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GOOD LUCK!

Hopefully, these pieces of advice will help you enjoy your first marathon training journey and cross your first marathon finish line with a smile on your face. If you have enjoyed this article, subscribe to our magazine to get exclusive and free access to all of our articles!

GOOD LUCK!

Hopefully, these pieces of advice will help you enjoy your first marathon training journey and cross your first marathon finish line with a smile on your face. If you have enjoyed this article, subscribe to our magazine to get exclusive and free access to all of our articles!

GOOD LUCK!

Hopefully, these pieces of advice will help you enjoy your first marathon training journey and cross your first marathon finish line with a smile on your face. If you have enjoyed this article, subscribe to our magazine to get exclusive and free access to all of our articles!

GOOD LUCK!

Hopefully, these pieces of advice will help you enjoy your first marathon training journey and cross your first marathon finish line with a smile on your face. If you have enjoyed this article, subscribe to our magazine to get exclusive and free access to all of our articles!

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By Josephine, running coach, marketing strategist and project management specialist. Ultrarunner, marathoner, and outdoors lover.  

There are many different reasons for which people decide to run their first marathon. Some want to challenge themselves and test their limits, some want to do it as a way to improve their fitness, others do it to raise money for a charity or to inspire others. Whatever your reason and target finish time is, completing a marathon is a big accomplishment that you will remember for many years.

Because of the marathon distance and race duration, training for your first marathon will likely be different from other, shorter distance races. It will require a bigger time commitment over a longer period of time. A structured training plan, proper nutrition and hydration as well as adequate rest and recovery will be even more critical to avoid getting injured.  

But don’t get overwhelmed! We have compiled an article explaining all the key aspects of training, nutrition, hydration, injury prevention and mental preparation to help you enjoy your first marathon training and have the best possible first-marathon experience.

FIRST MARATHON TRAINING

Why you should follow a training plan?

Training for your first marathon can be daunting. It is a big step-up from shorter distance races and therefore requires adequate preparation. Following a training plan rather than just taking it a day at a time will help you structure your training, build up your mileage gradually, boost your confidence and reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Ultimately, this will help you arrive at the start line healthy and race-ready. It will also help make your first marathon a fun and enjoyable experience that you will hopefully want to repeat in the future.

Choosing the right first marathon training plan

You just need to google “first marathon training plan” or open a running magazine to realise that there is no lack of marathon training resources. However, this large selection can make it overwhelming when it comes to choosing the plan that is right for you.

So what factors should you take into account when selecting your running training programme for your first marathon? Here are a few tips:

  • Choose a plan that takes your running experience into account. Most marathon training programs indicate a predetermined starting training volume. Make sure this coincides with your current fitness level. If you pick a plan with a starting volume that exceeds your current training level it will lead to a significant increase in running mileage at the start of the programme which will increase your risk of injury. As a general rule, you should aim to run around 20-40km per week consistently over at least three months before starting your first marathon training programme.  
  • Pick a plan that will give you sufficient time to build up the distance gradually. Progressively increasing the distance you run per week will help prevent overuse injuries from occurring. The recommended training plan duration for a first marathon is generally around 16-20 weeks.
  • Be realistic with regards to the amount of time you are willing to dedicate to training for your first marathon. When choosing your plan, consider the suggested number of running days per week to determine if the training schedule is feasible for you. If you pick a plan with an unrealistic amount of training sessions per week you will likely get frustrated and demotivated and you risk giving up on your goal before getting to the start line.

The most effective way to prepare for your first marathon would be to work with a running coach who can develop a personalised training plan for you by taking into account your experience, your current fitness level and your goal. However, if you don’t have access to a coach there are plenty of resources online and in running training books. Here are a few good quality training plans we recommend:

  • McMillan Running offers a large selection of marathon training plans for a number of different levels and durations. You can also pay a bit extra to get a coach to design a custom plan for just for you.
  • Runner’s World offers a number of free training plans for beginner and intermediate-level runners.  

Marathon training elements

Depending on which training plan you follow there will be variations in the programme structure but the large majority of first marathon training plans will include the same training elements: a weekly long run, speed work, easy runs, cross-training and rest days.

THE LONG RUN

The purpose of the weekly long run is to build endurance, to teach your body how to adjust to running longer distances and also to build up your confidence. These runs should be done at a slow pace (slower than the pace you are intending to run during your marathon). Throughout your marathon preparation, you will gradually build up the distance of your long run. Most marathon training plans peak at a long run of 30-34 kilometers.

