You’ve only gone and done it. You’ve signed up for the big one. A marathon. 42.2km. Make sure you don’t forget the 0.2 because you’ll really be aware of how far that final 0.2 is on race day.
First of all, well done. You’ve committed to what is, for many people, a life highlight. A real test of your physical and mental strength. Once you cross the finish line, you’ll feel a sense of euphoria that’s hard to match – but you have to get there first.
This guide contains all you need to not only finish a marathon, but to finish it in grand style. For some that means hitting a target time; for others that means not crawling the last two (point two) kilometres.
Marathon Training Plans
Find the right training plan – one that suits both your marathon targets and current fitness – and you’re halfway there. The other half is following that training plan closely, which is admittedly a lot harder than picking it. Coach has a range of 14-week training plans for all aims and abilities, helpfully summarised here to help you find the one that’s right for you.
14-Week Beginner Marathon Training Plan
You don’t need to be running already to tackle this plan, but you do need to be active in some way, as you run a steady 5K at the end of the first week of training. It’s ideal for an especially busy marathoner, as you only need to commit to three runs a week plus one core workout. The target marathon finish time is five hours, but you can run much quicker on this plan if you discover an innate running talent.
14-Week Beginner-Intermediate Marathon Training Plan
This plan is good for both regular runners tackling their first marathon and those who are looking to bring down their time. You do four runs a week including a couple of sprint or hill sessions – just the ticket for improving your marathon pace.
14-Week Advanced-Intermediate Marathon Training Plan
If you have the time and existing fitness to tackle five runs a week, you can fit in a variety of quality sessions – including hills, sprints, easy runs and long runs – which will stand you in good stead whatever your target marathon time is.
How To Train For A Marathon
Pure Sports Medicine’s Dean Sutton and Neil Smith explain how tackling 42.2km is about much more than just lots of running
How much training do you need to do?
For a marathon, 12 weeks is the minimum – but you might want a halfway point to aim for. Look at splitting your training plan into six-week blocks to give yourself a training focus for that period and do a race at the end of every six weeks. You can start with a 5K race and move up to 10K, half marathon and so on over time. This allows you to build up your mileage in small but consistent training blocks.
What’s the crucial session and why?
It depends on what phase and training block you’re in, but for me the most important training session of the week is your strength training. Research suggests the stronger you are, the less likely you are to get injured – and the better your running economy is.
How do you get faster?
Build both strength training and interval work – short high-intensity running bursts coupled with recovery running – into your training plan. If your sessions are based around long slow steady runs all the time, that’s how you’ll race. Combining strength training and interval work will help with running efficiency and allow you to run faster for longer – crucial over a four-hour race.
Where do most people go wrong?
The most common mistake is not taking enough rest days. Without them, your tendons, muscles and bones can become overloaded, which vastly increases your injury risk. One or two rest days per week, after the most intense sessions, would work well in most marathon training programs. This gives your soft tissue time to regenerate and be ready to go again for the next one.
What do elite runners do that everyone can learn from?
While it’s definitely possible to learn from the elites, you really shouldn’t copy them! They run in excess of 100 miles a week, but they’ve got there through years and years of steady increase in mileage and professional input. One of the biggest lessons you can learn from the elites is that you should do what works for you: Eliud Kipchoge, the 2016 Olympic marathon gold medallist, recently published his training programme in the build-up to winning the Berlin Marathon. There was no taper, no “easy weeks”, no days off – just consistent miles at a variety of speeds. Certainly not what you’d find in the textbook. There are many different ways to do it, so just make a plan and stick to it.
How To Avoid Injury
When training for a marathon most people do a lot more running than they have ever done before. Hopefully this should not be news to you. Given that the most common cause of running injuries like plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee, shin splints and achilles tendonitis is a rapid uptick in the amount of running done, it’s not surprising that lots of would-be marathoners are struck down with injury during their training.
A gradual, managed increase in your training mileage is key to avoiding injury. If you’re following a training plan, this will be taken into account. If you don’t follow a particular plan, try and avoid massive increases in your total weekly distance – making consistent increases of around 3-5km is a good rule to follow when marathon training.
If you miss a couple of weeks for whatever reason, you’ll also need to adjust your plan accordingly. It’s unwise to go in at week eight, for example, if you missed six and seven. Instead look at what you did in week five and build a little faster than on the plan, maybe catching up with the plan by week 12 or so. This is especially true for your long runs. If you haven’t run for two weeks and try to knock out the 25km listed on your plan when you’re not ready, you are asking for trouble.
Strength training that focuses on your legs and core will also help prepare your body for the demands of running a marathon. Exercises like squats, calf raises and lunges will strengthen your legs, while yoga and Pilates are good options for both stretching your tired muscles and building core strength. You’ll also find a foam roller becomes essential.
