Every year around the world, about 1.1 million people run a marathon. But for every Eliud Kipchoge or Tigst Assefa going for gold, there are thousands of absolute beginners who might not be smashing the two-hour barrier but will be crushing their personal goals – whether that’s raising money for charity or simply proving that they have the fitness, endurance and pure grit to run 26.2 miles.
I’m one of them. After taking up running in the first lockdown, I’ll soon be doing the TCS London Marathon for Asthma + Lung UK. A few years ago, 5K felt out of reach, but I’ve since run three half-marathons and I’m confident that, with the right training and attitude, I can do it. Knocking out 26 miles on a Sunday morning does sound daunting, though, with a lot to consider…
How to know you’re ready
According to TCS London Marathon’s expert coach Martin Yelling, you don’t. “It’s normal and natural to not have a clue when you start out on your marathon journey,” he says. “You might think that only lunatics run marathons and you don’t put yourself in that bracket – yet!”
Many newbies are propelled to sign up by a cause close to their hearts, and if you’re running for a charity, it should provide you with plenty of advice and support. Sharing your mission and fundraising target early on with friends and family can provide accountability and motivate you to take training seriously.
Sports psychologist Lee Chambers says that setting realistic goals helps too. “Every runner started as a beginner and faced a ‘first marathon moment’,” he says. “Embracing the journey is all part of developing your running confidence and experience. Realistic but flexible goals and celebrating small wins will build a valuable sense of adaptability.”
Treating yourself to some nice kit when you start out can also help you identify as a real runner – a process known as “enclothed cognition”, where what you wear can impact your perception of yourself. “It means you feel more like a runner when you’re dressed in your running gear,” says Chambers. “Visualising yourself running a marathon can be the mental training you need to make it feel more real and less frightening.”
When should you start training?
Martin Yelling has coached pro athletes, total rookies and even celebrities – and he believes that almost anyone can be marathon-ready in 16 weeks. Depending on your level of fitness and experience when you start, though, this could mean doing a mixture of jogging and walking on the day.
The run-walk technique, known as “Jeffing” after being popularised by American Olympian Jeff Galloway with his book The Run Walk Run Method, is many people’s route into running, via programmes like the NHS’s Couch to 5K. It appeals to new runners as it breaks long distances into shorter chunks, and gives the heart and lungs more regular breaks. In Galloway’s own words: “The ‘huff and puff’ rule emerged: when you hear huffing and puffing, take more frequent walk breaks and slow the pace.”
Yes, it means you’ll be pounding the pavements many hours after Kipchoge has hopped on the bus home, but planning ahead to cover the course like this could make it feel more manageable and less like failure than unplanned breaks might.
The fact is, genetics can mean that some people are more naturally speedy than others, but this doesn’t mean long distances are out of reach for those of us who are more plodders than sprinters. “The harsh reality is that some people chose their parents more carefully than others,” says Yelling. “If you’ve had a long break from running – which could be your whole life – and have four or five months to train, you’re probably looking to complete the course, while some runners will have specific time targets. The important thing for a beginner marathon runner is not to focus on the marathon itself, but the process of getting physically and mentally ready to cover 26.2 miles, whatever that looks like.”
How to structure training around your life
If you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants type, you might need a reality check. You can’t wing marathon training – you need a schedule, even if it’s fairly loose.
“It really helps to have a plan,” says Yelling. “You’ll feel accountable if you can look at it and go, ‘I’ve got to get up today and walk for 60 minutes’, or whatever is required. Training for a marathon is intimidating, but structure stops you worrying about what you’re doing or not doing.”
Googling marathon plans and choosing or tweaking one that fits your lifestyle is enough. “Simple is better,” says Yelling. “You don’t need your own coach, but what a good coach would do is listen, take time to understand you and build something around your commitments.”
Most marathon training plans involve two or three shorter runs a week and a longer one. The shorter ones are usually half an hour to an hour, going at various speeds. Then the longer one can be anything from one hour, building up to around four. In addition to the running, you should incorporate strength or cross training, which can be done at the gym, at home or out and about. But you can be flexible: if you have weekend commitments, there’s no reason you can’t do your long run on a Tuesday.
If it’s hard to motivate yourself to lace up and get out, Lee Chambers says connecting with other runners can help, whether online or at your local Parkrun or running club. “Never underestimate the value of a running mentor or being part of a running community, which normalises the challenges,” he says.
Signing up for a half-marathon race that falls six weeks or so before your big day is a good test of running under race conditions and can give you some idea of the time you might complete your marathon in. As a rule of thumb, Martin Yelling says that doubling your half-marathon time and adding on 10 per cent is a realistic goal. According to online running resource Marathon Handbook, the average marathon finish time for “recreational” runners across all ages and genders is just under five hours, which is what I’m aiming for, but there is huge variation.
The longest run in most training plans is usually around 20 miles, a few weeks before your marathon. Doing more than this increases your risk of injury and fatigue, especially as a beginner. “While some super-keenos might be able to run 20 miles in a couple of hours, for most new runners this isn’t the case,” says Yelling. “You could be out for hours and hours, week after week, which puts a strain on your body and your life.”
