Can You Run A Marathon Without Training?
Running a marathon is on the bucket lists of many people, runner or not. However, months of training can take a toll on a person’s body, and sometimes life and work just get in the way. Many people find themselves wondering: Can you run a marathon without training? Here, the answer to this question is discussed.
What Happens to the Body During a Marathon?
During the 26.2 miles of pounding the pavement, the body undergoes numerous types of stress. The following are only a handful of processes the body endures:
Glucose is the primary source of energy that a runner uses during an endurance event. Carbohydrates are stored in muscle fibers in the form of glycogen, and that glycogen1 is converted into glucose for quick energy use. During a marathon, glycogen stores are typically depleted, which triggers fat and muscle consumption, leading to extreme muscle soreness.
Muscle Fiber Recruitment
In most endurance events, only slow twitch muscle fiber is used. However, during a marathon every single muscle fiber is recruited2, included their energy stores. Therefore, the more muscle development a runner has the more energy the body can utilize for forward momentum.
In addition to glycogen, the body utilizes oxygen for fuel. The heart pumps harder and faster during exercise in order to shuttle blood to the lungs, which in turn transports oxygen to various muscle fibers. Fit runners are best able to utilize the oxygen they transport.
Water is lost via sweat and energy conversion processes during a marathon. In addition, body temperature can raise in excess of 2 – 3o F, particularly during warm weather races. Many runners finish a marathon 5 – 6% lighter than they started due to dehydration3.
Finally, marathon runners experience mental anguish during a long race. Glycogen depletion and dehydration can both cause neurological symptoms such as disorientation, confusion, and anxiety. As runners use their muscle and energy stores, the latter stages of a marathon can cause extreme lapses in concentration and mental wellbeing.
Why do Runners Train?
To understand whether a runner can finish a marathon without training, the reasons a runner should train will be discussed.
In order for a runner to comfortably be on his or her feet for hours, strength is a necessity. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other requires the engagement of muscles from head to toe. The stronger these muscles, the easier it is to propel the body forward.
The more miles a person runs, the more efficient his or her body will be during the many processes that occur throughout a long distance event. Long runs stimulate mitochondrial growth in the body while also helping the runner adapt to issues such as dehydration and glycogen depletion.
Aerobic Base Building
During aerobic exercise (i.e. exercise that utilizes oxygen for fuel) the body builds additional capillaries for the transport of oxygen. Arteries become wider, while artery walls grow thinner. These adaptations result in better oxygen transport and more efficient oxygen consumption. Consistent aerobic exercise is the best way to cause these adaptations to occur.
A major component of completing a marathon is planning proper nutrition and hydration throughout. During training a marathoner develops the best nutrition plan for his or her needs in order to avoid “hitting the wall” on race day.
Training is simply forcing the body to efficiently adapt to stress. Long runs, tempo workouts, and easy runs on tired legs force the body to find a way to mitigate the damage sustained during these sessions. Marathon runners train by logging a lot of miles in order for their bodies to best adapt to the workload that will be experienced during a marathon.
Finally, the latter stages of a marathon are among the most uncomfortable miles a runner will ever experience. A major component of marathon training is simply growing comfortable with discomfort.
Can You Run a Marathon Without Training: Surviving vs. Thriving
So, what is the answer to the original question? Unfortunately, this subject is not as straight forward as a simple yes or no answer. One must also consider the definition of “running a marathon”. In short, most people can survive 26.2 miles without proper training. However, few – if any – runners can thrive without training.
Additionally, what constitutes “proper” training? There are many schools of thought on what is required in order to train for a marathon. For the purposes of this article, we will assume proper training is running 3 or more days per week, and having completed a long run of at least 13 miles within 2 months of race day.
Finally, what does surviving a marathon mean? Does it mean running the entire distance without walking? Does it mean crossing the finish line within the race’s time frame? Or, does it mean simply completing the distance – no matter how long it takes – without giving up? The first definition, finishing without walking, should be thrown out for the context of this article because even runners who thrive during marathons walk through water stops or take short breaks to relieve cramping.
Additionally, even runners who religiously train for the distance sometimes miss the 6 – 7-hour cutoff that most races require. That leaves the third scenario of simply finishing the distance, no matter how long it takes. Can a person complete this task without training? In most cases, the answer is yes.
There are plenty of runners who have attempted to run a marathon without training and have blogged about their experiences.
In this blog post, the author discusses his experience running the St. Louis Marathon, having only run a handful of times in the months leading up to the race. With limited training (i.e. a few runs, some weight lifting, and racquetball), he signed up for the marathon three days before the race. Amazingly, he finished the distance in 3:46:09, which is certainly a best-case scenario situation. Besides experiencing massive amounts of discomfort in the last four miles of the race (after all, who doesn’t have that experience?), there were no ill effects.
