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The best ways to prepare for a marathon (ahead of the big day)

A marathon is no small undertaking, in fact it’s 26.2 miles!

Even for the avid runner the step up to a full marathon is no walk in the park. Most runners start with a 5K or 10k event, which is a great start for the beginner. The step up to a half marathon from 6.2 miles to 13.1 miles is quite a big jump, but the biggest by far is the jump from a half marathon to a full marathon.

It is not the intention to put you off but simply highlight the enormity of the task in hand and the need to be fully prepared both in body and in mind. This post walks you through some of the key things you should be thinking about as you prepare for your 26.2 miles.

Getting fit

If you’re going to run a marathon you need to be fit as 26.2 miles is a sizeable distance. Getting fit doesn’t just consider running training but fitness in general and working on all areas of the body, from running to other cardio vascular exercise and even weight training.

Experts recommend that you should spend a year preparing for a marathon and be capable of running between 3 and 6 miles without stopping and running 15 miles 3 times per week.

 You will find in the early days that your legs will hurt, so think about cycling and swimming as alternatives to build your fitness in conjunction with the running. This takes the stress away from the joints as you move into non-weight bearing activities.

Getting in the gym is also recommended so you can work on other areas of the body. You can even look at leg presses to help build strength in your legs which will help when you’re out on the road.

What you need to remember is that running a marathon is not just about your legs, it’s about your entire body so working on everything will give you the best chance of finishing it.

Image of four ladies on yoga mats performing sit ups

Selecting a training programme

Training is important. If you don’t do it properly then the chances of you finishing are pretty slim. If you are lucky enough to finish then you would no doubt be in a world of pain and would have picked up a few injuries in the process.

You need to plan ahead and if you’re starting out afresh then to run even 10 miles in your first outing is probably quite unrealistic. It’s all about baby steps. Do some research in the first instance and find a training plan which is right for you and then stick to it.

Despite advice suggesting you should plan your marathon training a year in advance Virgin Money have put together a number of 17 week training plans to help you conquer the event, with a number of difficulty levels depending on your ability.

Regardless of the training programme you select they all work in the same way in gradually building up your distances and mixing up your training.

Distance: This is important obviously as you want to complete the 26.2 mile course but this is not about speed, it’s about taking it easy and working on the long game. These should be easy runs and even broken up with walking.

Interval: This works on speed and building your stamina. Typically you will run for 2 minutes and then walk for 2 minutes and then repeat. It’s not about distance it’s about pushing your body knowing that you can sprint when you need to.

Threshold: Doing a run for up to an hour by maintaining a pace which doesn’t mean you have to slow down. This is effectively cruise control training in being able to find a speed which you are comfortable in maintaining over long distances and is designed to help increase your average speed.

Speed: This is all about sprinting over short distances and building your muscles. It’s hard on your joints but can give you the training you need for that final sprint to the finish line.

What is important to note is that you will never run a full 26 miles as part of your training. Likewise in the last week or two before the marathon you’ll actually spend more time focused on stretching and resting than running as you don’t want to burn yourself out before the main event.

Runners World have put together 26 tips for running our best 26.2 which is worth a read and should give you a few more ideas.

Review your diet

You are what you eat. That’s what we are constantly told and to some extent it is correct. It is important to understand more about the food you eat and the types of food you eat. You need to start looking at nutritious foods to give you the energy for your training and the big day. Carbohydrates are great at offering glycogen whilst protein will work to repair muscle damage.

Guidelines state that the calorie limit is between 2000 and 2500 per day of which around 65% should consist of carbs and 10% should be protein. In addition to this you should look at taking vitamin supplements to ensure you have everything covered.

There are loads of useful meal ideas online with people like the Body Coach offering food and exercise tips to get you fit.

Tracking your progress

If you have sticking to a training plan then it would be pretty useful to know how you’re doing and most importantly, how far you are running each time you hit the road. There are loads of apps available for both iOS and Android, you just need to select the right one for you. It is normally a good idea to get the same app as your friends so that you can see what their up to, which promotes a bit of competition and gives you more of an incentive to go out running at night when it’s cold and you’ve been at work all day.

The main benefit from these apps, aside from showing your friends that you’re ahead of them, is that you can track your distance, speed and even a map of your route. The Nike Running app allows you to view your speed on the map so you can track where you are fastest and at what point in your run you start to slow down. It also gives you milestones which you can aim to beat i.e. fastest mile, fastest 5K etc which you can then post on Facebook and Twitter.

You will obviously want to have your app set for when you run the actual marathon so you can have the event logged for the next time to take on the challenge. All events now give you timing chips anyway so that you can have an official time for the race but the app gives you something more portable and detailed.

The right shoes

The shoes you wear are extremely important as they should reflect your style of running. A running shoe is no longer just a running shoe, with many sports stores having a treadmill on site so the staff can analyse your running technique and recommend a shoe which will benefit you the most, or even offer the right insoles.

There is a debate as to how often you should change your running shoes and how many miles they will last. Common consensus suggests swopping your shoes every 400 to 500 miles, ensuring that you select a pair which will be comfortable 100 to 200 miles down the road since this is when they begin to bottom out.

