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Running a marathon is a terrible fitness goal – here’s why

Peter Brown’s running days ended in 2010, after painfully running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Is there any greater time of year than now for fitness optimism? For some, this will be the year they lose that unshakable 20 pounds. Or finally start eating right, dammit. Many others will resolve to run a marathon.

If you happen to be one of those brave souls who has vowed to tackle the most overhyped event in running, please, don't. Running a marathon is a terrible fitness goal. "Taking on a marathon can be an unhealthy goal for a lot of people," says Alex Coffin, a New Brunswick-based running coach and founder of the website Marathon Canada, a site that tracks statistics, standings and other information on races across the country. "There's just so much more of a chance of injury as opposed to training for a 5K or a 10K. The healthiest runner is probably the person who never tries to race above 10K."

(If you're determined, take the time to build up to it with many shorter races along the way, he says.)

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Marathon participation has climbed for decades, with a slight drop last year when every race category dipped, according to Running USA. The marathon's appeal in large part is owing to the fact that it is so richly steeped in myth. We all know the basic story, but any distance runner can fill in the details for you: In 490 BC, a man named Pheidippides ran the approximately 25 miles from a battlefield near the Greek town of Marathon to Athens to announce the army's victory over the Persians. The original organizers of the modern Olympic Games seized on that glorious myth as a marketing hook for what would become the event's flagship race. It's been luring droves of challengers ever since.

The dark joke regarding the marathon's history among every race medical director I have ever talked to is that as soon as Pheidippides delivered the news to the Athenian assembly, he keeled over, dead.

To distance runners – masochists by nature – this is a point of pride, not one of caution. But for anyone who is new to running, it should come as a strong hint to adjust goals accordingly.

"It's not something I think most people should dive in to," says Russell Gunner, medical director of the Mississauga Marathon.

First-time runners, he points out, have a high chance of being injured. Their bodies aren't used to the toll. Taking on too much too soon in the heady, optimistic days of the new year only heightens the chance of injury. Plantar fasciitis, a strain in the ligament that connects your heel bone to your toes, and iliotibial band syndrome, tightness or inflammation of the ligament that runs from the outside of your thigh from hip to shin and stabilizes the knee, are two of the most common injuries runners can suffer from, especially those who overdo it, Gunner says.

"If you don't look at eight months to a year to build up to it, you'll be visiting a clinic," Gunner says. Peter Brown learned that lesson the hard way in 2010. The then-34-year-old Toronto man decided he would try to qualify for the Boston Marathon by running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon at a wind-whipping pace of just more than three hours.

"I thought I was in pretty good shape," Brown says.

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His only previous experience with distance running was a half-marathon two years earlier, although he did regularly play tennis and soccer and hours of shinny. "Everything was fine until about the 27 kilometre mark," Brown says. With 15 kilometres to go, nature called.

"I remember hearing people say, 'Don't stop, don't stop.'"

But he did stop.

"My legs refused to start again," he says. Limping his way to the finish line was agony. "It was the most excruciating couple of hours of my life," Brown says.

He has yet to run since.

Fitness coaches and trainers will soon begin hearing from new clients who are set on running a marathon this year to get in shape and prove their grit. Most trainers will politely try to talk these people down from the ledge. As a way to test and build your fitness, the marathon is hardly ideal. "Being able to run a marathon is a test of your will and a test of your moderate capacity as an athlete. But if you're going to set goals, I think it's more important to set goals that are based a little bit more around lifestyle," says Jason Darr, co-owner of CrossFit 604, a gym in Vancouver.

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The best fitness goal anyone coming off the couch this year can have is a simple one, says Paul Anthony, a Calgary-based personal trainer. "Lower your body fat, increase your lean muscle mass," he says. "When you're in that type of fitness, you can do anything you want."

And if running is really your goal, why not think shorter?

"Whenever I'm talking to someone, without fail they'll ask if I've ever run a marathon," Andrea Seccafien says.

No, she has never run a marathon. Nor a half, for that matter. But, the Canadian Olympian has run the 5,000 metre in 15 minutes and 17.81 seconds. If you want to test your aerobic and anaerobic fitness, try doing that some time.

Training to shave minutes off your 5K time will arguably do much more to improve your fitness than dragging yourself across 42 kilometres.

"There's this whole thing of completion versus competitiveness," Seccafien says. "In the 5K you can actually be competitive."

Try to beat 25 minutes, then shoot for 20, she suggests.

Then, perhaps, run in a 10K race, then a half-marathon and then tackle 42.2 kilometres. Going for it right out of the gate is a blueprint for disaster.

Marathon devotees agree: It doesn't have to be an all-out sprint.

"There are a lot of ways to do the marathon," says Ben Kaplan, general manager of iRun Magazine and author of Feet, Don't Fail Me Now: The Rogue's Guide to Running the Marathon. "You could take 5 1/2 hours and bring your camera and walk and jog and talk with a friend."

Indeed, you could. And if doing so brings you happiness and helps you lead a healthy lifestyle, then all power to you.

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