By Debbie Koenig
Have you ever wondered if you’ve got what it takes to run a marathon? In the new comedy-drama Brittany Runs a Marathon, the main character gets a medical wake-up call to lose 55 pounds. She can’t afford a gym, so she laces up her sneakers and starts running. Eventually she sets her sights on the New York City Marathon.
We wanted to know how realistic Brittany’s transformation really was, so we spoke to a pair of experts from New York Road Runners, the organization behind the race: Roberto Mandje, their Senior Manager of Training and Education, and Stuart Weiss, MD, their Medical Director.
Our interview has been edited for clarity and length.
WebMD: We hear a lot about couch-to-5K programs, but in the film Brittany sets her sights on running a marathon. How different is it to go from couch to marathon?
Mandje: People do it quite often, more often than you might think. The question is: How much time do they allow themselves to train? Couch-to-5K or couch-to-marathon makes it sound like I was born and raised on my couch, and then I decided to run a marathon next week. But really it just means starting from scratch, meaning you haven't done exercise in a few weeks or a few months, or even in a few years.
The best way to do it is to sign up with a training program, virtual like we have or with a coach or group training. Seek out a plan that builds you up gradually from where you are now, keeping in mind that yes, you are going to run 26.2 miles, but hopefully that’s several months down the road. We tend to start our people as far back as 20 weeks, which is about five months, and that gradually brings them along. If you're a little bit more experienced, you can start 16 weeks before your goal race, or possibly even 12 weeks. Those are the brackets we have for our virtual trainer. Everybody's different. The point is, you want to start with as much time as possible.
WebMD: What health considerations should a newbie take into account?
Mandje: We always advise any runner who's joining us, either in person or virtually, to check with their healthcare professional about running a marathon. They should get a traditional physical, make sure that they're in good heart health, and they don't have any other concerns or issues that might not be obvious to them. Because you might have issues below the surface—maybe you have exercise-induced asthma or an irregular heartbeat, things that might not show themselves in your day-to-day life. But the minute you start training, especially in warmer, more humid months, they can pop up. You don't want to run into issues that could have been resolved earlier.
WebMD: Are there any people who definitely shouldn’t try marathon running?
Weiss: Yes. If you have medical problems and your physician doesn’t think you have the physical stamina, you shouldn’t do it. Running a marathon is a real achievement, and we want you to be able to finish safely.
WebMD: How much time should a beginner allow to work their way up to running a full marathon?
Mandje: There’s no magic number. In this day and age we all work, we have busy lives. Whether you’re elite or novice you want as much time as possible so your body can adapt to the phases of training. The first part we call base building, you’re getting your body acclimatized. Eventually you start peppering in what’s called the long run. That typically occurs at the end of the week, or on the weekend. You gradually build up, going longer and longer in your long run, so you can feel more comfortable tackling the marathon distance. After that you get into what's called the taper phase, which is when you start to decrease the volume of mileage that you've been running per week, and you're starting to rest up a little bit and get ready for race day.
This is the traditional, standard training for anybody, whether you're elite or novice. The more time you have, the more time you can spend in each of these phases and better prepare. If I only have three weeks, am I doing one week in each? That doesn't make as much sense as if I have three months, I could do one month of each. You can see how that would prepare you a little bit better, even if in this hypothetical scenario you’re starting from scratch, from the couch.
WebMD: What are the potential pitfalls—why do beginners typically give up?
Mandje: There are many reasons. A lot of us have such busy lives that it’s really tough to make running, or exercise in general, a priority. And even though running is universally accessible to everybody, it is something that you have to budget into your day to day life. No matter whether you're elite or a novice, everybody started from the same place—they weren't that good at the beginning. They had to get into a routine, they had to establish boundaries and make running more of a priority.
And it might be difficult at first, you're feeling a bit sore from the early days of training, you might not feel like you're that fit. If you're starting from scratch, you're not going to start running and a week later feel like you're ready to take on the marathon.
WebM: What strategies will help newbies stay motivated?
