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The Runner’s Guide To The London Marathon Route

London Marathon
(Image credit: Unknown)

There’s only one piece of information runners really need to know about a marathon course in advance, and that is how hilly it is. Fortunately, most of the big city marathons are designed to be as close to pancake-flat as possible to attract PB-seekers – and the London Marathon is no different. In fact, the most notable changes in elevation on the course run downhill.

We’ll come to those in a moment as we go through the course, but first, here is one key bit of info on the route every runner should know. During the race you’ll notice blue lines on the road. These mark the fastest route and sticking to them throughout will mean you run the exact marathon distance. However, owing to the huge number of runners you’ll encounter at London, this is impossible for all but the fastest elites, and all the unavoidable weaving and running wide at corners means you’ll probably run slightly more than 42.2km, so don’t get angry at your tracker if this is the case.

One other thing to note is that the London Marathon provides both mile and kilometre markers along the route, so you can race using whichever measurement you prefer and use the markers to help judge your pacing.

On to the route!

The Start: Depending on the colour marked on your race number, you’ll begin from the Red, Yellow, Green or Blue start. These keep runners separate for the first few kilometres, before everyone merges together.

Kilometres 1-3: Runners head east from the start in Greenwich for the first 3km, where the aim is just to avoid going too quick and/or getting tripped up in the swarm. Stay calm and don’t worry if you feel like you’re losing a tiny bit of time in the mêlée – better to do that than knacker yourself out weaving past people.

Kilometres 4-7: The Green and Blue runners join the Red and Yellow route at around kilometre four, and although they’re kept separate for a while eventually everyone merges, so if you’ve just escaped a crowd from your start wave, expect to be part of another. The good news here is that this section is downhill, sometimes considerably so. Don’t be alarmed to find you’re running five seconds per kilometre faster than your planned pace here – you’ll make up some time from the crowded first few kilometers by just easing down the hills.

Kilometres 8-11: The crowds of supporters really press in on the runners at some points of this section, which makes it easy to high-five people but also means the route can be a little narrow. Just after 10K you’ll reach the Cutty Sark, one of the best-supported points on the whole course. Revel in the crowd and the knowledge that you’ve completed the first quarter of the marathon.

London Marathon

(Image credit: Unknown)

Kilometres 12-19: There’s not a lot going on here to be honest. The crowds are still great, but the route is pretty bland as you wind around Rotherhithe and on towards Tower Bridge. Settle into your pace after the excitement of the Cutty Sark – you should be feeling strong during this section.

Kilometres 20-22: Get ready for a whirlwind of emotions. First there’s the joyous experience of going over Tower Bridge. Then there’s the slight downer of turning right after the bridge at a point where you can probably see the fastest runners coming back the other way on their way to the finish. And then you hit halfway and all the joy comes back. With runners on both sides of the roads, and supporters on both sides as well, this is one of the loudest and most inspiring sections of the race. Headphones out.

London Marathon

(Image credit: Unknown)

Kilometres 22-34: Headphones back in, this tends to be the section where it starts to hurt. Although the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf are no longer as lacking in supporters as they used to be, it’s still the least exciting part of the course and as you pass the 32km/20-mile mark you’ll probably be reaching the limits of your training runs. The route winds around Canary Wharf a bit and you’ll have to watch out for runners starting to slow down as they hit the wall. Not you though – you’re killing it.

Kilometres 35-37: As you pass the hordes of supporters around Shadwell again, enjoy the boost of knowing you’re in the home straight now. Whip off the headphones and gain as much energy as you can from the crowd.

Kilometres 37-41: Just 5K to go. That’s a parkrun – you can do that. And this is the most picturesque part of the race, with landmarks aplenty to look out for as you run along Embankment. Before that, however, you run through the Blackfriars Underpass. This is a rare moment where the crowd disappears, which is a bit of a relief if truth be told, and allows you to gather yourself a little before the last few kilometres. The other thing to know about the Underpass is that some runners will use the relative privacy of the tunnel to relieve themselves, or have a little cry, or throw up. Or all three.

Kilometres 41-42.2: Once you turn off the Embankment on to Birdcage Walk you’re unbelievably close to the end. Buckingham Palace is ahead of you, but you have to endure a long slog of a straight to get there so we recommend keeping your head down to avoid the despair when you feel that it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer. Then you suddenly reach it, turn the corner on to the Mall, and the finish line is right there. Congratulations, you’re a London Marathon finisher!

Where Are The Water Stations On The Route?

Although the event organisers are encouraging runners to use a bottle belt and carry their own drinks with them to reduce the amount of waste at the event, there is still plenty of water to be found along the route. Not only water, in fact – you can also pick up Lucozade Sport drinks and gels at certain points.

Water bottles can be picked up at miles 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24 – every other mile essentially, from mile four onwards. There will be cups of Lucozade Sport at miles 9, 15 and 21, and Lucozade Sport gels at miles 14 and 19. If you’ve used the Lucozade Sport gels before and know they don’t upset your stomach, planning to pick these up on route can save you carrying a couple of gels.

When it comes to water, do follow the “drink, drain, drop” instructions, and leave the empty bottles in the bags on the side of the road once you’ve quenched your thirst and have drained what you don’t need. A lot of runners will be coming through after you, so avoid dropping your bottles on the ground because they are a trip hazard.

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.