Surviving the Marathon: How to Stay Healthy for the Long Run

Four steps to take to make it safely over the finish line

Have you ever been in the hospital on the day of a marathon? Dear God, it is a scene. Yesterday I happened to visit a girlfriend who just gave birth to twins at a Chicago hospital and passed through the emergency room on the way to the maternity unit. Considering how many Chicago marathon contestants were splayed across stretchers and being carried out of ambulances, you’d think the finish line was at the ER door and frosty post-race beers were being served in the hospital cafeteria.

I’m not trying to make light of the dizziness, pain or exhaustion felt by the runners I saw. Training for a marathon is serious business, requiring months of dedication and incredible effort. I went for a run a few hours after seeing my friend and barely made it two miles before I had to stop and walk, pretending to fiddle with my iPod as I panted like a thirsty pug. That said, I was surprised to see the ER busier than Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino’s bedroom on a Saturday night. I’d like to think that, after training for so long, these freaks -- people, I mean -- who voluntarily decided to run 26.2 miles would have built up the stamina to safely cross the finish line.

I called up Omar Lateef, MD, director of the medical intensive care unit at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center,  to ask about the hospital bedlam.  Lateef had just come off a shift treating scores of dehydrated, overheated and injured runners. He attributed the chaos to a combination of heat --  it was an unusually warm, 84-degree day in Chicago -- and runners’ inability to remain hydrated.

“You can train and train and still end up in the hospital,” he said. “The amount of exertion on the day of the marathon overwhelms them. Most runners in the ER just need to get rehydrated.”

Dehydration leaves you more prone to other race-related health problems, like heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and muscle breakdown. The latter two are particularly dangerous: With heat stroke, your body loses the ability to cool itself and the ensuing high fevers can be fatal, while the toxic byproducts of muscle breakdown can cause kidney damage.

Lateef offers the following tips for keeping your cool and making it past the finish line:

1.  Limit lattes and Long Islands. Avoid caffeine or alcohol for several days prior to the race. That means no Americano-fueled training runs (unless it’s decaf) or night-before-run champagne toasts.

2.  Make it a slow burn. Don’t have your friend drop you off at the starting line without preparing of the weather conditions you're likely to encounter when the race gets underway. Try stretching in the shade for 10 minutes so your body can acclimate.

3.  Change it up. Running in a drenched shirt will hinder your ability to cool off. “Imagine using a wet sponge to clean up a spill,” Lateef explains.

4.  I’ll drink to that. The three key words of running? Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. “College athletes in the South drink so much water, they’re waking up two to three times in the middle of the night to use the bathroom,” Dr. Lateef says. Even if you’re not thirsty, force yourself to drink every 15 minutes. Not racing? You still need to down your agua. You’ll know you’re properly hydrated when your urine is pale and clear.

Have you ever run a marathon? Chime in below.


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