How to train for a Marathon
It is that time of year when someone you know has sent you an email asking to be sponsored for the London Marathon. Or they’ve shared a link on social media. Or they’ve cornered you by the water cooler at work. Or they’ve written a blog about it…
Don’t worry, I am not running the marathon this year, so I’m not after your money for myself. There might be some friends of mine running whose pages I will share at the end, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise… As someone training others getting ready for the big day I will take you through what it takes for these heroes to complete the 26.2 miles.
Firstly, it’s important to remember that race day is about enjoying it. It is a reward for the months of training beforehand, the long runs at the weekend and those chilly early mornings you got up to run before work. That is the slog. Marathon day is about the glory. To get there here are the important chapters in the story.
CHAPTER 1: Get The Miles Under Your Belt.
You may be a complete beginner, you may be fit and quick across 10km. Either way you do not get a free pass. You cannot just turn up on the day and bash out a marathon because you like to go to the gym. Your body needs to be prepped. Traditionally the London Marathon is in mid/late April so your training programme should begin at the start of January at the latest. A four month programme is the minimum and of course the longer the better and thus seasoned runners will have an advantage. However, the first timers is where the magic happens. We all remember our first time.
During the course of your training you will likely be running a combined distance of a marathon or more each week. The specificity and fine tuning that occurs during these hours leads to the adaptation for the big day.
CHAPTER 2: Variety Of Runs.
Your previous level experience will determine how many runs a week will form your training. Beginners will do 3-4 whilst more seasoned runners will do 4-5 runs per week as they can handle the workload more. Recovery is one of the most crucial aspects of your programme. The structure of your running week will be based around one long run at the weekend.
These will grow in time and distance as you progress culminating in the longest run of around 22 miles 3 weeks before the race. If you work backwards from the 22 mile mark you will roughly add a mile or two each week or fortnight in the lead up to it. In week one your long run might be 6-8 miles but each of these long runs is a learning curve that will reveal where your body is at and what needs work. You can practice running at your predicted race pace during these runs too. Your race pace should be comfortable enough for you to be able to speak during the run.
Meanwhile, during the rest of the following week you can do a shorter recovery run after a rest day from the long run. Then you need to fit in either an interval or hill run day and a tempo run.
The London course is a relatively flat route but running intervals where you run hard for 1-2 mins followed by an equal rest period of walking will work your anaerobic threshold close to your max capacity, which is tough work but will improve your marathon run which is steady and aerobic. Doing this for 20 minutes a week will make race pace easier. Similarly hill runs get you working out of your comfort zone on a gradient, then when you return to flat running that will feel easier too.
Finally a tempo run is a steady, slightly quicker than race pace speed but manageable over a few miles. Again this has the power to improve your base level and make race day easier!
CHAPTER 3: Strength and Conditioning.
Most of your time during training is spent running but forget strength and conditioning at your peril. S&C will underpin your performance. Fitting in two strength sessions a week is ideal. You will focus on your legs, of course, your core and even your upper body. Building up the strength to help with the endurance is a vital investment. You use all your muscles during running so the stronger you are the easier you can absorb the pain and strain of the road miles. During your long runs you may find a muscle or joint that gets tired or achy whilst your lungs are strong. Target these weaknesses in your strength sessions. It is never wrong to be strong.
Then there is stretching. You can never stretch enough. At the start of sessions and after is imperative but even on rest days stretching is beneficial. To help your recovery and performance stretching your major muscles is a must. A good regular stretch will give you an edge.
CHAPTER 4: Nutrition.
The most alien concept to newcomers is eating whilst running. Consuming a disgusting, viscous energy gel mid flow is a seminal moment. The word viscous is fairly hideous itself. Anyhow, you do not have a choice. Mind power cannot power a car with an empty tank. Similarly, you can see where I’m going with this metaphor… The body has a capacity to store glycogen in our muscles for about 90 minutes of exertion. Thereafter, you run the risk of hitting the dreaded wall if you are without enough fuel. The gels are full of carbs which will quickly turn to the energy you need. The feeling of lungs and mind wanting to run but your legs not agreeing is very disconcerting and confusing. In some ways it is good lesson if it happens during a long training run as many get it on the day if all doesn’t go right which can cause a real wobble, mental and physical. Gels are key to this.
To have a strategy you need to practice and see how often you will take a gel, usually every 35-45 minutes. You also need to take water on board little and often. The key to both these is not to wait till you are hungry or thirsty but to get ahead of that point. A smooth running, well-oiled machine is what we aim to turn you into.
To take some nutrition on board is non-negotiable, however there are many gels out there and perhaps experiment with different ones to find one you like the most and one that agrees with your digestive system. By race day you will know exactly what you will put in your body and when. Do not experiment with anything new on race day. Also plan your breakfast before the long runs. Porridge or a bagel is good. Caffeine can be a great stimulant but is ok only if it agrees with you.
Finally before the longest runs and the big day you will try and do some carbo loading. Basically the day before the race and in the week leading up to it you will consume 20-30% more carbs than usual. “Stuff your face with pasta it’s good for you” is not a phrase you get to hear often. The point of this is maxing those glycogen stores for the morning of the race. You shouldn’t feel stuffed and heavy but energised and sharp. Practicing through your training will fine tune your approach.
CHAPTER 5: Race Strategy.
You’ve done all the training, you are one of tens of thousands of athletes on the start line, with an atmosphere that is better than anything you’ve experienced before. The nervous energy, the excitement, the support, the motivation is all around. It can be overwhelming. You must keep a clear head. The number one mistake is going off too quickly, the excitement of the day makes you trust your body more than is reasonable leading to premature burnout. Your training should by now have revealed your expectant race pace. Stick to this. If you feel great at the start, awesome. The real win is feeling great at the end. To do this you must run smart. The adrenaline of the event can boost you slightly, and if you are feeling good with 4 miles to go, where a lot of people are breaking down, then go for it, stride with pride. Do not peak too early though otherwise expect to join the strugglers at the end.
Tie your nutrition as previously discussed into your marathon strategy and you are good to go.
CHAPTER 6: Tapering.
The strangest feeling is possibly the tapering period, usually 2-3 weeks before the race. During this awkward stage you will run less not more and reduce your mileage ahead of the big day. From your longest training run to race day you will gradually reduce your cardio volume, which will certainly feel counter intuitive. You may run a half marathon 2 weeks before but the rest of your runs will be shorter. The reason for this is performance peak. You aim to turn up to the start line fresh, not flat, sharp, not sore. In your body you must trust, during tapering it will not rust.
In fact, recovery is another of the keys throughout your whole programme. You'd be surprised how easy it is to overtrain! Letting the body recover sufficently, sometimes taking an extra day off, reducing mileage or swapping a run for lower impact cardio like a cross trainer can improve your overall performance long term. Listen. To. Your. Body.
It really is a journey, one you look back on and think “how the hell did I fit that much running into my life?!” But when they line up in Greenwich on that Sunday morning, they have all won already. And there are two special people at The Hogarth who will be there.
Now remember, when I said at the start I wasn’t after sponsorship for myself… Well that is true, but I have passed the baton on to a couple of marathon newbies. I’ve been putting my mouth where my money is and helping fellow staff members Laura and Joe during their training for their debut marathon. They didn’t want or seek my advice but they work in enclosed departments with only one door in or out so they had no choice. They have very different athletic histories but they are unified in their goals. Build up, train well, run smart and enjoy the rush on the day. I’m very proud of their efforts so far and have full confidence they will smash it on 22nd April.
So, if you can, help a brother and sister out!
I still can’t get over viscous. It’s almost as bad as moist. Yuk.