Before we jump straight into this article to discuss how to effectively prepare yourself for the road ahead and the 26.2 miles which await you, take a few moments to reflect on all the reasons why this is important to you. Whether you have previously taken part in a 5K-10k run and went on to run a half marathon, or enjoy shorter runs around your local park and want to elevate your running game. Having the drive and resilience to withstand the journey ahead will inevitably come down to two things;
A compelling aspect about marathon events staged around the world is their ability to bring people together. People of all ages, cultures and variety in fitness levels all find themselves in a single location, with one goal set in mind, to tackle the 26.2 miles and reach the finish line. But running a marathon is nothing like your casual run around the local park, where you can pick and choose when to lace up your running shoes and take them out for a spin. Completing a marathon takes a whole lot of preparation, dedication and heart, both figuratively and literally. But do not despair even athletes such as Paula Radcliffe had to take on their first mile before ever completing a marathon. So your first session is just about turning up, and here you are.
In this article, we will be guiding you through all the key elements that should be taken into consideration when preparing for a marathon.
We are here to help you tackle the race one mile at a time, so let’s jump straight into it.
Check in with your Doctor
The human body has an incredible ability of adapting to the strenuous activities it faces on a daily basis. Whether it is from climbing up several flights of stairs, the one off run to catch the last departing train, or carrying several bags of shopping into the house from the local grocery store, we are constantly engaging different muscle groups to adhere to these demands. Inadequately preparing for an activity that your body is not accustomed to will most likely lead to either a serious injury or the potential of something much worse. Therefore it is highly recommended that you seek professional advice from your Doctor before commencing any training schedule.
What to wear for the journey ahead:
There is no other way to say it, if you’re going to be training several times a week then it is more than likely that you will need several sets of clothing. When thinking about what clothing to have in your wardrobe in preparation for a marathon, you have to factor in several things. Unpredictable weather, the terrain you will be training on, the time you will be running at and how well lit the area you are training at will be. It is very difficult for people in vehicles to see runners late at night unless they are wearing reflective clothing, so having the correct set of clothing and equipment is absolutely crucial to getting your marathon preparation right from the start.
Trainers are by far the most important piece of equipment when doing any sort of physical activity. You can have the highest powered performance car with an engine that does 0-60 in 2 seconds, but without a set of decent tyres, it might as well be a piece of furniture. The same rule applies to athletes competing in sports. Your shoes will have a significant impact on how to train for a marathon. Moreover, the right set of shoes will minimize the chances of injury. The best approach to buying running shoes is to find a store that has Gait analysis equipment. This is a method commonly used to identify biomechanical abnormalities in how you walk and run. The outcome of the results will determine whether you need stability shoes to correct pronation or neutral shoes for runners with neutral or overpronated/supinated foot motion.
A runner’s worst nightmare is probably not finishing a race, let alone that reason being due to blisters. However, this issue can actually be completely avoided by having the right set of socks. The average cotton socks will not provide enough breathability needed when running for long distances. As you run your feet start to get hotter, with the heat not being able to escape this leads to sweaty and smelly feet. This increases your risk of developing fungal infections such as athlete’s foot. To avoid this, look for Dri-fit socks with a tab on the Achilles to prevent rubbing and blistering from your shoes.
Pants and tops
You can pretty much have rain, hail, snow and sunshine in the space of 7 days in the UK. So having the right combination of thick and thin layered clothing is essential for tackling your training schedule. The main piece of advice is to find clothing that fits; not too tight and definitely not too baggy. You might not be running 25MPH, but aerodynamics is still of relevance to getting a faster time. Leggings are by far your best friend as they provide both comfort and warmth, and feel light whilst running. You should also aim to cover areas that are at risk of chafing, common areas include the inner thighs and also between the arms and the sides. Compression shorts are ideal for warmer days, in contrast to tights which are an absolute must for colder morning runs. As for your upper half, longer sleeves will prevent chafing, but you might want to consider short sleeves on warmer days.
