So, you want to run a marathon — or scarier still, you’ve told people you’re going to run a marathon — and you’re now wondering just how you’re going to do that. You’ve taken a look around at various training guides and noticed they all seem to be written for people who are much fitter and more active than you and are surrounded by pictures of people who look nothing like you. Even when there are before and after pictures, the before looks much fitter and slimmer than you can imagine being and the after might as well be animated for all the chance you have of getting like that.
Which is why I thought I’d write my guide to running a marathon based on my experience of completing the London Marathon earlier this year, which you can read about here:
And here’s my before and after. On the left, me in April 2017 not long after I started running at the 4th birthday of Colchester Castle Parkrun, and on the right me pushing myself through those final few metres on the Mall to finish the 2019 London Marathon. There’s definitely less of me in the second picture, but still a lot more of me than there is of most people. Yes, I was a hell of a lot fitter by the time I ran the marathon, but I’m not the sleek and lithe long-distance runner most people expect you need to be to finish a marathon.
This is A fat bloke’s guide to running the marathon, not The guide. It’s based entirely on my experience and I’m not a trained running coach or any other sort of fitness professional. I don’t have any qualifications and I don’t claim to be an expert, so please bear that in mind as you read on. This is what worked for me and got me round the 26 miles, and I hope that it works for you too.
For me, to run a marathon you need to build yourself up in three different areas of fitness. They’re linked, and boosting one often helps to boost the others, but you need to be aware of them as separate things when training for the marathon. These three are:
Physical fitness — the ability to effectively move your body through 26.2 miles without breaking down.
Cardio-vascular fitness — the ability to exercise for a long period without over-stressing your heart and running out of breath.
Endurance — the ability to reliably and consistently produce enough energy to power your physical activity for several hours.
When I started running, even before I began thinking about a marathon, I quickly realised I was deficient in all three. When I ran anything more than a short distance, various parts of me would start to hurt, complain and tighten up, and even if they held up I’d have to stop running soon enough because I was out of breath, then find myself running out of energy anyway because I just wasn’t used to that amount of exercise and activity.
The good news is there’s an easy and simple way to solve those problems, something that will turn it all around in a few weeks and get you well on the way to completing a marathon.
What is it? Well, it’s known colloquially as did you actually think there’s going to be a simple and easy solution? Really?
Sorry, for those of you hoping I was going to reveal some secret way here. Sadly, there isn’t one, but you’re not alone in hoping. When people ask how I managed to do a marathon, there’s often a disappointed look in their eyes as I explain I spent a lot of time beforehand running and doing other exercise and incrementally worked my way closer to being able to do it. If anything, the training for a marathon is harder than the marathon itself as a lot of it you’re going to end up doing alone, not surrounded by a crowd and with other runners alongside you, no adrenalin of the event to push you on. When people ask if I want to run another marathon, the main thing that prompts me to answer no is that I don’t want to go through all the training again, not the experience of the day itself.
Running a marathon is about being able to put your body through a lot of effort for several hours and then being stiff and sore for a few days after. Training for a marathon is about spending months (and if you’re training for London, a lot of those months are in the worst weather of the year) doing long runs, recovering from long runs, and preparing for your next long run.
There are plenty of guides out there on how to train for a marathon and how much you should be doing at certain points. I’d advise looking at a few, because each one’s going to advise you to do different things but reading them is a good way to understand some of the ideas behind the training. For instance, even though it’s aimed at people a lot fitter than me, I found this guide with its discussion of long slow distance runs a good way to understand why the long runs are important. With the caveat that this worked for me, and I can’t guarantee it will for everyone, here’s seven tips that got me to the finish line.
Forget about your weight How heavy was I when I ran the marathon? I have no idea. In times before when I’ve tried to get fit I’ve got obsessed with how much I weigh and how much the line on whatever fitness tracker I use is going down. Now? I genuinely can’t remember the last time I weighed myself, and I’m pretty sure I’m still officially overweight but I know I’m probably fitter now than I have been since I was a teenager. If you’re going to run a marathon, you need to focus on getting your body ready to do that, and how much it weighs isn’t something you need to focus on. The numbers you need to focus on aren’t the ones on the scales.
Yes, you need to eat healthily when you’re in training, but your body is going to need lots of fuel to get through the training and the marathon itself. Eat what’s going to help you run better and longer (protein for building and repairing muscle, complex carbohydrates for energy stores), and don’t starve yourself.
You’ve got time Time to do the training you need, and time to run the race itself. You can’t do 26.2 miles now, but you’ll be amazed how much you can build yourself up to if you do it gradually. If your race is months away, then you don’t need to be doing 15 mile training runs this weekend. Get a calendar, a spreadsheet, or just a piece of paper and look at how long you’ve got to go, then work out how much you need to increase each week or month to hit your 26 miles at the end of it. Six months to go? Then you only need to be able to do four miles at the end of this month, eight miles next and so on. Look at it as a series of small increments on the way, not something you have to try and do all at once.
And then when the race itself comes, do what feels comfortable to get you to each checkpoint on the way. You’ve got to do it one mile at a time, one step at a time, so focus on that, not on how far away the finish is as soon as you cross the start line.
