What I wanted to know before my first marathon


This time last year I stood on the brink of many things; a new year, my first year out of full time education since the age of four, potential unemployment as my internship was coming to an end, and training for my first marathon.  I had so many questions about marathon training, and there were a few unlucky people who allowed me to bombard them with some of them, but I was borderline obsession with how much I wanted to get the whole thing right.

Actually, borderline is generous.

I was totally obsessed.

There is so much written about training, and often when you get an answer to a question it instead breeds yet more questions.

If anyone is starting to get ready for their first marathon in the new year, especially a spring one like London, Paris or Brighton, then you are probably bogged down in the same confusing questions that I was last year.  If I could visit myself a year ago this is what I would say.

How do I know which is the right training programme?

You can’t know until you start I’m afraid, and even then the answer changes as your body changes and life gets in the way.  When you do your first marathon you desperately want to have an infallible programme to put all of your faith into so that you can just get on with things, and that doesn’t exist.  The best thing you can do is simply choose one that sounds achievable and realistic to your goals and take it from there.

I chose an official VMLM training programme and mixed elements of advanced and intermediate.  I stuck to it pretty loyally for the first few weeks.  However, injury, illness and a skiing trip got in the way and I had soon missed long runs, speed runs and various other bits and bobs and I found some of the language and varieties of session a little difficult to understand.  Initially I felt really paranoid and concerned about this, as though by missing individual elements the entire training programme would fail.  However, I simply tailored the programme to my growing understanding of what I needed.

I ended up using my programme as a basic structure and as guidance for progressing the distance for my long runs, but I then did a lot based on what my body and schedule would allow.  I stopped doing the prescribed speed sessions and would try my best to go to an athletics club and take part in their speed sessions.  I listened to the advice of the programme and my more experienced friends and tweaked this information to my body and needs.

If your programme contains a weekly long run, two short distance runs and one or two speed or hill sessions then that’s a pretty good start.

Can I run it in Nike Frees?

No.  Go to Runners Need.  Listen to your gut instinct and your experience with styles of trainer, but you do not know better than they do.  Really, you don’t.

Note. You especially don’t know better than them when you try and buy new trainers two weeks before the marathon and then have to return them to a different store because you’re so embarrassed at your insistence that it was a good idea to buy new trainers two weeks before a marathon.

Can I still go to the gym?

Yes.  Actually, you should.  Training your legs is essential, but a strong core, back, legs and glutes are essential to endurance and speed.  Don’t feel guilty if you don’t run all the time as some of those sessions can be better spent working on your strength and thus getting more from your runs.

What is a tempo run?

You’re not going to like these Polly, but they are important.  It means running at different paces and being able to understand and regulate your pace effectively.

A good summary can be found here.

What if I get an injury?

You will.  Several of them in fact.  The first few you try and exercise through but you learn your lesson by Week Ten and start going to a physio.  The physio will tell you off for not stretching enough.

If you get an injury rest immediately and then deal with it formally at the first opportunity, and don’t forget to stretch.

I’m worried people are sick of hearing about the marathon.  What if I become a running bore?

You’re already a running bore, but it’s okay because your friends know how much you care about it and how much work you’ve put in, and there are a lot of people who will be actively interested in talking to you about it all.

However, whilst being a running bore is part of the territory, it’s not okay to ever be a running snob. You’re running a marathon not curing cancer, and a 5k to one is a marathon to another, so always be kind, generous and realistic when you talk about it.  Unless you then do an Ironman.  You’re probably allowed to show off about that.


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