The key thing to realise is that your body will heat up rather quickly if you wear too many layers. So it is highly recommended that you feel the cold during the first few minutes of your run, your body will naturally warm up and keep you warm throughout your run.
Building base mileage
You need to build up your base mileage in stages, follow the step, by step approach below:
No matter how daunting or impossible the task in hand may seem, you have to tackle your first mile. Only then will you gain awareness of your current running abilities and how to set realistic goals which are attainable. Think of how to train for a marathon the exact same way as building a house from the ground up. You need to build a strong foundation so that your structure can withstand the weight of the finished product.
How to train for a marathon is very similar to this, in the sense that you have to engage in low intensity levels of running periods leading up to the actual training programme. Depending on when you plan to fully invest into a training plan, you should start building up base mileage by engaging in runs that allow you to maintain a conversation quite comfortably. This should typically be 3 to 4 runs per week of distances of 2 miles. Which gradually increases over the period of 3 months to about four to five miles per run, with the occasional medium run that peaks at about 6 and half miles. This will allow you to gradually increase your aerobic capacity, helping you build the foundations of how to train for a marathon efficiently in the later stages. Only after doing this can you then take up the challenge of how to train for a marathon and look to tackle a training plan. You have to remember that it is completely normal to not be at your best. You have to find a ways to improve, that’s what separates the people who talk about doing things, from those who go out and do it.
Join a running club
Joining a running club has lots of benefits to you completing your first marathon:
Once you have built up a foundation of shorter runs for a consecutive number of weeks, you should be well prepared to tackle a marathon training plan. A good way of answering all the puzzling questions that come with how to train for a marathon is by joining a running club. The advantages are endless, but here are the top 4.
- Training with others
One of the most lucrative aspects of joining a running club is that of gaining the support and extra push from the people surrounding you. Have you ever been inspired to do something different, or just push a little further in life because you saw someone close to you do the same?, that’s the benefit of a running club.
As appealing as that new Nike advert on TV may seem, people are less likely to feel inspired or connected to images on a TV screen unless those images have a direct impact of their lives. This is because we tend to gravitate towards the examples that are relatable to our own cause. Where else can you find real life experiences with real life causes then a running club comprised of people similar to you, looking to achieve similar goals to your own.
“You cannot train alone and expect to run a fast time, there is a formula. 100% of me, is nothing compared to 1% of the whole team, and that’s teamwork, that’s what I value”. Eliud Kipchoge.
- Learn from others
We never stop learning, and nearly everything we learn in life is picked up from the people surrounding us. From the coaches to the teachers and the people with years of running experience under their belt, running clubs give you access to a variety of knowledge that can help you better tackle the question of how to train for a marathon. From picking up advice about the most common mistakes to avoid, to the best running routes and time frames to run, a running club can educate you in ways you might not be able to educate yourself.
- Gain lifelong friends
Making new friends along the way may not be something you might value as important, but it is inevitable. You will naturally be spending a lot of your time running in preparation for your marathon, there will be some highs, and there will be some lows, that I can assure you, but you don’t have to go it alone. Whilst at a running club, you are able to share some of that stress with others who might be going through the same obstacles as you. This will bring you closer to people who upon meeting with, you might only see at the running club. However, as time passes by, you could even develop profound relationships that outlast the 26.2 miles and then some. A problem shared is a problem halved.
- Strength in numbers
Running in a group can give you peace of mind if you were to face an injury or any unforeseen circumstances. Having the support of others around you will give you extra confidence so that you can push harder and further. More importantly, having group leaders with first aid experiences, protocols and duty of care goes a long way in making sure your health is never put at risk.
In it for the long run
Running with other people may simply be too daunting for you, creating too much pressure, which is quite understandable. You are the only person who can physically push your body to cross that finish line, so maybe training alone is something you are more accustomed to. So if you don’t intend to join a running club and still need answers to how to train for a marathon, look no further as all the answers can be found here.
