The past few weeks have seen a flurry of top marathon places being doled out, and a whole host of first-time marathoners bricking it thinking “Oh gees, now I ACTUALLY have to run the London Marathon and that is LONG”. It was around this time last year that I found out I had a gold bond place to run Brighton Marathon and I was thinking the exact same thing.
I really let the mental side of the marathon get on top of me. The whole task seemed too huge for me to complete and I completely freaked out. I shyed away from my runs and often skipped or reduced my mid-length mid-week run for fear of burning my legs out. I completely changed the way I train when, realistically, I didn’t need to and suffered because of it. Having only done one I am far from an expert, but here’s a list of things I wish I’d known before I embarked on training for my first marathon, for all first time marathoners preparing to take on the 18 weeks of winter preparation.
(1) Don’t skip speed work
When I first started training I decided I would be too tired to speed train and that the sensible thing to do would be to skip speed training to ‘preserve my legs’ for my long runs. Idiot. Speed work makes you faster and fitter and will improve your running exponentially. I know this, but the marathon psyched me out and it was the first in a long line of silly things I did. Boost your training with one speed session (track, intervals or a tempo run) a week, just be sure to recover properly afterwards.
(2) Don’t skip strength training
Strength training does what it says on the tin – it makes you stronger. What do you need for a marathon? A strong body. Strong muscles will help you further and faster and protect you from picking up pesky injuries. If you’re new to strength training or just straight up don’t do it then I wouldn’t launch in to a full blown weights programme, but would definitely recommend adding in some body weight squats, walking lunges, plank and glute bridges a couple of times a week. If you’re a regular with the weights then I wouldn’t recommend going for your deadlift PB, but definitely maintain your routine at a manageable level to stay in peak condition.
(3) Don’t skip runs
Yes, you might be tired, but the only way to get better at running in by doing more running. I would skip runs on the premise that ‘I know I can run 3 miles, what’s the point?’. The point is, you don’t run to show you can do it, you run to get better at doing it. Consistent training is the number one way to progress, so dragging your butt out of bed early or out in the dark after a long day at work is always going to be worth it.
Yes, it’s a ballache to spend another 15 minutes stretching when you’ve spent 3 hours running and all you want to do is have a bath and eat toast. But you know what’s an even bigger ballache? Short, tight, angry muscles that cuss you out with every step you take and make you cry when you try and walk down stairs first thing in the morning. I let my calf muscles get in an awful state when I was training out of sheer laziness. As a minimum stretch your calf muscles, quads, hamstrings and hips after every run. I can also really recommend the Shawn Johnson stretching routine in the NTC app – try and do it once a week for an all over stretch. Even better, hit a yoga class.
(5) Don’t eat all the food
When I was training I would get hungry a lot. Nothing new. But, instead of being a sensible Soph and filling up on healthy foods to fuel my body, I somehow decided that I needed ALL the energy and ALL the carbs and decided to eat everything in sight, including things I would normally avoid as I know they’re not every day foods for me (cake, biscuits, bread, chocolate, sweets…). I was constantly panicking that I would run out of energy or not be fuelled and ended up making a lot of bad choices. Sometimes out of pure hunger blackout, sometimes because I felt panicked and overwhelmed, sometimes self-justified as ‘deserved’ because I was training so much.
DO NOT DO THIS. I gained weight, felt constantly sluggish and down and my running definitely suffered. Yes, when you’re training for a marathon you need extra food, but keep the food healthy and increase the portions or frequency of your meals. This time round I have upped myself to six smaller meals a day, increased my protein intake and cut down on refined sugars so that I can maintain even energy levels and not ride the haribo rollercoaster again.
(6) Don’t panic
Go and watch and marathon and you’ll see all sorts of people running. Skinny fast dudes in obscene shorts. Skinny fast ladies in compression socks. Old dudes. Fat businessmen. Housewives. Students. Cool people from Run Dem Crew! Pretty much all corners of society are covered in a marathon. And they’re all out there, doing it. Commit to your training and you will finish, there is no doubt about it. Don’t commit to your training and you’ll probably still finish, it’ll just be a bit messier. You got this. When I was training for Brighton I spent lots of time panicking and not enough time having faith in myself. Yes, it’s going to be hard, but you’re capable. Train your mind to believe in yourself, because that’s the biggest battle.
So, there we have it. Six things I’ll be avoiding this time around. What advice would you offer to someone tackling 26.2 for the first time?