02/07/2011 06:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Marathons: In the Literal Long Run, It's Training That Matters

L.A. Marathon runners will take the opening strides of their 26.2 mile journey at historic Dodger Stadium before heading to Chinatown to pass through the Twin Dragon Towers Gateway. The course showcases our city's most famous landmarks, including the Hollywood sign, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, the Whiskey A Go Go and countless others. Runners thunder over the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Sunset Boulevard and Rodeo Drive - with no time for window shopping as many of them vie to beat their best times. The race ends with majestic views from bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica before the finish line near the Santa Monica Pier.

The race drew its highest-ever numbers last year - 26,000 - with its new "Stadium to the Sea" route and expects even more to flock to the starting line March 20, which means right now thousands are in the depths of training for the marathon.

A marathon is an impressive accomplishment at any speed, and as running continues to grow in popularity so, too, do the numbers of people willing to try one of its most daring challenges. Having completed eight marathons, including three old course L.A. marathons several years ago, I can attest to the fact that just about anyone can complete a marathon if they put their minds and bodies to the effort. However, anyone also can be badly injured if there is a failure to take training seriously. Arguably, the most important time in a marathon is not the three to five hours in which it is run - or, in the case of two-time L.A. Marathon champion Wesley Korir, the 2:02:19 in which he sped through the course last year to nab a back-to-back win; rather it is the 16 weeks of training before the marathon, in which the body is conditioned to endure this long run, that is as critical as race day.

If you're considering your first marathon, you might want to wait for one later in the year if you haven't started training yet, as 16 to 18 weeks of training is considered optimal. Here are a few of the important concepts to practice in training.

Embrace support. In many ways, running is a very solitary sport, so seeking support may seem counter-intuitive. But the advice, support and accountability of other runners can help make that finish-line seem more attainable. Running at a comfortable pace that allows you to carry on a conversation with a running buddy helps the miles melt away.

The first supporter to get on board if you have any doubts about your physical capabilities is your doctor. Once your medical professional gives the green light, it's helpful to find a running group. Groups like the L.A. Roadrunners and the L.A. Leggers have pace groups catering to fast runners and even those training to walk the marathon. One of my favorites is the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society'sTeam In Training program, which trains thousands of runners every year to compete in marathons - and helps raise money for a good cause.

Commit to a rigorous training schedule. A study presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress last year indicated that a lack of aerobic fitness may impact how well the heart functions during the stress of running a marathon. The study looked at magnetic resonance images of marathon runners right after the run, finding that more abnormal heart segments were present in less fit runners than runners who had better training or a higher level of overall fitness. Fitness and preparedness counts when it comes to protecting your heart health during a marathon.

A good training program incorporates one long run a week, which gets progressively longer up to about three weeks before the race date. This long run helps the body in a number of ways. First, it conditions the muscles to become more efficient in energy utilization, which is essential to avoid muscle cramps and total fatigue that occur when the muscles produce too much lactic acid due to lack of adequate conditioning.

Also, feet, tendons, joints and muscles can only be strengthened over time. They require conditioning to absorb the pounding legs take during a marathon. In addition to strengthening these parts of the body, runners also must condition themselves to avoid exhaustion. Exhaustion leads to poor running form, which leads to injuries. Strains, sprains, muscle pulls, Achilles tendonitis, plantar faciitis and shin splints are among the common injuries that can be dodged with a strong training regimen, good running form and especially a systematic stretching program following a run when the muscles are warmed up. Make sure your shoes are not worn out (they are good for about 500 miles), and new shoes should be broken in well before the marathon.

Don't over-train, however. Adopt a balance of alternating easy days of training with tougher ones, which include long runs or speed work. Many runners have been heartbroken on race day because they've developed an over-use injury or stress fracture preparing for the big event. Training regimens should also include a period of tapering for about three weeks before the marathon. This means less running, more rest and shorter runs to recover from the workouts leading up to the marathon.

Consider the practical. If you don't like to run in the winter, don't choose a spring marathon because the bulk of the training will occur during cold months. Likewise, a winter or fall race will mean training in the sweltering heat of summer. Further, keep the time of day in mind when you run, as most races start early in the morning - which is jarring to those who only trained during the evening. To have enough water for a long training run, some advance planning is required. This is an instance in which a running group can help, because they often have volunteers throughout the course manning water stations. Otherwise, the options are carrying enough water or carefully plotting a course, such as along a bike path, where there are many drinking fountains.

Fuel the body properly. Hydration and nutrition are critical to training runs and race day. Be sure to drink not only while actually exercising, but throughout the day to stay well hydrated. Also, don't wait to feel thirsty to drink something. If you feel thirsty, you're likely already dehydrated. Runners can check that they are getting enough fluids by weighing themselves before and after a lengthy run. If more than 2 percent of the body weight is lost, they should drink more. The method I use is to look at the urine. Adequate hydration results in light to moderately concentrated urine, while underhydration leads to the formation of very concentrated urine. Long workouts may require sports drinks with some carbohydrates and electrolytes to ward off muscle cramps.

While there's no one-size-fits-all training diet, a good general guideline is 50 to 60 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 15 to 25 percent from protein and 25 percent from unsaturated fats. The carbs, especially whole grains, fruits and vegetables, are important fuel. Protein-rich foods like lean beef and chicken are also good sources of iron and B vitamins, which are important for running performances. Omega-3 fatty acids, like those found in salmon, can help reduce muscle and joint inflammation.

For those runners who are training, starting day is almost here. Look forward to that sparkling Pacific view waiting for you after you leave Dodger Stadium. If this is your first marathon, avoid the most common race day error: going out too fast. Keep to your planned pace and you will be less likely to "hit the wall" due to total depletion of your energy stores. And remember that even though 26.2 miles are behind you, you can't stop yet - it's time for a cool down, gentle stretching and that ice cold beer that you were dreaming about during those last six miles!