A typical marathon training plan should include 4 main building blocks to help you reach your maximum potential just before the big race:
- The long run
After building up base mileage over the period of 2-3months, you should start to increase your ability to run long distances in one single run. Your long runs should be incorporated into your training schedule at the end of a training week. Your base mileage will give you an indication of how far your medium length runs should be. The most important aspect about your long runs is that they should gradually increase in distance week by week. For example, if you started doing 3-4 two mile runs per week when you first began pre training, by week 12 you should have increased each individual short run to about 4 miles. At the end of every week from week 13 onwards, you should be incorporating at least one long run of about 11-12 miles, gradually increasing your long run one mile at a time week by week.
Long runs will prepare you differently for the 26.2 miles in that they will strengthen your musculoskeletal system for the actual marathon. In contrast short runs focus on your aerobic capacity. It is important to note that most marathon training plans will have you peaking at 20 miles for your long runs. The extra 6.2 miles will come from having trained accordingly prior to the marathon, tapering (more on tapering down be below), and the adrenaline generated by the crowd on race day. You should never actually run the full 26.2 miles before race day as this will increase your chances of injury substantially.
- Speed work
Having the aerobic capacity to reach the full marathon length will be crucial to completing the full race. A way in which you can increase your aerobic capacity gradually throughout the course of your preparation is by involving intervals of faster paced running for shorter distances. Intervals will be more demanding on the body but for shorter period of times. In between these fast paced runs you should slow down your pace to near walking speed if needs be, this will give your body enough time to take in more air and to recover quickly so that you are ready to do it again. In contrast to intervals, tempo runs should be sustained for much longer periods, you should be aiming for 3-9 miles at a sustainable but challenging pace so that your body is pushed to some discomfort.
- Cross training
There cannot be enough emphasis on the importance of mixing up your training routine so that you take some stress away from your legs, specifically your knees. There are several methods being adopted by several athletes on how to train for a marathon, but regardless of the sport you are training for, getting in the gym to work on your overall strength will always pay dividends.
We recommend doing at least a day’s training in the gym working on upper body strength, with a focus on taking stress away from the body, not adding to it. So don’t worry too much about racking up the weights to 100KG and pushing yourself to the limit, focus on engaging your muscles with lighter weights with higher reps. Other great forms of cross training include, yoga, Pilates, and using the spin bikes at a gym as a form of recovery.
The majority of people competing in sporting events tend to overlook the importance of rest and recovery, especially when it comes to getting enough sleep every night. Exercising inflicts lot of stress on our bodies, which can only be repaired during the recovery phase. In this section we will be discussing all the important activities you should be nurturing during your recovery days. From sleep, icing sore muscles, to stretching and getting most out of your days off, rest and recovery should be taken as seriously as there is more to how to train for marathon than just running alone.
- 8 hours or more of sleep each night
The biggest misconception many people have is in thinking the body gets stronger whilst we exercise, that is in fact wrong. When we train, we tear down muscle fibres which can only be regenerated during the recovery phase, and sleeping is the optimum way to get our muscles to adapt to the rigorous stresses we put our bodies through during exercise.
For the casual person who doesn’t exercise and who isn’t putting a heavy amount of stress on their body, it is recommended they take 7-8 hours of sleep each night. For someone who is putting new amounts of stresses on their body on a daily basis, it is recommend they sleep 8-10 hours each night so that their body can efficiently repair all the damaged cells caused by training.
If you are someone who finds it very difficult to get the recommended number of sleep hours each night, here are a few tips you can implement to help you reach those 8-10 hours of sleep.
An effective way of reducing swelling right after a long run is by icing your knees and the muscle areas that are sore. Icing is still regarded as one of the most effective ways to recover from strenuous activities and to reduce the risks of injuries through excessive swelling. The cold sensation that we feel when placing ice on muscle areas triggers blood vessels to constrict, bringing down the swelling in the muscle tissue and thereby slowing down the metabolic activity, giving your body the maximum chance to fully recover from a workout.