Mandje: When you have the main goal, the marathon, however many weeks or months down the road, it's good to set smaller, intermediate goals along the way. That way you accomplish a goal in the first week or two, and you can move up gradually. It's a lot easier to take small bites out of that pie then to eat the whole pie in one sitting. A lot of times people see the 26.2 and it's such a big race. They think, I can't even run three miles without getting out of breath. How am I going to do a marathon? They decide okay, this is not for me, because they're still in that early adaptation phase.
WebMD: What advice do you give to all new runners?
Mandje: Enjoy the journey, make it yours, don’t look at what anyone else is doing. We see it every year: With more than 52,000 finishers, they have 52,000 stories of how they got there. Make sure you’re doing it because you want to, not because you lost a bet. And don’t give up too early—those other 52,000 people are no more special than you are. They just manage to see it through where others give up.
WebMD: In the movie, Brittany has more than 50 pounds to lose when she starts. Are there any particular concerns for overweight runners?
Mandje: Whether a runner is on the larger side or not, when they first start with a coach, we instruct them to visit a running specialty store to get fitted for the right shoes. Someone who doesn't have a running background might think, I have these shoes I got from a sporting goods store, so they'll do the trick. But every runner is different. Even if two runners are exactly six feet and 180 pounds, one might pronate [the foot rolls inward with each step], another supinate [the foot rolls outward]. It’s about being in the right kind of shoes for your foot, not for your height or even your weight. I think in the movie, Brittany starts out running in Converse or something like that. Even if she was light as a feather, that's not a shoe you're going to wear running a marathon.
As far as the weight, we don't ever really get too concerned about that, because as long as the person is carrying well and eating healthy, then their body starts to gradually adapt to the demands training is putting on them. We worry more about them being in the right shoes and making sure that they've been cleared by their healthcare provider.
WebMD: How do you know when you need to stop running?
Weiss: My advice to runners—always—is to listen to your body. During a marathon you can expect to hit the wall at mile 20. You’ll feel like you can’t take another step, and for that you should push through. But if you’re in pain, experiencing shortness of breath, if you get dizzy or lightheaded, listen. During the marathon we have a medical attendant stationed every single mile. We help runners figure out if it’s ok to continue or sit for a minute, drink a little fluid, and go back. And also if it’s time to stop.
WebMD: When someone’s on the fence about making a commitment to running, what advice might help them go ahead with it?
Mandje: It depends. If I I'm working with them, chances are that they came to me on their own volition even if they're still hesitant. That happens year in, year out—somebody enters our marathon lottery on a whim, and they think they'll never get in. But then they do and think okay, well, I do want to do this as a bucket list thing.
When I talk to them, they always have a reason why originally, they entered the lottery. I tell them to focus on that, have that reason carry them towards that start line and eventually towards that finish line. If they focus, it can carry them through on the days where they don't feel like running or it's too hot or too cold or any kind of inclement weather. The motivation has to be intrinsic, not because of your coach or because your partner made you do it. Once you have that, you're essentially super-powered. You have the ability to get up and go out even when there might be a natural hesitation.
WebMD: The movie portrays the discipline of marathon training as being transformational—Brittany’s entire life changes. What’s the reality for most people?
Mandje: The reality is that if you go through a proper training cycle, giving yourself several months, you are going to have a transformative experience. I don’t say that lightly. I see it year in, year out, whether I’m working with a first timer or they’ve run a few. That journey is essentially about self-discovery. It’s showcased really wonderfully in the movie. The runner breaks down some constructs that they have, and they start to gain a little more confidence gradually. Three months in, they’re a lot further along than they were a month in.
Through a marathon training cycle you discover what abilities you have. And sometimes it really transcends what you thought you're capable of. So when you get to that start line, you should feel prepared both physically and psychologically—you've done the training, you've done the long runs, and you’ve probably done a few them in terrible weather. So you build upon that experience. You build upon that confidence and you're no longer the same runner at the start line that you were three or four or five months ago.