SPEED WORK

Speed work will help you develop better speed endurance. When your body gets tired towards the end of the marathon a good speed endurance is what will help you maintain your running form. A good running form will prevent you from gradually slowing down as the start line adrenaline fades away.  However, speed workouts also put more stress on your body. This is why if you have never done speed work before it is important to introduce this type of sessions into your training progressively. The most common forms of speed workouts are intervals and tempo runs. An interval session includes a set number of medium to high intensity running periods followed by jog or walk recovery periods. Tempo runs are longer intervals run at a challenging but sustainable pace.

EASY RUNS

The purpose of easy runs is to increase your overall weekly mileage (i.e. the total distance you are running per week). Easy runs should be done at a relaxed pace. You should run slow enough to be able to have a conversation whilst running. The number of easy runs per week will vary between one and three depending on the frequency of your weekly training sessions.

REST DAYS

Rest is an important element of marathon training but it is also an aspect that is overlooked by many novice and seasoned runners. What is important to understand is that your body will not be able to capitalise on the hard training you are putting in unless you give it time to properly recover. It is actually during periods of rest that your body gets stronger. Too much stress on your body without sufficient rest will sooner or later lead to illness, injury or mental burnout. Make sure you alternate between “hard” and “easy” training days to give your body time to recover from more intense or longer runs. You should also aim to have at least one complete leg rest day per week to help your legs recover. On your rest day you can either have a complete day off or you can do some light stretching, yoga or treat yourself to an ice bath or a deep tissue sports massage.

CROSS TRAINING

Cross training consists of non-running low-impact fitness workouts used to complement running training. Cross training is an optional element to first marathon training but there are many reasons why you could greatly benefit from including some non-running training into your marathon preparation:

  • It can help prevent injury by building strength and flexibility in muscle groups that are not utilised when running;
  • It can help increase your upper body and core strength which will help you run more efficiently (see the section on Strength training below);
  • It can help improve your overall fitness and endurance without putting as much stress on your muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones than you would during a running workout;
  • It adds variety to your training routine.

You can incorporate cross training into your first marathon training by replacing one of your easy runs per week by a cross training activity. Another option is to add a cross training session to one or two of your easy running training days (for example, once or twice per week you can do an easy run in the morning and some cross training in the evening). In that case just make sure that your cross training supplements your running rather than increasing your level of fatigue.

Good cross-training activities for runners include cycling, swimming, aqua running, elliptical training and stationary rowing on an ergometer machine. The table below outlines the specific benefits of each cross training activity as well as points to consider if you are thinking about incorporating them into your first marathon training.

Cross training activityBenefits
Cycling
  • Build endurance
  • Improve quads and calfs strength
  • Strengthen connective tissue in the knee, hip and ankle region
Swimming
  • Build endurance
  • Improve core strength
  • Improve upper body strength
  • Improve flexibility and range of motion
Aqua running
  • Build endurance
  • Improve core strength
  • Good substitute for running days where you want to replace your easy run by cross training or in case of an injury that prevents you from doing any impact activities
Elliptical training
  • Build endurance
  • Good substitute for running days where you want to replace your easy run by cross training or in case of an injury that prevents you from doing any impact activities
Rowing machine
  • Strengthen hips, buttocks, core and upper body

What to do in case of missed training days?

Since training for a marathon happens over a number of months it is very likely that you will have to miss certain scheduled training days over this period. These unforeseen breaks in your training schedule could, for example, be due to sickness, travel or work- or family-related issues. Regardless of the reason, don’t try to catch up on workouts by adding the missed training sessions into subsequent days. This would lead to an increased risk of injury. Instead, you can follow the general guidelines below to help you evaluate what to do following your running break:

  • 1-4 missed days: this can be considered as a long recovery period. Simply resume your training without making changes to your training plan.
  • 5-8 missed days: start with two to three easy runs over three to four days before resuming your training at the point where you would have been if you hadn’t missed any training.
  • 9-14 missed days: start with three to four easy runs over four to six days before resuming your training at the point where you were before your break.
  • More than 14 missed days: start with four to six easy runs before resuming your training at the point where you were before your break. This loss of training will likely affect your readiness for your marathon. Consider re-evaluating your running goal (e.g. by increasing your target finish time or signing up to a different marathon a bit later in the year).  

NUTRITION AND HYDRATION

When preparing your first marathon training you will probably run longer distances and more frequently than what you are used to. A proper nutrition and hydration strategy will not only help you perform at your best on race day but it will also allow you to make the most of your training sessions. Below are some guidelines on what to eat and drink before, during and after your runs.

