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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45 thoughts on “What Happens to Your Body When… You Haven’t Properly Trained for Your Marathon?”

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  1. My first experience with “bonking” (ie hitting the wall) came in a half marathon that I was woefully underprepared for. I had done several 30-40 minute runs, and that’s it. I wasn’t particularly fit at that stage, nor was I really following a training program. My training runs were as fast as my race pace, and that’s evidently a big no-no.

    Then, I had a second bonk when I attempted my first marathon. Again, it was a case of underpreparation. My longest run was 15 miles and I thought maybe I could handle it, but ha! I couldn’t. I had that dizzy/hypoglycaemic/cramping feeling all over again.. wobbly knees and all.

    Fast forward to last year. I got a lot fitter – dropped my weight from 185 to 145 lbs. Followed a true training programme. I was doing Ironman Florida. The swim went great, but I was again, underprepared for the bike (180 km). Around 120 km, I was getting my butt kicked so hard by the crosswinds that I got off the bike and started crying. (LOL). I started to eat as much as I could because I realized my glycogen stores had been close to zero. Somehow, I recovered enough to finish the bike leg, and then negative split the marathon to do the first loop in 2:20, and the second in 2:11 or so.


    Hitting the wall isn’t a pleasant feeling. I can tell you that it’s one of the toughest things on earth. Those who underprepare for a marathon could likely be doing themselves permanent harm. Your body just isn’t prepared for such a gruelling task.

    I’m also surprised this is mentioned here. The reason is because marathoning (or endurance sport for that matter) is not a Paleo/primal activity. If you are doing a 2 hour run, you’re going to come close to burning most of your glycogen. In other words, you will actually need to eat carb (and elicit the glycaemic and insulinogenic response) to replenish energy stores. Obviously if you are following a proper training programme, it is expected you run 5-6 times a week. Which makes carb intake essential.

    Currently, I am experimenting with eating low carb (< 200g of CHO daily) and doing highly aerobic (i.e. pathetically slow) cycling and running. I want to see how well my aerobic base develops. Yesterday, I already ran into trouble. I was doing a steady state 75 minute ride, and then tried a 45 minute run off the bike. I was very light headed at the end of it…

  2. I’m slowly working up to a 5-K in November, after never being much of a runner in my life. From there I plan on slowly upping the ante as I enter 10-K’s and eventually a half marathon late next year. If I’m lucky, I’ll have rounded out my training enough to compete in some shorter distance trathalons along the way as well. I certainly have just as many foolish aspirations of marathon running, but I do realize that kind of thing is 2 years away from happening…. at best.

  3. I ran the Las Vegas marathon in the mid-80s. I had put in a lot of training miles, alternating between weeks of 45 and 55 miles or so including 16-18 milers on Sundays. I ran a couple half-marthons under 1:35 so I thought I was well prepared. The first 22 miles went well. The course started as a very gradual uphill for the first eight miles or so and then it was mostly downhill for about the same. Between 22-24 miles I started to hurt. From 24 to the finish, it was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I finally crossed the line in 3:48:00.

    I remember watching a TV movie once where Joanne Woodward ran a marathon (Marathon Mom or something like that), and she finished alone at night with a feeling of great elation and accomplishment. I can distinctly remember my thought as I crossed the finish: “I AM NEVER, EVER GOING TO DO THIS AGAIN.” I stuck to 10Ks afer that! 🙂

  4. I’ve done three marathons so far including The Boston Marathon. If there’s one thing I’ve learned its that you MUST respect the distance.

    My first marathon was a comedy of errors. I committed every rookie marathoner mistake possible. Went out too early, too fast, didn’t drink enough water, etc. etc. I hit the wall hard at mile 18.
    Since then I’ve cut my time down considerably. I ran a 3:37 in Boston this year. That’s down from my first marathon which was 4:06. The marathon can be a nasty nasty experience for those who don’t train properly. My success has come as result of knowing my body, putting in long consistent miles and following a very healthy, evolutionary/paleo diet!!

    Great post.

  5. Most people can actually trim their times by focusing on body composition for the first two years. When I was 185 lbs, I trained the same way as I did when I was 145 lbs. Same mileage, in fact, I recycled an old training plan.

    The difference for me was, I focused on body composition, to increase lean muscle mass and decrease body fat. I ended up going from a 2:00 half marathon to 1:30 in about 1 year. Pretty neat, huh?

  6. I’ve run 3 marathons and 3 50k trail runs. All of them have been very positive. My first marathon seemed like a long walk – very easy and I ran 2:47. It’s all about the training, proper rest, and quality eating and I’m just your average Joe Athlete.


  7. If you haven’t trained, you’re a fool to attempt the marathon distance, but with proper training, it’s no big deal. For ultra runners, who go 100 miles or more, 26.2 miles is considered a mere warm up.
    It’s all relative.

  8. Question for fellow endurance athletes:

    How do you cope with having to train 15-20-25 hours a week without eating any grains? Sometimes I find potatoes and sweet potatoes a bit sickening… and I always try to eat whole foods. So don’t mention meal replacements etc etc..

