Marathon training tips #2: starting your marathon training

Welcome to the second of my articles aimed at helping you with your marathon training, drawing on personal experience to try and help you avoid some of the pitfalls I’ve stumbled into over the years.

The first one covering the planning and preparation was hopefully of use for those of you who are considering signing up for the full 26.2 mile distance, or have just done so and don’t know where to begin with it all.

For those of you just about to embark on your marathon training though, be it for London, Paris, Berlin, Boston or somewhere more exotic like 105 laps of an athletics track in Warrington, hopefully this article will help you get going on your journey.

Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section at the bottom and I’ll do my best to answer them!

As you start to work through your marathon training plan, you’ll begin to get a feel for the general pattern of things, usually with your longest run on the Sunday morning to mirror what will almost definitely be when you will be running your marathon, along with some shorter stuff in the week; maybe some interval or hill training here and there along with some slower recovery runs and perhaps another long (but not quite as long as Sunday) run midweek.

The general arc will build slowly up to your biggest week around three or four weeks before your race and then after that you’ll start to wind it all back down (the “tapering” phase) so that you are still running regularly enough to keep your legs ticking over, but not so hard or so far as to knacker yourself up for the main event. A good taper should then leave you fresh and full of beans ready to give it the big one on raceday.

Running long

The Sunday long run is the most important of part of each week of marathon training as it’s your race preparation and getting your body used to running for hours in the morning to mirror when you’ll most likely be doing your race, so aim to do as many of these as you can and make sure you take the challenge seriously. Try not to get shitfaced on the Saturday night or eat anything the day before which might disagree with you as you run round. I’ve learned the hard way how bad it is when the gut suddenly “drops” miles from home and you want to do all you can to avoid that, believe me. Ideally keep your Saturday evenings for a nice carb-heavy meal and getting to bed a decent hour.

On the morning of your long run, try and get in the habit of waking up early as if it were raceday and getting a solid breakfast in you an hour or two before heading out. I swear by porridge and a small, strong coffee, along with a banana a little bit later, but try a few things and see what works for you so that you have your routine in place for when you have to do it all for real. Just try not to eat too much too close to heading out the door, your guts will not thank you!

The pacing on your long runs is more important than any of the others you’ll do. You want to run as consistently as you can which will mean starting off way, way slower than you feel capable of. It’ll feel weird holding yourself back, especially as the more you train and the stronger you get, but you absolutely must do all you can not to let your exuberance get the better of you in those first few miles because it’ll cost you big time a couple of hours down the road if you go out too hard. It all comes down to what we discussed in the last article about having a rough target time for your marathon in mind so that you can use this to work out how fast you should be running on your long runs and then pace them as consistently as you can.

If you have trouble with keeping to a particular pace then I’d always recommend using something to help you. An app on your phone, or even better a GPS watch you can keep glancing down at to check your pace. Whatever you use, you should also be able to set audio alerts to save you checking a tiny screen all the time; your own personal coach geeing you along in a weird, robotic voice or a series of beeps to keep you on the right track.

Staying sane

This is probably the hardest bit. The marathon itself will be a slog (especially when you go over the 20 mile mark), but you’ll be in a race with other runners, there’ll be crowds clapping and cheering you on, maybe there’ll be an enthusiastic cheer point from your chosen charity. You’ll be full of excitement and adrenaline, and hopefully you’ll have done as much as you can to prepare for it. You can do this. You’ve planned for this. You’ve got this.

The training to actually get there though – sheesh. I’m not gonna lie to you, it’ll be hard work at times. But that’s kind of the point of a marathon really. It’s a challenge. A big, big challenge. It’s totally doable though, and cheesy as it sounds, it’s all about keeping your eyes on the prize. Think about why you’re doing it, your reasons for being there. You had a reason to sign up for the bugger, so focus on that and remember why you’re putting yourself through all this fresh hell. Visualise crossing the finish line and think of the pride you will feel at the end of it all and all the adulation of your friends and family. I nearly burst into tears at the end of my second marathon and I wasn’t even doing that one for charity. I still can’t explain why. Basically, it’s kind of a big deal. And so are you for doing it.

In terms of the distances you’re running, yes it all sounds bit mental, especially if you’re like me and you start plotting it out on a map and telling yourself “bloody hell it takes me long enough to drive that”. You’ll worry about an eight miler, then a ten, then a twelve and so on. But hang on a minute, twelve miles is only two more than the ten you successfully did last weekend. Two miles is nothing! You can run that in your sleep. Possibly. But essentially, if you remember back to the last long run you completed and then just focus on the extra distance you need to do on top rather than the whole bloody thing in one go, it starts to seem a whole lot more achievable.

It always seems daunting as you ramp up to the next level, but then once you’ve done it it feels great and you realise what you’re capable of. Before you know it, you’re off out running 18 miles early on a Sunday morning and then talking about your easy week the week after of “only 14 miles”, a distance you had sleepless nights about four weeks ago. Just look what you’ve become.

Yes, you’ll have some bad ones along the way. You never quite know how you’ll feel on a particular training run so if you feel crap for whatever reason and throw in a stinker, try not to be demoralised because it happens to everyone. I’ve had some 18 milers where I’ve got home and felt I could have done the same again (well maybe not, but you know) and I’ve had some less than half that distance where I’ve felt like utter bollocks and wanted to just go straight to sleep on the pavement. It happens. It’s fine. Just do what you can to limit the bad ones, and if it happens shrug it off and go again next time.

Record keeping

Something which really, really did help me get through my first marathon was starting up a blog and keeping it going over the six months or so it took me to get myself ready to be able to run 26.2 miles. Inspired by my journalist cousin writing up his journey through to the London Marathon on an old word processor back in the 90s, I set up a little Tumblr blog simply titled “Seeph vs Marathon”, which has now grown into this much larger affair. It’s nice to have a record of that initial journey from callow idiot without a clue what I was doing, all the way through to full-on marathon wanker without a clue what I was doing, and I still get weirdly emotional reading back over some of those old posts. Even if like me you end up doing another marathon, then another, then another (you masochist), nothing will beat the journey of your first one as you battle through your marathon training and ultimately come to realise just what you’re capable of achieving.

A blog will also raise the awareness amongst your nearest and dearest if you happen to be running for charity, hopefully helping to nudge your fundraising total up a bit. And finally, I swear it also helped it kept me sane on those many, many lonely hours spent plodding round and round, pondering about how to approach the latest post to bore all my friends and family with. You get a lot of thinking time when you’re out running – why not put it to good use?

If you don’t have the time or inclination to write a blog, you could always try just writing a couple of updates for your Facebook or JustGiving page, or just a few personal scribbles in the back of a notepad. Even just keeping a list or spreadsheet of all of your training runs, or logging them online in Strava or Runkeeper or whatever. However you go about it, you’ll be grateful to have something to look back on one day, once all the dust has settled and you are able to sit there and bask in the glory and say “I am a marathoner”.

Coming soon: what you’ll need for your marathon training.

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