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  • Writer's pictureDarren Last

How to run a marathon

Updated: Apr 18

How to run a marathon

A marathon is a long-distance foot race over 26 miles 385 yards, or 42.195km if you use the metric system like me.

 

There is no question about it, it’s a VERY, VERY, VERY LONG WAY. It's never easy, never will be and should most definitely never be underestimated.

 

With more and more people getting into running marathons I am often asked the question What is the best way of training to run a marathon? I am not an elite runner. I could arguably be described as a good for age runner (I scraped a good for age time for Boston and Chicago with 3 seconds to spare), so having run 15+ marathons my experience is based on quantity rather than quality.

 

So here it is, in my humble opinion, how to run a marathon, through the emotional roller coaster of the elation, pain, joy, tears, trials and tribulations.


The marathon experience

The marathon experience

 

From the moment you decide to run a marathon, to the EUPHORIA of crossing the finish line, this is THE MARATHON EXPERIENCE! It is not just the race day itself, it is the entering of a marathon, the preparation, the training, the hard work, the tiredness, the fitness to mental toughness and then the race day itself. It’s a package. And it’s a package that gives you THE MOST wonderful experience.

 

I guarantee you will come out of the experience as a different person, a better person both physically and mentally. A person who will believe they can overcome anything.

 

Know your why - You want to run a marathon? Something has triggered this completely crazy, insane thought in your head. Be sure on why you want to run. What is it that is inspiring you to do this? Be clear on the ‘WHY’ so that you can pull on this for inspiration when times get hard, and be sure of one thing, times will get hard.

 

Entering a marathon - Choose carefully, choose logistics in terms of travel. Choose the terrain ie flat, hilly, off road/on road. Choose time of year that gives you the best chances of getting the training in, or the weather best suited for you. Choose from quiet low-key events to full blown majors where the streets packed in the thousands like London.

 

Find a plan - If you fail to plan then you plan to fail.......Yeah ok this is always annoying when people say this but it’s true. Find a plan that will work for you, there are plenty online, from beginners through to elite. Remember though, life happens so be ready to adapt to what life throws at you. It could social events, illness, injury, fatigue or work. The plan is there to guide and steer.

 

Tips

- Run with friends, or join a running group. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people helps to keep momentum.

- Buy new kit. To BE the part, you have to LOOK the part. The right kit is vital, especially running shoes suited for you. At the very least you will look good.

- Track progress of your running through a fitness wearable or app such as Garmin, Strava, Apple etc. Logging this helps to show how far you have come and track against your plan.

- All plans change so don’t beat yourself up if you miss sessions for whatever reason.

- You get out what you put in.....train right and race day will take care of itself. The victory lap.

 

Get the right kit and running shoes

The training

 

The training block for a marathon tends to start 16 weeks ahead of the race day.  There are many different plans depending on your race target. Ideally, you will have a base level of running capability but if you are starting from scratch that’s ok. That’s what the 16 weeks are for.

 

The key elements to marathon training can be broken down as follows:

 

Base mileage - Build up your mileage/km’s by running 3 to 5 times a week. As you navigate through your marathon plan this base mileage will serve you well as you build strength and become used to running on tired legs.

 

The long run - The long run is the crucial run so gradually build up the distance each week. It should be a slow pace that maximises time on your feet, building up to the longest run, between 18 and 22 miles (29-35km) about 3/4 weeks before race day. Ideally reaching more towards the 22 mile/35km.


The long run teaches you how to MANAGE PAIN. These are the hardest runs and time wise tricky to fit in, but prepares you for the big day.

 

A common question is ‘Should you train for the full distance?’ Don’t worry about the last few miles/km on race day. The training would have primed you to be in tip-top shape to keep going to the finish line. The taper phase in the last few weeks will mean you are rested. This, along with the support of the crowd, excitement and adrenaline, will push you through on the day.

 

Speed sessions - Not a critical session depending on your marathon targets but if you are looking to achieve quicker times then speed sessions each week would be recommended. This could consist of a ‘tempo’ session running at high velocity or a ‘fartlek’ session which encases speed intervals with bursts of sprinting and recovery.  Or both. Incorporating these into your training will increase your strength and fitness for maintaining a faster pace on the day.

 

Mental preparation - Visualise in your head the end to end experience from starting the training, to increasing the distance, overcoming challenging times, tapering and most importantly race day itself. Breakdown the start line, each mile or section of race, to then crossing the finish line.....How will you feel? What will you do? How will you celebrate? All this will build up the mental preparation required.

 

Nutrition - Key for any running but particularly distance running. Eating the right foods and hydration is absolutely critical during training and the long runs.  Carbohydrates are key for providing energy. Make sure you also get the right mix of protein and fats in your diet.


