Marathon training some hints and tips

My formal marathon training began this week. I say formal because although I’ve been running most weeks in preparation this week saw my official training schedule begin. When formal training begins it feels like there’s a step change. Suddenly the prospect of running a marathon becomes very real and the commitment expected is daunting. I was certainly daunted when I saw that my first training day was on January 1st and I didn’t relish having to run off my New Year’s Eve excesses, but thankfully it turned out to be a designated rest day… My first run wasn’t until Tuesday. The real fun starts at the weekend when I’ll be doing 8 miles, and the mileage will only go up from there.

It occurred to me that, while this blog is about Bhopal, it is also about running, and I know there are a lot of Bhopal supporters raising money in marathons and half marathons. So I thought I’d put down some hints and tips, from my own, personal experience, that might be of use to first time marathon runners. These aren’t expert opinions, I’m not a fitness guru and anyone who is will probably laugh at my feeble attempts at advice. But that’s partly the point. Although it is absolutely crucial that anybody setting out on a long-distance running programme should take expert training advice, some of the available guides can be intimidating and may make distance running seem out of reach. The truth is that it’s not. Virtually anybody can run a marathon if they prepare properly. So here are 10 training tips from me for a first time marathon runner:

1. Respect your training program…

There are thousands of training schedules out there for all sorts and of distances and times. I use runkeeper to track my runs and it has a number of planners to choose from. It’s useful because it pings me reminders and can match up runs I make to those it has scheduled for me, but virtually every running app has this option and the internet is littered with downloadable schedules. Marathon training schedules follow very similar principles. They’re usually 12-16 weeks long and will incorporate 3-4 runs a week: One normal run to keep fitness ticking over, one or two “interval” type runs to build up pace and a long weekend run to build up distance. The long runs are most important and they get longer until a month before the marathon after which things slow down or “taper” to give the body a chance to recuperate ahead of the event itself. If you run to a program it allows you to structure your training and gives you a focal point each week. If you don’t use a program or don’t at least stick to the main principles you will struggle to motivate yourself and training will become disjointed… this will really hamper your ability to complete a marathon in the time you want, if at all. Of my three marathons my slowest and most unpleasant was also the one where I was worst at sticking to my training schedule.

2. … but don’t be a slave to it

Experts may disagree here but for me running is a lot less fun if you have to rigidly stick to everything your schedule tells you. Less enjoyable runs become harder and achieving your aims seem more distant. I’ve got a family and a social life. They’re (sometimes) allowed get in the way of running. Running shouldn’t get in the way of them. Equally running when injured to meet your training requirements will only make things worse. If a run is scheduled on a day when you are busy, then do it another day. If a 5 mile run is scheduled but you only have time for 4 then that’s fine. A training schedule is designed to build up your pace and mileage, if you broadly stick to it missing a run here and there won’t radically change things. You should try to do the long runs if possible but you don’t always need to do them on the prescribed day.

3. Try and run the full distance, or close to it, while training.

Again opinions are divided here. Running longer distances (over 15 miles) on a regular basis is damaging to the body and many will argue against sustained training over too long a distance. Some programs will incorporate a longest training run as short as 19 miles. But to me psychologically 7.2 miles is still a long way to go beyond that. If you can complete a long run that is 24 or 26 miles then you will have the confidence that you can cover the distance on the day. This is important for first time runners who might need that assurance during the actual event. My best marathon was when I managed the full distance in training; my worst was when I only trained up to 21 miles.

4. Eat well but eat heartily

Marathon training burns calories. It builds muscle. It produces sweat. The body needs calories, protein and salt to replace these. Eating lots of junk food is bad at any time but combining marathon training with other health kicks like low fat diets is unlikely to help either. In a way marathon training is a good excuse to indulge your appetite a bit since you’ll be burning so many calories. A lot is made of carb loading in the lead up to the event itself but be careful. This doesn’t just mean eating a massive bowl of spaghetti the night before. It means building up reserves over a number of weeks ahead of the big day.

5. If you are going to use gels/nutrients train with them too

Most people will now use glucose and caffeine gels or sports bars during a marathon. They replenish energy quickly and can also act as a psychological boost or distraction from fatigue. But they’re not the nicest things in the world. High sugar concentration can have the same effects as a laxative while sugar and caffeine can be acidic to the stomach. If you’re going to use them in the marathon then train with them to get used to them and test them so that you know which types might agree or disagree with you more.

6. Prepare for the “wall” but get past it

The “wall” is given almost mythical properties to first time marathon runners. It’s defined as the point at which, usually between 15 and 20 miles the body has depleted up its normal “glycogen” energy reserves and burns off fat, causing a sudden wave of fatigue. Professionals will tell you that taking on nutrients and proper dietary preparation can prevent or offset this, which might be true but I’ve always hit a wall and it’s not always been as cut and dried as the medical explanation suggests. The wall for me is simply when you hit a spell when, for whatever reason (low energy, blisters, aches and pains, nausea even boredom), things suddenly get tough. You can offset it through nutrition but at some point most people will start to struggle. Overcoming this can be as much in the mind as physical and creating distractions from fatigue is a good trick to learn. Music (if you are allowed to use it) is my favourite but I’ve beaten bouts of fatigue by doing other things like focussing on certain niggles rather than tiredness or trying to think about other things entirely. I’ve found two surprisingly effective remedies to be counting miles down rather than counting them up (when you see the task ahead of you getting smaller it seems more achievable) or simply focussing on putting one foot in front of the other until you get past it (which is more therapeutic than it sounds).

7. Learn to fight boredom as well as fatigue

Some training runs will be boring. Especially longer ones. As part of my training I often use canal towpaths for longer runs because they’re relatively flat, straight, uncongested and easy to track mileage on. But these are the runs I dread most because they mean mile after mile of barren repetitive surroundings. Boredom can be put people off long runs and I often find myself using different distraction techniques. Listening to music or making plans and working through life’s problems in my head helps me. If you can run with a friend or group occasionally then you will find it easier, both when running in company and when enjoying the relative novelty of running alone.

8. Mix up your training runs

Don’t run the same routes all the time. Stick with a few easy staples but then also explore and plan new routes. This will ease boredom but also introduce you to new features and surfaces. Run off-road. Run hills. It doesn’t matter if you are training for the flattest road marathon in the world you will always benefit from setting yourself different challenges in training. Hill running is good strength work, off-road running helps build ankle muscles for support. You should keep some routes on repeat for shorter runs so you can register improvements in pace but mixing up longer runs will keep things challenging and interesting.

9. Bad weather is not an excuse not to train

I’ve never ever regretted going for a run but there are countless times where I’ve regretted NOT going for a run. I’m familiar with the routine. You get up. It’s freezing/pouring/windy/snowing. These things are irrelevant. If you put on your gear and go for a run you will still be glad that you did it. In fact running through wind, rain, ice or snow can be even more enjoyable and exhilarating than running in more benign conditions. If it’s hot and humid out then the prospect of heat exhaustion does mitigate things a bit but there is still nothing stopping you from going for a gentle, rewarding jog.

10. Rest and taper

Schedules include rest days for a reason. Because your body needs to recover from the pressures you put on it. Similarly all training programs include a period of tapering in order to recuperate ahead of a marathon; otherwise you will be starting out with a tired body. If you are behind schedule on training you’re probably better off pushing up your mileage at a slightly quicker rate than missing any of the crucial time put aside to taper at the end. Tapering doesn’t wind you down it allows you to keep the level of fitness you’ve reached and minimise the risk of injury while your body prepares itself for the big day.

You can sponsor me in The London Marathon here

You can track my runs here