I have always wanted to run the marathon but it took going to watch last year's race before I decided to actually sign up.
Marathons unite a diverse group of people, from seasoned competitors completing their hundredth race, to the fun runners carrying a huge armadillo on their back – I felt that if they could do it, so could I.
"I've entered three times and never got it", a colleague told me, so my hopes weren't high and to be honest – I was fine with that. I'd made the effort to sign up, that was enough, right?
But then, one heatwave ridden morning in August, the email came through. I'd gotten a place in the London 2020 Marathon and the fear kicked in. What do I do now?
A seasoned runner I am not, and when I searched for information on the best training plan for running a marathon, most of the information I found was targeted towards people who were far more entrenched in the world of running. And while couch to 5k is a great initiative for people who want to kick-start their running career, there really wasn't much out there for those at a beginners level of never-running-a-day-in-my-life (I'd watch a bus go by even if I was late) to the extreme opposite.
When you tell people that you are running the marathon, they are quick to give you advice – or the less helpful but still sincere, "you're brave, I'd never do it" or "I've done a few halves but would never do the real thing". Thanks.
Training for the marathon has been one of the most challenging but rewarding experienced of my life. I won’t undersell it. It is tough. Both mentally and physically, but it will be worth it.
I've spent the past few months gathering all the useful information and the gear that you need – because, contrary to what I once believed, it is not quite as simple as just hitting the pavements. To complete in the marathon without doing more harm to your body than good, we’ve spoken to experts in multiple fields, from nutritionists to trainers, so you can tick off your bucket list and do it right.
Key bits of advice for training:
- It is fine if you miss the occasional run.
- Never run through an injury – you'll only make it worse.
- Do a few competitive runs in the lead up to your race – 10ks and halves – this will help you familiarise to the environment.
- Go to the gym alongside running to strengthen your legs and glutes – your body will thank you.
- Only train up to 20/21 miles maximum – the adrenaline of the day will take you through the last bit.
- Food and carbs, carbs, carbs. Burning fat instead of carbs is less efficient for your body.
- If you are getting tired of music or the beat is disrupting your rhythm, try listening to a podcast.
- Alcohol – ditch booze at least six weeks before the race.
- Expect your body to feel tired all the time. Give it the rest it needs to recover.
- Mind over matter. You CAN do it, you’ve already come so far.
- Make sure you put your name on your top so people can cheer you on and you can get your celebrity moment.
- Remove your headphones when in heavily crowded points to soak up the atmosphere. It will help keep you going.
- Follow the blue line on the floor – it’s the shortest route.
- Get your friends and family to separate and stand dotted along the route – it’s a major rush of adrenaline every time you see someone that you know.
- The tunnel at mile 22 can be a daunting process – think of it as just another challenge to smash through.
- Wear sun cream – you never know what the weather will be.
- Make the most of all the freebies attributed to marathon runners after the race. You deserve it.
What do you do when you hit the wall?
We’ve consulted Gaby Hayward, trainer at Matt Roberts Evolution, who has two marathons and one Ultra already under her belt, to get her top tips on how to cope with the sudden loss of energy.
- Use the crowd. Get your name on your running vest / bib and you will be surprised at how many shout outs you will get along the course. Use this to your advantage when you see the wall looming – it will give you the motivation you need to get back into your rhythm.
- If you are running for a charity think about why you signed up for the race in the first place. Remember how much effort you put into the fundraising, how many people supported your cause and think about the loved one you are running for.
- This is your victory lap, so enjoy it. All the hard work is done now – you’ve trained through the cold, wind and rain and you’ve covered many miles during the previous months, so trust in your efforts and enjoy your final celebratory lap.
- Break it up – try not to think about how far you've got left to run. Instead, try and break it down into manageable chunks. Say you hit the wall at mile 20 – you have 6 miles left, that’s two park runs. Tick off the first 5k, then move on and tackle the final chunk – it will seem far less daunting this way.
Our marathon essentials:
Matt Roberts Evolution Training Plan
Based in Grosvenor Square, Matt Roberts is a luxury gym that focuses on bespoke training for all levels. The specialist training ranges from rehabilitation or post-pregnancy, to weight loss or marathon training where a dedicated trainer will help put together a plan to smash the 26 mile long race.
“The key components of marathon training are strength work, mobility, running technique and the runs themselves. But when it comes to actually putting the training plan together, is has to be very personal and should be tailored to the individual, taking into account their strengths, weaknesses and weekly commitments,” Gaby explains.
When putting together my plan, I had 24 weeks until the London Marathon and so training was split into four blocks, each with a specific focus.
- Block 1 - strength work, light mileage and running technique
- Block 2 - tempo runs and strength work
- Block 3 - endurance, nutrition and hydration
- Block 4 - taper time, lots of mobility.
