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Dr. James Haynes

Q: I am a casual runner, but I think I want to try a marathon. How do I safely work up to a marathon when I normally only run a few miles at a time?

A: The first thing to keep in mind is that it can take you up 24 weeks to safely train for a marathon — safely meaning you do not push yourself to the point of injury. Planning your training is the key to increasing your distance and speed for a 26.2-mile run.

Before you start your training, make an appointment with your primary care provider and tell him/her about your plans. You'll want to make sure you have no underlying health concerns that are worsened by training. This is the ideal time to discuss training components such as nutrition and hydration. There's a lot of information about marathon nutrition available online, but it's best to ask your physician as he/she will be aware of your health status, problems and concerns. Staying healthy while training is as important as the actual running itself.

There are four primary elements of marathon training. They are:

1. Base mileage. Build your weekly mileage distance to 50 miles over a four- to five-month time period via running three to five times per week. Never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent per week to decrease your chance of overuse injury.

2. Long runs. Do a long run every seven to 10 days so your body can adjust gradually to long distances. Increase your long-run distance by 1 to 2 miles per week. Every three weeks, take a rest week by scaling back your long run slightly before advancing distance the following week. Peak distance for these long runs is usually around 20 miles. The last 6 miles on race day will come from tapering before race day and the increased energy you garner from the crowd and experience of race day.

3. Speed work (optional). Practice intervals at higher paces separated by slower intervals. Additionally, tempo runs are longer distances executed at slightly faster than normal pace. Both these techniques improve cardiovascular endurance.

4. Rest and recovery. No running and allowing your muscles to rest. If you want to cross-train by incorporating strength training on rest days, experts recommend at least one day per week where you do not run, exercise or cross-train to avoid physical stress and mental fatigue.

If you injure yourself or find yourself having difficulty progressing to the next phase of your (reasonable) training plan, you should see your primary care doctor as soon as you detect a problem. Problems with progress signal possible injury or burnout from intense workouts. Happy training. You will be extremely excited when you safely cross the finish line.

— James Haynes, M.D., UT Family Practice Center; Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society member