If you had to guess, at what age would you think non-elite female runners “peak” when it comes to marathon running? Twenty-five, give or take a couple years? Younger? Get this: For recreational runners, they may have “much more in the tank” at 35 and continue improving until they’re 50, according to research in PLOS One. That’s good news for me, given I’m exactly 35 years old as I write this.
Quick back story: It’s been six years since I crossed a marathon finish line. Said finish line was in Paris and yes, it was pretty epic, but also, that was the moment I decided I needed an indefinite break from marathon running. Paris was my 10th marathon (I’ve also completed the World Marathon Majors) in three years and I was a liiiittle burnt out.
But as I think back on that time in my life, I remember it as three of the most exciting years yet. There’s something adventurous about long Saturday runs and all the preparation that goes into them. Also, I instated “Pizza And (a single glass of) Wine Fridays,” as a way to add some fun to my otherwise not exactly rockin’ Friday nights in NYC during marathon season. And of course, that feeling of crossing a marathon finish line is nothing short of euphoric—and emotional every damn time.
So when the opportunity to run the 2023 New York City marathon with Team New Balance presented itself, I felt the familiar butterflies in my stomach—I felt ready to train. But I also felt in need of some expert guidance having not run more than a half marathon in six years. Questions like how to increase stamina, how to help sore muscles, and what to eat before and after a run popped into mind, as did ones around the latest and greatest gear for marathon training—I figured some things have changed in a little over half a decade!
So, I dug into the research and talked to some of the top experts in running, recovery, and nutrition to help me optimize my own training—and hopefully help those of you reading this as well, whether you’re also training for a marathon or just thinking about it. So let’s see: Can I beat my fastest NYC marathon time (4:13:59) from 2015 eight years later in 2023? I’m down to try, and apparently science is on my side.
First up, how to increase stamina for running. And stay tuned for future articles in this WH mini series.
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD, is the founder and director of Ochsner Eat Fit nonprofit initiative in New Orleans and host of the FUELED podcast, provide tips for increasing stamina for the marathon.
What is stamina, exactly?
“Stamina is the mental or physical capacity to endure any prolonged activity,” says Aarti Soorya, MD, an integrative medicine physician at Grover Health. So, running 26.2 miles would definitely count as a prolonged activity during which you need plenty of stamina. So too, though, would things like a long bike ride, triathlon, or even a creative pursuit like writing a manuscript. But for our purposes, let’s stick to stamina in the context of running.
“When I think of stamina and running, I think about being really fit aerobically,” says Mark Coogan, a New Balance Boston Elite Coach, Olympian, and author of Personal Best Running. “Especially if we’re talking about the marathon because most people are out there for three to five hours—and that’s a long time.”
There’s also that mental stamina component necessary when it comes to being successful in a marathon, Coogan says. “Being on your feet for [that long] is mentally tough,” he says. “And that’s just the race—that’s not even talking about the three or four months (or more) people put into training for a marathon. That’s really challenging mentally.”
Here, our pros provide tips for increasing stamina for the marathon.
Quick disclaimer: As always, nutrition and exercise changes are super individual so it’s best to chat with your doctor, trainer, or a registered dietitian if you’re unsure whether something new is right for you.
12 Ways To Increase Stamina
As Coogan mentioned, the real key to building stamina is to *actually* put in the work and miles.
Dudley agrees: “Consistency is the biggest thing that you can do for yourself,” says Dudley, adding that if you’ve got three to four runs programmed a week and you’re only doing one or two of them, you can’t expect to feel prepared on race day. “Consistency is going to be your best friend if you want to feel good during your race and be able to complete it and know that you gave it your best shot.”
To help in this department, you’re going to need some motivation to stick to your plan. Coogan recommends things like having a training partner who holds you accountable and setting shorter-term goals, like signing up for a 10K in the middle of your training cycle.
Personally, I run with Back on My Feet, a non-profit with a mission to combat homelessness, once or twice a week and I can definitely say that knowing the group is expecting me helps me get out the door.
Train with your circadian rhythm.
