Marathons are the ultimate test of a runner’s abilities and training tactics. The standard length of a marathon is just over 26 miles, and as such, the marathon runner must be in optimal physical condition, which includes physical and emotional training, as well as strength building, stamina, and other factors. That said, even the best prepared athlete could be unaware of some of the lesser-known dangers that marathon runners face and what they can mean for a runner.
One danger that many runners face is not learning to properly “save” energy for later in the race. Because the instinct is to go at full speed, right from the start, many runners [particularly ones new to marathons] find it hard to complete the race once their adrenaline runs off and they become tired. The best advice coaches have to runners who are new to marathons, or who find themselves consistently running out of steam, so to speak, is to learn to start the race at a pace slower than their target pace. As such, they will be able to build on the stored energy and feed off it later in the race, when they need to dig deep and find that extra strength to finish and make their personal time goals.
Another danger that many people are surprised to learn about is over-consumption of water. While hydration is important for a runner, drinking more water than is lost from the body during the race [through sweating] is dangerous. What happens when a runner drinks too much water is a condition called hyponatremia, where the sodium in the blood falls to a dangerously low level. The sodium is flushed out by the water consumed, and can lead to problems such as vomiting, seizures, comas, and even death. As such, a runner is advised to watch their water intake, and to only drink when they feel a tangible thirst. There have been studies that say as much as 15% of the average marathon runners in large-scale marathons that attract novices have some form of hyponatremia. While there have been studies done, the consumption of salt via snacks, salted water, or sports drinks have not been proven conclusively to be effective when it comes to preventing hyponatremia. It is believed that consuming 4-6 ounces of water every 30 minutes is a wise choice for most runners in a long-term marathon. It is also important to remember that women tend to become victims of hyponatremia more easily than men are.
Another danger is known as “hitting the wall,” and it is related to glycogen in the bloodstream, rather than actually hitting a wall, as the name would imply. There are very few cases of marathon runners ever running into actual walls. Glycogen is provided by carbohydrates that are eaten by the runner, and they are quick-burning sources of energy. In general, a person can store no more than enough to carry them through about 18-20 miles, which becomes a problem for the runner in a 26-plus mile marathon. As such, when their glycogen supply runs out, they find themselves hitting the hypothetical wall, as running becomes much harder for them at that point. There have been scientific innovations to help overcome this, in the form of energy gels. They include ingredients such as caffeine, sodium, and potassium, and are in a form that is easy to absorb and does not infringe on the runner’s ability to run. Others choose candy or cookies, though the energy gels may be a healthier and easier option. No matter what a runner chooses, it is important to find ways to avoid hitting the wall as much as possible.
Marathon running can also take a toll on the body. While many people are aware of the more obvious physical issues, such as muscle tears and similar conditions, there are many other health concerns that one can encounter when running a race. For example, due to vitamin depletion, the runner’s immune system can be compromised, making them more susceptible to illness. As such, it is advisable to load up on foods heavy in vitamin C or supplements to avoid the very common sinus infection that many marathon runners report soon after the race.
Believe it or not, some runners can even suffer complete kidney failure after a race, because of the stress on their body, their water consumption, and other factors. This can be especially devastating if the runner is using pain killers, including over the counter ones, because they rely on the kidneys to process the medication.
As you can see, there are many hidden dangers to running a marathon and it is important to look into everything and be aware of your body, as well as the warning signs, if you are embarking on a marathon any time soon.