Taking recovery days
Every training plan on how to train for a marathon should emphasize the importance of your recovery days, you can’t train every day and hope to achieve optimum results. On recovery days, you should avoid any kind of exercise that will cause further breakdown of muscle fibres. Try to relax the mind so that you can replenish your thoughts and refocus that energy for when you next train.
Stretching after a run will decrease your chances of injury significantly by keeping muscles flexible, strong, and healthy. This allows them to regenerate and keep the necessary range of motion in the joints that allows us to keep our stride whilst running. By avoiding stretching post workout, the muscles shorten and become tight, which thereby leads to injury. Below is a list of some of the best post run stretching exercises recommended by Runners World, you should consider doing.
- Lying hamstring stretch with cord
Keep your upper body relaxed and both legs straight as you pull one leg towards you. A variation: lying as before, bend the upper knee in towards your chest. Holding the cord around the foot of the bent leg, push away with the foot, trying to straighten the leg against the tension of the cord. You should feel the stretch higher up the hamstring.
- Lying gluteal stretch against wall
Keep the ankle of your front leg just below your knee and ensure that you’re close enough to the wall for your lower back to be off the floor. As gravity gently brings your lower back towards the floor, you’ll feel a stretch in the muscles around the side of your buttocks. Adjust the angle of your hips and front knee to intensify the stretch.
- Groin stretch
Hold your feet and gently use your leg muscles to move your knees towards the ground. Keeping a straight back and bringing your feet closer to your body intensifies the stretch.
- Gastrocnemius (upper calf) stretch
Keep the back leg straight and push the back heel into the ground. Keeping a straight upper body and gently lifting up your hips helps. There shouldn’t be much pressure on the front foot.
- Soleus (lower calf) stretch
Stand closer to the wall and bend one leg, keeping the foot flat on the floor. You should feel a stretch in your lower calf. Leaning towards the wall intensifies the stretch; there should be little pressure on the other foot.
- Iliotibial band stretch
Place one foot around the other, with both feet flat on the ground. Keeping both legs straight, lean your hips towards the side of your rearmost foot (so, if your right foot is rearmost, lean your hips to the right). You should feel the stretch down the outside of your leg and around your hip – if you are very stiff, it may take a few times before you feel anything.
- Hip flexor stretch
Keep your hips squared forwards and your upper body vertical; slumping forwards reduces the stretch.
- Standing quadriceps stretch
Flex your foot and keep your body straight to maximise the stretch through the front of your leg. You can put one hand on a wall if you need balance.
Make sure you hold each stretch position on each leg for 30 seconds, easing out of the stretch. Avoid bouncing stretches that out you at risk of pulling and damaging muscles.
Nutrition plays a pivotal role in how we perform during exercise. So much so that an athlete could do all the right training exercises, stretch and then get 10 hours of sleep at night and still not see any progress in their ability to lift heavier, run longer, or recover faster. How to train for marathon is more than just the physical aspect of training or the recovery phase. Without the correct nutrition you simply will not be able to go the distance, risking both your health and chances of getting to the race in good shape. In this section we will be highlighting the essential macronutrients that should be included in your diet, and when to have them.
Carbohydrates are one of the most important macronutrients that form a large part of our diet and should compromise at least 60% of a runner’s calorie intake. Research has shown that our bodies work more efficiently for quick and long lasting energy when operating with carbs, in comparison to protein and fats.
Protein should make up about 20% of a runners calorie intake, the longer you run and more stress you put on the muscles, the more protein you will need to repair the damaged tissue during training. Typically speaking, if you are 13 weeks into training and have started including long runs into your training schedule, you should be consuming 0.5 - 0.75 grams of protein per pound of body weight a day.
Some fats are good, some fats are bad, but an excess of either is going to have you pack on one too many pounds. Make sure that your diet compromises of no more than 20% of good fats such as nuts, oils, and cold water fish essential fats called omega-3s which help prevent certain diseases and promote overall good health.
