Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
25 Jun

What Happens to Your Body When… You Haven’t Properly Trained for Your Marathon?

Marathon manThe marathon. An epic struggle of the individual against his/her own body. A kind of “Mt. Everest” for athletic practice, it exacts a sizable toll on anyone who dares attempt it. (The first marathon man died after all.)

The seasoned athlete knows and respects the physical claim of a marathon, and it is substantial even for the best trained. But marathons are becoming increasingly popular in the last few years. Once limited to the athletic elites and diehards, marathons are now the stuff of social events and charity drives. We’re all for the social element of sport, and we’re suckers for a good cause like anyone. But this recent popularity has changed the face (and emergency support requirements) of marathons. While we believe that everyone’s got to start somewhere, we definitely believe this ain’t the place.

So what is the deal with weekend warriors, otherwise fit people who haven’t trained specifically for a marathon, or at least haven’t trained enough, jumping head first into this taxing and demanding physical feat? Even Lance Armstrong after completing the New York City marathon in 2006 in just under three hours said, “that was without a doubt the hardest physical thing I have ever done.” And this is Lance Armstrong people. You know the guy. He’s the 7 time Tour de France winner and arguably one of the greatest athletes in recent history. If Lance thinks it’s tough, the weekend warrior will undoubtedly be sobbing like a baby at the finish line (assuming he or she makes it to the finish line and is hydrated enough to even produce tears).

Lance Armstrong

Our faithful Apples know we’re not lauding the merits of this kind of hyper-endurance exercise at all – for anyone. But we thought we’d consider the weekend warrior in this scenario. What are the physiological consequences of attempting to pull off an extraordinary physical feat without proper training? Hint: it’s not pretty.

The gun has gone off, and everyone is now moving. Our weekend warrior is in the hind portion of the herd, to be certain, but he’s finding some space as the crowd spreads ever so slightly. He looks to settle into a pace. He’s feeling good.

It’s the first several miles, and the sweat is pouring off of him. This part is normal, of course. His heart rate has risen – how much is in part determined by his pace and his fitness level. For a seasoned marathoner, this is an easy stretch. For weekend warrior, he’s perhaps feeling a little uncomfortable.

Over the course of the next several miles, his heart rate will likely not drop slightly as it does during the “comfort zone” for seasoned runners. The weekend warrior, without a long and consistent training schedule, may not have perfected his pace. Though he’s keeping up, the pace may increasingly feel strained, ungrounded. He visits the water points. He’s feeling thirsty, of course. He knows the dangers of dehydration at least from a bit of reading he did in the marathon packet he received. It’s possible he makes the rookie mistake of loading up on too much water and now is beginning to notice a bloated sensation which makes him feel a bit sluggish or even nauseated.

Marathon Man

Our weekend warrior has passed the halfway point now as well as his store of glycogen. It’s possible (especially if he’s not especially fit) that he may have run out of glycogen fuel a while ago. This is a critical turn. The body must now burn fat to continue. Well-trained, seasoned long-distance runners tend to be more efficient fat burners than poorly-trained individuals like our weekend warrior. He’s likely feeling a little hazy and jangled. He’s beginning to feel the force of the progressive pounding on his joints. Fatigue is also beginning to set in for our good man. As a result, his stride has become less efficient, which only worsens the joint impact and jarred sensation. His muscles are feeling the pain as well. Lactic acid is building up quickly. As for any runner, his body is trying desperately to repair the incessant damage, resulting in inflammation and contributing to some excruciating muscle cramping that is now challenging his pace. His respiration is going downhill, and his muscles aren’t getting the oxygen they need.

As he passes mile twenty, our warrior’s blood sugar is bottomed out, his breathing is increasingly strained, and he’s beginning to feel disoriented. After the bloated feeling he got from drinking too much earlier, our warrior passed up water too often and now finds himself dehydrated. (Solid, consistent training teaches you where that fine line is.) His body is going into protein catabolism. That carbohydrate drink isn’t enough now. In fact, it only helps induce a nasty bout of vomiting. He’s entering a mental as well as physical exhaustion, and his pace has entirely fallen apart. In fact, he’s not even running in a straight line but wavering from the exhaustion and disorientation. His heart rate is too high, his oxygen intake inadequate. His knees buckle, and he blacks out on the pavement. He’s hit the wall and then some. He’s lucky in that he’s treated for arrhythmia, dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion but not for cardiac arrest or renal failure resulting from rhabdomyolysis.