When you consistently wake up, sleep, and train at the same times of day, your circadian rhythm will function at its best and help your body repair to the best of its ability, Dr. Soorya explains. “When we disrupt this rhythm, it confuses the brain and body what time of day it is (like in jet lag) and this impacts your cognition, energy levels, mood, and can prevent peak performance on the day of the marathon.”
That means it could make sense to shift your schedule in the weeks leading up to race day so that it aligns. For NYC, I need to be on the ferry to Staten Island by 7:30 a.m. so I’ll need to wake up by 5:30 a.m. That means I should go to sleep by 9:30 p.m. to get my eight hours of rest.
Luckily, this aligns pretty darn close to my usual bedtime and wake up times so I won’t need to adjust things too much. But, I might consider doing a few of my training runs closer to 11 a.m. which is around when I’ll start running on race day, just to get my body used to that timing.
Tap into your ventral vagal state.
Sounds a little complicated, but “ventral vagal state” is basically when your nervous system is feeling safe. “Running can be interpreted as a threat as we were wired to run away from tigers which required a full ‘fight-or-flight’ response,” says Dr. Soorya, adding that running for extended periods of time can prolong that response and circulate stress chemicals for longer than is healthy.
“To prevent your physiology from interpreting running as a threat, and make your nervous system more resilient, bringing in your senses can help give the signal to the brain that there is no tiger that you are running away from and that you are indeed safe,” she says. “This is what is known as a ventral vagal state of the nervous system, which is the physiology of ‘play’ and leverages just enough sympathetic energy to run but not go into the ‘fight or flight’ response.”
To try this, take the time to address all your senses when starting a long run—ask yourself what do you see in your environment, what do you smell, feel, touch, and taste. I have yet to try this but you can bet I will on my next long run!
Optimize your caffeine intake.
Caffeine is research-proven to benefit endurance exercise—in trained and untrained individuals—according to a 2021 International Society of Sports Nutrition position stance on caffeine and exercise performance.
The authors note that caffeine has “consistently been shown to improve exercise performance when consumed in doses of 3–6 mg/kg body mass,” which would be 162 to 324 milligrams for a 120-pound person. In terms of timing, they note that getting it in your system 60 minutes before exercise is most common but “optimal” timing depends on the source (so something like caffeine gum might kick in before, say, a cup of coffee).
I typically have Super Coffee (which has 200mg of caffeine) about an hour before my long runs (worth noting: I also eat a little oatmeal on the side for some carbs).
Molly Kimball, RD, CSSD, founder and director of Ochsner Eat Fit nonprofit initiative in New Orleans and host of the FUELED podcast, adds that for workouts lasting more than 90 minutes, bringing a gel packet or some other source of caffeine along can be helpful. I personally like the GU products as they’re efficient and easy to use (and taste pretty good—liking the mint chocolate and cold brew flavors lately).
Also, they come in different amounts of caffeine so I mix up the mgs depending on how I feel. I might have a 30 mg GU at mile five and then a 70 mg GU at mile 10, for example. Also, Cliff makes a gel with 100 mg of caffeine that I’ll alternate in from time to time. (I avoid caffeine for the rest of the day after consuming all this for my run, FWIW!)
Make your easy runs *actually* easy.
“My biggest tip is make sure that your easy runs are truly easy because [that’s] actually building that endurance in your aerobic system,” says Dudley. “A lot of people run all of their runs at around the same pace so it’s never super fast, it’s never super slow—it’s always this medium-fast feeling,” says Dudley. (Guilty!)
“You actually want to completely wipe [out] that middle ground of pace, and you want things to be on opposite sides of the spectrum,” she says, adding that your long runs should be run at a truly easy pace. “The point of that is that we need to build your aerobic system and if you’re running your easy runs too fast, you’re completely missing out on building your endurance and your aerobic side,” she explains. “You need your heart rate to be low enough to be able to actually build your endurance.”
How do you know if you’re nailing the easy pace? You should be able to run with a friend and get a few sentences out at a time. “You’re not going to be able to have a full-on conversation,” she says, “but you should be able to get words out.”
I run with my Apple Watch and have been experimenting with the new-ish “Pacer” feature which allows you to plug in your goal pace and the Watch will let you know if you’re on track or pacing too slow or too fast.