On the other side of the coin is Jacob Seilheimer, a 355 lb man who – on a whim – decided to run the Boston Marathon. Despite not having qualified for the race, trained for it, nor been in the proper physical condition to complete 26.2 miles, he did so anyway. With an “unofficial” finishing time more than 8 hours, Jacob did complete the distance. His training consisted of riding a recumbent bike and completing one long run of 10 miles which took him approximately 3 hours.
But, what about someone who has not run or exercised at all? Even in this situation, examples can be found. For instance, this blogger claims to have finished a marathon on the track, without a single day of training in less than 4.5 hours, all for the sake of mental toughness. This proves that running without training is possible. However, is it smart?
What are the Risks of Undertraining?
There are a number of serious risks of running a marathon without proper training. These include, but are not limited to:
Every year, trained runners die during marathons. Endurance events have been shown to increase inflammation biomarkers in a person’s bloodstream for prolonged periods of time afterwards. One study4 has shown that untrained individuals can suffer from serious myocardial damage during physical exertion beyond their physical conditioning, even for months afterwards. If you choose to run a marathon without proper training, you should be advised that you are putting yourself at increased risk for future disease.
Every marathoner will experience dehydration, however, an untrained runner will experience this phenomenon worse than others. The undertrained runner’s body will have to work significantly harder to cover the distance than someone who has trained. Additionally, lack of training will prevent a runner’s body from cooling itself as well, which will increase the risk of overheating and heat-stroke or heat injury.
An undertrained runner will be at increased risk of injury due to lack of functional strength. Stress fractures, shin splints, and muscular strains are all common among untrained runners5. While most athletes can make it through the first half of the marathon with little problem, the accumulative effect of pounding on the legs during the second half of the race can lead to serious injury.
Never Running Again
Perhaps the most common issue that undertrained runners encounter after racing a marathon without training is feeling as though they never want to run again. The amount of mental toughness required to complete a marathon with training pales in comparison to the amount required to complete a marathon without training. Even the most prepared runner often crosses the finish line of a marathon and says, I’m never doing that again!
How to (Properly) Run a Marathon Without Training
Is there a way to properly run a marathon without training? While this endeavor is ill-advised, there are certain precautions you can take to finish the race without causing long-term damage to your body.
Take Walk Breaks
Do not plan to complete the race without walking6. Approach the race with a run-walk-run plan. For instance, plan to walk through each aid station or decide to take a 3 – 5-minute walk break every 30 – 45 minutes.
Be Conscious of Fuel and Hydration
When planning to run a marathon without training, you need to have a well-defined hydration and nutrition plan. Be sure to consume 40 – 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of running. You should also drink plenty of water and electrolyte sports drinks.
Ignore Goals and Time Limits
Do not set a goal time, other than finishing, when running a marathon without training. Do not be concerned about the course time limit, either. Just beware that roads will not remain closed after the cut-off time has passed!
Listen to Your Body
Ultimately, listen to your body when running a marathon without training. If you experience extreme aches or pains – especially in your chest – remember that there is no shame in walking away from a race you are not prepared to finish!
1. Richter, E. A. (2011). Glucose Utilization. Comprehensive Physiology. doi:10.1002/cphy.cp120120 Link
2. Green, K., Houston, M., Thomson, J., & Williams, I. (1981). 9: 00 a.m.: MUSCLE FIBER RECRUITMENT AND MUSCLE METABOLITE CONCENTRATIONS DURING SUPRAMAXIMAL INTERMITTENT WORK. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 13(2), 95. doi:10.1249/00005768-198101320-00131 Link
3. Whiting, P. H., Maughan, R. J., & Miller, J. D. (1984). Dehydration and serum biochemical changes in marathon runners. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 52(2), 183-187. doi:10.1007/bf00433390 Link
4. Gaudreault, V., Tizon-Marcos, H., Poirier, P., Pibarot, P., Gilbert, P., Amyot, M., . . . Larose, E. (2013). Transient Myocardial Tissue and Function Changes During a Marathon in Less Fit Marathon Runners. Canadian Journal of Cardiology, 29(10), 1269-1276. doi:10.1016/j.cjca.2013.04.022 Link
5. Colt, E. W., & Spyropoulos, E. (1979). Running and stress fractures. Bmj, 2(6192), 706-706. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.6192.706 Link
6. Sperlich, B. (2016). Physiological Aspects of Marathon Running. Marathon Running: Physiology, Psychology, Nutrition and Training Aspects, 1-12. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-29728-6_1 Link