Marathon training tips #1: planning and preparation

As I sit here midway through marathon training for my fourth and probably final push at the full 26.2 mile distance, I thought now might be a good time to share a few bits and bobs that I’ve learned over the past five or six years since my first go.

I can’t promise everything I tell you here is the absolute best way to go about things, but I can certainly let you know what has and hasn’t worked for me in the past. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way but then finally last April I would say I ran probably the best marathon I’m ever likely to run, using all the benefit of what I’d learned over the previous efforts.

Hopefully, what I know now will be of some use to you too. If it all sounds like I’ve written a load of old guff though then I’m sorry about that. Why change the habit of a lifetime etc etc etc.

So, anyway. Let’s get started. Let me know in the comments section if you have any questions!

Thinking of signing up for a marathon?

I’ll start by saying this – you can totally do it. In the (almost) words of Barack Obama “yes you can”. Ideally you’ve probably run up to a half marathon already and have got a taste for what it’s like to be out on your feet for a couple of hours or more. This will stand you in good stead for the endless hours of marathon training you will be about to undertake. But it’s not essential. Lots of people go straight into the full distance and it’s absolutely doable if you get a decent base of running behind you (more on this later) and then work your way through through a sensible training plan that suits your lifestyle.

BUT: be realistic. Will you have the time to dedicate to the training? No matter how experienced you are as a runner, a marathon is not to be sniffed at and you will probably need to make a some sacrifices along the way. Most marathon training plans will be between 12-18 weeks long with at least three or four days a week out running, including a long weekend run. Think about how much time you can dedicate to it, how many evenings you’ll be capable of getting out and going out for a run.

If this all sounds like too much commitment for this stage in your life, for whatever reason, then I’d be inclined to say perhaps give it a miss for now. In my experience, nothing will make you resent the whole shebang more than if you can’t dedicate the appropriate time to it because of work, because of family, because of social commitments you can’t or simply don’t want to miss. You’ll begrudge being out when you know you should be doing something else and you’ll be tempted to skip sessions. With almost any training plan, every session is there for a reason and the more you miss, the harder the others will be and the worse you will do come raceday. So just have a think before starting: can I realistically commit to all this, right here, right now? If the answer is yes, read on!

Choosing your marathon training plan

This bit kind of links to the above. First, work out how much time you can dedicate, how many days per week you think you’ll roughly have available for your training. It doesn’t have to be exact, and of course, despite what I said above, you can miss a session here and there if things pop up. No-one is saying map out the next four months of your life in exact detail, every single day, with no flexibility whatsoever. My first ever marathon I missed a good four or five of the big sessions due to various festival and wedding commitments, and I still got round the bloody thing. But just be sensible and look for a plan that fits into your life / work balance in the best possible way and limits the training sessions you’ll simply have to miss.

In terms of where to get your marathon training plan from, first of all look on the website for your intended race and see if anything is recommended. The bigger events (e.g. London) might send out a set of training plans in the pre-race magazine and they’re usually decent with different levels of difficulty depending on your ability.

From personal experience, one of these ones from RunKeeper got me round my very first marathon and had a good mix of sessions throughout to keep it interesting, as well as bit of explanation every so often to help you understand why you were doing each session and the benefits of doing so. It’s a good place to start especially if you’re already using the app to track your runs.

Runners World ones worked for me well on my second marathon and helped me take a good chunk off my PB, only thing is since the website got redesigned I’m getting all sorts of 404 errors trying to find the Garmin or Smartcoach schedules I used (can’t remember which unfortunately), but I’m sure one of the other ones would serve you well and hopefully the site will be fully functional soon. I’ve also heard good things about the Hal Higdon ones although I’ve never personally tried one.

If you’ve already run at least one or two marathons and are looking to improve your time then Advanced Marathoning by Peter Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas is my absolute bible. It’s pretty heavy going some of the science in it and I don’t think you’d need to read absolutely everything in there (although it certainly helps you understand the training sessions a lot better if you do). It’s a brilliant book though with a good choice of plans in there depending on how much time you have available (all the way up to mental 85-plus miles per week ones, running double sessions on a single day and whatnot). I should point out though that even the most novice plan in there will have you running up to 55 miles a week at its peak, so it’s definitely not one for the beginners amongst you. I can personally vouch for the results though if you’re already running at a decent standard and prepared to put the work in to get your time down.

How fast can I go?

The next thing to think about is how long you expect your marathon to take. Having a time target in mind doesn’t have to be absolutely set in stone (I’ve missed mine in every single one of my marathons to date) but it’ll be extremely useful to help you plan to how to train for it so that you can pace yourself properly and not suffer in the latter stages of your long runs. Not to mention helping you keep pace on the day itself instead of going out too fast full of adrenaline and blowing up with ten miles still to do.

Finding your marathon pace is easier if you’ve done a couple of races and can use this time to base your target on. If you’re a total novice, just getting out and doing a few parkrun 5ks and finding out what you’re capable of will help, but this is definitely where having a longer race such as a half marathon in the bank already will be of benefit. Don’t just double your time over 13.1 miles though – you’ll be very unlikely to keep up this pace over twice the distance. Get a couple of results from previous races over varying distances and then look at some online pace calculators such as this one to get a rough idea of your estimated finishing time for your marathon. I must stress that these tools are only guides and don’t take into account all sorts of variables like how hard you train for the race, the weather on the day, course congestion and so on, but it’ll help you understand what you might be capable of so you can use this to shape your training plan and race strategy accordingly.

Once you’ve picked your plan, look at the date it’s due to start and make sure you get yourself a decent base of running behind you so that for the fortnight or so before it you are comfortably able to run whatever will be expected of you in the first week. If you don’t, you’ll risk injuring yourself straight from the off and the lost weeks recovering will make your marathon less and less achievable. A good rule of thumb is to increase your weekly mileage by no more than 10% per week, so just try to gradually build up in the weeks leading up to the first week of your marathon training plan, get yourself used to the longest run of the week on the Sunday morning, and you’ll be all ready to roll.

Coming soon: training for your marathon.

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