Wednesday, 24 April 2013

So you want to run a marathon? Here's how to...

Caveat: This post is aimed at people who have never run or have run a bit.

This could be you! (1 day)
I spent some time this year watching the London marathon on the BBC after I got back in from my Sunday morning training run. I'm not a big fan of watching the race on the TV. I've ran it 3 times and watched friends a few times live, but this year, after the tragedy that happened at Boston, the fact Mo Farah was competing up to half way and a lot of people I knew were running, forced me to switch on.

At the same time I was tracking friends splits on the official VLM site and taking joy from the brilliant occasion. Given the factors mentioned, it seemed this years crowd was the biggest ever (Olympic effect?). Looking over Twitter I spotted a lot of people inspired from both my running fraternity and beyond. One such person, @Thayer, an old mucker and fellow Dartfordian from my London days, posted the immortal words: "I am *so* doing the marathon next year"

Now if I had a £ for every person who I have been with at the race or chatted to afterwards who uttered these words, I'd probably be posting to you from the Bahamas right now :-) but as a dedicated running nut I totally get why people say these prophetic words. So I promised Thayer I'd write a blog post for just such an occasion, and since Sunday I've been mulling over what should go in here. This is one of those posts that if you do read and follow, I'd advise coming back to at different points during the training cycle. Why? Because if you do go on this journey, it ain't going to be easy. If you see it through, it will be really rewarding, you will feel a sense of immense satisfaction but you will have highs and lows along the way that you won't have been through before. It is easy to lose heart. I'm not Alberto Salazar or Dave Bedford, but I've run 5 marathons, advised a lot of runners and know what it takes to the step from the couch to the finish line.

Motivation is the bread and butter of Sport Psychology (along with confidence) and your motivation will take a battering for sure as you prepare you body and mind for what you are signing up to. But in this modern day of knowledge on the internet, friendly helpful people on Twitter and a sizeable running community in the real world, you have everything you need at your fingertips to do it.

You've made your proclamation, you've been motivated enough to come this far, if you want to continue, the rest of this post will forewarn of what you can expect and some of the crucial things you should consider but probably won't have thought of. Use this as a guide. Where possible the advice is from experience, care for the athlete and with as much health concern for you as possible. But (inserts disclaimer) it is not definitive and you are grown up boys and girls so I am not going to take the fall if you come a cropper. You've taken this much ownership, do your research, listen and take my advice with a pinch of salt as big or as little as you want.

If you want to enter VLM 2014, you need to pull your finger out and apply in the ballot with the rest of the population here: (usually at 9am) on Monday the 29th of April 2013. There are usually about 5 to 6 many applications as there are places - I would hazard a guess that it might be even more this year - so you may want to confirm a definite place by choosing a charity that means something to you and fundraising c. £1500 for a good cause instead. By entering  with a charity you negate the ballot. If you apply this Friday on the official website, you will get a letter (usually around December) to tell you whether you have ballot place. If unsuccessful, you can still sign up for charity places then.

If you are determined to do next years race (whether through the ballot or charity) and haven't run a marathon before, then I'd recommend getting going as soon as possible to test the water of running before diving in at the deep end. As I stated right at the beginning, this post is aimed at you if you've been inspired by what you saw at the weekend and I've assumed you've never run or have maybe run a 5 or 10k for fun. I'll go one step further and I'll aim my first part at those who may know that they aren't that healthy, possibly smoke, have a few pounds to shift and may not eat the most balanced diet currently.

The first news is, that with that level of motivation and determination I spoke of, I believe that if you train sensibly, anyone can run a marathon. You may not run a fantastic Paula Radcliffe time, but you will get round and you will feel drained/amazing/possibly slightly sick (and vow never to do one again!). The reason why I'm flagging to get started now is you are the group who will see both the most improvement and life changing journey, but you also need to give your body the most amount of time to prepare it from one kind of life to another.