Another thing to check if you are picking up niggles constantly is whether you’re wearing the right kind of running shoes for you. Check the gear section below for advice on gait analysis.
Some injuries are completely unavoidable, of course, and even if you do everything you can to prepare your body for the demands of marathon training it can break down. Be sensible about it if that does happen – go and see a physio, and don’t worry if it ultimately means that you can’t run your marathon. There will always be another race, as long as you don’t destroy your body by running through the pain.
Picking Your Marathon Running Shoes
Let’s start at the bottom. You’re going to be spending a lot of time in the shoes you use for your marathon training, so it’s important to get the right ones. If you already have a preferred style and brand, then stick with them – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it is broke, in that you are uncomfortable in your shoes or pick up a lot of injuries, or if you’re a beginner runner with no shoes at all, then it’s worth getting your gait analysed.
Many running shops perform a gait analysis for free. A quick run on a treadmill will help an expert ascertain if you overpronate (where your foot rolls too far inwards when it lands) or underpronate (it doesn’t roll far enough), or if you are a neutral runner. More advanced gait analysis will also look at how your entire body moves when running, but this is probably only worth doing if you are suffering from a lot of injuries and then it’s best to visit a physio for advice.
Once you know the right type of shoes for you, test some on a treadmill in the store if possible. Going for whatever feels best is a good rule of thumb, even if it runs counter to advice from others.
You want a well-cushioned shoe for marathon training, because you’ll be racking up a lot of distance. If you can stretch to more than one pair, then it can be worth getting a lighter, less cushioned pair too, for faster interval sessions in training, and maybe race day itself – although be wary of using the ultra-light shoes favoured by pros, because they might not be cushioned enough for regular Joes.
One last point in this section – do not, under any circumstances, buy a shiny new pair of shoes at your marathon expo and wear them for the first time on race day. That goes for all your gear – you want tried-and-tested stuff that won’t annoy, chafe or injure you.
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The Running Gear You Need For A Marathon
When it comes to your marathon outfit, it’s worth investing in technical garb that wicks sweat away and doesn’t irritate. Don’t forget to extend these principles to your socks and underwear. You might only run one marathon in your life, so it’s worth splashing out on some top-quality kit to make sure the memory isn’t ruined by blisters or *shudders* chafing.
You’ll also need a method to carry some kind of sustenance with you while you run. There will be drinks on the course, but if you’re using energy gels or bars, you should bring ones that you’re used to with you to avoid any stomach… unpleasantness. A running belt with space for your gels, phone and headphones is a useful purchase.
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How Can Tech Help You?
The gamut of running tech available runs from free tracking apps right up to GPS watches that coach you through your run and provide in-depth insights into your training effect and running form. Such watches are not free – more like £500. You can also find plenty of great tech in between or, of course, run completely without electronic aid, if you want to.
If you just want to track your runs and review them later, a free running app is your best bet. To have your stats available on your wrist while you go, including your pace if you’re trying to judge an attempt at a target time, then a basic GPS tracker like the TomTom Spark 3 is a good pick at around £130.
Spend around £200 and you can get trackers that will actively coach you through guided workouts and training plans, such as the Polar M430 and Garmin Forerunner 235. For £300 you can get fitness smartwatches like the Fitbit Ionic or Apple Watch 3 that are less capable run trackers than those offered by Polar and Garmin, but do let you carry music with you on your wrist, if you’re in more need of entertainment than in-depth stats.
Most will find all they need in the £200 to £300 bracket but if you want more advanced navigation features and training feedback, then check out the superwatches available for nearer £500. The Garmin Forerunner 935 is our top pick for runners if money is no object. It will tell you if your training is productive or if you’re overdoing it, give advice on how long your recovery should be after each run, and so much more. It also estimates your best possible time for a marathon (and other races), although it tends to be optimistic, so don’t worry if you fall short.
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How To Fuel Your Running
During your training the main general dietary advice is to ensure you’re eating enough carbs to fuel your exercise, protein to help your muscles rebuild and recover, and fruit and vegetables to keep your immune system in good shape – especially if you’re training in the winter.
You need to also start thinking about in-run nutrition and hydration when your training runs are longer than 90 minutes. Make sure you increase your carb consumption before those runs, and consider carrying gels or another source of carbs with you to restock during the run. Running gels are popular because they are easy to carry and consume on the move.
Staying hydrated is also vital, and this means topping up electrolytes like sodium as well as glugging down plenty of water. Sports drinks contain electrolytes as well as carbs, or you can buy tablets you dissolve in water to create an electrolyte-rich drink.
For your final few long runs before the marathon you should be trying to replicate the nutrition you will be using on race day itself so your body gets used to the gels and drinks. Gels in particular can upset your stomach, and how they affect you varies from brand to brand, so keep trying till you find one that works for you.