A marathon is a foot race over a course that is 26 mi. 385 yd. (42.195 km) in length. Other long-distance races associated with the marathon is a half marathon, a race that covers exactly half the distance of a full marathon and an ultra marathon, which extends over a distance of 31 mi. (50 km), 50 mi. (80 km), 62.5 mi. (100 km), or 100 mi. (160 km).
The purpose is for a runner to finish the course.
The best available statistics on marathon participants is provided by Running USA. The most recent data show that about 509,000 individuals completed at least one marathon race in 2015. Of this number, 56% were males and 44% females. The average age for runners averaged between 40.2 years for males and 36.5 years for females. The marathon runners ranged in age from teenagers to senior citizens over 70. The lowest age group, consisting of those under the age of 19, accounted for 5% of all runners. Virtually all marathon races now include a wheelchair division. One of the first major races to include a wheelchair division was the Boston Marathon, in which one wheelchair participant competed in 1975. Since that time, more than 1,000 wheelchair marathoners have competed in that race. The Boston Marathon (and other similar races) also include categories for the visually impaired/blind and the mobility handicapped.
Marathon has a famous history. The sport is named after a city in ancient Greece, where an important battle was fought in 490 BCE between the Persians and Athenians. At the conclusion of the battle, won by the Athenians, a messenger named Pheidippides was sent to Athens with news of the victory. Tradition has it that Pheidippides ran nonstop from Marathon to Athens, where he carried the news “We have won!” before collapsing and dying. Scholarly disputes about the accuracy of this story have not diminished its place in the heart of modern marathon runners and fans of the sport.
The tale of Pheidippides and his run from Marathon to Athens remained a part of Greek history and folklore until the late nineteenth century when plans for the first modern Olympics game were being formulated. In an effort to emphasize the role of Greek history in the games, a suggestion was made to include a marathon race in the first modern games, planned for 1896. The winner of that race was a Greek water-carrier, Spiridon “Spiros” Louis, after whom the major Greek Olympics stadium is now named. Louis completed the course in 2 hours, 58 minutes and 50 seconds. The marathon has been a part of the Olympics game every year in which it was held since 1896. The first woman to run a marathon is thought to be French runner Marie-Louise Ledru, who completed the Tour de Paris marathon in 1918 in a time of 5 hours and 40 minutes. It was a half century, however, before race organizers officially recognized women contestants, the first of whom was Kathrine Switzer, who actually finished second in the 1975 Boston marathon behind an unregistered, “illegal” runner, Bobbi Gibb. The top ten fastest marathon races ever run have all been won by participants from Ethiopia (one) or Kenya (nine), with the fastest time posted by Haile Gebrselassie, at 2:03:59 in Berlin in 2008. The fastest women's time is that posted in 2003 by Paula Radcliffe, of Great Britain, at 2:15:25 in London.
In contrast to many sports, marathon and its longer and shorter cousins have relatively few rules, most relating to the layout of the course and the proper registration and behavior of runners. According to the International Association of Athletics Federations, for example, a marathon can be run only on a hard surface, such as a road, and not on soft or grassy land. The course must also be clearly marked so that runners are always aware of their progress. Runners must remain on the course at all times unless they find it necessary to leave the course for some reason, in which case they must be accompanied by a judge. Runners may also take refreshments only at stands specifically provided for that purpose, and at no other locations. A number of requirements also deal with the registration process to ensure that all runners are legitimately qualified to take part in a competition.
Preparing involves performing a range of running exercises, supplemented by various types of cross-training exercises, the proper mental attitude about the challenge, and a nutritional program.
Marathon runners wear jerseys, shorts, and shoes especially designed for running. No additional equipment is needed.
Nutrition is a critical element in training for long runs. When a person first starts running, his or her body produces energy by means of aerobic respiration, a process in which energy is released by the breakdown of glycogen stored in the liver and muscles. Most people use up their supply of glycogen after a distance of about 20 mi. (32 km) of running, at which point their body switches over to anaerobic respiratory processes. These processes involve the breakdown of fat in the body to obtain needed energy. Anaerobic processes are slower and less efficient than aerobic processes that account for the common experience reported by runners of “hitting the wall” at distances of about 20 mi. (32 km). One way of compensating for this problem is to increase the amount of carbohydrate in a person's body at the start of the race. These excess carbohydrates are converted by the body to glycogen, increasing the supply of that substance in the body over its normal levels. This principle underlies the common practice among distance runners of “carboloading” in the 24 hours preceding a race.
The most common injuries and health problems associated with marathon running are those that result from repetitive activities related to running, problems such as blisters, calluses, discolored toenails, muscle cramps, and chafing. Other common problems that develop during a race include sunburn and windburn, diarrhea and nausea, dehydration and hyponatremia (salt deficiency). One of the most common marathon-related problems is exhaustion at a distance of up to 20 mi. (32 km), the so-called “hitting the wall” phenomenon. Sprains, strains, and fractures of the ankle and lower legs are also common, especially as one's body becomes more tired and less able to maintain proper balance.
A number of studies have been conducted to determine the most common injuries incurred by distance runners and the frequency of such injuries. A survey of the general findings of 17 such studies was reported in 2007. The survey focused on injuries to the lower extremities, by far the most common injuries for runners. Researchers found that the incidence of lower extremity injuries ranged from a low of 19.4%–79.3% in the studies reviewed. Previous surveys of this kind had reported a similar range of injuries among distance runners, from a low of 26.0% to a high of 92.4%. An outside reviewer of the survey suggested that the wide range in reported injuries in these two overall surveys might reflect the differing subject populations and methodologies used in the individual studies reviewed.
A wide range in the incidence of injuries to specific parts of the body was also reported in the 2007 survey. The most common site of injury was the knee, with anywhere from 7.2%–50.0% of runners reporting damage in this area. The next most common areas of injury were the lower leg (calf, shin, Achilles tendon, and heel), foot and toes, and upper leg (hamstring, thigh, and quadriceps) with incidences of 9.0%–32.2%, 5.7%–39.3%, and 3.4%–38.1%, respectively. The lowest rate of injuries was reported for the ankle and the hip, pelvis, and groin, ranging from 3.9%–16.6% and 3.3%–11.5%, respectively. Researchers also reviewed a number of possible concomitants for these injuries, including conditioning and training, lifestyle factors, systemic factors (such as age and gender), and health factors. Among all the factors studied, only two appeared to have a strong correlation with rate of injuries: a history of previous injuries and a tendency among male runners to engage in longer-than-normal training sessions prior to a race.
Existing evidence appears to suggest that well-designed programs of training and conditioning can contribute to the general fitness of men and women who engage in long distance running, although there may be some questions as to the possibility that overdoing the training (in terms of distance covered) may increase one's risk for lower extremity injuries.
See also Nutrient timing ; Nutritional supplements ; Running .
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Galloway, Jeff. Marathon: You Can Do It! Bolinas: Shelter Publications, 2010.
Higdon, Hal. Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide, 4th ed. Emmaus: Rodale, 2011.
Pfitzinger, Pete, and Scott Douglas. Advanced Marathoning, 2nd ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2009.
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David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD