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If your new year’s resolution is to get fit enough to complete the classic 42km distance, one of our three detailed marathon training programs will get you in perfect shape to achieve that. Whether you’re a beginner who just wants to be able to finish the race or if you’re advanced enough to want to hit a specific, quick time, there’s a 14-week plan here for you – so pick the right one and get ready to destroy that 42km.
“Running a marathon is about consistent training,” says Martin Yelling, Lucozade Sport's endurance consultant. As a man who has gathered athletic achievements such as completing 10km in under half an hour and qualifying for the World Ironman Triathlon Championships, Yelling knows distance training. “It isn’t made up of isolated runs or irregular workouts,” he says. “Instead it’s about following a plan that works with your lifestyle and gives you frequent and consistent training. The beginner’s three-times-a-week plan gives just enough of a routine for the busy runner to adapt to regular training without taking over your life. It also builds up to the long runs gradually so it’s not so much of a shock to the body.”
Choose from the three training plans below, and keep reading for a set of questions every runner should ask themselves.
By late January you should be feeling fitter and finding your long runs easier to manage. Starting a training plan is one thing, but finishing it takes a certain amount of dedication, plus flexibility, says Nick Anderson, a Saucony ambassador and England Athletics “flying coach” (part of a programme that sends top coaches to work directly with local clubs). “The real key to any plan is tailoring it to fit with your life, fitness and own personal goals,” he says. Even though you’ve already started training, it’s still fairly early days if you’re aiming for the London Marathon on 24th April, so don’t get stressed if you missed some sessions during the dark days of January.
“Don’t try to play catch-up or build too quickly if training was missed,” says Anderson. “Instead, be consistent and progressive and make sure your long run is building by ten to 15 minutes most weeks. Don’t worry about marathon pace feeling a little quick just now – there is time for that to fall into place.”
Of course, combative weather and short, cold winter days can make just getting out of the door the hardest test. “To help stay motivated try and run with others, mix up the sessions or try completing some of your shorter sessions on a treadmill in the gym. Try to build your running into your day rather than trying to fit your day around running,” says Maxinutrition nutritionist Gareth Nicholas.
If you’re new to running, you may not have realised that efficient, injury-free runners don’t get that way simply by running. A strong core and stabilising muscles around your joints require conditioning. “Exercises like strength training and yoga or Pilates can all be beneficial supplements to add into your training plan,” says Nicholas.
Neglect this area of your training and you’re storing up trouble. “Typically, February and March are the heaviest months of training for an April marathon, but it’s also the time when lots of runners also pick up injuries,” says Richard Nerurkar, ex-Olympic marathon runner and author of Marathon Running: From Beginner To Elite.
To prevent injury, there are key bodyweight moves that you can do, including one-legged squats, press-ups and pull-ups, but everyone has individual biomechanics so you should also get a running strength MOT from a strength and conditioning expert or physio and get them to recommend some exercises to you. “A good physio should be able to identify weakness through a serious of key tests,” says Anderson.
Cross-training – training for several sports, not getting on the cross-trainer at the gym – can give you a respite from running-specific fatigue while boosting aerobic fitness and burning fat, but only with the right sport.
“Sports such as tennis and football are better avoided in your build-up to reduce the risk of injury from lateral movement [tennis] or physical contact [football]. By contrast, swimming and cycling could usefully supplement your training and provide a break from running,” says Nerurkar.
Running is only part of the story of getting fitter. What you do to fuel your training and, more importantly, recover will determine the progress you make. Nicholas has the basic recipe: “A general diet for running should be predominantly carbohydrate-based at approximately 60%, with 15-20% being protein and 20-25% coming from fat.” That’s the fundamentals, but what about the recovery phase? “The aim should be to help return the body back to pre-exercise levels. Replenish your energy stores, rehydrate and repair damaged muscle tissue,” says Nicholas.
You’ll also need to fuel your training if your run goes over one hour. “Consume in excess of a gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight per hour.” Then, after exercise, refuel with carbs and 15-20g of protein. “Do this within 60 minutes of running and drink approximately 150% of the water lost as sweat during running.” Work this out by weighing yourself after running.
Getting dehydrated can punish your performance, so make sure you follow three quick rules: “First, aim to be hydrated before you start and drink at least half a 500ml sports or water bottle,” says Nicholas. “Second, drink a quarter of an average sports or water bottle every 10-15 minutes as you run. Third, aim to maintain a body water loss of less than 2%.”
“Part of the confidence of racing well comes from knowing you have developed a pre-race routine,” says Nerurkar. But don’t think you absolutely have to tick off all the distances up to marathon before the big one arrives. “I would advise a ParkRun once a month and even a cross-country race or two until perhaps the final six to eight weeks,” says Anderson. “Sharpening up in the final few weeks with a 5km, 10km or similar is ideal because this will keep you in touch with pace and keep the VO2 engine tuned making you a stronger runner on marathon race day.”
Being a long-distance runner can be a lonely experience and it’s easy to lose confidence if you’re isolated. “Surrounding yourself as a runner with other positive and happy runners really helps. Training and then racing in a successful training group also builds confidence – you transfer the training mindset and belief into racing with the same people,” says Anderson.
The endless cycle of train, recover, repeat can start to feel a bit like, well, a treadmill. “Take a break! Motivation is all-important. But so as not to lose fitness, spend part of your break considering how you could replace your usual training routine, either with an alternative form of exercise, or finding new training venues and running partners,” says Nerurkar.
“It doesn’t all have to be long, steady running,” adds Nicholas. “Try adding some hill reps, or go run in different locations. A change of scenery can keep your running interesting.”
The chances are if you have a light cold, you may try to run through it – this can be dangerous. “During heavy training, the body’s immune system is temporarily suppressed, especially immediately after exercise where there is an ‘open window’ for infection,” says Nicholas. “Running when ill or not fully recovered could just add further complications – unfortunately, time off running is the only real practical remedy.” You might lose a little bit of fitness, but a few days off can leave you fully recovered and bouncing back strongly.