Today’s article is practical guidance for those amazing, slightly bonkers people who are preparing to run a marathon this year. London’s marathon is coming up, and I thought my personal guide might be of help. I have previously run two marathons (my PB is 3h45), avoided injuries and really enjoyed both journeys. If your friend or a member of the family is taking on long-distance running, do forward this article on.
1. Have a plan…
Having a training plan means you will make sure to address four key parts of your marathon training: long runs, speed work, strength training and rest. Personally, I used to do speed work twice a week, training with a running club for an hour at a time; I did my long run over the weekend and I had a strength training session once a week. If you train intensively four days a week, you need three rest days. I used to squeeze in a yoga practice or a swim to stretch and condition the muscles but you can’t beat pure rest.
Work, travel, stuff intervenes, so things won’t always go to plan. It is important to be sensible and still achieve balance in your training. Don’t panic if you missed a session or two, tweak your plan as you need to and concentrate on getting fitter over a long term.
2. Long runs
If you are running a marathon, you’ve got to embrace some long runs but personally I would not recommend doing more than one long run a week.
Start with a time you can run for at a steady pace - that’s a pace, which feels comfortable, your breathing is not laboured and you feel you can sustain it for the duration of the run. If you are an experienced runner, you may start with a 60-minute long run. It is a good idea to do long runs on weekends so that each Saturday or Sunday you can add 10 minutes to your time, building it up to a 3-hour run or the time you require to run 30km / 20 miles.
Do not run more than 30km / 20 miles or for longer than 3 hours during training. Your body will not gain anything from that, but it will take extra long to recover. On the race day, you will cover the final miles using strong mental attitude and adrenaline. I don’t know how it works, but it does!
Another tip: don’t run first thing. It is actually better to have proper breakfast and coffee, drink lots of water to hydrate yourself, digest everything etc. and then go for a long run. You will find it easier and more enjoyable than running for 2 hours on an empty stomach.
3. Strength training
A very talented and effective personal trainer once explained to me that in order to “spend” muscles during a long race, you first need to build them. It does make sense, doesn’t it? To build up your glutes, quads, hamstrings and hip flexors and to become more resilient to the stress of running on the body, invest time in strength training: Olympic weight lifting, kettle bells or simple body weight exercises, such as squats, lunges and core strengthening routine.
4. Running club
Speed work, which includes running drills such as interval training and sprints, is important for a simple reason: it will get you over the finish line faster. Of course, you can find various drills online or in running magazines and incorporate them into your training but it is much easier, more effective and fun to join a local running club, where experienced trainers can help you build up speed work in good company.
At this time of year it is so easy to get a cold and undermine your training plan. The reason some people pick up viruses while others do not, is because their immune systems are running low. You may be exercising regularly and eating healthily, but your body needs to rest and recharge its batteries. Sleep is a vital and an efficient way to achieve just that. It is so tempting to set up an alarm clock for 6am to hit the next practice on the training schedule, even though you are going to bed late (because of work or family commitments etc.) but this is precisely what will eventually run you down and cause an illness or an injury. Do not sacrifice sleep for a training run when you are beginning to feel under the weather!
6. Buy a roller
Sports massage is fantastic for your legs and glutes but it is expensive so you probably can’t afford it on a regular basis both in terms of time and money. Invest in a (large) foam roller and start your day with a 3-minute massage for your calves, hamstrings, glutes, quads and your back. It is a bit painful but a very good way to look after your sore muscles.
Carbo loading is a myth, because processed carbs lack nutritional benefits and affect your energy levels in a negative way (e.g. feeling sluggish after eating pasta for lunch). What you need is a balanced diet full of various sources of protein (meat and fish of good welfare, eggs and vegetable protein), plenty of green and other seasonal vegetables, fruit and nuts. Pulses, quinoa, brown rice, butternut squash, sweet potatoes, etc are great alternatives to ‘white carbs’ if you fancy something substantial - beautifully nourishing in this weather! Eat well and stay away from processed carbs and refined sugar - that’s all you need to keep in mind in terms of your diet.
8. Sign up for a half marathon race
Racing experience is vital, as you run very differently surrounded by fellow runners and with markers counting down the distance. Book a half marathon race to coincide roughly with the middle of your training plan and see how you get on. Did you start too fast, then lose your pace? Did the shoes give you blisters? Were the nutrition gels palatable or should you try another brand? Test yourself and learn from the experience.
I came up with this idea when I was preparing for my first marathon, and it has worked wonders for me during every race since. Ask your friends and family to nominate songs to inspire and encourage you during running. Of course, these songs have to have good rhythm for running, and you must like them too. During a race it is all about that extra wind in your sails delivered by a song, associated with a dear friend. (In my case, I cannot listen to Flashdance… What a Feeling and Jump (For My Love) without thinking of Anna and Jane!)
10. Change the scenery
I think it helps to change the scenery and find new routes for your long training runs. In London, depending on where you live, you can find some amazing stretches along the Regent’s Canal, around the Royal Parks and along the Thames. I went on some fantastic runs in Stockholm, Barcelona, Edinburgh and Tuscany, where I had to embrace the hills… It’s beautiful to see a new city as a runner, team up with some locals and mingle training with travel.
It’s a cliché but … most importantly, enjoy it! After all those months of training, running in the rain in London or the heat in Hong Kong, sticking to the schedule against all odds, becoming rather anti-social amongst friends and family, it’s time to reap the rewards of months of hard work and enjoy every mile (or at least the first ten…) of your marathon race. Good luck!