However, you should keep in mind that effective nutrition and hydration strategies are dependent on a large number of factors (e.g. weight, metabolism, training intensity, pace, temperature). A plan that works well for one particular athlete may not work for another runner. It is therefore important that you try out different variations during training so that you arrive on race day with a tried and tested fuelling strategy that you know works for you. Working with a sports nutritionist would be the ideal option to help guide you through this process.

Pre-run nutrition

Pre-run nutrition applies mainly to long runs that exceed 60 minutes. You should have a high-carb snack 1-2 hours before you plan to train. The optimal quantity of carbs depends on many factors but as a general guideline aims for around 1-4 grams of carbohydrates per kg of body weight (e.g. if you weigh 50kg that will equal to 50-200g of carbs). Good pre-run snack options include ½ cup of oatmeal with a ½ of a ripe banana, a wholemeal toast with honey or 3-4 dates. If you are planning a higher intensity workout or a very long run you can add a small amount of protein (for example a tablespoon of peanut or almond butter) to help sustain your energy levels further.

Pre-run hydration

Making sure that you begin your run well hydrated will delay the onset of thirst and dehydration. This is particularly important when running in hot temperatures. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends drinking about 500mL of fluid 2hrs before your workout. Avoid sports drinks with high sugar contents prior to your run. Instead, drink plain water, water with a sugar-free electrolyte tablet (ZERO and Nuun are both good options) or a diluted sports drink. The reason for that is that absorption of fluids into the bloodstream is very much dependent on the carbohydrate content of the fluid you ingest. A drink with a high sugar content will, therefore, lead to a slower absorption rate and you would, therefore, feel thirsty again sooner.

On-the-run nutrition

Taking in fuel during training runs is only necessary for runs lasting over 90 minutes. The primary source of fuel during long slow efforts is glycogen. The amount of glycogen that your body can store is limited. This is why re-fuelling on the run is necessary to keep your energy levels high throughout the workout. The fuel you take in during your run should be mostly in the form of carbohydrates. The quantity of carbs depends on your weight, the training intensity and duration and other environmental conditions but as a general guideline aims for about 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour of exercise.

This quantity should be spread out over time intervals (for example every 20 minutes) to make it easier for your body to absorb the fuel. The carbs can come from a sports drink, energy gels, energy chews or “real” food like dates. When it comes to on-the-run nutrition every runner’s tolerance is different. This is why it is key that you use your long training runs to find out what works best for you ahead of race day.

 

On-the-run hydration

For short, low intensity workouts rehydrating after you finish your run is sufficient. But for higher intensity, longer training runs you will need to re-hydrate on the run to replace the fluid you are losing through sweating. Ideally, you should determine the required amount of fluid to take in based on your sweat rate by weighing yourself before and after your workout.

But as a starting point, you can aim for around 150-200mL every 15 to 20 minutes. The key for on-the-run rehydration is how rapidly the fluids you ingest can be absorbed into your bloodstream. Drinking plain water is usually fine for runs lasting up to an hour but for longer runs, you will need to replenish your sodium levels with electrolytes. Choose water with a sugar-free electrolyte tablet or a diluted sports drink (as opposed to a pure high sugar content sports drink) to help maximise the absorption rate.

 

Post-run nutrition

Refuelling within 30 to 60 minutes of finishing your run will help speed up the recovery process. The food you consume post-run should consist of a mix of carbs and protein. The carbs will help replenish your glycogen stores and the protein will help repair muscle tissue damage. After easy, short runs lasting less than an hour, a small snack (like for example a small ripe banana) is sufficient. However, for higher intensity workouts (like for example speed intervals) or for runs exceeding 60 minutes, you should eat a more substantial recovery meal.

Experts recommend eating foods with a 4 to 1 protein to carbohydrate ratio to refuel post workout. As a general guideline, aim to consume around 15 to 25 grams of protein and 50 to 75 grams of carbs. This could include a turkey sandwich made with 2 slices of whole grain bread, 4 thin slices of turkey and some veggies.

 

Post-run hydration

Properly rehydrating after your run will help your body recover better. Drink at least 0.5 – 1 litre of fluid per hour until your urine returns to its normal colour. To speed up the recovery process, choose a drink containing electrolytes. You can learn more about how to best rehydrate following a workout by reading this article written by our sports nutritionist Paula Marcé.

INJURY PREVENTION

When you train for your first marathon you will probably run more than what you are used to. This increase in running mileage can lead to an increased risk of injuries (an overuse injury is an injury such as tendinitis or a stress fracture, that is caused by repetitive trauma rather than by a single impact). Follow the advice below to remain healthy throughout your training and arrive at the marathon start line in great form.