You don’t have to be completely angelic with your diet. Moderation is key. You can still enjoy those 'not so recommended' food and beverages (ahem take aways, chocolate and alcohol), but not ideal before those long runs, unless you particularly enjoy making things tougher for yourself.

 

Use the long runs to practice your race day nutrition. This could be through carrying water, electrolyte drinks, gels, or energy bars. You can even stop off at shops en route to buy a drink or stash bottles ahead of the run.  Come race day you want to be sure that your body is used to taking in nutrition and avoid any unwelcome surprises.


Strength and conditioning - Adding strength sessions to your training will help to build strength and technique whilst protecting your body against injury. It will improve your muscular endurance, which in turn will help running performance. It only needs to be 2-3 times a week, and as little as 10-15 mins, using body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, press ups, planks or other core work.

 

Rest and recovery - Recovery during training is SUPER important. With all the stress and strain on your body throughout the training block you must factor in rest.  Some plans will incorporate one, or two, rest days a week. Some not. It really depends on what you are trying to achieve with your marathon target.

 

Regardless, it is critical to LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. If you are feeling fatigued, to a noticeable point, then you will do yourself no favours continuing to force sessions. Even if it’s on your plan. As I said earlier, plans change and need to be adaptable to take into account when the body needs to rest and recover. It’s not always easy to recognise that line of when to push through and when to recover.

 

Failure to get the rest and recovery needed will likely result in injury and mental fatigue. Which will then cause big disruptions to your training.

 

Sleep is the secret weapon to maximum recovery. Sleep is one of the most important factors to a healthy body and mind. It really cannot be underestimated. Sometimes tricky with life and work but try to make sure you MAXIMISE YOUR SLEEP with consistent sleep/wake times, getting in a good 7 hours at least.

 

Tips

- Do not make a big jump of mileage/km from one week to another as this brings the potential for injury. Build up slowly with a mile or two extra each week.

- The day before your long run make sure that you are properly hydrated, this will help to maximise your output. Carbohydrate drinks are a good way of upping your carb intake the day(s) before.

- Running with a friend on your long run will help to maintain momentum and drive you on. A good old chin wag makes the time, and pain, go much quicker.

- If you are looking to improve your marathon time then adding some faster pace sections to your long run will help prepare for your marathon pace.

- Heart rate control will aide your running. Try to keep the heart rate at a consistent level which will in turn reserve energy.


Athletics track perfect for speed sessions

The Taper

 

Ohhh the taper...... the good news is the hard block of training is over and 3/4 weeks out you will have completed your longest run. In the last weeks you begin to decrease the mileage as race day nears. Look to decrease the training distance and intensity on runs by 20% or so each week but try to keep running the same amount of days.

 

The result of this means that come race day you will be fresh, rested and itching to go. Ready and raring to shoot out the blocks.

 

During race week, rest and recover as much as possible. Three days before, ensure you hydrating well and getting a good portion of carbohydrates in your meals (otherwise known as carb loading).

 

The bad news is as you approach race day ‘Maranoia’ will start to encroach in to your mind. You will start to feel clunky, lethargic, and become totally paranoid that you have lost all of your fitness. Each and every little niggle will start to multiply in your mind.  A sneeze will make you think you have the deadliest virus incoming. You will spend more time looking at the weather for race day than a meteorologist.


But fear not, this will just be your mind messing with you.

 

The ‘Maranoia’ is tongue in cheek, but for fun take a look at this previous blog I wrote on the lead up to a race.

 

Tips

- You don’t need to go over the top with carb-loading on the days leading up to race day. You will already be storing carbs where you are not running as much or with the full intensity. You don’t want to hit the start line feeling bloated.

- Don’t do anything differently on the build-up in the last week. No surprises.

- Plan your journey for race day so that you know what you need to do and when.

- Be clear on your nutrition plan for the race, for example gel every 40 mins, water each or every other station.

- Make a list of what is needed for race day so it avoids any additional pressure in the days before.

- Do not worry about ‘Maranoia’ it is just PARANOIA. You have done the training. You are READY.


Marathon race day ready

Race day

 

Finally race day is here. This is the day you have been waiting for. If you are running a major marathon like London then you will have already picked up your race number and experienced the exhibition where EVERYTHING suddenly becomes real and the excitement hits FEVER PITCH.

 

Before the race

 

Kit - Get your kit, nutrition, before/after clothes etc already laid out the night before. Refer to your list. If you are anything like me you will check this a dozen times (and then a dozen times again). Wipes and some nice treats are handy to pack for after.