It might feel logical to try out running the full 26 miles ahead of time, but the risks outweigh the benefits, and if you have trained consistently and fuelled properly, you should be able to rely on the excitement of the day to power you through those last few miles.
When all your hardcore training is done, it will be time for the “taper” period, where you wind down your training a few weeks before race day. You’ll still run, but you’ll get your weekends back for a couple of weeks, with no mega-long outings scheduled until the big day. Done right, tapering should reduce fatigue, repair muscle damage and refuel you with the essential carbohydrates that all those long training runs have been draining from your muscles. But many runners find it psychologically gruelling (it’s known as “mara-noia”) as they worry they haven’t trained enough.
Lee Chambers encourages you to remember that it’s all part of the proven process to get you marathon ready. “Tapering with other runners can be good, keeping each other accountable and going through mental preparation together,” he says. “Reviewing race plans, creating a playlist, reflecting on achievements so far, or anything else that brings structure to life can give stability during this unsettling period.”
Mixing up your running routine
There are lots of reasons why it’s important to bring in other forms of movement too, not least the boredom factor of running so much. “You should do things that support your running,” says Martin Yelling. “Make it fun, make it social and give yourself some connection.”
It’s essential to include basic strength training to make your body as strong and resilient as possible – but build this up slowly to avoid the dreaded “DOMS” (delayed onset muscle soreness) messing with your running schedule.
Hannah Charalambous, a personal trainer, says that a well-planned 20-30-minute strength session twice a week is enough to reap the benefits – namely more power and running efficiency and a reduced risk of injury, since stronger joints and muscles are better shock absorbers. Your whole body works hard when you run, so it’s not just about your legs. “You might have identified weak areas,” says Charalambous. “If you spend your day at a desk, you’re likely to have tight hip flexors and weak glutes or hamstrings. Your core is also important for posture and stabilising your body, and your upper body helps drive you forwards, so don’t neglect your back, shoulders and chest either.”
Strength training builds muscles in these areas, making them less prone to injury – put simply, a twig is much easier to snap than a tree trunk.
“For everyone, but especially older runners and women (since muscle mass declines as we age and women naturally have less of it to start with), it’s important to focus on weight-bearing strength training to help preserve muscle mass and bone density, improve balance and prevent injury,” says Charalambous.
You don’t need to fork out for a gym membership or lots of equipment. “Bodyweight exercises at home or in the park are fine, plus kit like resistance bands are cheap and take up very little space,” Charalambous says. Squats, lunges, push-ups and planks are all good moves to try at home, while more low-impact activities like yoga, Pilates and swimming are also complementary to running. In fact, a 2018 study showed that runners who regularly practised Pilates over a 12-week period saw significant increases to their running pace, due to it gently building their core strength and improving balance.
You should also do plenty of stretching before and after training, something many runners neglect and later regret. Scientists disagree over whether stretching can truly prevent injury, but anecdotally it can certainly make it feel easier to walk after a long run, as well as improving balance. No fancy moves required, though – typing “running stretches” into YouTube is a great place to start.
What should marathon runners eat?
Marathon training is not the time for restrictive eating regimes like the keto diet, says Charlie Watson, a registered dietitian, the author of Cook Eat Run and founder of TheRunnerBeans.com. She says it’s all about embracing carbs. “Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred energy source, so consuming adequate amounts before and during your long runs will help you perform optimally,” she says. “Simple carbs that will digest quickly such as bagels, English muffins or white pasta are all good pre-run options.”
In everyday life, many of us try to minimise white carbs, but for endurance athletes – and that’s you now if you’re training for a marathon – foods high on the glycaemic index win out. This is because your glycogen stores, the main source of energy for your body, take a beating during running. Plus, wholegrain options are generally higher in fibre, which can cause the kinds of stomach issues that runners want to avoid when they’re miles from the nearest toilet.
Everyone’s heard of marathon runners guzzling platefuls of pasta the night before their run, but carb-loading should actually start earlier. “Around two to three days pre-race is ideal – the idea is to fill up your glycogen stores before the big day,” Watson explains.
Carb-loading doesn’t mean eating with wild abandon. While sizable portions of your carb of choice are good, accompanying them with rich or spicy sauces could be risky. Instead, experienced runners tend to opt for simple meals, like grilled chicken and rice, in the days before a race. If it sounds boring, you can make up for it afterwards!
On the day itself, carbs are still king, and you should avoid anything too high in fat or fibre, since they are slower to digest, and the last thing you want is to feel bloated. Instead, Watson, who has run more than a dozen marathons, chooses foods that are high in energy and easily digestible.
“I have a bagel and banana for breakfast, then two Rice Krispie squares and a carb drink (these are special sports drinks designed for runners) in the 60-90 minutes prior to race start,” says Watson. “And don’t forget your race-morning hydration. I sip on an electrolyte drink with my breakfast alongside a coffee.” Topping up your electrolytes, especially sodium, is essential, since you lose a lot via your sweat when you run.