The plan also consisted of two strength sessions in the gym to build up the posterior chain, glutes and core, as well as unilateral work. “We target these areas in particular as they would help improve running form, making you efficient runner,” Gaby adds. “There should also be mobility and stretching sessions and around four runs a week, with two of the runs including some technique based skills and drills beforehand. The type of runs will differ depending on the training block. At the end of each block, you book in a race to get used to what race day feels like and get accustomed to the logistics so your routine becomes down to a T.”
Matt Roberts offer a group run club on Tuesday (7.30am) and Saturday (9am) to keep you motivated and on track that consists always of stretching, warming up, interval training and fartleks all designed to improve your technique and speed.
When putting together your training plan, you begin with a wellness concierge service to discuss your goals and establish your fitness levels. You do a running session to check out your technique and establish where you need to build strength to take you through to that 42nd mile. The studio also plays host to Pilates and yoga that you can take advantage of to improve on your flexibility and to stretch out after a long run.
Marathon training: the products that helped
As you progress with your training, you can use Strava to track your timings, routes and distances – always building on and smashing your previous month’s stats. The app offers in depth analysis and allows you to connect with other runners.
A good pair of running trainers
You really can’t underestimate the importance of your footwear when it comes to 26 miles of running. As your training becomes longer and longer, you will really start to notice the effects on your ankles and calves if your trainers are not up to scratch but with so many options on the market, how do you go about choosing the best ones? I headed to Runner’s Need to consult the experts.
Elle from Runner’s Need explains, “The key factors to consider first is the distance you are running and the surface you run on. Whether you need a wider toe box, a neutral shoe, a specific heel to toe drop, or maybe you prefer more energy return through the shoe or just need something to control your foot roll, you can be catered for to meet your needs.”
You can head in store for a gait analysis free of charge. “To begin with, we will put you in a neutral shoe and get you running on our treadmill for around 20-30 seconds”, Elle continues. “This will allow us to look at how you are landing, where you are landing and for any misalignments biomechanically within the ankles or knees. By looking at how you run, and taking into consideration your running goals and any previous injuries, we can understand what type of shoe will suit you best.”
Your trainer choice will depend on three key things; whether you need structure or stability, the level of cushioning and of course, personal taste.
I had a slight over pronation where my ankle was rolling slightly inward and wanted a medium amount of cushioning in order to absorb some impact without affecting speed — I opted for the Books Ghost trainers with FootBalance Insoles to give added support to my high arch.
If you thought that the socks that you wear don’t matter, I’m sorry to tell you that you are sorely mistaken. You should be on the hunt for pieces that are sweat wicking, offer cushioning and will fit snug. I am a big fan of Stance who combine technical details with fun designs. Smartwool also offer some of the most comfortable socks on the market that work to cushion high pressure areas like the ball and heel of your foot.
SiS GO Energy Gels
You may or may not choose to use energy gels throughout your training but the mini sachets can work wonders for a much-needed boost when you start to waver. If you choose to stash some of the gels away for race day, you should practice fuelling in advance as they do take some getting used to and can upset your stomach. When it comes to choosing the best time to have one, look at your splits and see where you most need it.
Running requires the right sports bra that can keep you supported and comfortable during the high impact activity. The Enlite bra, from stylish sportswear specialists Lululemon, is made from a a soft, sweat-wicking fabric that keeps you supported with build in cups and a cross-back strap construction. The waistband does not dig in even during long distance runs and best of all, it is super easy to take on and off.
GapFit Breathe Pullover Hoodie
As you train throughout the winter, it key to layer up but uncertain British weather permitting, you may not need this for race day. Finding the balance between something that will keep you warm without making you overheat when you are in the full swing is tricky but Gap have nailed it with this stylish hoodie that has an open back for better ventilation. The moisture-wicking properties will help keep you dry and it also has thumb holes to help insulate your hands.
£19.99 | Gap | Buy it now
Beats Powerbeats Pro Wireless Bluetooth Sports Earphones
When it comes to your headphones, there is some basic criteria that needs to be met. First and foremost, wireless is far easier as there is no danger of accidentally pulling out the cable. Water and sweat proof is a must, particularly throughout your training in the winter (I am already one AirPod down thanks to a rainy day) and long battery life is ideal so you can guarantee those 10 mile plus runs won't leave you soundless. The Powerbeats Pros tick all these boxes (and a few more) with nine hours of listening time, water resistance, an ear hook to keep them firmly affixed, track controls on both ears so you don’t have to get your phone out to change the song. They also help filter out the sound of wind and ambient noises without leaving you completely unaware of your surroundings.