Breakfast - Leave plenty of time for breakfast and remember.....nothing new. There could be a few hours between breakfast and the start so take a banana or energy bar to snack on.


Allow plenty of time to get to the event so you are not rushing for the trains, buses, bag drop, toilets (there will always be huge queues) or any other faff that may be needed. You don’t need the added pressure of being pushed for time.


Throwaway clothes - It is recommended to have old clothes such as tracksuit bottoms, jumper, hat, gloves (if cold) that you can just throwaway at the start line before you start the race. When you drop your bag off you can sometimes be waiting 45 minutes or longer so it’s important to keep warm (generally these clothes get donated to charity).


Lube - You don’t want to be the person that’s chaffing or bleeding in very uncomfortable parts. Make sure you lube up in appropriate areas.


Nothing new- It’s always said, make sure you do nothing new for race day. This is said for good reason.........you don’t want any unknowns.


Make sure you have warm clothes in your post-race bag to change it to after the race, regardless of how warm it can be. You have been running for hours so your muscles are generating heat.  When you stop, your body temperature falls and you begin to feel cold. Cosy jumpers, tracksuit bottoms, hats have never been so enjoyable to slip into.


During the race

 

Ease into the first few miles of the race with a slower pace and then work towards target pace after the first few miles/km. Many people go out too fast causing a sure fire way to burn out early. You do not want that. Keep it easy.


Keep to the nutrition plan you have been working to during long runs. Use the water stations, even if it's little and often.


Do not waste energy by weaving in and out of other runners, either to get ahead or catch up on time. This will just be wasted energy.


When things get hard in the race remember your ‘WHY’. This will help to motivate and keep going. Other strategies include picking out a landmark, a lamp post or something in the near distance to reach. Then when you have reached that pick another. This can help to tick off the miles/km’s.


Have fun. This literally is the VICTORY LAP. Smile, wave, high-five with the crowd, chat to other runners. You have trained hard, make sure you enjoy it.......well most of it.

 

There is a passage in the book ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall that talks about thinking Easy, light smooth and Fast for running efforts/paces, especially when things get tough. It’s a great mantra, so true and running. I use it myself and I cannot stress how effective it is. It goes as follows......

 

"Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that's all you get, that's not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don't give a shit how high the hill is or how far you've got to go. When you've practiced that so long, that you forget you're practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won't have to worry about the last one - you get those three, and you'll be fast.”
― Christopher McDougall,

Post-race

 

When you cross the finish line you will have an explosion of emotions. You are depleted of energy, your legs will be stiff, cramping. You will likely have experienced extreme pain in those last 6 miles/10km, at least (or less if you are lucky), hitting the wall, going through the wall, or dragging the wall with you.


You will be stiff, when you stop so try and stretch out or walk a little. This will help soothe those muscles. Collect your bag and get those warm clothes on as quickly as possible and enjoy those treats. Getting some food down you and hydrating will help to replenish all that lost energy (I recommend a banana, chocolate bar, and especially a Marks & Spencer Chicken and Bacon sandwich).

 

You don’t need me to tell you to make the most of it. Cry, laugh, smile, hug, cheer, jump for joy (if you can) or go to the side and be sick (which is what I seem to do for the last 2 marathons). Just to stop running is PURE ECSTASY.

 

Look around you, take it in. YOU JUST RAN A MARATHON! 16 weeks of training. 16 weeks+ of mental resilience, tears, laughter, dedication and preparation.

 

Drink that feeling in. You deserve it!

 

And finally.......celebrate with your friends and family. Have a beer, wine, tea, coffee. Wallow in elation, show everyone your medal, tell all and sundry about it.......then plan the next one.


Marathon medal

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6 Comments


katrinafrancesca
Mar 24

Thanks for this. Getting me pumped for Chicago, my first marathon.

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Darren Last
Darren Last
Mar 25
Replying to

Thanks Katrina. Your feedback means a lot. I will be running Chicago as well.

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Savannah Nelson
Savannah Nelson
Feb 06

Great post! As a non-runner, I really admire anyone who's ran a marathon (let alone 15 ?!) and I appreciated getting a glimpse into the preparation. This would be a great resource for anyone looking for more information! Thank you for sharing.


www.sunshinewithsavannah.com

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lasty10
Feb 06
Replying to

Thanks Savanahh 😀

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Simon Davis
Simon Davis
Feb 05

Great article cheers mate. Really clear, good advice I'll be taking into the next 10 weeks to do my first Marathon in Manchester. Keep on writing, you've got a talent for it!

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lasty10
Feb 06
Replying to

Thanks simon. Good luck with the marathon training. I appreciate the kind words.

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