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21 Tips For London Marathon First-Timers

London Marathon Tips
(Image credit: Unknown)

If you are tackling the London Marathon for the first time this year, you’ll have spent a few months preparing yourself for the physical demands of running 42.2km (we hope!). You might also have set aside some time to prepare mentally by working out some strategies for pushing through when the going gets really tough on your runs.

There are, however, some aspects of the London Marathon that are very hard to prepare for if you haven’t done it before. With 40,000 people on the course and several times that number lining the streets to cheer them on, the London Marathon is a unique event. Even if you’ve completed one or two other races the chances are they won’t have entirely prepared you for what you’ll experience on the streets of the capital.

Fortunately over a million people have already completed the London Marathon, so there is a huge body of knowledge out there available to first-timers looking for some useful advice. And by out there we of course mean right here. Here are our top tips for first-time London Marathon runners. They’re not ranked in order of importance, but if you are on the hunt for the one piece of advice you should heed above all, go straight to number seven.

1. Don’t Get New Gear At The Expo

“Tried and tested” is the mantra to live by for the gear and nutrition you use on marathon day. Snazzy new shoes could lead to blisters, a new T-shirt could be a chafing nightmare and that tasty new energy gel could result in a mid-race dash to a Portaloo. Stay familiar, stay safe.

2. Download The Official Race App

The London Marathon is a supremely well-organised event and that extends to its free app, which is the best way to find out your exact finish time and splits quickly, as well as tracking other runners you might know around the course.

3. Use Vaseline

You can tackle chafing in all sorts of ways – tight base layers and 2-in-1 running shorts are a good bet – but having a trusty tub of Vaseline is a time-honoured solution. It’s also useful for using as lip balm as breathing hard through your mouth, even on a warm morning, for 42km will chap your lips something rotten. Popping plasters over each nipple is also an excellent preventative measure to consider.

4. Plan Your Routes To And From The Race Meticulously

Public transport on both TfL and Southeastern trains is free with your race number (tip 4½: don’t forget your race number), but with huge crowds of people heading to the race, don’t let travel become a nightmare. Work out how much time you need, then double it to be safe. And don’t underestimate how big Greenwich Park is – once you get there, you still have a pretty long walk to the starting area. On the way back time is less of an issue – but plan a route with minimal walking and stairs, obviously.

5. Download The Runner Guide

In the past, runners received a magazine containing all the details you needed to get to the start line, including relevant train times – but in a bid to become more sustainable, the race organisers now email these details, along with putting them on the event website (opens in new tab). Just make sure you download the final instructions to your phone before leaving for the start. You don’t want to be trying to access it on your phone as the signal strains under the demands of the massive crowds there.

6. Don’t Attach The Timing Tag To Your Laces

Cable ties will be provided with your timing tag and they are more than secure enough to keep it in place. If you attach it to your shoe with your laces, the odds are those laces will be snipped when the tag is recovered at the end of the race.

7. Get In The Loo Queue ASAP

Just shy of 40,000 people will be running the London Marathon. That’s a lot of pre-race nerves, which leads to a lot of pre-race dashes to the Portaloos. Even if you don't think you need to go, get into the queue when you can. Chances are by the time you make the front you’ll be grateful you did. Oh, and you'll probably need to go two or three times before the race starts. Funsies.

8. Bring Some Old, Warm Clothes With You

There is no bag drop at the start of the 2021 race so you’ll be travelling to the start in the kit you plan to race in. However, even if the weather looks great it’ll still be a bit nippy when you’re in your shorts and tee waiting for the start. There will be charity collection points around the start so you can wear old clothes to stay warm and then give them away before you start. You can also opt for the tried-and-tested black bin bag approach, if you have no clothes you’re happy to donate.

9. The Start Is Not The Start Of Your Race

It can take anywhere from two to 40 minutes to actually cross the line after the gun sounds due to the amount of people filing through. This can be a bit stressful if you’re not expecting it. Just relax and make sure you’re in the right pen. Speaking of which…

10. Get In The Right Starting Pen

Where you start will have largely been determined in advance. There are four start zones – Blue, Red, Yellow and Green – and within those there are pens for runners expecting certain times. It’s important to be with runners going at your predicted pace so you don’t have to dodge slower people for the first few kilometres, or get swept up and set out too fast.

