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Seven Tips for Your First Marathon

Written by James Dunne

Food & Mood

Have your found yourself thinking about running a marathon?

Maybe like so many of us you’ve been inspired by watching TV coverage of a race, or seeing friends conquer the distance. It’s natural to wonder whether you could ever run 26.2 miles. Given the right training you absolutely can!

I’m going to break-down some important points to remember when taking-on the challenge of training for a marathon.

When you start to train for your first marathon, there’s usually an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty. How you are going to structure your training? How far and long should your runs be? What weekly mileage should you be running?

Any good marathon training programme for example this beginners marathon running training plan from Runners World, should provide you with clear progression week-by-week giving you that satisfying feeling knowing that you have done the training and you feel as ready as you can come race day.

Here are a few tips to help you along your way, and make sure you don't make the mistakes that so many first time marathoners have unfortunately made before you...

James Dunne
James is a Sports Rehab Therapist and Running Coach. Previously a professional rugby union player, over the last decade James has also worked with International Track Athletes, Premiership Footballers and within Professional Rugby League. He currently works with a varied group of endurance athletes of all levels from beginner to pro.

Preparing Your Body for the Distance

Marathon training takes your body out of its comfort zone progressively, session after session. The fact that you’re pushing your aerobic and muscular systems causes them to adapt, grow stronger and develop the endurance you need to complete the distance on race day. However, the challenge isn’t entirely physical, it’s mental too! Those long runs and training sessions where your legs are tired from the start will help you develop the mental toughness to succeed on marathon day.

The majority of training plans that I write will be for 16-18 weeks, which looks like a preparatory block of 4-6 weeks followed by 12 weeks of running. The preparatory blocks helps you focus on really conditioning your body. Lots of strengthening exercises, core work, and stability drills to work on weak links and previous injuries (which SO many runners have!). The running sessions in this phase are minimal in terms of the amount of miles you run per week, but are very technique focused rather than getting the volume and speed in.

Unfortunately, far too many runners miss this important phase in their training; after-all we just want to run! This error often comes back to bite them when the mileage increases during marathon training, and their weak links are exposed, resulting in injury. Don’t make that mistake!

Don’t Forget to Cross-Train

Cross training means taking part in a different exercise alongside the one you are focussing on. From a running perspective, you could also add swimming into your training regime as it is non weight baring. Another important role of cross training is your strength and conditioning.

This is so important if you want to be able to run strong during your training. Once you start getting into the main bulk of your marathon mileage, try to keep at least a maintenance level of strength and conditioning going, to act as maintenance for your body.

A good way of making sure that you keep up with your strength and conditioning is by joining a class or doing it with others. Also to switch things up a bit do a strength session at the end of your run midweek!

Try to fit in at least one or two fifteen-minute core strengthening sessions in a week, even if you have to drop a short midweek run for it, your body will thank you for it come race day!

Here is a good example of a core strengthening session

Learn the Value of Recovery

Believe it or not, you don’t get the true benefit of your training until your body gets a chance to rest, recover properly and allow the physical adaptations to take place. Not placing enough value on recovery, is a mistake I see far too many runners making because they want to train every day and think the more they train the faster they are going to get which can only lead to injury or over fatigue.

This error can at best lead to sub-standard performance, at worst lead to overtraining, injury and illness.

To get into the depths of recovery we really need to think about hydration, nutrition and sleep, these three factors are so so important to ensure your body is properly rested. If you are failing to drink plenty, getting less sleep and not eating a balanced diet your body will lose the ability to recover fully meaning you won't benefit from each running session and it could lead to potential illness or injury.

Obviously as you are marathon training your body is going to burn more calories than usual so you need to find the right fuel source to top up those spent calories. It's so important you have a balanced diet with your proteins for muscular recovery with good fats and carbs for your energy stores to be topped back up. Try not to be tempted to have a ‘cheat meal’ every time you run a long run. Despite having a deficit of calories, you need to eat the right food to recover faster.

That said, I’m all for a having a well earnt treat every so often as you feel like you deserve it with your consistent training. Life is all about balance!

Stick to the Plan

I know, this sounds like very simple tip, but life does get in the way from time to time, and trying to follow a plan religiously is always challenging.

The best way around this is to prioritise your runs in the week and plan your week the Sunday before, make sure you get your key sessions in, and drop the less critical runs if you have too.

By "key sessions”, I really mean your weekly long run. Try your best not to skip these as your body needs this longer run to build your aerobic endurance, and physical stamina. Try to keep them consistent; for example, don't run 7 miles one week then 15 miles the next as this leads to potential injury.

Although sticking to your marathon plan is obviously the goal, as long as you keep the long runs consistent then your performance won't suffer as much so don't worry if you have to skip a midweek run here and there.

Dealing with Injuries

If the worst case happens and injury does strike, never try to run through it as you could make it worse and you'll miss your race completely. A lot of runners get stubborn with this and try to force their bodies to run the mileage when it is telling them to stop.

Instead, be sure to seek medical advice from a Physiotherapist to help you on your way to recovery! As you get back into running from injury, do so carefully, try not to run a long run for 2 weeks, instead just build up your training frequency.

Run Your Easy Runs Easy

So many people run their long training runs at too fast pace, one that doesn't benefit them from an aerobic development point of view and leaves them feeling fatigued for days after!

In turn, this means they can't run their harder midweek sessions at a pace that they need to because they still feel the fatigue from Sunday's long run.

Feel free to use more objective measures to gauge your long run pacing strategy: heart rate, and the “talk test” for example. As a simple rule of thumb, your long run should be done at a pace where you could easily talk throughout without being breathless.

Get Familiar with Your Marathon Pace

Your marathon race pace is going to be based upon how well your training has gone, but it is the average pace required to hit your target time over the marathon distance. So if you want to run a 3:30 marathon, your race pace would need to be 8 minutes per mile.

Whilst your training runs will be completed slower than this, try to embed some marathon paced efforts into your runs, I find it best to run at marathon-pace at the end of my long runs. For example, on an 18-mile-long run I may run the last 6 at marathon pace but leave a mile for a cool down. Getting used to this pace in your runs will make running at the pace come marathon day a lot easier!

Practice Your Nutrition Strategy

It's so important you get your nutrition right come race day. Be sure to practice with the products you intend to use, during your long runs. Find the fuelling source that works for you without upsetting your stomach, whether that’s gels, isotonic drinks or whole food such as jelly babies or even flapjack. One useful tip is to find out which brand of energy drink or gel is going to be available on the course, and consider practicing using the same product in training.

Your body will appreciate not trying something new come race-day.

I hope you can take these tips away with you and use them to help ensure success on marathon day.

If you’re currently in training, good luck with your running, train smart and enjoy the process!

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