In terms of training the average person should be running between 30 and 50 miles per week to be fully prepared. If you start your training a year before the big race and obviously will be working towards the 50 mile figure there is still a high likelihood that you will surpass the 500 mile mark before you reach the starting line. With this in mind you need to keep track of the miles you have done in your shoes and change them in advance of your marathon so that they have time to bottom out as the last thing you want is to be wearing new shoes on race day and be unaware how they will affect your feet.

Top down view of six pairs of running shoes

For more information on selecting the right shoes click here.

A clear purpose and something to drive you

Running a marathon is not easy. Even the professionals struggle throughout the 26.2 mile course and look pretty tired by the end of it.

You will have signed up to your marathon with a purpose, something which has driven you and makes you want to complete. Maybe you want a new challenge? You’re running for charity? You’re doing it in memory of someone?

Whatever that motivation is for signing up, use it in your training and on the day itself to help you get through it. Quitting is easy, especially when you hit ‘the wall’ so having that goal clear in your mind will help you to push on.

The right music

Music is important, especially when you’re running on your own as there is no one to set the pace but you and there is no one around to cheer you on apart from that little voice in your head. Music is used in all forms of life to inspire people, get a reaction or increase the heartrate and get the blood pumping.

Select music which means something to you and will make you move and be inspired to carry on, whether that is something heavy like the “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead or something powerful like “Imagine” by John Lennon. You know what makes you tick.

On some apps like Nike Running there is even a power song option so that when you’re looking for a much needed boost you can hit the power song button and push on through the pain.

Don’t let an injury get you down

First thing to mention. Injuries happen. It’s a fact. Don’t dwell on it.

Now that’s out of the way let’s talk about managing your injury and reducing the risk of it happening again.

Injuries can happen for a variety of reasons, typically through overuse when you’re tired or from pushing yourself too far. When they do happen you need to stop and rest. Carrying on can make the problem worse and result in an even longer spell off your feet. You should get yourself home, rest, apply ice to the affected area and elevate it above the heart level to reduce the flow of blood to the region to help reduce inflammation. Following that initial rest period think about using a brace to apply compression which in turn will manage inflammation and offer pain relieving qualities.

Once you’ve recovered you will be eager to get back out on the road and in training again. You need to take it easy as once you’ve suffered an injury there is an increased risk of it happening once again. You should look at strengthening exercises to help rebuild strength in the affected muscle or joint and think about bracing when you’re out.

If you’ve suffered an ankle injury then think about wearing an ankle brace as you get back into training. A ligament brace can offer stability (to help reduce the risk of you rolling your ankle) and compression (to help manage inflammation). It’s that piece of mind when getting back out there but the bottom line is that you should know your limits.

Close up of a man holding his ankle in apparent pain Broken twisted ankle - running sport injury.

As the big day approaches

As the big day approaches you will know that your training will get you through the day, combined with a little bit of adrenaline and the cheering of the crowd. There are however some final things you need to think about in your preparation to make sure the day goes as planned.

Knowing your route and planning your technique

When you sign up to your marathon, get a map of the route so you know where you’re going so that you can start to put together your game plan.

You never start a marathon like Usain Bolt even with the crowd cheering you on so start slow and steady and build up to your cruise control pace. You should also start to look at the gradient of the run so if there are inclines and declines in the road then factor this into your pace. There is nothing worse than hitting a gradient on your run and having nothing left in the tank to climb it, so pace yourself and know what lies ahead.

When it comes to running a marathon you want to make sure you have ticked all the boxes, so it’s not just about your training and your diet but planning how you tackle the course ahead of you so that there are no surprises.

LATVIA, RIGA-18 may,2014:The 24th Nordea Riga marathon,at this time the marathon gained international recognition and previous marathon on 2013 gathered 22020 runners from 65 countries on 18 may 2014 LATVIA, RIGA-18 may,2014:The 24th Nordea Riga marathon,at this time the marathon gained international recognition and previous marathon on 2013 gathered 22020 runners from 65 countries on 18 may 2014

Wearing the right clothing

It is important that you dress for the occasion. If you’re planning on wearing a lobster costume then you’re all sorted, although you will be aware that you will need to drink more throughout the race to avoid dehydration and the heavier suit will undoubtedly slow you down.

If you’re not wearing a fancy dress costume then the biggest piece of advice is to go and check the weather. In recent years the London Marathon has seen some very sunny days, which is great for spectators but not so much for the participants. If it is sunny then make sure you pace yourself and drink plenty of water and be aware that you may post a slower time than projected. It is better to take a little longer than to not finish.

If it is sunny then wear shorts and a t-shirt (just don’t forget your sun cream). If it is a little cold then long pants and a long sleeve top will do the job. Just remember that whilst you may be cold at the start of the race that will change pretty quickly so make sure you are wearing something suitable for the entire marathon and not just the starting line.

You will know this from your training but stay away from cotton if you can as when you sweat (and you will) it sticks to you and that’s not pleasant, so stick to base layers and products like those from Under Armour (alternatives are available).

Final words

Training for a marathon is difficult and requires dedication and running a marathon is a whole new challenge again. There may be tears along the way and a few aches and pains and even days where you just don’t have the energy to get out of the house but just keep one thing in mind…remember the reason you signed up in the first place and use that as your inspiration.

When you cross the finishing line you’ll forget all about the pain and the long days and it will all be worthwhile.

Image of a starting line to a road race