Flexibility and strength Your training is going to be focused on running, but it really shouldn’t be entirely running (and sometimes, the weather’s just going to be too bad for it). A good session of doing something else can break the monotony of running and help improve your overall fitness by working out areas that running isn’t helping with, especially improving your overall levels of strength and flexibility. Both will help with your running and in reducing the chance of getting injuries while training.
And, to be frank, if you’re my size, you probably need to work more on your flexibility than your strength. Your muscles and joints are doing a lot of work carrying excess weight around, and doing a stretch class, or yoga, or just swimming is a good way to get them moving in new ways so you’re not tightening up when you run.
Watch the beat, not the pace One thing worth investing in, if you haven’t already got one, is some sort of fitness tracker. (I use a Garmin Vivoactive — other watches, straps and whatever are available) The important thing is get something that will show you your heart rate while you’re exercising as that’s more useful to focus on than your pace. The harder your heart is going, the quicker you’ll tire out and when you’re trying for distance you need to keep your rate as low as you can so you can keep going for longer. Basically, you want to keep your heart in a zone where it’s working comfortably and getting your body to burn a mix of energy sources, not have it pumping away so hard that you’re draining all your short-term energy stores to fuel it.
There are lots of ways to calculate your different heart rate zones, but one rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 180 and use that as a guideline for where you want your heart rate to be. For me, that’s around 134, at which rate I’m going at a steady pace but feel in control with regular breathing. One thing to do in your training is to try and run around that heart rate and get used to how it feels. You don’t need to obsessively watch your wrist for second-by-second changes, but rather get used to different levels of effort and how they feel. When you come to do the marathon itself, there’ll be an adrenalin rush (especially at the start) and knowing how that steady pace running feels is a good way to give yourself something to focus on and keep you in control of your run.
Practice your routine When you’re running 26.2 miles, the running is important but there’s lots of other things you have to do as well. You’re going to have to drink, to eat and, most likely, you’re going to have to go to the loo at some point during it. So use your training runs to get used to drinking and eating while you’re running, and working out how to stop and take a loo break then start running again after it. (That might sound simple but if you’re used to just doing a run and finishing, working out what you need to do when you stop and start is useful practice for the main event) Use the time to see what sort of food and drink work best for you. There’s a lot of different types of running fuel supplies out there be it gels, beans, cubes, flapjacks, juices, sweets or dozens of other things, and each of them will have a different effect on you. As a simple example, the London Marathon gives out Lucozade Sport, which I’m fine with but on some people it doesn’t have a good effect. Better to find out now whether it’s worth drinking that during exercise, than discovering those adverse effects in front of a cheering crowd.
If you’ve not done any running events before, and especially if your marathon is a big one like London, then take the opportunity to do some smaller events beforehand so you can get used to some of the things that happen in an organised race. Sign up for a 10K or half-marathon (I did a few 10Ks and then the Colchester Half Marathon five weeks before the marathon) that fits in with your training plans and don’t worry about your time, but use it to get used to travelling to a race, dealing with the stuff before the start like getting your number and dropping off your bag, running with other people, picking up water from drinks stations, running in front of a crowd, cooling down after a race and everything else. If you’ve got experience of all those things then when your marathon comes around they’ll be things you can deal with easily, not sources of additional stress.
All the distance counts Did you know that when you finish a marathon they check over the course to see if you walked any of it and disqualify you if you have? No? That’s good, because it’s not true, but a lot of people act like it is. Sure, if someone like Kipchoge or Farah stops to walk through part of the course it’s not going to be good for their chances but if you’re trundling around at the back, it’s a perfectly fine way to cover the distance. And what’s true for the race is also true for your training. When you get into doing your long runs, there’s nothing wrong with stopping and walking for some of them, especially if you’re getting to a point where your heart rate is up, you’re going quite hard and you need to cool yourself down a little. Walking isn’t cheating, and by keeping yourself going and moving you’re reducing the risk of injuring yourself from having to start again after completely stopping. Look up run-walk-run techniques like Jeffing to get an idea of how to do it most effectively.
What I found while running the marathon was that by having worked out in advance that I was going to stop and walk at certain points helped me focus on doing it one chunk at a time. I’d do about 5K of running and then walk for a bit while having a drink and checking how I felt before continuing. And even if I was travelling more slowly during those bits, I was still covering the distance — and they still gave me the medal at the end for it.
Relax and taper Finally, before the race itself do make sure you wind down the training 2 or 3 weeks before it happens. By that point, there’ll be no benefit to be gained from training, and you don’t want to tire yourself out before the big day. Do some short runs, keep stretching and maybe have a swim or two, but try not to stress too much about what’s coming. Use the time to work out how you’re going to get there, what you need to do when you’re there, where any friends or family are going to be so you don’t have to be stressed out by any of that on the day itself.
Most importantly — and this is something you’ll see from lots of other sources — is to remember the mantra of nothing new on race day. Make sure you’ve worn all your kit on training runs, that you’re using food and fuel you’re used to, that you’re doing warm ups and stretches you’ve tried before. Keeping to stuff you’re used to doing from your training means you can focus on your marathon and relax about everything else.
And in the end, relaxing is the way you’re going to get yourself to the end of your marathon. It’s going to be a hell of a thing for you to do, but don’t be daunted by the scale of it — if a fat bloke like me can do it, then there’s a lot of people out there who can make it round 26.2 miles even if you don’t think you can right now. You might not look like a sleek svelte marathon runner, but you’ll still be covering the distance and that’s what counts.