You might not necessarily get energy from vitamins, but they are still an important part of your diet. Exercise may produce compounds known as free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage cells in our bodies. Antioxidants such as vitamin C, E, and A help neutralize free radicals. Foods such as:
Calcium- is essential for keeping your bones resistant to injury and keeping our teeth in good health. You should be taking about 1,000 milligrams per day as it will also aid muscle and blood vessel contraction. Good sources of calcium include milk, spinach, tofu, and chia seeds.
Iron- is essential for giving our muscles an extra boost by transporting oxygen to the blood and muscles. Naturally, women need more iron than men because they lose so much in their menstrual period. To make up for this deficiency, women should consume more than twice as much iron as men, 8 milligrams for men and 18 milligrams for women per day. Sources of iron include lentils, red meat, dark meat, poultry and fortified cereals.
Sodium- helps our bodies maintain the necessary fluid and electrolyte balance, this is essential for preventing cramps if you are a heavy sweater. On an average, you should be consuming 2,250 milligrams per day for both men and women, but much less if you have high blood pressure. Realistically speaking, you will already be getting the required amount of sodium from your diet, but to replenish your levels after a long run, foods such as bread, cheese, chicken and sports drink contain good levels of sodium to help you recover from the losses made.
Pre run nutrition
You should avoid eating too much just before a run. Ideally you should be focusing on consuming meals that are high in carbs and low-fibre 2-3 hours before you set off on a run lasting more than 60 minutes. This is enough time for your body to fully digest meals and reduce the chances of aggravating your stomach during your run.
Dependant on the time of day you plan to head out and run, it may not always be possible to allow 2-3 hours’ time to fully digest a meal, if you are running in the morning, try consuming 40-50 grams of carbs an hour before your run. If you find yourself going on a very long run, you may need a boost in energy, try adding a little protein to give you that extra push. Peanut butter and jam bagel, or two eggs with a bagel are always a good idea to keep you going just a little bit longer. Other great meal ideas before you run include:
Nutrition on the go
You won’t need to concern yourself with consuming foods during exercise shorter than an hours’ time, but if you plan to go on long runs that exceed 60 minutes, taking in foods high in carbs is vital towards keeping your blood sugar balanced and energy levels high. Try to consume between 35-65 grams of carbs for every hour of exercise by spreading consumption in-between 20-30 minute intervals. The puzzling question though, is how to successfully carry food whilst you run. Energy drinks are a great way to get nutrition on the go, also start to think about which energy gels work for you and which don’t, they will become your best friend leading up to race day. Alternatively, foods that are fairly easy to carry with you whilst you run and are good sources of carbs and protein include:
Post run nutrition
So you’ve done your run and naturally should be feeling somewhat exhausted, or not. You should be focusing on getting a balance of carbs and protein back into your body an hour after your run. Carbs will help restore glycogen which is the bodies main source of energy, and protein as mentioned earlier will repair the microscopic damages to muscle tissues. What you eat after your run will depend on two things, the time of day you finished your run, and how intense the run had been. You should nonetheless aim to have a recovery meal that consists of 20-30 grams of protein, and 60 to 75 grams of carbohydrates. Foods high in protein and carbs include:
Having enough fluids in your body is key in how to train for marathon, it can mean the difference between finishing your run, or crashing out before you have even started. The average human should be consuming at least 2-2.5 litres of fluid per day, but not all of it needs to come from water. Before going out on your run, you should aim to consume 6-8 ounces of water or an energy drink. Whilst on your run, aim to drink three to 6 ounces every 20 minutes to stay hydrated. After you have completed your run, you should then also aim to replenish carbs and sodium through fluids such as energy drinks again high in electrolytes.
As mentioned above, you should never actually run the full 26.2 miles during training. At best, you should have gradually been increasing your long runs by at least a mile week by week, peaking at about 20 miles for your longest run. As you get closer and closer to race day, your body now needs to recover so that you can put on your best performance during the actual run. Tapering means cutting back on the volume and intensity of your routine as you draw closer to race day, and in this section we will be showing you how to do so correctly.
