Last year, when I was training for my first road marathon, I was asked how far it was. When I replied, straightening my face as much as possible: “It’s 26.2 miles,” the enquirer beamed and said: “Oh, that’s exactly the same as the London one!”
And indeed it was. If right now you’re setting your 2024 fitness goals and wondering if you have 26.2 miles in your legs, my guess would be yes, you almost certainly do – but it does take a lot of commitment. This isn’t a marathon training plan – there are plenty online, and the good ones will start at least 16 weeks ahead of the event – but here are some of the small things I learnt when training for my own 26.2-mile event that might help you along yours, too.
1. Don’t obsess about ‘the plan’
See ‘online training plans’, above. Clearly you do have to build up the miles slowly and sensibly, with a mix of slow runs, sprint sessions and hill reps. That said, life happens, and training for a marathon around family, work and other commitments can be all-consuming. Three solid runs per week will do the job just as well as four, and if you’re feeling tired or in need of a change, switching a run now and again for a gentle hike, swim or gym session will do more good than pushing on miserably. Ditto allowing yourself to rest and recover when you’re injured or ill. It’s frustrating, but ignoring those niggles will set you back further in the long term.
2. Buy a smart watch, if you can possibly afford it
I could *just* about afford to buy one of the lowest-priced on the market, the Garmin Forerunner 55. It cost £159.99 and I got 10% off as a new customer of a website I hadn’t used before. This ridiculously easy-to-use, entry-level GPS watch does so much more than track distance, pace and speed (which was all I wanted initially). The real game-changer was the Garmin Coach feature, which offers free, adaptive training plans that sync to your watch via the Garmin Connect app. The watch also monitors daily health and wellness, as well as sleep, stress and menstrual health should you wish to track them. For a Luddite like me – who was at my happiest with my flip-screen Sony Ericsson – the Forerunner 55 is the perfect way to capture your stats without being too techy. Its availability in my favourite turquoise had absolutely nothing to do with my science-based purchasing decision whatsoever…
3. Learn what hurts (because something will)
Building up your mileage before race day is not just about preparing your body to go the distance. It’s about working out how your feet will feel, what essentials to carry and how comfy your clothes are (those favourite pants that get you around parkrun can really start to rub eight miles into a long run). My training runs taught me which toes need plasters beyond 16 miles and what to wear in different conditions. Your long runs will also help you work out when you might need to go to the loo (the organisers should provide in advance a map of toilets and water stations along the route to help you plan).
4. Fuel properly (no bonking!)
Yes, really, it’s a thing… and it’s not half as much fun as it sounds. Bonking occurs when your body’s glycogen (glucose) stores are depleted, causing serious fatigue, pain and total deprivation of all mental capacity (ok, that last bit might not be biologically true, but it sure feels like it). It happened to me on a truly horrible 20-mile training run ahead of the Newport Marathon; I just didn’t eat enough and I paid dearly. On reaching home I didn’t know whether to sit, lie or just head straight back out of the door and keep on running, as it seemed too difficult to stop moving. I do know that I cried and ate all the doughnuts.
The ‘best’ fuel is different for all of us, but carb-loading in the days leading up to a race and eating a breakfast of porridge, muesli or wholemeal toast are sensible. But the key for me is to consistently refuel along the way. Gels make me feel nauseous, but downing a few jelly babies every 15 minutes or so and tucking into my first trail bar after about 50 minutes set me up for a good run. Hydration is also essential and adding electrolytes to your water (available in the form of tablets or sachets) will help retain fluids and sodium. I’d advocate carrying at least a litre of water in a hydration bladder or flexible bottle, so you can sip as you go rather than desperately glug at each water station (this also saves on the unforgivable plastic waste at some race events, but that’s a whole other blog post…).
5. You do you
Sign up for any running event and there’s always the clever dick who really needs to tell you what you should and shouldn’t be doing, regardless of having met you three minutes ago and having no idea of your running experience. If you’re training for your first marathon, don’t listen to ‘that’ guy – you don’t owe him your politeness or gratitude. And if you’ve run 100 marathons, don’t be that guy; it might be someone’s first long-distance event, but they’ll have clocked up plenty of training miles and probably don’t need you to forecast when they’re going to hit the wall. The best advice to come my way has started with: ‘What works for me…” or “What I’ve found is…” These nuggets, offered with good intent, have proved far more valuable than all the shoulds and shouldn’ts directed my way over the years (sigh).
6. Trust your body and enjoy the day
You can do this. Possibly not with all your toenails intact (do remember to clip them beforehand!), but you’ve put the work in and your body will carry you around. The hardest part is believing that you deserve a place at the starting line. Once you’re there, getting to the finish is, well, still quite challenging, but absolutely achievable. There will be many others at the race who are equally nervous and in need of four wees before setting off, so be kind and say hi. You might find yourself lining up alongside a human postbox, or running mile nine behind a six-foot duck, so just show up with your sense of humour and enjoy the race!