advice on training and running your first marathon

Completing 26.2 miles is a daunting task. Particularly when you consider that at its inception – when a Greek messenger names Phidippides ran from a place called Marathon to Athens in 490BC – the guy dropped dead.

Reassuringly since then things have improved, and with the likes of Al Gore and Oprah Winfrey making the distance, it appears there’s hope for us all of making it over the finishing line.

Marathon runners come in all shapes and sizes, tall, skinny, short, fat, young, old – but one thing you can be sure of is that they’ve all trained for many months, not only physically but mentally too, because when it comes to making the finishing tape, every runner knows that a good 60 per cent of getting there is simply down to mental focus. Just remember Eddie Izzard – the cross-dressing comedian who’d never run before then tackled around 49 marathons in 51 days for charity.

So if you’re hoping to make this the year you tackle your first marathon, perhaps Wolverhampton Marathon on September 5 (one of your NSRRA races) I hope these basic guidelines and tips will give you something to work from and help you have the most memorable day of your life.

Marathon training for beginners

They say that if you’re starting from scratch as a complete novice then preparation should begin 6 months before the race, building up to three hour runs which you’ll want to complete several times before your race. The more you run and convince yourself you are capable or running long distances, the more confident you’ll feel when marathon time comes.

Your training schedule will probably consist of several shorter runs during the week of 4-7 miles with weekend long runs of 10, 12, 14, 16 miles and so on up to 20 miles. Your last 20 mile run should be around 4 weeks before the race, with a last long run (something like 14/15 miles) a couple of weeks before the race. This is to allow you the all important ‘taper’ period where you ease off on the miles so your muscles have fully recovered in time for the race. These are only basic guidelines, as a quick Google search will reveal a million different training schedules. The important thing is to find one which is realistic for you, and to not be such a slave to it that you continue to run through pain or illness in order to achieve it. Keep a flexible approach. As long as you manage your long run and some form of ‘effort’ session (hills or fartlek/speedwork) then everything else is a bonus. If you have a history of running injuries then try to avoid running back to back days and after a long run be sure to take a day off.

If you have a dull pain while training you can probably run through it, but if you experience a sharp pain stop immediately because you could end up tearing tissue. If you decide to take ibuprofen to help with pain and inflammation, its best to wait a few hours after a hard run before taking it, while the usual rule of RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) should be used at the first sign of injury. A lot of runners have also reported favourable results from the use of compression wear, from long socks to full length tights, which can help promote better blood flow and prevent the build up of lactic acid in the muscles which leads to that ‘dead leg’ feeling the day after training.

What to eat for Marathon training

While in training you do need to watch what you eat. In the week before the marathon you’ll want to up your carbohydrate intake as well as your fluid intake. The night before the race eat a good meal, but don’t overstuff yourself. Marathons usually take place in the morning and you don’t want to be sluggish on your feet when the gun goes off. Pasta, a baked potato and a bit of protein, a little cheese and some chicken – as long as they’re all things you’ve eaten many times before on your long runs, are fine, as this isn’t the time to try anything new or spicy. On the point of food, it’s important to try eating on the run during your long run training sessions too – a sports bar, energy tablets or a banana, there are lots of engineered sports foods now too and you need to find out which ones suit you and won’t give you a bad stomach.

The brain game

Marathon running is about mental preparation more than a lot of other factors. The wall occurs at a certain point where you simply don’t feel you can move any longer. Your legs are exhausted and your energy stores are gone and this is when you need the mental tricks to conquer the wall and any pain. Think about the finish line. Take things slowly. Think positively and that this pain is temporary, unless of course you have a serious injury coming on. However, if it’s just a question of whether you can finish or not, this is a race against yourself. Think of a time you felt strong and mentally picture being there, then block out all the negativity causing you to slow or doubt yourself in the last miles of the race. Focus all your attention on something ahead, like a certain tree or road sign, and forget about the mile markers, and slowly that distance will disappear.

Race day

On the race day start slowly. Don’t let the fact you’re well rested fool you into running too fast at the start, as this false sense of being all set can soon be replaced with the realization that those last few miles are going to feel like a hundred. Pace yourself so you have plenty of gas in the tank for the final miles.