Nike Hip Pack 2.0 (Large) Running Belt
Stash your phones, cards and keys in this slim fitted bum bag from Nike to house your possessions without interfering in your run.
While the gear above is important to support your before and during your runs, recovery is key so as not to interfere with your training plan and to also help prevent injuries. Use the marathon as the perfect excuse to justify regular massages – but trust me, you will need it.
Nike Recovery 13" Foam Roller
A foam roller will become your best friend (and your worst enemy) before and after each run where you should commit 30 seconds to each part of your leg and back. The staple item warms up your muscles and reduces their soreness post-exercise.
As your training progresses, you may start to feel some niggles at your knees or calves. At the first sign of these, it is important to take steps so it does not escalate into a fully-fledged injury that could halt your training. That's where a visit to a cryotherapy chamber comes in. Located on the fourth floor of Harvey Nichols, luxury skincare label 111SKIN offer the combination of heat and cryo that will work wonders for muscle recovery. It begins with three minutes in what can only be described as a human-sized fridge at a cool -83 degrees. This increases your circulation, and reduces inflammation and pain alongside a whole host of other benefits. You then warm up in an infrared sauna pod for 30 minutes in an innovative chamber that offers light therapy, a vibrational massage and the added relaxation of aromatherapy. The treatment encourages muscular healing and tension relief as well as giving you a chance to relax and unwind.
Dr Teal's Pure Epsom Salt Soaking Solution Pre & Post Workout
Epsom salts, Magnesium oil and supplements like cod liver, iron and Vitamin C can all help your sore, tired muscles in their recovery. The Dr Teal’s solution is made up of magnesium sulphate and menthol — you dissolve around two cups into your bath, which is then absorbed into your skin to soothe aching muscles.
Post run backpack:
Preparation is key so put a warm jumper, tracksuit bottoms and a mixture of snacks in your backpack for after the race to help you refuel.
Adilette Aqua Slides
No matter how comfortable or perfectly fitted your trainers are, after four plus hours wearing them, you will want to take them off so putting a pair of flip flops in your bag will go down a treat.
It can be difficult to know what to eat in the days leading up to a big race, as well as what to eat immediately before and after. Food plays a huge role in our energy and hydration levels, and also factor into your recovery time. We’ve consulted Dr Mayur Ranchordas, a leader in nutrition and exercise metabolism at Sheffield Hallam University and Ruth Tongue, expert nutritionist from Foga to decode our marathon diet.
MR: “Keep your carbohydrates low GI and avoid big portions. Eat as normal until 2 days before the race where you can start carbohydrate loading (this would be between 8-10 g/kg of body weight i.e. if you weigh 80 kg this would equate to 640 to 800 g of carbohydrate split evenly across the day). Avoid wheat and gluten if these foods make you feel bloated.”
RT: “You need to replace energy lost from running with energy from food, otherwise you’ll put the body under a big stress. Training for a marathon is not the time to be dieting! Carbohydrates are your biggest friend during marathon training – and it’s important to have them not only before a long run, but also during (yep that’s why alone water won’t suffice) and immediately after.
“A great meal to have the night before is again high in carbs and low in fat, fibre, protein and anything that may upset your stomach like spices.”
The day of the race
MR: “Breakfast should be eaten around 2.5-3 hours before the race and porridge with blueberries and honey is an excellent choice because of its low GI and slow energy release.
“There some good evidence that drinking beetroot juice several days before the race and 3 hours before the race can enhance running performance. This is because beets are high in nitrate which can increase blood flow to the muscles.”
RT: “Experiment with your pre-race meal a good few times before – noting how you feel during your run and after your run.
“Hydration in the run up to race day (so not just the morning of) is incredibly important. Drink around 500ml of water at least one hour before the marathon starts and limit your coffee intake the day before and morning of as this can affect your digestion (unless you have incorporated coffee into your training diet and are used to it).”
After the race
MR: “Immediately after the race it’s a good idea to consume a recovery drink that contains 20 g of Whey protein (typically 1 scoop) mixed with around 500 ml of milk because it contains electrolytes. Fluids, carbohydrate and additional protein can kick start the recovery process. Have a banana with this drink to increase the carbohydrate content.”
RT: “You’ll probably fancy something salty too after all of the energy gels and sports drinks so be sure to pack your favourite packet of crisps or nuts in your kit bag. Once you have taken a little time to yourself, the meal the night of your marathon should be whatever you fancy most - forget the nutrients, this one is about pure enjoyment!”
There are no two ways about it. Marathon training is tough. It will take over your whole life, from what foods you eat and your alcohol consumption, to feeling continually tired no matter how much sleep you get. But when you cross that finish line, it will all be worth it and you might just find yourself wanting to sign up again next year.