Had our weekend warrior properly trained and logged many miles before the big race he would have learned a few important lessons about nipple/thigh chaffing, cramps, blisters, hydration, plantar fasciitis, ITBS, his pace, shoes, stomach and mental strength. Instead he had to learn them all at once and will be paying the piper for his hubris.


He won’t be moving around much for the next week, and he’ll be more sensitive to heat stroke in the future. And though he won’t have the ability to say he finished, he’ll have a dramatic story (and hopefully a lesson learned).

If you’re a fit guy or gal and are thinking about running a marathon for the sake of having completed a marathon, unless you are willing to stick to a proper training regimen (and even if you are) you might want to rethink the whole thing altogether. Maybe take a different approach and do a “Grokathon” (shorter, more fractal, walk a little, jog a little, and throw in a few rounds of sprints here and there) instead of a marathon.

Experiences or thoughts on our weekend warrior? Observations? What do you think of the growing popularity of marathon participation? What are your marathon experiences?

DanMaudsley, mp3ief, notcub Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

What Happens to Your Body When… You CARB BINGE?

A Case Against Cardio

Chronic Cardio 1, 2

Sprint for Health

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Many of you sound very much like elitist pricks. Many people who are not in great physical shape, train for and finish marathons without hurting themselves. I have great respect for the 5-6 hour marathoner. Yes they are in over their head and bonk. I respect the mom with 4 kids who struggles to find time to train and pulls it off. I admire the guy 30 pounds overweight that sticks it out and stumbles across the line. Their accomplishment is far greater then those whose bodies were predestined for elite running.

    J wrote on October 19th, 2011
  2. defeat starts or ends before it begins

    david wrote on August 20th, 2012
  3. I just ran a marathon with no more then running once a week. I never ran longer then 20km in my entire training regiment. I finished in under 4 hrs and it only took me two days to “feel” recovered from my marathon.

    John wrote on February 18th, 2013
  4. This however does not seem to apply to my husband who seems to be a complete freak of nature. The man NEVER trains for a marathon yet he always manages to run the whole marathon and complete it still running and with a decent time. It’s insane. I don’t know how he does it but man I wish I had his abilities.

    Nancy wrote on September 18th, 2013
  5. There is one alternative :-)

    Go slower and enjoy your race.

    5:23 is e.g obtainable for a weekend warrior.Start slow and feel what you got left at the 30 k mark. But i was in pain, no doubt about it.

    Just do it guys and girls, but don’t be foolish

    Good article by the way.

    2 days to my 2nd maraton,Oslo in 2012 Amsterdam 2013 :-)

    Looking at sub 5:00 but i wont be foolish because i’m only a weekend warrior, and i really wouldn’t change it, at least not for a while.

    Weekend warrior wrote on October 18th, 2013
  6. Another data point for your consideration.

    I completed the 2013 Toronto Marathon in ~4:50 at age 35, ~193 lbs with a run/walk strategy. My half splits were ~2:15 and ~2:35. I did not specifically train for it, but I do walk a lot in general in addition to regular lifting regularly. My calves were sore for days, but the rest of my body felt fine within 24 hours.

    I think some GPP and a sound strategy (e.g. conservative pacing, run/walk, etc.) goes a long way in reducing a marathon from being literally dangerous to merely incomprehensibly exhausting.

    Jack wrote on December 31st, 2013
  7. “The first marathon man died after all.”

    Only, meaningfully, in the sense that it was 2500 years ago and there’s no way any person from that time could have survived until the 21st century.

    Even if you assume that Pheidippides was a real person (which is itself in doubt), he was a professional courier, and the reports say that he ran 150 miles in the two days prior to his most famous, and final, run. Those were not unusual distances for running couriers of the day.

    It’s *remotely* possible that running the length of 7 marathons in 3 days, without adequate equipment or nutrition or rest, through the Greek mountains in the late summer, killed someone. I hope no modern runner abandons the idea of training for a modern marathon based on this commonly mis-stated fact.

    Pheidippides wrote on June 13th, 2014
  8. im planning on running my first marathon this November and this post makes me feel like I shouldn’t :(. Last fall I did an 18 miler and trained about 16 weeks with my run club but NOW I’m wondering if I should do a full. I will properly train but DAYUUUUM this article makes me feel like being a runner for 16 years still isn’t enough haha.

    Allie wrote on March 17th, 2015
    • You are all set! 18 miles and you train properly it will be cake. I can’t promise Boston qualifying, but you’ll be able to cruise an extra 8 after and 18er and finish probably without any serious setbacks.

      Good luck!

      Eric wrote on March 20th, 2015

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