Speed walk through the water stops and try and get a couple of good glugs at every other water station or so, as if you keep running you’re likely to get most of it down your shirt. If you get dehydrated on race day you’ll be forced to merely ‘survive and finish’ which isn’t a nice way to experience your first marathon.

Be sure to take in nutrients. Many marathon runners make a mistake of thinking water and Gatorade alone will maintain their energy and fuel levels. Depending on the weather and pace you could be burning between 500 and 1,000 calories per hour, so trying to eat some type of bar during the race is a good idea.

Bring warm clothes and a throw away blanket to the start. Sitting on the ground in the cold for several hours is not a pleasant way to prepare to run a marathon. You don’t want to be cold and stiff before the race.

Don’t be put off by other people who look like more ‘serious runners’ as looks mean nothing. Only your own inner determination to gets you to the finish line. Run your own race and remember to put your name on your shirt so you can get a much needed personal mental boost from the crowd. You may not get a record time, but if you want it, and train for it, you can do it.

Run from your heart. Don’t get so caught up in trying to beat a certain time that you lose out on a truly amazing experience of running a marathon. It’s a gift to be able to make that distance so drink it in and enjoy every minute of it.

Don’t ever train to the full marathon distance – save that for race day.

Speaking of the big day, it’s worth considering not running the whole way. A lot of trainers are now advocates of the walk/run strategy for novice runners, which is well worth considering. Most programmes break down to running for 9 minutes (or 1-2 miles) and then walking for a minute. A useful strategy until you’ve got a few marathons under your belt.

And finally…let other people run at a pace which is right for them. You have your own pace so stick to it. Your first marathon isn’t the time to let pride take over judgement or common sense.

Handy hints

Some more handy hints courtesy of the Runners World website…

  • Cut your toenails a good few days prior to the event. That way if you cut them too short and your toes are painful, they have time to heal.
  • If you are staying in a hotel away from home – take your pillow with you. You might feel silly, but you need all the help you can get to sleep the night before the race.
  • Take a loo roll in your kit bag to the start area. There is little worse than queuing for the loo for 30 minutes then discovering there is no loo roll to help out with the pre-race nerves!
  • If it’s raining take a bum-bag. Fill it with the usual goodies, sweets, chocolate, pills etc but also some of those mini-ankle socks. Should you have to stop at 16 miles with blisters, you’ll have some dry socks to put on, rather than wringing out the wet ones.
  • Put Vaseline on anything that might rub against anything else. Also apply a thin layer of Vaseline around your whole foot and between the toes to avoid blisters.
  • Always carry a spare pair of shoelaces in your bum bag. If one lace snaps it could be the difference between starting the race five minutes later, or not at all.
  • Break the race up into manageable chunks. For example, a five-mile run to a Lucozade station, a four-mile run to where your mates are spectating, another mile to a Lucozade station, and so on.
  • If you’re travelling to stay locally overnight before the race, check the hotel you are staying in does early breakfasts, or go prepared by taking your own breakfast with you.
  • Eat your last food two to three hours before the start of the race. Have your last drink one hour before the race and then go to the loo a couple of times in that last hour.
  • Work out your own refuelling plan, train with it and stick to it. Only partially unscrew the lids on the Lucozade – it stops spillages and slows the flow, making it easier to drink.
  • Put your favourite post long-run snack in your bag and eat/drink it as soon as you pick your bag up. You may feel like something savoury after all the energy drinks.
  • When you are approach the finishing line check who is around you – they are also going to be in your finishing picture that you’ll show your family and friends, so best it doesn’t show you being beaten by someone twice your age or dressed as a Teletubby.
  • At the end keep moving, however painful it feels. If you can hobble about a bit, rather than collapse in a heap you’ll feel much better the next day. If you can, have a cold bath afterwards, it feels horrible but definitely helps with the stiffness.

Kerryanne Clancy is a VTCT Level 3 Sports Massage Therapist

Do you have any marathon tips you’d like to share? Add them to the comments section below or contact us with them

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