The experts' guide to marathon training

Zoe Gunn

10 September 2021

Whether you’re a first-timer or veteran runner, get race ready with these need-to-know tips

10 September 2021 | Zoe Gunn

It’s now a little under a month until the London Marathon 2021 and, whether you upped your training game during the pandemic or lockdown put paid to your best fitness intentions, if you’ve secured a space in this year's race, now is the time to really get your preparations in gear.

Ideally, you’ll have already started your training in earnest but, if you’re still stuck at the 5km stage, don’t panic. There’s still time to get race ready – and we’ve called on the experts to help. Tana von Zitzewitz, master instructor at Barry’s UK, and Melissa Kendter, global lead trainer for the Tone & Sculpt app, are well versed in helping runners get into the best shape of their lives. Here’s their guide to nailing that PB…

Plan your training schedule in advance 

It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking a race that’s a few months away means you’ve got plenty of time to start training. Not so, says von Zitzewitz. “Common mistakes are to go too hard too soon or leaving training until the last minute. Trying to cram in a huge volume of running into a short space of time is a sure ticket to being injured.”

This is especially true if you’re attempting your first marathon or have taken a break from long distance running, but is also something more experienced runners can fall prey to – particularly if you overlook the importance of rest days. “It’s easy to not allow enough time to recover in between each run,” explains von Zitzewitz. “Ideally, runs should be spaced out throughout the week leaving 24-48 hours to recover.”

“Take your recovery seriously,” agrees Kendter. “You need to get sufficient sleep to allow your body to recover. Make sure to prop your legs up to take the load off of them and stretch. Then a couple of weeks prior to race day, start to taper and deload so that you go into race day with fresh legs and a fresh body.”

Don’t forget about strength training

There’s a common misconception that strength training and, in turn, muscle building, can be a hindrance to long distance runners. However, while, fitting in runs of steadily increasing lengths is obviously important if you’re taking on a marathon, neglecting to build a strong foundation could be the thing holding you back from that personal best.

“Marathon runners need a strong body armour including a strong core,” explains von Zitzewitz. “To ensure your body, and most importantly posterior chain, is strong enough to carry you through your marathon prep, train each energy system in the same way by using different cardiovascular machines, such as a ski, static bike, or rower.

“The optimal strength training frequency would be 2-3 times per week,” she adds. “If you are running and training on the same day, decide which will take the most energy, do that first and focus on having good technique and form. Generally, one would strength train first then refuel before running.”

Mix things up to increase your stamina

Most marathon runners know it’s not a great idea to go for the full distance before the big race but doing only 15 mile+ runs on the lead up to a marathon won’t necessarily help you improve either. Instead, recommends von Zitzewitz, switch up your training with a series of long, slow runs and faster, more cardiovascularly demanding threshold runs.

“Threshold runs can be performed either in the form of one long tempo run at just below threshold or in big blocks of work at threshold with active recoveries. Ideally 80% of your runs each week should be easy whilst building distance and the best performed at near max threshold. Alternatively swimming or indoor cycling are fantastic ways to build Vo2 max without the impact of running.”

Nutrition is key

“Fuelling your body to be able to train is of absolute importance,” says von Zitzewitz. Of course, the right kind of nutrition is also key, so it’s time to stock up on lean meats, brown rice and pasta and plenty of vegetables. “Carbohydrates, protein and macro and micronutrients are all vital, while hydration, and particularly taking in enough electrolytes, is key to great performance.”

If you are planning to change your diet to accommodate your training, it’s important you begin this in plenty of time so your body has a chance to adapt to the new regime – and don’t forget to plan for race day itself. “You should be fuelling during any run over 45-75 minutes in length using energy gels or something similar,” advises Kendter. "You want to make sure you are replenishing your glycogen levels, so you don’t hit the brick wall. Also, when it comes to marathon day, you should have already tested your nutrition plan and fuelling strategy (pre-run and during the run) so you know what works for you.”

Marathons require mental endurance

The key to successfully running a marathon is as much mental as it is physical. The length of the run means you’ve got hours of exercise ahead of you with nothing to focus on but your tired legs and burning lungs – so you’ll need to prepare yourself to overcome that mental hurdle. “This is where visualisation comes in,” says Kendter. “Picture yourself running the course at 10 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles, then crossing the finish line. Visualise how your body will feel and what it will take. This is vital in order to create a mind/body connection and help you reach that gold medal.”

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