    I crave a PBJ sandwich once in awhile, but the bread makes me so bloated that I can’t run properly the next day. haha.

  9. Response to how to train without grains: I do marathons and trail runs. While i feel like I run A LOT, there are many individuals putting in more time and training than I. Currently I am averaging 60 miles a week of running and sustaining a pretty much grain-free diet. I am 100% gluten-free. Once in awhile I’ll eat some teff, buckwheat or rice porridge. And sometimes I sneak some sherbet or gelato, but otherwise I try to stick to a healthy, whole foods diet.

    I do eat a fair amount of nuts and nut butters (banana slathered in hazelnut butter is my current favorite!)

    1. How does anyone have time to run 60 miles a week??? Unless you don’t work and don’t have children maybe? If I get in 25-30 I am doing good!

  10. The post raises a lot of questions for me.
    Why do you think Marathoning is on the rise? I guess primal fitness folks are still in the minority, understanding the havoc training and racing at these distances produces.
    Isn’t the medical community warning people about this type of training? Apparently not.

    I never raced the marathon distance; only 10-K and Halfs, I was a Carb king, training 75-80 mi a week…and STILL struggling to drop a few pounds to improve race times…nightmare!

    Are there any reformed distance folks(Mark?) who miss the “runners high” that training would provide? I’ll admit, that’s the one thing I miss about distance running. I read somewhere that the “runners high” was a trick the body plays, and is in fact a sign of damage? is there Any way to get that Runners high through healthier means?



  11. I ran a marathon a few years ago. I was in shape but I hadn’t really trained for 26.2 miles. I figured I would go until I stopped. I only made it to mile 20. I regret not finishing.

  12. I’m not recommending marathons, but if you do them, you must train properly. I have done three, and have done better at each, but it’s a slow process. You definitely need to run a few years before attempting it. I think that was one of the problems at Chicago. You are covering a long distance in whatever weather might present itself. You need to be properly prepared for sure. I believe if you train at or below maximum aerobic function for 90 percent of the time, long distance running is safe to pursue, albeit not optimal for your joints or body. Of course, neither is basketball or tennis or any other sport.

  13. Okay, so being someone that typically follows advice from MDA, this particular lot has me in a pickle.

    I enjoy running and am running a half marathon in September. At the moment I’m capable of running 13 miles and have done a mixture of 3-13 mile runs for a few months.

    On a side note, every so often I feel extremely light-headed and dizzy during my runs. This is linked to my low-carbohydrate diet I know. Is the prevention of this just to simply eat more carbs beforehand?

    During my weight training (2-3 times a week), I never suffer the same problems.

  14. Higher carbohydrate consumption is often the necessary evil of Chronic Cardio, Ade. If you are constantly burning up those glycogen stores with 90+ minute runs you will likely need to up your carb intake. Just understand that it is a compromise.

  15. Well, to avoid the compromise, you could do what a friend of Mark’s did.

    Start from scratch – perform very low intensity training, around 50% to 60% of V02 Max, and then not eat any simple sugars during any training sessions but for your longest rides. In addition, you would need to keep doign this type of training for years to develop that aerobic base to allow you to burn fat as a fuel.

    I can very much see now why Ironman preparation can yield two types of athletes: those who do long hours uber hard, requiring copious amounts of starches, grains, gels during workouts etc. and those who have trained for 5-10 years and focused exclusively on their aerobic base, requires minimal carbohydrate intake. This is because their body has preference to burn mostly FFAs and IMT over carbohydrates.

    Of course, given that I only started endurance sport a few years ago (and now I’m quitting competition), it is hard for me to take the low-carb route. However, it is possible from what mark says, and you can save sooooo much money from not having to buy gatorade, gels, etc. That stuff is expensive!

    1. I believe aerobic base training is the answer – where do I find more info? In conjunction with low carb high protein eating?

  16. Fellow Endurance athletes. I’m a triathlete and try to follow a ‘modified MDA plan’. My carbs of choice are potatoes, rice, oatmeal, and some whole wheat breads. I have a hard time without carbs, but what I have found is that the timing of carbs/starches seems to help out really well.

    What seems to work well for me is a little before (gel or toast) and then replacing the carbs after the workout. If you are doing a one-a-day workout and it is in the morning, you can switch to the MDA plan from lunch onward. With 2 a day workouts it can get a little bit trickier. I’ve found that a schedule like that seems to work well. Lots of salad, veggies, protein in the evening and at lunch. If I’ve had a 2nd workout in the evening, we’ll try to do some potatoes or rice at dinner.

    It is definitely difficult to adhere strictly to the MDA plan in reference to carbs/starches if you are doing a lot of aerobic work.

  17. I am currently training for my 6th marathon.

    I am a 48 year old female, and respect the distance. I adhere to a good training schedule for my miles, and now cross train with other aerobic activities. I also incorporate weight lifting.

    I have found out that you do NOT need to eat a pound of pasta the night before a race. Eat sensibly, and remember that for every mile you run, you burn approximately 100 calories. Marathon training does not give anybody a license to gorge on ice cream each day.

