Applicants for the London marathon consistently increase year on year. Research shows participation in US marathons has risen 255% since 1980. More and more people want to set themselves the challenge of an endurance race, but where do you begin?
The personal challenge of your first half or full marathon is a huge thing to overcome. It is a chance to test your limits, prove you can do it and push yourself to a new level of fitness. You may also be considering a marathon race for charitable reasons or as an end-goal for your health-kick. Whatever your reason, no race will be a success without the proper training and preparation. No one wants to fail simply because they didn’t put the work in. Let’s look more closely at the steps needed to achieve your marathon running goal.
Getting Started Training for a Marathon
Whether you’re opting for a half or full marathon, you need to step up your training and make a commitment to a plan for your big event. Marathon events run all over the world, from large and highly publicised, TV-scheduled events to smaller, quieter events where you’re simply running alongside like-minded individuals challenging themselves. You can explore the year’s events calendar and decide which marathon is the best for your goals.
Once you have chosen your event, the training needs to begin. The earlier you start, the more exercise you can get in and the more confident you can be on race day. Many marathon and half marathon runners have already got several 5k and 10k races under their belt but signing up for a few more of these is also a great way to start your training for a marathon and ensure you are ready.
The Essentials of Effective Marathon Training
There are thousands of individual marathon and half training plans out there, with experts and regular runners setting out their ideal schedule. Your schedule may look similar to someone else’s, but it should be completely unique to you. The critical elements of training for a marathon or half marathon can be broken into four parts:
- Your base mileage – the weekly mileage you build up over time. Your base mileage is built from your regular runs. Aim to run between 3 and 5 times a week.
- Long run – every 7-10 days, a long run is recommended to help your body adjust to long distances and prepare for the final event.
- Speedwork – this focuses on interval-style training and tempo runs which help to boost your cardiovascular capacity
- Recovery – the rest and recovery stage of your training is essential to avoid injury and maintain mental wellbeing.
Each of these steps is vital to a successful marathon or half marathon training plan, and they all require your attention each week of your schedule.
Your half marathon or marathon training plan should start 12 to 20 weeks before event day. You want to build up your weekly mileage slowly and steadily and work to increase your weekly mileage. Marathon runners should look to get their weekly mileage up to over 50 miles a week in the months leading up until race day. Half marathon runners can aim closer to 20-30 miles.
Your base mileage should be built up of around 3 to 5 runs each week. These runs should be at a manageable and relaxed pace, so you could carry a conversation as you run. It is important to keep your base mileage steady and never increase mileage by more than 10% week-to-week.
The long run element of your training programme should take place once every 7 to 10 days. It should be significantly longer than your daily runs, and you should never extend beyond one to two miles more each long run. Experts also recommend scaling back every few weeks to keep the risk of injury to a minimum. For example, you may run 12 miles in your first long run, 13 miles a week later, 14 miles a week after that and then back down to 12 miles again before increasing up to 15. Each long run should be a slow paced race giving your body the chance to adjust to the significantly increased distance. Most marathon training plans stop with a long run of no more than 20 miles.
Speedwork is often considered optional, but it can make all the difference on race day. It gives you the chance to increase your aerobic capacity and make running feel less of a trial. Interval runs are an example of speedwork. They involve running 4 x 1 mile repeats at your fastest pace with slow jogging in between each mile repeat. You can also work in tempo runs which are longer than interval runs. Tempo runs are usually in the range of four to ten miles at a challenging but sustainable pace.
No training plan will work if you do not factor in recovery and rest time. You can engage in both passive and active recovery stages. Passive recovery should include taking 1-2 days off a week, ensuring you get a full night’s sleep each time. Active recovery can involve a little exercise but no going over the top. Foam rolling, dynamic stretching and keeping hydrated should be fundamental to all your recovery periods, and rest really is non-negotiable if you want to succeed in your race.
It is also important to factor tapering into your training schedule. Overall mileage and run difficulty should be significantly scaled back in the two to three weeks leading up to race day. This helps to get your body ready for the big event.
Other Considerations when Training for a Marathon
Your primary training schedule is set, but what else do you need to keep in mind when you’ve chosen your big event?
