I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years reading about or even speaking to some pretty impressive athletes about how to prepare for a marathon. The information I get back is interesting, sometimes even useful. The problem I have though is that I’m not really an athlete. I’ve run six marathons now, each with varying levels of success. I’ve run some that I’m proud of and others that I finished and thought that’s the last time I do one of those.
The first marathon I ever took part in was Amsterdam back in 2012. I’d never ran any further than a half before, but due to my competitive personality and a fair bit of peer pressure from a few friends, I wanted to see if I could do it. I’ve never been a particularly good runner, I spend too much time doing weights in the gym to be in any way fast. I’m consistent though. A mentality that will endure a fair amount of pain and sense of pride that pushes me on regardless of the hardship means I can maintain a good pace. I really wasn’t sure whether that would still be the case at marathon distance.
Aside from the fitness side of things, I actually have a very un-athletic personal life. I work in an office all day, I drink a couple of times a week, I go out for dinner quite a bit. If I want a Snickers, I’ll generally have a Snickers. All of that stuff is important to who I am. I’m not going to stop doing it, I’m never going to be the kind of person with a strict diet and training plan. I’m never going to count my macros and sit in a pub drinking orange juice. So when an athlete or coach tells me the best way to train it’s not exactly the most useable information. Athletes don’t pick and choose the aspects of training they want to do. They sacrifice pretty much everything to be the best.
I know I’m not going to be the best. I’m completely fine with that.
Now, if you’re reading this and you’re aiming to finish the marathon in 2.45, then I’m probably going to be of very little use to you. If however you’re reading this and thinking I get it, this guy is like me, then I may actually be able to give you some tips. Especially if you’ve never done a marathon before.
But just to be clear, running a marathon is actually pretty hard. You can’t just turn up and have a nice relaxing morning. It’s painful. Hell in some parts in fact. Trust me, there are marathons I’ve trained for, I mean really trained for, and even then I wanted to cry at some points. There’s also marathons I haven’t trained for, marathons where I did very little (note: I was still fit. I was still running a few half marathons beforehand – that’s still the minimum. Trust me).
Many of you will have just weeks to go before a marathon this year. Not a lot of time to do any real training. Maybe a few shorter runs but that’s about it. There’s still a lot of preparation to do though, and went it comes to a marathon, preparation is so important. Even the tiniest thing on the day can become a major problem. Say for example socks – choose the wrong pair of socks and you can end up with blisters by halfway. Fitness doesn’t stop blisters from hurting.
So here are a few things I’ve learnt over the years. Mistakes that, at some point or another, I’ve made, with varying levels of distress.
I put this first as it is by far the most important aspect of preparation to any race. Seriously, it may not be the most poetic thing to talk about, but if your toilet game is off on marathon day, you’re going to struggle. There are many factors involved in this as well: what you eat the day before, what time you go to bed, what time you get up, how much water you drink, if you have a coffee. It’s a tricky one to get right in fact.
The first thing I would say is eat normally for you. A lot of people will read about the best pre-marathon meals to eat and radically change their diet the day before. I did this at Brighton Marathon a couple of years ago. I ate a ridiculously healthy and fibre-rich diet the day before. The resultant effect meant I spent at least twenty minutes of the race stopping off in various toilets throughout the course. It was probably the worse race I’ve ever actually ran. Conversely the time I ate a giant burger and chips followed by a full packet of chocolate biscuits the night before Madrid Marathon I had my best race ever.
Get up early as well. Use the toilet at home if you can. Race toilets are normally a pretty daunting sight, especially if you’re in a rush. Plan to get to the race an hour early and nip into a Wetherspoons or somewhere for a cup of tea and use theirs.
So it’s your first marathon. You’re all excited, you’re in the Nike store and money is irrelevant. You want to cross the finish line dressed like some sort of fitness model in all the coolest new kit. Don’t. Remember that bit in Braveheart where they’re systematically torturing him? You’ll look like that. Your t-shirt will be chafing, your shorts will feel like they’re made of tin foil and those socks, well, let’s just say you’ll have a nasty surprise when you take them off.
When you run a marathon even the slightest issue becomes significantly more important. A tiny little rub on something starts to become all you can think about. Stick with comfortable clothes you’re used to, the clothes you’ve been training in. Especially the shoes. You’ll care a lot more about finishing than if you looked cool at mile eighteen.
Some people like to run with music, some don’t. I have to. When running a road race I like to completely zone out and not focus on the route or my breathing. There are songs I listen to that make me run faster, there are songs that I listen to at specific points of the race to help me out, hell, at mile twenty during the Amsterdam marathon I accidentally started listening to a Christian rock song. It pulled me through. I have it on my iPod now for whenever I hit the wall.
But like buying new kit, don’t sit downloading new songs onto your mp3 player the day before. Take the same ones you’re used to running with, they’ll bring you a sort of learned relaxation. Something that you’re in control of during the race. It’s a bit like muscle memory. You’re mind will associate those songs with your training.
The Day Before
What you do the day before is important. It will have a direct effect on the day after. You may be nervous, you may be anxious. Just make sure you relax and don’t end up doing anything you’re not used to. Spend some of the day getting all of your stuff ready. Charge your mp3 player and your tracking watch. Get your things ready for work on Monday so you don’t have to do it on Sunday night. You really won’t want to do it then. Buy some food in that’s ready for you when you get back from the race. Put some new bedsheets on. It all helps.
Seriously. Unless you’re aiming for a ridiculous time it really doesn’t matter. There are other marathons, thousands of the things. If you don’t feel great on the day it’s fine. If it’s your first marathon take it easy. If you’ve never done one before it’s a massive shock to the system, use it as a test to see what they’re like. Then next time you’ll have that under your belt and you can plan accordingly. You’ll be so elated at just finishing the thing that any fears or concerns you had before will be completely irrelevant.
Important. Very important in fact. Keep drinking throughout the day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Not loads, just a sip here and there. But if there’s a water stop, have a bit. You’ll understand why in the later miles.
Oh yeah, and enjoy it. There are few things in life you’ll experience quite like the elation of finishing a marathon. Partly due to relief, partly due to pride and partly due to the crowds chanting as you make your way past them. Seriously, it’s amazing. You’ll never forget it.