Marathon mania: Should running 26.2 really be everyone’s fitness goal?

marathonsRunning used to come with street cred. You got the head-clearing glory of those pre-dawn miles and plenty of fitness prowess was conferred upon you for it. Now, it seems everyone who laces up their sneakers is upping the ante and training for a full-blown marathon. When did running 26.2 miles become the brass ring of fitness? And should it be?

“I feel like everybody does marathons now,” observes Jess Underhill, a New York City runner, coach, and founder of Race Pace Wellness. “Most of my clients are working towards marathons, and if they’re not, they’re on the fence about it.” If you’re a runner, you’re a potential marathoner, the thinking goes.

The numbers reflect that sentiment. According to Running USA, in 1980, 143,000 people finished marathons in the United States; in 2011, that number rose to 518,000. In New York, about 15,500 more pavement-pounders finished the ING New York City Marathon in 2011 than 10 years earlier. And while the country debuted 550 new marathons between 2000 and 2012, getting a spot in one is often like trying to score a ticket to see Lady Gaga at MSG.

Jess Underhill

“There’s a stigma now if you’re a runner and you haven’t done a marathon. People that aren’t running marathons feel inferior,” says Jess Underhill.

As more and more people cross the finish line, median times are getting slower. “In the past, it was more hard-core, serious runners finishing marathons,” explains New York Road Runners chief coach John Honerkamp. “Now, it’s the masses. It’s a bucket list item.”


So how did the marathon of elite athletes become the brass ring of bar-stool bragging rights for the rest of us?

Of course, general interest in running as a sport and social past-time has been increasing, and the masses of people taking it up (especially women, who were barely represented in the sport as recently as the ’80s and now outnumber men) want to have something to work towards.

More specifically, runners and coaches tend to point to the growth of charities using the races as fundraising tools. “It increases the accessibility of the races and markets them to people,” says Meghan Reynolds, who co-owns Hot Bird Running with Jessica Green. “Everyone wants to do good, and this way you can give to charity and do something good for yourself.”

And, of course, there’s a cool-kids-club effect. “People are inspired by their friends and family who’ve completed marathons,” Underhill explains. “They think ‘Well, if Sally can do it, I can do it.’”

Hot Bird Running

“If you want to become a long-distance runner and continue to run, you shouldn’t always be in marathon training,” say Meghan Reynolds and Jessica Green.


The positive effects of the marathon boom are obvious—lots of people setting tough goals for themselves, meeting challenges while getting healthy and fit, and building community. But is there a downside?

“Some people run their first road race as a marathon, and I think that’s crazy,” says Honerkamp, who recommends starting with a race like a 5K and gradually increasing your race distance as you become more experienced.

Most seasoned runners and coaches agree, because running newbies tend to underestimate the stress the training will put on their bodies and don’t spend the time to build mileage gradually in a smart, safe way.

Reynolds and Green say that many of their clients come to them because they tried to train on their own, or too quickly, and were injured. “We believe everyone can run and achieve that distance, but it’s a lot on your body. We always say, ‘You have to respect the distance!’” —Lisa Elaine Held

(Top Photo: Peter van der Sluijs/Wikimedia Commons)

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11 Comments | ADD YOURS

  1. April 8th, 2013 at 11:07 am

    The NYC Marathon was an incredible achievement and amazing experience for me and I love the half marathon distance – doable and fun. However — with a torn meniscus in my left knee – I’ve had to start walking instead.

    I was very happy to read recently that brisk walking delivers all/more of the health benefits of running (although not sure about the “runner’s high”…). There is a totally different kind of marathon coming up – an overnight event on July 20th called The MoonWalk NYC where you can walk a full or half marathon – in a crazy bra – and raise money for breast cancer initiatives. It’s sponsored by Walk the Walk America, and benefits Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

  2. April 8th, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    I started running a couple of years ago, and my goal is to run a half. I’m not really interested in completing a full marathon. We’ll see if I change my mind when I get there.