11. Don’t Panic If You’re Going Too Slowly At First

If you do start in a crowd of people running more slowly than you’d like, it’s not worth dodging around and pushing through in an attempt to up your pace. This will knacker you out and you’ll probably still be running slowly anyway. Go with the flow for a couple of kilometres and you’ll find the crowds will start to thin out – then you can pick up the pace more easily. There’s 42km and change to cover, so losing 30 seconds over the first couple of clicks won’t kill your PB.

12. Don’t Succumb To Adrenaline In The First 7km

You will feel amazing at the start of the London Marathon. The excitement of the event coupled with a week or two of tapering means it’s easy to start quicker than you planned. That’s especially true between kilometres four and seven where there are mild downhill sections. It’s vital to stick with your planned pace and not let the adrenaline power you on too much. There’s a lot of distance still to cover. More than you think, in fact…

13. Remember You’re Going To Run More Than 42.2km

Bummer, right? With all the people you have to dodge, the chances of you following the most direct racing line are more or less nil. It probably won’t be that much more than 42.2km, but it’s another reason to go with the flow early rather than weaving constantly to try to get through the starting scrum.

14. Don’t Be Afraid To Use The Toilet During The Race

This might sound obvious, but if you’re gunning for a time and you feel the urge to use a loo, don’t fight it. Just go to the toilet – they’re found every two miles on the course. Running in discomfort with the added stress of trying to hold it in will ruin that part of the event for you and you have a lot of distance to make up any time lost. Plus you’ll feel so good after you’ve gone that you’ll probably sprint the next bit fast enough to get back on pace anyway.

15. Look At The Race Map In Advance

Check the race route not to see where you’ll be going, not to avoid making a wrong turn, but to find out what is on offer along the way and when. Water is available at most mile markers, but sometimes there is Lucozade Sport on offer as well as or instead of, and at miles 14 and 21.5 you get energy gels if you want them – it’s worth using these to save on the ones you have to carry yourself.

16. Use The Showers On The Course

Sprinklers you can run through are installed at six points along the course. Even if it’s not a hot day running through them is a refreshing experience, so don’t miss out – you can find out where they are in the final instructions pack.

17. Your GPS Tracker Will Be Wrong

Even in ideal conditions consumer GPS trackers aren’t perfect so you can expect the total distance it logs to be a kilometre or two out. Pace yourself with the kilometre and mile markers on the course and use your tracker as a general guide. If you’re set on a certain time, grab a pacing band at the Expo or online so you see what time you need to hit at each kilometre without having to do the maths on the fly.

18. Take Headphones

The London Marathon is a uniquely well-supported event full of incredible landmarks, but the whole course doesn’t involve the screaming crowds on Tower Bridge or the Mall. There are sections like the Isle of Dogs where the crowds will thin and you’ll be pleased to have some music or podcasts to listen to. Some people also find the constant cheering a bit wearing, so you may want to block it out after a while anyway.

19. You Get A Load Of Free Stuff With Your Medal

Naturally, completing a marathon is its own reward, but it’s also great to get free things with your medal afterwards. Check our comprehensive list of all the stuff you can get later this week – we’re working on updating now.

20. Consider What You Need At The End Carefully

There is no bag drop at the 2021 London Marathon: instead you leave your bag at the Expo when collecting your race number. Once you drop your bag off at the Expo the organisers will stick in your race medal and T-shirt for you to collect at the end of the marathon. The contents of this bag will be vital on Sunday, when you need some warm clothes, maybe a change of shoes and other essentials to help you refuel after the race and then get home. If you’re not planning on running with your phone you also need to consider how you might contact people after the race.

21. Keep An Eye On The Thin Blue Line

During your marathon you’ll notice a blue line on the road. This line marks the most direct race line for the event, and is the accurately measured distance for the marathon. If you’re shooting for a PB, this is the line to stick to where possible.

Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.