How to Prepare for a Marathon

Learn how to prepare for your marathon training schedule safely and effectively.

So you have decided to run your first marathon? Or have been lucky enough to get a ballot place in a big marathon and it has suddenly dawned that you need to get yourself ready to run 26.2miles?

Hopefully, you find this guide useful as part of your preparation. In it, I will cover some key points that will help you get to the start line feeling healthy, injury free and prepared.

Start Now #

Most training programmes for a marathon are between 12 and 18 weeks long. But don’t wait until week 1 of your training programme to start building up your running, get going now. If you are already a regular runner – look at your training programme and how many hours a week running it will require in week 1 and compare that to what you are doing now. If there is a large discrepancy then start gradually increasing your time spent running in preparation for week 1 of your programme.

If you are not a regular runner then start very gradually building up your amount of running you do each week and look to supplement in with other forms of cardio to get your body used to doing 2 – 3 hours of cardio exercise a week prior to starting your programme.

The goal here is to build up a base’ of running fitness for you to work from when your programme begins so it is not a huge shock to your body.

We spoke to running coach and director of Full Potential, Richard Coates, for some of his top base training tips:

Build up gradually #

Forget about intensity, for now, it’s important to start easy. The training needs to build up gradually, it isn’t possible to go from running 5 miles to 15 in one fell swoop. The training must allow for a gradual progression in pace and distance. Many runners improve their fitness dramatically in the first few months of training only to become injured. Unfortunately, muscles, joints and connective tissue need longer to fully and safely adapt.

Cross Train #

Include cross training (for example swimming, gym bike, elliptical machine or rower) to develop strength while giving your body a break from the stress of running.

Strength & Conditioning: It’s also important to work on your core and body strength to make sure that you’re able to keep your form together in the latter stages of the race when you’re feeling tired. It’s a common misconception among runners that you can only run to get better at running. Whilst you need to run, you also need to be doing complementary work.

Rest #

Your training should be supplemented with lots of rest! Try to have at least one day a week of doing no training at all as this will help your body recover. If you’re on a rest day, do exactly that … don’t feel tempted to build a shed or lay the patio!

Listen to Your Body #

If you do start to feel any aches and pains, ignore them at your peril! Your body is great at telling you what it wants so start listening to it. The key to good training is consistency and you can’t be consistent if you’re injured. Take an extra rest day and allow your body to recover. It’s much better to take one day off immediately than a week off later on.

Choose the right marathon training schedule #

There are hundreds, if not thousands of programmes available online and in books for marathon training. The sheer number out there shows that there is not one best programme. It is important to choose a programme that works for you and is realistic. Base this decision on how may runs a week you think is sensible and you can realistically achieve. If you at present struggle to fit in 2 runs a week there is no point in going for a 5 or 6 runs a week programme. You are unlikely to fit all the training runs in and if you do, the sudden increase in training volume will increase the risk of injury.

I would advise speaking to a strength & conditioning coach if possible to help choose a programme that works for you.

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Keep low intensity runs low intensity #

Most training programmes will consist of varying types of sessions; these could include long slow runs, shorter faster runs, recovery runs, tempo runs, speed sessions, hill sessions etc.

Variety is good, it keeps it interesting, but the best bit of advice I can give here is to keep the low intensity runs exactly that, slow and easy. These runs make up the biggest part of your training and should account for 70 – 80% of all your running. People often worry they are going too slow and won’t get the maximal benefit from the session but the goal of these runs is to build the bodies tolerance to running for long periods of time and to improve the body’s energy systems so that it can provide fuel to your muscles for the entire length of the run. They also allow you to recover better from one session to the next, keeping injury risk lower, and also to get the most out of your higher intensity sessions.

As a guide, during these low intensity runs you should be able to speak in full sentences and your pace should 1 – 2 minutes per mile slower than your race pace.

Recovery #

Recovery is 50% of your training. You may be doing the best sessions but if you neglect your recovery it is likely your performance or progression will start to suffer and your risk of injury will go up.

Arguably, the most important part of recovery is sleep. An adult needs 7 – 9 hours a night. Athletes can require up to 10 hours! A study looking at injury rates showed that getting less than 7 hours sleep a night nearly doubled the risk of injury.

Nutrition is also hugely important during training for a marathon. You need to ensure you are taking in enough fuel to provide energy for all your runs but to also provide the energy needed for you to recover from your long runs. It is not a good idea to use marathon training as a way to lose weight, as you train more, you will need to eat more to continue providing the fuel for training and recovery. Check out this blog on how to eat your way to the finish line’.

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Set your goals – have a Plan A, B and C #

Running a marathon is hard. It is a fantastic achievement just to finish, and for a beginner, especially one who doesn’t have a long history as a runner, setting this as a primary goal is very sensible and something I recommend.

I also recommend having 3 goals. I find this helps with the mental aspect of running a marathon. It is a physical and mental challenge to complete a marathon and if you find yourself dropping behind your goal pace during the event it can make it even tougher mentally. Having 3 goals helps with this, it could be something like:

A. If everything goes perfectly in training on the day – e.g. sub 4 hours

B. The second goal that you would still be very happy to achieve – e.g. sub 4.30

C. The reason you entered in the first place – e.g. get to the end and enjoy the atmosphere

Having these 3 targets can help keep you going during those tougher moments.

Run a practice event #

If you are new to running events it is a great idea to run a practice event. Lots of people choose to do a half marathon a couple of months before the big day and this is a great idea. It gives you chance to practice going through everything you will need to do on the big day, from Preparing your kit bag, eating before the event, travel, checking in, pacing and fuelling during the run.

Doing a practice event can really help with pre-race nerves on the big day.

Don’t try anything new on the big day #

If you are planning on using energy gels, bars, sweets, etc. during the marathon then make sure you have tried these out a few times in your training runs to make sure you won’t have any issues on the day.

Also, make sure you have completed a few runs in your full kit you wearing for the day to ensure everything is comfortable.

Enjoy it #

This may sound like odd advice, who enjoys running a marathon? But on the day, try and stay calm and relaxed, you have done all the hard work in training, stick to your race plan, stay positive, try and soak up some of the atmospheres from the supporters and other runners. And no matter what the outcome, be proud of yourself, you are a marathon runner. Whether you cross that line is under 3 hours or over 7 hours you have completed the 26.2 miles and should be proud.

Are you preparing for a long distance race and would like some help getting ready? Click the button below to find out how we can help.

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