  3. April 8th, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    I’ve run a few halfies over the last decade and have no desire whatsoever to run a full marathon. Training for a full marathon requires so many miles per week and it just takes up too much time.
    I want to mix my exercise up with yoga, hikes and Pilates.
    Also regular marathoners seem have far more more injuries than those who doing the shorter distances. I plan to run until I am old and not be wrecked from over training.

  4. April 8th, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    I have done a couple of half marathons and can honestly say I have no desire to do a full. I do triathlons also (as my primary sport) and this would completely wreck that training.

  5. April 9th, 2013 at 12:54 am

    I have run a few marathons in the past 3 years and have enjoyed the training experiences, if not for the camaraderie with my run club. But, I don’t think it’s a stigma if you haven’t run a marathon and I certainly don’t know anyone who has run a marathon and has looked down on someone who has not. To each their own. Just because you train for a marathon doesn’t mean you put in the right amount of miles during training, and I’m all for people who just want to run and have fun.

  6. April 9th, 2013 at 3:22 pm

    I sure hope that this shouldn’t be the goal, I would be happy to be able to run 5 miles let alone 26!

  7. April 13th, 2013 at 6:03 am

    Respect for the marathon distance is key. Runners must educate themselves first and foremost. Join a running club, train with others with the same goals and the rewards are endless. Now in my 70’s, I look back over a 20-year running career and feel a real sense of pride and accomplishment (finishing Boston at 50 was GREAT)….You can do it!

  8. April 17th, 2013 at 7:38 am

    It could be for everyone whose body will not suffer a permanent damage from bumping joints and disks. Shirley has a point- people must educate themselves about it. If your feet are not aligned, or hips..or anything in fact – your body will suffer a damage from it. Making sure to do it correctly – is the key and then finishing is a great achievement.

  9. April 23rd, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    In a way, I feel like it’s less a physical fitness goal than an emotional one. To know you can run a 26.2 is an amazing high, and a huge achievement. It really makes you feel good about what you can accomplish.

  10. Richard Martin
    June 6th, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    I started running about 2 years ago, and gave it up after a couple of months. In March, I started again, and have gradually increased my distance and speed.

    Although i love my running now and all the benefits that come with it (I lost 10Kg in 2 months) I have absolutely NO desire to do a marathon. None whatsoever. I cannot think of anything worse.

    I am training for a half marathon, and that is bad enough doing the training for that. Pushing your body doing 10, 11 and 12 mile training runs for me, is just not fun – and that is what running should be about – fun. I enjoy my morning 3, 4 or 5 mile runs, anything after this then become unpleasant from a personal viewpoint, aching knees, aching joints, sore feet, I even spewed up on the pavement this morning running into my 10th mile.

    Somebody at work keeps pestering me to do a marathon, he won’t take no for an answer and calls me a wimp – I keep saying I want to fill my spare time with things I enjoy – doing 20 mile training runs is certainly not fun in my eyes.

    Each to their own.

  11. June 1st, 2014 at 1:52 pm

    I don’t think the 26.2 is for everyone. Like Richard Martin said, “running should be fun.” If it stops feeling fun and rewarding, then why do it? Personally, I have ran one half-marathon, and two full 26.2 marathons. I’ve never really even been much of a runner. After recovering from catastrophic injuries (multiple spinal fractures) I wanted to benchmark my comeback with a notable accomplishment. But after running my first marathon, I wasn’t satisfied with my finish time, so I ran another one two weeks later. Call me a “bucket list” marathoner lol. But, now that I have done this, I have discovered how much I really enjoy the half-marathon distance. It is a distance that nearly anyone in reasonable health is capable of running. And this distance allows me to really push myself hard and shave minutes off of my finish times. Also, a half-marathon certainly does not require the amount of training that a 26.2 will so is much more doable for most people with busy lives. I now plan on traveling and scheduling my vacations based around various Half-marathons throughout the US. I highly encourage everybody to consider the half-marathon challenge. Trust me if I can manage to run it start to finish, then ANYONE can.
    Keep on pushing!

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