An Alternative to Running in Marathons, Which Are Stupid

Marathons are generally bad for your health, and the training takes up so much time. Try cutting them in half.
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Photo: mkrberlin/Shutterstock

Photo: mkrberlin/Shutterstock

You may be thinking about running a marathon. You wouldn't be alone. More than 529,000 people finished a 26.2-mile race in 2012, including more than 140,000 in October. That's a lot of people running a lot of miles in a lot of places around the world.

But here's the thing: Marathons, although trendy and seemingly always in the news, are a rather silly, essentially arbitrary distance. It's much better to run a half marathon for a number of reasons.

The first is time. The thing no one really tells you about running a marathon is that it takes forever. Not on race day itself—that's about four hours on the course, using a nine-minute mile as a benchmark—but during the weeks and months leading up to the run. Hal Higdon's training programs are some of the most widely used resources on the Internet and for good reason: they are effective in helping you complete your goal.

I ran one in Pittsburgh a few years ago, and the post-race beer felt great. But my body was thrashed for the next six months, and I could barely run five miles for a long time following the run. I didn't feel like running either.

But take his Marathon Training Program Intermediate 1 guide. Over an 18-week timespan, it calls for participants to run 570 miles. That's more than 31 miles a week, 85.5 total hours—more than three days of running—and nearly five hours a week. That, my friends, is a lot. You want to know why people training for a marathon seem like they can only talk about their training? Well, there's your answer.

Compare that to Higdon's Intermediate Half Marathon Program, which calls for 294 miles over 12 weeks. That's 44.1 total hours or 3.7 hours a week, which is much more manageable. You'll have time for, you know, a life. And it's still well above the doctor-recommend 2.5 hours of exercise per week. It's an amount of running that's sustainable after race day, too.

But don't just take my word for it. Some marathon researchers compare that 26.2-mile adventure to the "exercise equivalent of crash diets." Another running expert has similar sentiments: "A lot of us in the industry on the medical side have been saying ever since the new-age marathoner came in, which were new people who were not committed longtime runners," Dave Watt, executive director of the American Running Association, told the Washington Post in 2010, “we've been saying all along, try a half or something like that."

Marathons might get all the love, but they aren't the most loved race. Again, that would be the half marathon, which 38 percent of men and 43 percent of women say is their favorite distance. You'll be in good company, both when you're training and when you're running. In 2012, the most recent year for which numbers are available, 1,850,000 people finished a half. That was a nearly 15-percent increase from the previous year. The distance has been the fastest growing road race distance in the United States every year since 2003, with double digit percentage jumps in finishers for the last seven years. More than 60 percent of finishers—1.1 million—were females.

Look, I get it. Finishing a marathon is an accomplishment. The medals they hand out at the end are usually a bit shinier than the ones you get for finishing a half. I ran one in Pittsburgh a few years ago, and the post-race beer felt great. But my body was thrashed for the next six months, and I could barely run five miles for a long time following the run. I didn't feel like running either. While not everyone will have that experience, doing the work to be able to complete the 26.2-mile trek will affect you. Unless you're this couple who ran one every day in 2013, it's just too much for any regular person to do on any regular basis.

A half marathon takes less of a toll. I ran one two weeks ago, setting a PR by three minutes, then ran eight miles on Wednesday. I felt great, ready to continue running and training and looking forward to my next half.

So marathon if you must. Check it off the bucket list. Us half marathoners will be waiting for you to come around. We have nothing but time.

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