How can I prepare for a marathon? 10 top tips from a running coach

It’s only 2 months until the in-person London Marathon starts in October, and so we understand that for many of you, preparation for the 42km race is fully underway. Whether you are in the middle of your training or interested in what it takes to complete such a daunting distance, today’s blog is for you.

Read on to find out what Amram, one of Muto’s top running coaches, lists as his ten top tips for taking on this distance.

          1. Think seriously about whether your body has the capacity to cope with intense exercise.

42km is most definitely not a regular walk in the park, requiring intense training  and serious endurance. Whilst most people can train to run for a marathon, it is not always healthy for their body. Putting your body under intense stress, fatigue and endurance can cause heart problems, breathing problems and may lead to unexpected physical injuries. Amram suggests that “as a safety precaution, it is important to get an ECG from the GP, or a VO2 max test to really see whether your body is up to the challenge.” An ECG tests whether your heart’s rhythm is regular whilst the VO2 max test shows the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use (the higher the amount of 02 and the more regular your heartbeat, the fitter you are). This is not a necessity, and may be costly, but both are good indications of your baseline fitness and health level, and can also flag any potential problems before they happen.

          2. Invest in some good running trainers

Whilst comfort in a running shoe is key, sometimes the thickest, foamiest soles are not the best for your technique. Amram is of the opinion that the best way to run is “with the forefront of our feet hitting the ground first and then the heel”. Unfortunately thick soles can encourage us to land heel first. which is not always good for running efficiency ( and keeping at bay injuries). Amram advises prospective participants to find a shoe that supports your foot, but still allows you to feel your foot landing on the floor, so that you can improve your running technique. 

(And possibly a gate test performed by a professional. If someone has been running pain and injury free for long time, think twice changing your patterns)

          3. Have a plan

Just like writing a dissertation, the initial number of words or miles might seem incredibly daunting, but breaking it down into small manageable goals is the best way to make progress whilst staying sane!  A marathon plan consists of deciding how many times you want to train a week, a rough target time for completing the marathon (especially if you are a more experienced runner who cares about speed), and the type of training you want to do. Amram adds that “it’s important to increase the intensity and the quantity of training over a period of time, in order to increase your fitness and endurance when running.”As a result, he strongly advises that “a marathon should not be completed on a whim.” 

          4. Increase the distance that you run every week

With the plan in mind, let’s discuss the details, how do you continue to cover distance in your training?

If you usually run 10 km every week, then increase your distance by about 5% each week. In this case it would mean increasing your distance by 500 m every week. Jumping from 10km one day to 20km the next, could not only increase the chance of running injuries but is really tiring and means you will learn to finish the marathon in an exhausted state. In this way, we increase fitness and distance in a sustainable way.

          5. Add different types of training into your routine

Whilst a steady-paced run is more similar to the type of run you will do in the marathon, it is important to mix it up with other types of both regular workout and running sessions. This could include strength and conditioning sessions, aimed at strengthening your body specifically for running. 

A high quality personal trainer with knowledge of long distance running is a very useful asset at this point, as they can help you pinpoint any weak spots or pain points and target them with precise exercises tailor-made for your body.

Interval training is also a good way to mix up your training so it stays interesting, whilst also helping you to increase your speed. Interval training involves running at an intensity higher than your usual effort, but for a shorter amount of time. For example, if your steady speed for a run is 50% of your maximum capacity,  Amram gives the example of “running 1k at 80% and then resting for a few minutes, and then repeating the cycle.” You can also up the intensity in other ways, for example running up hills. Speed and length of recovery time can be altered to fit your fitness level.

If running is getting boring, let’s change it up. Amram suggests doing spin classes, as “they not only increase your cardiovascular fitness, but also give your joints a break from the impact of running. Maybe aim to do this type of session once a month or whenever you feel like a change.” If you find yourself struggling with shin splints or runner’s knee, spinning or cycling is a great alternative to keep the marathon fitness going whilst minimising impact.

          6. Nutrition

 Along with a fitness plan, Amram also advises having a plan for nutrition. This includes plans of the foods you are eating during your training session and during the race itself. “ A marathon takes on average 4 hours, and during this time you are bound to need hydration and an energy boost.” There are a variety of different options on offer including energy drinks, bars and gels to choose from. Amram cautions that “ nutrition is extremely personal. You must try out the nutrition during training.  You want to make sure that the products you are ingesting both give you energy but also do not make you feel sick.”

If you want help or advice with the best way to fuel your body during marathon training, working with a registered sports nutritionist, like the ones we have at Muto, can have huge dividends. Proper sports nutrition can help to improve recovery time, heighten energy levels (throughout the day, as well as during runs), reduce the risk of injury, and improve your relationship with your body. 

          7. Try out some half marathon races first

Just like doing some trial runs of the race-day nutrition, you should also do a trial run of the marathon itself (well not quite). It is important to complete at least one official half marathon race before, as this gives the body and mind a sense of the feelings experienced during the run. Whether this be fatigue, hunger, thirst or determination, it’s important to be mentally and physically prepared for what is to come. This is not just in terms of dealing with the distance, but the race day atmosphere itself. How does your body perform under pressure, with many other runners around you? Can you pick a half marathon course that is similar to your full marathon race in terms of elevation and environment? It’s also worth picking one that takes place at the same time of day as your full race, as many of us have slightly different peaks and troughs throughout the day.

         8. Be realistic, and be patient 

Having a plan is ideal, but if you can’t stick to it, do not beat yourself up about it. Sometimes, we need to be patient – impatience is where injury comes from, especially the older you get. If your body is feeling particularly exhausted one week, then maybe only do 2 training sessions instead of 4. Although you can’t skip sessions consistently and expect to perform well on race day, a few off weeks will not do significant harm to your fitness levels overall. Stay vigilant for the signs of overtraining and take these as your cues to back off – runner’s knee, shin splints, frequent colds, frequent body aches, recurring injuries playing up, overall lack of motivation and bad moods. If the training is really becoming too much, then reset your goals and be realistic. If you can run 10km in an hour, it is vastly unrealistic to run 40km in under 4 hours. 

If you are feeling really exhausted and thinking about giving up, really consider your options first. Amram has some further tips to elevate your motivation:

          9. Getting a trainer 

It’s always nice to know someone has come out alive from a challenge and this is exactly what a running trainer can do. “Trainers who have done running before can share your feelings of pain and frustration, as well as the joy of success”, Amram says from experience. By providing motivation, a plan of action and offering varied exercises, they can increase your fitness/ endurance in a more enjoyable and motivational way. Not only can they offer advice about the best tips for technique and avoiding injury, or work with you in a gym, they can also come running with you if you just need some company on those many miles.

          10. Finding a running partner

If getting a trainer feels too serious or is out of budget for now, a fun running partner could also help boost motivation. Amram says that “the ideal running partner is someone with the same fitness level, meaning instead of doing 4 or 5 runs alone every week, you can share at least one or two with a friend.” And why stop there, you could even find 2! Maybe connect with a running partner who is even fitter than you, challenging you to run faster and further, perfect for interval training. 

So here you have it, the top 10 tips from a Muto running trainer. We hope these tips are useful for the preparation ahead and good luck for the London Marathon in October!