Part 1 – The Basics & the Plan
Around this time of year it’s usual to start seeing an increase in runners on the streets, not to mention the sudden upswing in emails and Facebook posts asking for sponsorship – all because of the Spring marathon season. Maybe you’re training for your first marathon at the moment or have started to wonder if you might give it a go at some point in the future.
It’s easy to go to one extreme or the other when approaching marathon training as a ‘Normal’. By ‘Normal’ I mean someone who is a regular social or keeping fit runner, but not a person who has a long standing background in athletics or is a seasoned marathoner going for a specific time.
You could approach it by taking it as it comes and seeing what happens. Or you could try to learn as much as you can about all the do’s and don’ts and end up confused and with information overload.
I’m not a coach or an expert by any means. I am a fellow Normal with a tiny bit of experience of what it takes to train for a marathon. Having completed one, not made it to the start line of another, and currently being in training for a third I’ve managed to cover the good, the bad and the ugly of marathon training all within a little over a year.
My aim in this two part guide is to share some of what I have found seems to work, but the real fundamental thing to remember is that you can only do what works for you. It really is a very individual thing.
Come on then Normals, let’s crack on:
Safety in Numbers
Something I absolutely can’t imagine is trying to train for a marathon completely solo. I’m biased, but I would highly recommend joining a local club or checking out online forums on Runner’s World, or seeking out social media based groups such as Run Mummy Run or UKRunChat on Twitter. It’s important to have people to ask questions and bounce ideas off. At the very least, go to parkrun. You might meet a running buddy at your pace! A great advantage with running clubs is that you may get access to coaches who can help you tailor a plan to your ability and personal circumstances, as well as being your biggest cheerleader. I have a brilliant coach who always takes the time to check in and see what I’m up to, and his advice and care is truly invaluable.
The Right Support
For all Normals, the right running shoes are essential. It’s worth going to a good running shop to get your gait checked. Before I started running with a club I had no idea what ‘overpronation’ was and because of that used to suffer with knee problems. Something as simple as the right arch or midsole support might keep you off the physio bench and on the pavement.
For female Normals, you also need to find a good sports bra. Boobs move in a figure of eight motion when you run, and this stretches and damages all the ligaments in them. If you’ve ever ripped a ligament elsewhere you will know this is not something you want to do to your Bristols.
Do not listen to gossip or fashion magazines in their New Year’s workout gear specials either – I saw an article in one of those this January claiming to recommend sports bras; out of all the ‘bras’ they reviewed only two of them were actually sports bras, the rest were just athleisurewear crop tops with absolutely no support or structure.
If you’re a bit bigger on top, try Bravissimo – they stock Shock Absorbers which are absolutely brilliant and go up to a G or even an HH depending on the style.
Another reason not to try to fly completely solo is that going it alone might allow you to be completely rigid about your training plan, for fear that you will fail if you don’t hit all the sessions. But if you have never done it before, how will you know how your body will cope with the increased distance? You might find that you need an extra rest day, or not to run on consecutive days. It’s ok to change things up but sometimes it needs someone else to tell you that before you’ll listen.
Some people run 5 or 6 sessions a week when marathon training, once you include strength and cross training. But ask yourself, as a Normal, can my body cope with that level of exercise? That person from my club who runs a 60 mile week – how long have they been running at this level? How many marathons have they run before? If they are an ultra runner who is a member of the 100 club then why would how they train be the same as how you train?
When I was training for the Rome marathon, I had 4 running sessions a week but no strength work or cross training. I got through it with one minor injury and did ok. For New York I tried upping it to 5 sessions a week and made a half-hearted effort to fit in strength training on top of that. This destroyed me – I was completely knackered and had to pull out during taper with a serious overuse condition. This time around for London I am doing 3 runs and a yoga class each week which allows me to fit in a long run, a technical run, an easy run and a cross training workout which covers both strength and flexibility.
The main things to avoid on your plan are building up the distance too quickly, running all your sessions at the same pace, and not slowing down a bit overall as you increase the mileage.
It all depends on what your goal is – if it’s just to get round then technical sessions will certainly help, but you probably don’t need a lactate threshold run every week. But if you are running a marathon with hills in it, running hill repeats once a fortnight might make all the difference. Including some prehab in the form of strength exercises and a decent amount of stretching and foam rolling will also stand you in good stead. Jeff Horowitz’s Quick Strength for Runners is a great starting point.
If you’re not sure what pace you should be doing your long run at, you can play around with online pacing tools to work that out. Try the Runner’s World Race Time Predictor using a recently 10k or half marathon time to predict a reasonable marathon finish time. Once you have that, put it into a pace calculator to get your mile or kilometre pace (I really like the Cool Running calculator). For your long training run pace, add around 45 – 60 seconds per mile to your predicted race day pace.
It might seem counter-intuitive to train at a slower pace than you want to run on the day, but the point of doing this is so that you are not completely wiped out by the time race day rolls around. You can throw in marathon pace runs as you get closer to the day, but if your goal is to finish respectably but not necessarily in a fast time then slow and steady will be your friend. If you train too hard you’ll start losing your motivation out of tiredness.
More on that and on taking care of yourself in part 2.
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