Illness and the Marathon

BY Hal Higdon

I speak from personal experience when it comes to illness and the marathon. So I can identify with your dilemma, but you probably need to reconsider your plans.


I have two races on my schedule: a (fund-raising) half-marathon in September and a full marathon in October. Training had been progressing well, but I took 8 to 9 days off after my 15-miler to recover from shin splints and calf strains. I ran 16 miles upon my return, having developed a slight cough, then came down with pneumonia. Antibiotics have helped, but I’m still in recovery mode. With 18- and 20-milers scheduled before the half marathon, I am beginning to panic.

My panic is worsened, by the fact that one month before my first marathon, I suffered a stress fracture. I did my best to continue training on a bike and elliptical trainer but refractured my leg at mile 17. I finished, but my time was terrible.

I am an ex-football player and the half and full will be my last races. I am physically fit and follow healthy eating habits, but I never considered myself a runner, plus my body is not what it used to be. I really have my heart set on completing these two races, but worry that all the time commitment, pain, nausea, and heartache will be for naught. Please give me some direction. I know you consider walking acceptable, but I want to run the half and full marathons, not merely walk them.


I speak from personal experience when it comes to illness and the marathon. I ran a marathon too soon after a bout of bronchitis, and it morphed into pneumonia. It was a charity marathon, and I was raising a lot of money with all sorts of people watching, because I am highly visible on the Internet, so I thought I could not back down. But I was wrong, and running that marathon was a very bad choice. People die from pneumonia. It is an illness not to play around with. So I can identify with your dilemma, but you probably need to reconsider your plans.

My very strong advice to you is to at least skip the half marathon. The people supporting your efforts in that race, those who may have pledged money, certainly will understand. Blame me. Tell them I told you to shift your fund-raising run to the full marathon–and if there is a half featured, I would downsize to that too. An even more rational approach would be to shift to a half marathon in November or December.

As for the full marathon, I know the program says to run 18 and 20, but programs can’t listen to your lungs with a stethoscope. A doctor can use such a device, and I suspect he would find enough residual damage from pneumonia to warn you away from both the half and the full marathon. If you cut way back on your training, not worrying about miles, you may make it to the starting line with some hope of finishing with honor. If not, consider the later-this-fall option mentioned above.

The Complete Marathon Training Guide

Complete Marathon Training Guide

Training Guide

This guide is designed to be used as you train for a marathon, with in-depth information on every part of the process. Each chapter is packed with tips, workouts, and insights from expert running coaches, to give you all the tools you need to succeed.

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About Hal Higdon

Hal Higdon is a Contributing Editor for ‘Runner’s World‘ and author of 34 books, including the best-selling ‘Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide’. He ran eight times in the Olympic Trials and won four world masters championships. Higdon estimates that over a quarter of a million runners have finished marathons using his training programs, and he also offers additional interactive programs at all distances through TrainingPeaks. Hal uses TrainingPeaks to power his interactive marathon and half marathon training plans — check out more of Hal Higdon’s training plans on his website.