Marathon runners in action (© AFP / Getty Images)
I love the way a runner’s first marathon is called a ‘debut’. The use of this word acknowledges that running a marathon is a major undertaking. It elevates your first attempt at the 26.2 mile journey into a noteworthy, special occasion that demands respect.
A debut is always a step into the unknown. No matter how good you may be at the shorter distances, or how well you’ve prepared, a first marathon is always a leap of faith.
From my own experience, I can safely say that marathons get better after the first time. There is so much useful learning to be had, and confidence to come from a sense of knowing what you’re doing rather than just hoping for the best.
Many people around the world have taken up running for the first time during the lockdowns of this pandemic – a brilliant and positive side effect of the restrictions we’ve all faced. And while road races are still quite few and far between, a selection of virtual marathons here and there gives you the opportunity to take on the marathon challenge.
If you’re thinking about a first marathon, there are so many questions that need answering. From training and tapering, to intervals and injuries… where do you start? Here are my five top tips for preparing for your debut marathon.
The main purpose of training should always be improvement over time. It follows, therefore, that the content of your training should be tailored to lead to improvement. Off-the-shelf training plans might provide this, but they are a one-size-fits-all solution whereas every runner is different. So if you follow a plan, be flexible about adapting it, and always monitor whether or not you are improving. For the key principles of training, see my article Be your own coach.
2. Look after yourself
Marathon training is punishing, no question. So it’s vital that you have a lifestyle that will support you while training. The key elements of this are eating a balanced and nutrient-rich diet, getting enough sleep and rest, and limiting stress from work and other parts of your life. When embarking on a marathon for the first time, it’s worth spending time auditing your lifestyle and ensuring it is fit for purpose.
3. Tackle injuries early
Niggles and injuries are an almost inevitable part of marathon training. The repetitiveness of endurance training means that if your body isn’t robust enough to handle the running you demand of it, something will break. When things go wrong, it’s best to act promptly. Immediate measures can include rest, icing, self-massage, stretching and so on. Thinking through what may have caused the injury, eg new shoes or a sudden increase in training, can help to resolve it. And always seek specialist help quickly if necessary. My detailed tips on handling injuries are here.
4. Plan ahead for race day
Being organised in good time about practical things will free up mental energy to focus on running itself. Anything and everything to do with your kit, food and drink, travel, accommodation, and so on needs to be thought through and planned ahead. It’s a shame if mishaps on logistical things mean the result does not reflect your hard work.
5. Be open to an exceptional performance.
A goal is always useful for any marathon, whether that is just to finish or to run a specific time. But don’t let your goal prevent you from being ambitious. As you improve over time, your goal may actually hold you back. I see far more runners being fearful and cautious about what they can achieve than runners who overestimate their abilities.
The marathon distance pushes humans to the limits of their endurance, and that is perhaps the reason for its appeal. It’s a formidable, exhilarating and fascinating challenge. Running 26.2 miles for the first time is such a special and unique moment in any runner’s life… I hope you enjoy it!
Mara Yamauchi for World Athletics