Strength training for marathon runners

Incorporating strength training into your preparation for your first marathon can help reduce the risk of overuse injuries by correcting muscle imbalances. In addition, strength training can also help to maintain lean muscle mass and improve running economy. Focus on exercises that target your core, hips and glutes like for example squats, lunges, bridge leg lifts, lower body Russian twists and planks.

If you have never done strength training before, start with one session per week and gradually build up to three weekly sessions. Pilates and yoga are also good ways to help strengthen your core. Avoid doing a hard strength training session the day before a hard running workout.

Warming up before workouts

It can be tempting to skip the warm up, especially when you are busy. But warming up properly before each workout will not only lead to improved performance during the training session, it will also reduce muscle soreness following the workout and greatly reduce the risk of getting injured.

Start your warm-up by walking or jogging lightly for 3-10 minutes. This will help your body transition into workout mode more smoothly. Do a few dynamic stretches like forward and sideways leg swings, high knee pulls, walking lunges and bent-over torso twists. Finish your warm up with two to five acceleration strides over a 50-100m flat straight surface.

 

Rest and recovery

As mentioned earlier in the article, make sure you incorporate rest days into your training schedule. Rest days can be complete days off training. Alternatively, you can do some low to moderate intensity cross-training activities like swimming, cycling, hiking or yoga.

Get sufficient sleep. Sleep is one of the biggest, cheapest but also one of the most underrated contributors to recovery. When your body is sleep deprived it becomes less efficient at recovering from workouts and repairing damaged tissue. So make sure you get your 7-8 hours sleep in a night!

Above all, learn to listen to your body. If you feel any pain or niggles, don’t ignore it. It is better to take a day off training than to ignore your body’s signs and risk ending up with an overuse injury.

MENTAL PREPARATION 

How to stay motivated through your first marathon training

Training for your first marathon is a long process. It takes commitment and motivation. Particularly in the middle of the programme, when you start experiencing cumulative fatigue there may be times when you just don’t feel like running. That is when it is important to have strategies in place that help you boost your motivation. Below are a few suggestions that will help you persevere.

KNOW WHY YOU ARE DOING IT

Before you start your training ask yourself what your motivation for running a marathon. Write it down and stick it somewhere where it is easy for you to see (for example on your fridge or on your bathroom mirror). Whenever you are feeling low on motivation, read it out to remind yourself of why you originally set out to complete this challenge.

PICK A MANTRA

A mantra is a short phrase or positive affirmation that helps direct your mind away from negative thoughts. If you are struggling to motivate yourself before a workout or if the going gets tough during a training session repeating the mantra to yourself will give you something positive to focus on to regain motivation. There are endless options to chose from, but here are some examples of mantras used by elite marathoners:

  • Shalane Flanagan: “Run without any regrets”
  • Deena Kastor: “Go faster. Push harder. Today, define yourself”
  • Amy Hastings: “I breathe in strength. I breathe out weakness”

TRAIN WITH OTHERS

Doing some of your runs (especially the long runs) with a training partner or joining a running group can be a great way to keep yourself accountable and train consistently.  

ENJOY THE PROCESS

When you are training for a marathon, the journey leading up to race day is as important as the race itself. Make sure you enjoy the entire process rather than just focusing on the end result. Celebrate small accomplishments along the way like for example getting through a challenging interval session or completing a long training run.

You can also include some intermediate goals in your training (like for example a 10k or half-marathon race). These will give you something less overwhelming than the full marathon to focus on when you get started with your training.

How to remain confident on race day?

It is completely normal to feel nervous on race day, especially on your first marathon. But luckily there are many strategies that you can implement to help you control your pre-race nerves and remain calm.

 

  • Get familiar with the course prior to race day: Study the race map. Know where the aid stations are located and how many there will be along the way. Be clear on where the start area is and how you will get there on race day.
  • Avoid trying anything new on race day: It can be tempting to turn up on race day with shiny new gear but instead, stick with the equipment you have used on your long training runs.
  • Test your nutrition and hydration strategy during your long training runs: This way you will know that you have a plan that works for you and you feel confident in your ability to finish the race without running out of energy.
  • Remind yourself of all the training you have put in: Reminding yourself of everything you have done over the past months to prepare for the marathon should give you faith in your fitness level and in your ability to reach the finish line. You can use the mantra you developed during training to help you with that.

GOOD LUCK!

Hopefully, these pieces of advice will help you enjoy your first marathon training journey and cross your first marathon finish line with a smile on your face. If you have enjoyed this article, subscribe to our magazine to get exclusive and free access to all of our articles!