If you smoke, now is the time to give up the habit for good. You are not alone. Steve Way should be your hero, your source of inspiration and the reason why you can do it! As he himself says: "over a period of 3 years by getting off my backside, losing around 5 stone in weight and giving up smoking... I am now a sub 2:20 marathon runner." I'm by no means suggesting if you're smoking now and start running tomorrow that by VLM 2014 you will run 2:20, but this man is your role model for what can be achieved if you roll your sleeves up and dedicate your time to training properly.

The motto we all will adopt as well is: build slow and steady in preparation. I want you to take your time training and getting ready for a marathon. You need to ease yourself in to this and by building up from a very low mileage base up to that long 22 mile big run 3 weeks before the race, give your body the sufficient time to adapt. Get fit; get confident; then get running. This should also minimise the risk of getting injured. If you start with small manageable distances and add slowly to them (rule of thumb: no more than 10% increases in distance each week) you should be ok.

I went from starting running in the July of 2007 to running the London Marathon in April 2008 from a standing start, but I already used the gym 3 times a week, didn't smoke, cycled a fair bit and trained for doing a 10k (first one in 55 minutes) before doing races at the different distances prior to the big day.

This is the same model that I want you to follow. Serpentine running club in London has some great advice on starting running if you've never run before and you should look to start run/walking before doing any running of any kind. The great thing about this is that you build up from walking to being able to run a mile or two relatively quickly (time wise) and that should give you the confidence to kick on. If you've run a 10k already then you have sufficient fitness to use the various guides for starting your running training from the likes of Runners World.

So lets surmise where we're at:

If you smoke: Stop now. Get the help from the NHS and look to use running to keep you focused to stay off nicotine. You're swapping one form of addiction with another, but seek advice from your GP about the best way to do this. Look at doing some run-walking to get you going.

If you're a non-smoking jogger (or a recovering ex smoker who now run-walks ;-) : Go to your GP and get your heart and fitness checked. I know it sounds motherly and sensible, but if you have some kind of heart defect you don't want to start running and putting untold strain on it. I know some of my running brothers and sisters might sneer a little at taking this step but I do think its vital. When I saw my GP it also turned out he was a runner and he gave me some great advice about core work!

So we've checked you out and you're deemed healthy enough to run a bit. You now need to see the marathon as the pinnacle of this journey. To get to the top of that mountain you are going to take in the sights of the 5k, the 10k, the 10 mile race, the half marathon and possibly stop off for a 20 mile race en route. :-) Hey, I told you this wouldn't be easy!

In all seriousness, before going as far as booking in to the marathon, make use of the free resources at your fingertips. Read up on what a marathon is like to run for the first time; find a training plan online that matches where you are on your running journey at this point in time, and enter your nearest Park Run, do some training for that, and see if running is for you. There is no harm in thinking you want to run a marathon, giving park run a go and saying, "Maybe I was a bit hasty in saying I'd run a marathon next year." Some people do like running but ultimately avoid doing races as they don't like the pressure/having to run in an organised race. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, if you've done all of the above and you are still champing at the bit to give the application process a go, then this is the point you should sign up. At the very least you should give yourself 16 weeks to train your body to run the marathon race. As you can tell from my heavy caveating and cajoling to get going now, I recommend you give yourself the better part of a year if you haven't run a competitive race or only 1 or 2 10ks.

Overall, if you do sign up soon, I would recommend the following:

1) Get your feet and gait checked at a proper running shop. If you've not been fitted for running shoes, do so! You're going to be treading a lot of tarmac and to help prevent injury, make your journey comfortable, invest in a proper pair of shoes. You will probably spend between £60 to £120. Get this part right.

2) If you haven't got a good diet and know you can improve, get online and find out the food groups that are most suited. Obviously if you need to lose some weight you will need to do this anyway. Don't just rely on the running to shift the pounds. You are now turning your body into a finely tuned sports car. You wouldn't put crappy cheap supermarket petrol (or god forbid, recycled chip fat) in a ferrari. So go for the high quality expensive Shell + equivalent. You don't need to spend a fortune at Harrods food hall either. Go for fresh food as much as possible, lots of water and cut back on the unhealthy stuff and booze intake. Personally I find the recipes at Runners World and my friend Monica Shaw's Smarter Fitter great sources of information. But get online and research the right food stuffs that suit both running and most importantly, you! And keep this up - the change will be hugely beneficial in the long term and will help you to the finish.

