Signing up for your first marathon is an exhilarating moment. You’re excited at the prospect of taking on the event, which is probably still far enough away that the actual challenges involved don’t seem too daunting. You have ages to train for it, after all.
Once you’re into the long period of marathon training, however, you quickly realise that the challenge of the marathon isn’t so much the 42.2km you run on race day as the hundreds of kilometres you cover in training.
It’s essential, therefore, to ensure you pace your training correctly so you don’t burn out long before race day itself. We have free marathon training plans for runners of all levels, which can get you to the start line in great shape. But before you choose a plan, check out these invaluable marathon training tips from Tom Craggs, a running coach and Loch Ness Marathon (opens in new tab) ambassador – you’ll find his suggestions mirrored in any top-quality training plan.
1. Start With Regular Running
“If life allows, aim for small and regular runs in the early weeks of training,” says Craggs. “Four to five short runs will be better than two long efforts with nothing in between.”
2. Build Up The Length Of Your Long Run Slowly
The long Sunday run is key to marathon success, but there’s no need to go for broke early on.
“Build patiently and slowly, and add ten to 15 minutes maximum each week,” says Craggs. “In the early weeks focus on completing these runs at a relaxed and conversational pace. Then, if you feel good, try to get used to increasing your pace for the final 30-40 minutes of your run.”
3. Plan Ahead
“Track back from race day and plan in your key long runs three to eight weeks before your event,” says Craggs. “Get organised and structure your training week in advance to ensure you are running at times when you have the best chance of completing the sessions and feel most energised. Plan to take at least one full rest day each week and line up a slightly lighter week every three to four weeks.”
4. Use Your Midweek Runs Wisely
Often first-time marathoners drift through any midweek runs they do, with all the focus on the long run they face that weekend, but the right kind of run on a Tuesday or Wednesday can reap as many gains as your Sunday session.
“Try a 45- to 60-minute run that includes five sets of five minutes running at a pace where you can only speak three or four words at a time, jogging for 90 seconds between each effort,” says Craggs. “Aim to build this up over the weeks to six sets of five-minute efforts, three sets of ten minutes, or even 20-25 minutes as a solid block.”
Don’t just practise running, practise racing too. Sign up for a few races throughout your plan and you have some short-term goals that can help to break up your training and make it seem less like one long slog. It also helps you to refine your race day routine so you’re not tripped up unnecessarily.
“Aim to book in a half marathon five to six weeks before your marathon,” says Craggs. “You could either run this hard, looking for a PB, or turn it into a long run by adding a couple of miles before and after, and running the race at goal marathon pace. If you can’t get into a half consider running a parkrun every three to four weeks – this can be great for testing your fitness.”
6. Don’t Just Run On Pavements
“Running on different surfaces such as grass and trails will help prevent injury, and also help build strength and balance,” says Craggs. “Consider also mixing your running with other forms of cardiovascular exercise such as cycling, swimming or using an elliptical trainer. This will still give your heart and lungs a workout, without the joint impact of running. “
7. Learn How To Run Easy
In some training runs you’ll aim to push yourself, but a lot of the time should be spent running easy. Pushing too hard on these runs is how you burn out.
“If you find yourself short of breath and feeling like you need to stop after four to five minutes you are simply running too hard,” says Craggs. “Try to stick at the ‘speed of chat’ to get yourself working and enjoying your running. Don’t worry if you need to mix running and walking in the early weeks. Aim to keep the pace of your running easy and gradually reduce your walking breaks as the weeks progress.”
8. Strengthen Your Core
“Runners who are more robust and who can hold their posture and technique even when tired tend to perform better on marathon day,” says Craggs. “Getting into a good routine of two to three short core sessions a week is a great goal in the early weeks of training. For the more experienced doing squat, deadlift, lunge, row and press-up exercises can be a great addition to your training.”
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9. Run With Others
“Surround yourself with positive people and look to train with friends or family sharing the same goal,” says Craggs. “If none do, then you can join a local running club. Having a group to motivate and support each other will help keep you out running when it gets tough!”
10. Log Your Training
“Getting your training down on paper, or on screen, can be a great way of monitoring your progress and having accountability,” says Craggs. “Aim to note down two to three positives from your training every week, plus a couple of priorities to develop for the following week. When you look back at your training before the marathon you’ll have a big bank of positivity to review!”
11. Eat And Sleep Well
“Focus on high-quality nutrition with a wide range of fresh fruit and vegetables, and adequate amounts of protein,” says Craggs. “To improve sleep, aim to get off your phone in the final 90 minutes before bed. Creating a good pre-bed routine can improve the quality of your sleep, which is when many of the positive adaptations to training occur.”
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.
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