It’s crucial to drink water throughout your marathon to avoid dehydration, and if it’s a hot day, you’ll want to rehydrate at every opportunity. Most large events, like the London Marathon, have water stations every mile or so where you can simply down a cup or two, but if you’re completing a race somewhere more offgrid, you will need to bring your own hydration pack, which is a special lightweight backpack that can store water and anything else you might need.
As well as water, you’ll need to fuel every 30-45 minutes during a marathon to keep that glycogen doing its thing, either with special running gels or tasty, more affordable alternatives like Percy Pigs, Haribo, fruit puree, dried fruit or cereal bars. Running gels can take a bit of getting used to. The texture can be tricky (some are a bit like frogspawn), and it takes some trial and error learning to open and sip them on the move without getting extremely sticky hands. I like the cola-flavoured SIS gels, which contain caffeine for an extra boost, but you might want to avoid caffeine if it’s likely to have you dashing for the lavatory.
It’s also essential to top up your electrolytes along the way in tablet or liquid form, especially if you’re what Watson calls a “salty sweater” – if your sweat feels gritty or leaves white marks, this is you. Losing too much sodium causes cramp and exhaustion, two things you definitely want to avoid to make it to the finish line.
Make sure whatever you eat immediately before and during your marathon is something you have tried before, and avoid anything rich or high in fat or fibre to avoid bloating or other gastro-intestinal issues.
And afterwards? Eat whatever you feel like. But bear in mind that some runners do feel sick immediately after a long run. “Often it’s a combination of dehydration, gels and exertion that causes this,” explains Watson. “Try having something savoury and salty after the race, plus fluid, and it should help you feel better.”
Staying on your feet
Unsurprisingly, your feet take a battering during marathon training – both musculoskeletally and cosmetically, with 59 per cent of runners experiencing problems, according to a 2010 study.
Simone Sandra Paul, a podiatrist and the CEO of The Footlift London clinic, says that some of the most common runner issues she sees are achilles tendonitis and tendinopathy (these affect the muscles connecting your calves to your feet), as well as calluses and corns, athlete’s foot, ankle sprains, plus blisters and ingrown, bruised and thickened toenails, which are usually caused by the repeated striking of the toes against running shoes.
It’s not a pretty list, but investing in the right shoes by booking a gait analysis with a podiatrist or at a specialist running shop before you buy can help. This is where an expert will closely observe your running style on a treadmill and recommend shoes based on the shape of your feet and the way they move and land.
But what if you get injured during training? “Inflammatory foot conditions such as plantar fasciitis and ankle sprain injuries require rest, offloading, rehabilitation and stretching to promote healing,” says Paul. “But it’s dependent on the severity of the condition and whether it’s acute or chronic.”
Paul advises non-weight-bearing exercises like swimming during any enforced breaks from running, to keep fitness up before getting back on it when you can.
Similarly, if you fall ill during your training period, don’t panic – but make sure you don’t rush back into running. In a four or five-month training period, it’s pretty likely you’ll succumb to a seasonal bug, so it’s wise to build a buffer zone into your training to give you a little more time to play with if you need it. As a general guide, you should rest for 24 hours longer than you feel like you need to, especially if you’ve been ill with something that affects your lungs, like Covid, since exerting yourself could set back your recovery.
If the worst happens, and sickness or injury means you have to pull out for fear of damaging your body, you might feel crushed and worry about letting down your loved ones and potentially the charity you’re running for. But remember that your health is your priority and there will be other marathons – you may even be able to defer your place. Rest assured, it happens all the time and nobody will think less of you. It’s important to listen to your body and not the nagging voices in your head.
Avoiding the dreaded ‘wall’
There comes a point in a marathon, often around 20 miles in, when some runners hit what’s known as “the wall” – sometimes known as “bonking”. This can manifest itself in different ways, depending on the cause, but runners who hit the wall usually describe mental and physical exhaustion, sometimes accompanied by leg cramps – a horrible combination that makes them feel like they simply can’t go on. Often this is down to depleted glycogen stores (which is why fuelling properly is so crucial) but there can be other causes too, according to Martin Yelling.
“You can hit the wall if you’ve gone out too fast, haven’t trained properly or haven’t fuelled yourself right,” says Yelling. “When you run out of energy, things just start to fall off, so take all the steps you can to avoid that. Pace yourself sensibly and know that it’s a marathon and it’s supposed to be hard. There are moments when it will be really hard.”
This is where a cheering crowd can help. “Think about the support you have, within the race itself or those watching you,” says Lee Chambers. “Break the race down into chunks – imagine it like stepping stones. Some people find value in meaningful phrases, others in keeping to their pace. Focusing on breathing and running form can bring yourself out of your mind and into your body. Some people also use a technique called meaningful miles, dedicating a mile to a person or memory.”
My own version of this is to ask anyone who sponsors me to pick a song for my running playlist, which then reminds me of them along the way (which means my soundtrack includes everything from The Strokes to High School Musical).
Ultimately, running a marathon is a huge feat that puts you in great company with less than one per cent of the world’s population. “When you’ve done it, you really do feel like you’ve been on a transformative journey,” says Yelling. “You’ve got past fear, doubt and anxiety and achieved something big. It can help you leverage so many other things in your life.”
Bring it on – and pass the Percy Pigs.
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