Top Tips: Training for a Marathon

Top Tips: Training for a Marathon

Top tips for training for a marathon – Rob Grant

I have to date completed 16 marathons (if I include the Yorkshire Three Peaks), starting with the London Marathon in 1997 when I was a 24-year old slip of a lad. It took me four hours and hurt like hell, despite my doing what I thought was a lot of decent training. I vowed ‘never again’ as a lot of first-timers seem to do. I was semi-forced into my second marathon (London again, 2000). That hurt even more and I packed in marathons for a while, despite having done a much better time (3:30 ish). By 2015 I was back into running longer distances and I had got myself petty fit, and I decided a sub-three hour marathon was within my grasp. I trained hard, and achieved my goal at Leicester in 2015. With fairly consistent training I have done 13 more, all at or around the same pace (I’ve been getting older all that time of course!), including one on a treadmill just to prove to myself I could!

Me at the Leicester marathon in October 2015. My first marathon for 15 years. Experimenting with different gel carrying methods!

I’ve picked up a lot of info and experience over the years and thought I’d share a few ‘pearls of wisdom’. This is aimed mostly at first-timers and those looking to improve a bit on a few previous performances, but hopefully there’s a little bit of something here for everyone. 

First things first: Set your goals. Training just to get round is very different to wanting to improve or to do a certain time. Being realistic about what you want to achieve, and what you are capable of achieving, is vital. And reappraise your goals regularly – this is always relevant but especially if things change significantly e.g. injuries, race cancellations, life events (babies and new jobs and such-like). Having clear and achievable goals, and always having a quick answer to the inevitable ‘why am I doing this?’ question, is the first step on the road (or trail, or fell, or treadmill) to success. Finally, training for a marathon is a big undertaking but don’t let it rule your life – it’s a fine line between commitment and obsession. If you feel like you are crossing the line, take a step back, remind yourself what is really important and what is not so important, and reappraise your goals. 

After the Paris marathon in April 2016. Big city marathons are great for atmosphere, but terrible for logistics and pre-race nerves.

Training: Variety is the spice of life. There are a million and one training plans on the Web and so I won’t try to repeat each and every one here. Do some googling and a bit of research and pick one that suits your goals, fitness level and training history. My top tip, however, is to make sure that you mix it up – combine long, slow runs with short, fast runs, short, slow runs, medium, steady runs and intervals, fartleks or other ‘speed’ work. Run according to how you feel (don’t force it, the urge to go hard or go easy usually comes naturally), mix it up and keep it interesting and varied. The only ‘must do’ is an increasingly longer weekly-ish ‘long run’ – time on your feet in training is essential for making marathon race day somewhere between ‘bearable’ and ‘successful’. 

Yorkshire marathon 2016 – 37th and a PB of 2:49

Fuelling: Practice makes perfect. Eating and drinking properly and sensibly are a given for top performance. But training for a marathon has hidden benefits – you can eat and drink ‘what you want’, right? This isn’t quite true of course, but I always treat myself with a beer or two and some tasty snacks after a long run. On race day you will need a substantial breakfast (carbs, not bacon and eggs) and nutrition on the way round (energy gels being the most practical and sensible and popular choice). Practice for race day on your long runs, by having a big breakfast beforehand and taking gels (or whatever works for you) on your run. And stay hydrated – drink plenty in the run-up to the race, and always take a drink at the drinks stations. Better to stop temporarily for a pee than to stop permanently through dehydration. 

Malaga marathon December 2018. A low-key big city marathon in near-perfect weather conditions – spot on.

Race day: Be prepared. Don’t leave anything to chance that can be dealt with in advance (make a list) – packing your bag, charging your watch, trying out your kit, pinning your number on, confirming travel arrangements and parking etc, checking out the race loos etc. Arrive early (but stay warm). Do some other shorter races of a similar field size and public profile so you know what to expect in terms of logistics. I would even recommend a ‘practice’ marathon a couple of months in advance if you are particularly nervous about racing, or have a lot invested (time, money, emotions, specific goals e.g. a specific time) in your ‘target’ marathon. And be prepared for that overwhelming feeling of accomplishment as you cross the line. You will sob uncontrollably as you realise it is all over and you have done what you set out to achieve (or is that just me?!). 

Rutland marathon September 2019. I was beaten into 4th place by three much younger competitors (but not these ones).

Best ‘further reading’: There is so much good stuff on the internet and in bookshops, it’s hard to point any one person at any one particular info source. That said, the best single book I have read is ‘Advanced Marathoning’ by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas – it is focussed at the ‘higher end’ of marathon training, but there’s loads of good stuff in there regarding training methods and types, physiology, nutrition, pacing, training plans etc. It’s a bit geeky and scientific, but a good read if you like that kind of thing (which I do!). 

Sir Titus Trot marathon February 2020 – my first and only race win.

That’s it. Hope you found it useful. I’m always happy to share thoughts and stories and advice from my creaky memory vaults – just shout up. 

Happy running. 


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