Get speedy *if* it’s not your first race.
You don’t necessarily need to do any speed work if you’re training for your first marathon. I’m working it in once a week and using the Equinox+ Precision Run or Nike Run Club guided audio runs to help keep me honest, and I usually find it easier to get it done on a treadmill versus outside.
“If you are doing speed work, that’s when you want to save all the gas in your tank,” Dudley says. Meaning: This isn’t the item for that medium pace either—speed work should feel, well, speedy, and if you do it right (meaning fast, whatever that means for you) you should see the results in the form of slightly faster long runs (that feel just as easy).
Slow down rather than stopping.
Picture this: You’re out on your long run and it’s 80 degrees and humid and you’re Dying. Rather than parking yourself on the nearest curb, consider slowing down, even walking, instead. “Slowing down instead of stopping is an easy way to ensure that you’re going at a pace that’s sustainable,” says Dudley, and this will help build your stamina.
That said, give yourself some grace, she emphasizes. That means if your body is asking for a full stop mid-run, it’s ok to grab some water and rest for a minute (or longer).
Both Coogan and Dudley brought up the idea of working hard when it’s time to work and resting hard when it’s time to rest. That goes for your whole training cycle but in the days and even couple of weeks leading up to race day in particular.
“In the last two weeks when you’re cutting back on your mileage and you’re actually starting to feel pretty good again and having some bounce in your legs, I don’t think that’s the time to start a home project or rake your lawn,” says Coogan. Consider this his permission to Netflix and chill.
This is admittedly a tough one for me. I love to walk (like, a lot) and sometimes rack up five or six miles just getting around NYC on an average day. But hearing this advice coming from two pros is making me a lot more thoughtful about how I spend my non-running/exercise time, especially during high run mileage weeks and of course, race week.
Speaking of rest: “Training for a marathon causes a lot of wear and tear on the body and building in additional repair time can be extremely beneficial for peak performance, [which] is not only good for physical repair, but also for mental repair,” says Dr. Soorya.
Sleep is obviously great for this but so too is “non-sleep deep rest,” or Yoga Nidra, which is “a conscious sleep-based meditation,” says Dr. Soorya. “It mimics the stages of sleep and trains the brain and body to get into parasympathetic mode a.k.a. repair mode.”
I found this free version of the practice from Emily Hightower at Shift Adapt but there are lots of others available online. “The best part of Yoga Nidra is that you can experience the benefits from day one, even as a novice meditator,” Dr. Soorya adds. “All you have to do is lie down and have a recording guide you.”
Plan for the worst.
“Visualization can be an extremely helpful tool [for] preparing for a marathon,” Dr. Soorya says. “Imagining yourself each step of the way—starting from the day before to each step of the marathon day—helps prime your brain for what the process is going to look like.” Don’t leave out any possible malfunctions or potential issues as visualizing what you would do can help keep your physiology in a calm state when a problem (inevitably) arises, she adds.
What does this have to do with stamina? “This helps conserve the energy that would have been used for problem solving in the moment and use it for completing the marathon,” says Dr. Soorya.
Go for a negative split.
“In the ‘old’ days, people would say go out a little bit faster for the first half [of the marathon] and put some ‘money in the bank,’ but I feel like that’s totally flipped now,” says Coogan.
A “teeny bit” of a negative split—where you run the back half of your race slightly faster than the first half—is probably the best way to feel well, or at least halfway decent, most of the way, he says.
I’ve been experimenting with this during my long runs and am really into it! It allows me to take my time slowly ramping up my speed and then stepping on the gas a smidge when I know I have a good number of miles in the bank.
Consider syncing with your cycle.
The idea of tweaking your fitness plans according to where you are in your menstrual cycle is going mainstream, and could come into play while marathon training. Dr. Soorya advises resting on the first couple heavy days of your period as your body is spending a lot of energy detoxing during this time and energy levels can be lower, she says. “Stressing your body with intense training during this time can be counterproductive.”
However, what if your period falls on race day, which is somewhat hard to avoid? With this in mind, I’ll likely take it easier during these days of the month rather than skipping a long run altogether, just in case I need to know what it feels like on game day.