the amount of energy and lactate in the body. I’m not qualified to talk about this, but you can read about it or get an endurance personal trainer that will help you to identify the best training program for you.

Marcelo Calbucci

Marcelo Calbucci

I'm a technologist, founder, geek, author, and a runner.