3) For the rest of this spring: Focus on getting comfortable running 5k distances at Park Runs. Get running with friends and other runners and slowly build up your mileage. Keep a record of your runs and use a planner (there are tonnes online and as apps for your phone) to keep motivation up and track your progress.

4) This summer, put in for a 10k and if you're running 3 times a week, you will comfortably finish, but you will see the difference between a 5k and 10k distance. Overall you are using the races as a focus to increase your training. If you're a runner of any kind prior to signing up for a marathon, then you will see that a 5k race is run slightly quicker than a 10k. As you increase your mileage base you slow down the race speed as the distances increase. Ultimately you will run your marathon at the slowest race pace out of 5k/10k/half marathon and full.

5) Late Autumn, be booked in to run a half marathon and see how you do. Again, aim to get round. You will find it tough but if you've got 5 to 6 months of training in your system, it won't be as hard as it sounds right now. Plus, thanks to training over the summer months you will have enjoyed running in the outdoors, and British weather depending, used to running in warmer conditions. Trust me, when it comes to training for VLM from December to April, you will fondly remember the summer running you do this year.

6) Every 3 to 4 weeks you train, cut back your mileage. Don't keep adding more and more as you a) won't have the time to do all that running and b) your body needs time to recover. Plus c) you need to still keep living your life. As I said, between now and Christmas, if you are on the marathon journey, you should on average be looking to run about 2 to 3 times a week, try and incorporate some other sporting activity. The best being cycling, swimming, pilates/yoga, gym and core (I've even had Zumba advocated to me!). Pick and choose from other exercise you like doing and keep your fitness regime varied. There is nothing more tedious than the same training week in week out.

7) Before Christmas, around November, begin to try and pick up your mileage a little, so that when you have downloaded and planned out your 16 week schedule, you're in nice physical shape to hit the training with no injury, feeling great from your summer 5 and 10ks and that you are now just adding additional mileage and building your body up to the marathon itself.

8) After Christmas is where you really put in the work. It will be cold. It will be horrible weather, but you should stick to that training plan like glue as much as possible. The more runs you miss, the harder it will hit you when you're going round the London course. The marathon is an unforgiving mistress, and the better prepared you are, the less awful you will feel. They don't give you that medal at the end for nothing! Remember that when you are dragging your carcass out of bed at 6 am on a cold wet Tuesday in January, not only are you adding the miles into your legs to getting you to Buck Palace, you are also training your brain so that your resilience and mental toughness are fine tuned to see you through, helping you cope with those wonderful miles between 20 and 26.2. Did I not tell you?

When Mo Farah stopped his race at Tower Bridge, despite his Garmin saying 13.1, he wasn't half way. Oh no. Half way, as marathoners love to tell you, is at 20 miles. Up till that point your bodies glycogen has been Ok. From the Tower of London to the Mall is where it really bites. Where you really have to dig in and be strong. Twice I've struggled out of Five marathons to be able to motor as I would have liked at that point. And that was with training! But the more you've put in during the training the cycle the (slightly) easier it is. From the end of summer I'd advocate you really get working on your core. Squats, Lunges, the plank, press ups, chin ups, glute bridges. Build them into your routine. If you over rely on your hamstrings, those last 6 miles will be painful. If you think about a tall, erect runner (no sniggering please) gracefully running like a God or Goddess past you, well thats not most people at mile 20. Tiredness has crept in. Most look dishevelled and form has gone to pot. If you've done that core work, your glutes are stronger, your midriff forces your pose up and the stoop is lessened.

Your quads and body will still ache as cross the line. Our modern bodies are not designed to run 26.2  miles. But you can do it. The reason why anyone who completes a marathon, in whatever time, should be cheered is that it takes sheer blooded mindedness to do the distance. If you've given yourself the best chance physically, you will be able to enjoy the day and feel slightly better as you cross the line.

Hope my 8 point plan hasn't put you off. Please ask any questions in the comments section, and I'll try and add more posts for the wannabe marathon runners out there.

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