1. Strength and Cross Training
Your running schedule will improve your running and make you better at the core skill for the big day. However, time spent on strength and cross training help to improve your mobility and build muscle. They are both key to decreasing your risk of injury and stimulating your body if it’s feeling sore and worn out. Cross training, cycling and weight lifting all help to build endurance and work on your mobility.
2. Join a Running Club or Marathon Training Group
You may already be a member of a local running club, but if not, this is the perfect time to find one. Running with like minded individuals is great for motivation, and you may even find a member or two planning to take part in the same half marathon or marathon as you. Running with others also helps you to be more accountable, and you’re much more likely to turn up for that super-early run if there’s someone there waiting for you.
3. Research your Race
Get to know your chosen race intimately. You will be able to read up on the route on their own website, or you can check it out yourself in person. You can also look into other valuable information, such as the sponsors of the event, such as the energy drinks and gels being provided. You can ensure you train using the same products, so you are primed to succeed. You can also check out the elevation points of your race, so you can tailor your training to similar sized hills and ensure you’re ready when event day finally comes around.
4. Avoiding Injury
Injury at any point during your training schedule can have a significant impact on your final race. The last thing you want is to have to pull out, so taking time to consider your schedule and ensure it protects you against injury is essential. Avoiding injury is even more important than committing to your training plan. Acting if you feel even a small niggle can help ensure it doesn’t progress to a more serious injury. Seeking medical attention can be the difference between being able to run your final race and sitting on the sidelines.
Hydration and Fueling on Race Day
When race day arrives, you need to make sure you’re prepared to keep yourself hydrated and fuelled. These top tips should help you ensure you’re prepared on the day:
Almost all marathons include water stations along the way, but carrying some water is essential. Whether you wear a hydration pack or a belt that easily holds your water bottle, it will ensure you can access water as you need it on the route. When training, it is essential you practice wearing your belt and also drinking on the go, which is harder than you might think if you’re not used to it.
Fuel is also something you need to consider. You don’t see marathon runners eating on the go, but energy gels and chews have become quite common. Any run over 2 hours long requires around 60g of carbohydrates per hour, and so your marathon or half marathon will require at least a handful of energy gels or chews, dependent on your preference. You can test different products during your training and get the formula right for a successful run.
Before, During and After the Race
Once race day is here, it’s time to put all your plans into action. Nothing new should come into play on the big day. You should be comfortable in your running shoes, have a fuel and hydration plan and don’t change your routine. Keep these final few tips in mind to make your race day as successful as possible;
Make sure your hydration levels are the best they can be. Eat a carb-based breakfast several hours before the race begins and make sure those areas vulnerable to chafing have been properly treated. Take your time to get to the starting line, so you don’t have to panic or rush at the last moment.
Remember to start slowly and build up to your perfect pace. Race-day adrenaline can ruin the start of your race and make it difficult to reach the finish line. However, there are plenty of miles to get through, so plenty of opportunities to pick up the pace or push a little harder. Bathroom breaks and drink breaks may be essential throughout your race, but check to see if the queues are worth it, or you’d prefer to wait until the next stop – keep in mind both the finish line and your comfort. While running your race, it is also the only time you’ll get to enjoy the crowds or anyone cheering you along, embrace and enjoy this moment; it’s often one of the things you’ll remember most clearly at the end of your race and something to treasure.
As soon as the race finishes, hydrate! Water or sports drinks are what your muscles need, so drink them down and enjoy the relief they bring. Do not immediately stop moving; gentle walking and stretches will help your muscles deal with the strain they have just been put under. Eating is probably the last thing on your mind, but some simple carbs are another thing your body needs as soon as possible after your run.
In the following few days, it’s your chance to take a well-earned rest. Your body deserves a break, and realistically it needs one. Feed your body well and ensure you have any injuries checked over before they become more severe. Once you’ve completed a half marathon or a marathon, your body will be sore, so treat it carefully and give it some TLC. Once you’re feeling better, tentatively step out for a relaxed run and see where it takes you. Chances are, within a couple of months you will be signing up for your next big race.