    Good luck everybody!

  18. What I really want to know is what happens if you’re fit – just haven’t run much. I run about once a week for 5-8km. But I cycle 200km a week. I’d have no problems with spending 5 hours on the bike at 75% max. My heart and lungs are fine, I assume I’m burning fat efficiently. I know how to eat and not bonk. I have 6 weeks. Can I train for a marathon in that time? (while also training for a 250 km ride the following week)

  19. Hey eerybody, I can share a unique perspective on the weekend-warrior marathoner. I am that guy, however my results were not as bad as “quick rick.” I just ran a marathon last weekend with only running once a week on Saturdays, never more than 12 miles just once. I ran my first, and only other marathon 16 months ago with even less training and a torn ACL (which has still not been treated). I was in California for vacation and the marathon. Literally the day before the marathon I was smoking and no not cigarettes (think for yourself) and I got 3 hours sleep and had no breakfast. Granted my time of 5:02 is not pretty, but I did it and yes it was miserable. I now know what it is like to be a paraplegic. This last weekend I had hoped for better time. I did the appropriate chagnes in attire wearing actual running shorts and shirt (the California marathon i wore a large cotton shirt and lacrosse shorts = mistake). I had a cliff bar for breakfast and some NSAIDS. This time it was my knees that gave me terrible pain throughout, likely the new shoes and inserts were the culprit. I finished in 4:49, again not pretty, but I finished. My roomate, a pharmacist, noticed I had developed uremic frost on my face and all over my skin. Uremic frost is a sign of acute kidney failure, so obviously that was not good, but after some sleep and rest and still painful knees I am happy to say the weekend warrior story is not as bad as quick rick’s. A marathon should be respected, but most importantly know YOUR body, nobody knows it better – know your limits and abilities.

  20. i wonder what marathoners did before gels and low carbs…wait aa minute thats off subject I had a coach that was training for the olympic trials who averaged 100 miles a week- he could just take off and do 14 miles and be back in a breeze…hed been running since lil kid. An i had another friend who went with her team to run boston marathon and they made it but were sore for days after..basically train good, eat good, cha ching!!! train inadequate, eat good/poor, do poor. feel poor. yaow.

  21. I’ve been running for the past 6 months or so, have done 10km distances in the past.

    At the present – with 9 weeks to go I have run 18 miles as my longest run – took me approximately 3 hours. Towards the end I thought the end was nigh, my legs hurt, I was hungry, could only taste salt etc…

    I didn’t drink anything during that run, basically because I usually feel a bit sick if I drink on a run, but when I’m doing big distances I might need to rethink that.

    At present I am planning to run 5 days a week, with the longest runs being 20 miles. Tapering down towards the end.

    The key for me is good music, totally distracts me from everything I’m going through, how noisy my breathing is, if my legs are hurting…

  22. I took up marathon running 2 years ago. I think the reason so many have choosen this route is weight control including myself. My first marathon in 2008, I had only 4 months of training. It was brutal, I went very slow, but made it within the required timeframe to receive my medal. I’m about to run my second one in a week and feel my ability to feel better of my long runs this year is an indication that it really does take a long time to prepare yourself for such an event….especially when you are a bit older. I’m looking forward to improving each year.

  23. I’m getting ready to run a half-marathon. My longest run has been 12.5 miles. I have had to do the bulk of my training indoors because of safety concerns in my area and lack of time. I ran outside a few times and I am able to complete the same amount of miles outdoors as the treadmill. My concern is that I haven’t been as consistent on other shorter runs. How worried should I be?

  24. Mark, you ought to look into the real story of Pheidippides What he did in the days before he died was even more than you did, back in the day!

  25. I’m really suprised a ‘Primal’ website has this attitude to distance running.

    Google ‘tarahumara’ and ‘persistence hunting’.

    Then ‘barefoot running’ (How Primal are Nike’s?)

    Then read ‘Born to Run’!

  26. I ran my first marathon at 47 after training for about 5 months (in a high altitude for most of it; marathon was at sea level.) My only goal was to finish and I did in 5 hours and 20-some minutes. I felt pretty good through the race and the days that followed. I would say overall I lost some weight in the training and some of it was indeed muscle mass, partly because I decreased weight lifting (40 hour a week job and family limits workout time). I think I intuitively run more of a Grok-a-thon though because I always have music and vary my speed accordingly. I tell my friends “I don’t run, I just dance in a forward direction.”

  27. okay im currently 16 years old, i ran my first marathon last year at 15 i had never in the course of my life run a race before, and the only running i had done prior to the marathon was the three weeks before the race. In all i logged about 35ish miles before the marathon. When the day of the marathon arrived i was a bit nervous, the gun went off and i got swept along in the mass of people. for the first 6 mile i felt like absolute shit, but then i found a pace. i managed to keep that pace for the remaining 20 miles before finishing. i ran the marathon in 5 hours. winning the men under 20 age class

    the marathon i have been referring to is the equinox marathon in Fairbanks AK by the way =D

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. “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.

  34. 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.

    1. 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!