With the Virgin London Marathon this Sunday (17 April), it's likely that many of the participants' triumphant stories will inspire many of us to lace-up our own running shoes and embark on running a marathon ourselves. But how exactly do you even start to tackle a marathon?
We’ve spoken to runners, health and sports experts alike to get both medical and first hand experience on what it’s like to train for a big race, as well as practical advice on how to prevent injuries and how to stay motivated during your training.
Before You Run
Muireann C-Campbell, an avid blogger and runner who has two half-marathons under her belt, says that before she started running she hadn’t done any exercise in a long time. However, she advises that taking up boxing three to four months before she started running really helped her cardio fitness, and she believes it had a positive impact on her transition into long distance running.
Likewise, Adidas' running expert says that if you're new to running that you should always start slowly and to try to do short sessions involving a combination of walking and jogging, each time increasing the amount of time you can continuously jog for.
It's also a good idea to ensure you’re running with good posture, so you might want to have a “gait test” - a session on the treadmill that assesses your running style and highlights potential issues - or even have a biochemical running analysis done.
It is essential to be wearing the correct footwear for running. Adidas' running expert says that if you’ve not already had your running style analysed, to then visit a specialist running retailer, many of which offer footscans so that you can get fitted with the correct shoes for your specific running style.
They also stress the importance of having a comfortable sports bra and to always choose technical wear which is specifically designed for running as breathable fabrics help regulate body temperature and increase performance.
Creating a Training Plan
If you’re training on your own, there are plenty of resources both online and in magazines like Runners World to help you compile a training program. Bupa’s online running resource has a number of training plans available for 5k runs right through full marathons for every level of runner.
In addition to your training plan and any activities on rest days, Adidas’ running expert says its important to incorporate strength training into your workout to help condition your muscles for running such a long way. They advise that yoga will help you maintain flexibility and that pilates is ideal for increasing your core strength.
Christina Merryfield, lead dietitian for the Bupa Cromwell Hospital, also emphasizes how important it is to make sure you take in enough fluids to help compensate for sweating. She says that isotonic drinks are useful before, during and after sports as they contain carbohydrates for energy and sodium to replace losses when sweating.
Should you have a trainer?
Adidas’ running expert say that having that extra motivation and guidance is always helpful but not a necessity, as most gyms are able to prescribe programmes as part of your membership.
Muireann C-Campbell says that she had a trainer who helped her out with occasional things such as hill training, but for the most part, during her training runs she says it was “just me and my iPod”.
A trainer might be right for you, however, if you feel that you’d be more motivated by having a “training buddy” or someone to push you that extra mile.
If you’re worried about injurying yourself while running, Phuong Luong, senior physiotherapist at the Bupa Sports Injury Clinic in Reading, says that your best bet is to make sure you’re using the right training program. He says that the biggest cause of running injuries are due to incorrect training, doing too much too soon and over training.
Phuong also says that having sufficient flexibility and strength in your feet, ankles, knees and hips to withstand the impact of running to protect your joints is equally important. He says remembering to warm up and cool down and to never just “run through” an injury is also very important.
Having rest days is incredibly important to your training. As well as being important for preventing injury, Phuong Luong says rest days are just as important as training days as they allow the body to repair and rebuild, and to prevent fatigue. Phuong says you should have at least one rest day a week, but that activities such as using a cross-trainer, swimming, cycling or deep water running are good to include in your training program, as they’ll stimulate the cardiovascular system, but are still easy on the joints.
Additionally, stretches and core stability exercises (such as pilates and yoga) can be performed on the 'off days' or rest days to compliment your training. The expert at Adidas adds that most beginners tend to overrun and to make sure that you keep you focus on making sure that you’re strong and fit enough on race day.
What to Eat
When you’re training for a marathon, going on a crazy "fad diet" and cutting your calorie count is not a good idea advises Christina Merry. She says that doing so will mean your body is missing out on the essential nutrients it needs to maintain its energy levels. Christina does say that being of a healthy weight before you start running would be beneficial, but that you shouldn’t make any major changes to your diet mid-training.
What to eat while training:
- Carbohydrate (e.g. pasta, rice) is important to have at each meal and regular intervals as it will help to ensure that glycogen (fuel) levels are maintained and restocked.
- Protein is important for repair and maintenance of muscle, however there is no need to take large amounts of protein and the majority of us will eat adequate amounts without much dietary manipulation; the timing of taking protein can also be useful, that is having a protein drink (that also contains carbohydrates) may increase muscle protein balance when taken immediately post-training.
- Good meals are pasta with tomato sauces or with grilled vegetables, grilled chicken and salmon or chilli con carne with rice.
- Excessive fat should be avoided and aim to look for low-fat versions of products/foods.
Muireann says that training has added a “new dimension” to her life the freedom she’d feel once she hit the streets would always propel her forward in her training. She also said that because practicing is the only real way to improve your running that, ultimately, you’re letting yourself and your performance down by not running. She says to just throw on your trainers and that once you’re out the door, there's no way you're not going to finish your miles.
Helpful running resources
Picture Credit: Rex Images