My top ten training tips for your first marathon
by Frank Gilroy
Over many years I have had a passion for running and have been fortunate enough to have run many marathons and ultramarathons. I run these races either as myself Francis Gilroy or dressed up as a mascot. I have run many races as Harvey the Hospice Heart and more recently as Muggy the MacMillan mug! My aim for 2020 is to complete the London marathon for Team McKeown Macmillan Cancer Support. My day job is a Physiotherapist with a Masters in Biomechanics, and on a daily basis I treat patients with running injuries. I am frequently asked for advice on training tips for running the marathon distance and the training this distance requires.
Running a marathon is not for everyone and you really need to be medically fit enough in order to put your body through the stresses and strains it will involve. So, my first advice would be that you speak to your GP the next time you visit and discuss your running goals and see whether running a marathon is a realistic goal for you as an individual. 1 in 3 people who enter a marathon will not arrive on the start line for a variety of reasons, so there is no point in spending a significant amount of money on entering an event you will never do.
The following are the 10 most common tips I give to people who have decided a marathon is for them. I am not going to suggest a specific training regime as there are so many available including the Runner’s world and London marathon training guides.
Condition yourself with a gradual introduction to exercise and have a healthy diet.
If you are going to start from a low base of exercise level I would advise you to do 3 months minimum of swimming, cycling, cross trainer and walking to get your body used to exercise. Make sure your weight is at the right level so that you don’t load your joints too much and remember the more weight you are carrying the harder your muscles will have to work. Marathon training is hard enough without making it harder. Take advice from a good fitness advisor and combine your training regime with a healthy varied diet. Perhaps take a look at the NHS “Couch to 5k” or look into a local park run if this is your first experience of running and be realistic about the time it takes to achieve your final goal.
Buy a pair of good fitting cushioned supportive running shoes that suit you
During the Glasgow marathons of the early 80s, most runners wore Dunlop Green Flash or Silver Shadow trainers and many who ran these marathons suffered with bilateral shin splints or other injuries due to lack of support, including myself. Nowadays there are hundreds if not thousands of different types of running shoes available. Therefore, in order to make an informed decision, I advise my patients to go into the shops and try running shoes on, walk up and down, and see which pairs feel comfortable and supportive. Once you have chosen a pair wear them in for a couple of weeks to make sure you are happy with them, before starting to run. There is no single running shoe that suits everyone, so you must get a pair that suits you as an individual, and this may take a couple of attempts, but it is crucial for your marathon training that you pick the right shoes. My close friend Mandy Abbott a senior lecturer in Podiatry confirms that the most up to date research shows that comfort is the most important factor in choosing footwear to prevent injury.
Wear clothes that are comfortable and prevent chaffing
Make sure you have running clothes that keep you at a comfortable temperature when you are running. You should not be too cold when you start or too warm after you get going. It is useful to carry a couple of additional clothing items in a small backpack which can be used during your run if necessary. This is much better than tying jackets round your waist, especially once the mileage increases. In your backpack you can also carry your fuel and the much-needed fluids we will talk about later. I use lots of Vaseline to prevent blisters and chaffing from developing, as these can become significant issues as your distance increases.
Find people of your own ability to train with and make it fun
Marathon training can be a lonely business especially over the winter so find people at your own level to train with. Most of the injuries I see are caused by trying to go too fast or too far too soon. Therefore, it is important to very gradually increase your running distance. Over a six-month training schedule aim to increase your long run by roughly 1 mile per week and so over a 26 week period you should be up to 23 to 24 miles for your long run. If you miss a week or 2 for whatever reason, this is not the end of the world and you won’t lose the gains you have already made. Company on your runs will make it much more fun as will running with people of your own ability so you won’t struggle to keep up and burn out. Perhaps consider joining a running club like Bellahouston Harriers where you will meet like-minded people.
Plan each long run in advance and vary the routes and includes places you can go for toilet stops
As we have said, marathon training is difficult so take some time each week to plan where you are going on your long run. I vary these training runs as much as possible ideally with something interesting to see on the way and a nice café at the end as a reward. Most people will need the toilet whilst they are out, so having an idea where you can stop on route is always a good idea and taking a couple of minutes for a comfort stop is not going to affect your times in training or during the big day itself.
Vary your surfaces to reduce loading through your joints
One of the best ways to give your joints and muscles a rest/change is to run on different surfaces. Running on grass will produce less force than running constantly on paths/pavements so whenever I am out I will try and run at least some of the route on grass e.g. through parks or on trails. And yes you need to accept that the nice trainers you are wearing will get dirty! But the cushioning you get is worth it. Scotland is full of fantastic areas to run so my advice to anyone doing long distance marathon training is get yourself out and visit different places. I also like some variation in my runs in terms of undulation and some rolling hills will help with endurance and reducing stress through joints and muscles by changing which muscles are working during the running motion.
Make sure you get your fuel and fluid levels right
This is probably the most important area for running. Humans are 70 percent water and even being slightly dehydrated will affect performance and increase injury risk. If your long runs are early morning you may already start dehydrated. So have an extra glass of water with your breakfast and top up by drinking water as you go along. If you don’t like carrying water then take some money and stop at the shop on your route. Fuel is exactly the same, you would not drive your car without enough fuel, and the same goes for your body. Start with a breakfast and have extra fuel with you to take especially as you increase your mileage. My favourites are porridge before I run and energy bars and sugary sweets whilst I’m running. This is very much a personal choice and very much part of your marathon preparation so take as much time to get it right during your long runs as you need. It is also important to refuel within 20 to 30 mins of finishing your long training runs.
Avoid training with injury and use the pool/bike to reduce load
As your distances increase you will get sore legs particularly in the big muscle groups. The way I deal with this soreness is to mix my training with cross training, hydro jogging in the pool and cycling. This gives my legs a rest but is also good psychologically as I feel I am still training. I aim to do some sort of training 5 days a week, but remember rest is very important for your recovery. If you get injured, as we all do, listen to your body and take the rest. Nature will deal with most issues if you take the time your body needs to heal.
Don’t put yourself under any time pressure
I might be wrong but it is very unlikely that you are going to win your first marathon and if you push yourself too hard it is more likely that you will get an injury or run out of fuel. I don’t wear a watch when I run but just train within my comfort zone whether I am going for a record or not. My advice is to download some good podcasts or music as a fall back to when the pals you are running with are fed up chatting, so that you have something to occupy your time. Your long training runs can take up to 4 hours which is a lot of time to fill!
Enjoy yourself and remember why you are putting yourself through this training.
On cold wet winter mornings when you could be curled up in bed but instead you are out running, you need to remember why you’re doing it. To keep you motivated, you need to remember what your personal goal is and think about the other people you are running with. It is a fabulous achievement whether you are raising money for your favourite charity or for other personal reasons.
Running a marathon has a strange effect on people, some people will run one marathon and that is enough whereas others want to keep doing more and more marathons. It is an incredible achievement not just the day itself but also all the training you need to do before the big event.