3 weeks before the race
From about three weeks out from the race you should start to slowly decrease your weekly mileage to about 90% of what you had ran the week before. This can be done by simply running less miles on your longer run, or by taking an extra rest day. You don’t need to be adding any additional exercises at this point, trust in what you have been doing for the past few months and maintain a positive mind frame, you’ve done great thus far. This will essentially be the last time you do your long run before your marathon, we therefore recommend you wear the same clothes you plan to wear for the actual race and eat and hydrate on the same food and drinks you intend to for the marathon.
2 weeks before the race
At this stage of your training you should switch you focus from training to resting. Your weekly mileage should not exceed 70% of the amount you ran during your highest mileage week. Your pace should be significantly slower than your marathon goal pace, although you should incorporate your marathon goal pace into one of your shorter mid-week runs to practise keeping a good pace during the race. Your weekly short runs should not exceed 4 miles, your weekly longer runs should be between 6-8 miles, and your weekend long run should not be more than 10 miles at this point. In contrast, you should still be consuming a good amount of calories so that your body can effectively repair the damaged tissues caused during your mileage build up.
On the week of the race you shouldn’t be pushing your body to run for longer than four miles. Runs during the week of the race are more for the mind and not the body. You should focus on running two minutes slower per mile for every mile to your marathon goal pace. Three days before the race, don’t even bother putting on your running shoes, do some yoga to relax the mind and take time to just unwind. The day before the race, go out and do a light jog or walk to take your mind off the race, it will also help you sleep better. Make sure you get plenty of carbs the day before the race and make sure you drink a good amount of water. A way to determine whether you have sufficient levels of fluid is by checking the colour of your urine, the clearer the better.
From the long runs to short ones, to the constant change in weather and feeling like you can’t go on for another mile. Leave all your struggles and worries behind, you’ve made it this far, so why not go just a few more miles to the finish line. Race day is about putting any negative thoughts aside and channelling all your energy towards running the best 26.2 that your body and mind can withstand. This is the last section to the article, but only the beginning to your journey, so let’s make sure we finish with a bang.
Make sure you go to bed early to allow yourself to clock 9-10 hours of sleep and wake up early the day before the marathon. Naturally, your glucose levels will be very low first thing in the morning, so make sure you fuel up on plenty of carbohydrates as it will be your body’s primary fuel source when tackling the marathon.
Wear familiar gear
As mentioned above, you should have practised your longest run in the shoes and running gear that you intended to wear for the actual race. As tempting as it may be to wear brand new shoes on race day, resist the temptation and go for the gear you are familiar with. Shoes need time to mould into the shape of your feet, so stick with the shoes that have carried you this far, if it isn’t broken why fix it.
Consuming carbs during the race
The world’s top marathon runners are capable of completing 26.2 miles in just over the 2 hour mark, but we aren’t quite there yet. Be sure to bring with you several high in carb foods that you can easily pack with you during the race. This is so you maintain blood sugar levels and delay the depletion of carbs.
The importance of hydrating whilst running the 26.2 miles cannot be stressed enough. Taking on fluid will aid the flow of oxygen and blood to your muscles and can make the difference again to reaching the finish line, or crashing out midway through the race.
Pace yourself/Marathon goal pace
After hydrating, pacing yourself throughout the race is the most crucial element to successfully completing the race. If you start by pushing your body too hard and too far within the first few miles of the race, it will come back to haunt you down the stretch. The best way to run a marathon is to avoid fluctuating between speeds. Focus on keeping a steady pace that your body is comfortable in maintaining, with the goal of finishing the race.
Before you go
So there you have it, your complete guide to how to train for a marathon. Hopefully you have read this article at the right stage in your training, and are still able to implement the methods mentioned above accordingly. Before you do go ahead and run that marathon though, we want to hear from your experiences; are there any crucial aspects of marathon training we have left out? If so, please let us know in the comment section below.