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Ten tips for first-time marathon runners

I’m no great athlete.  There, I’ve said it.  I’m not even a seasoned marathon campaigner.  I did my first marathon in 2012.  I’d read a lot and talked to a lot of people before doing the race, but there were still loads of things that weren’t in the books – things that you only really learn out on the road as a first timer.  I guess that’s why they say there is no substitute for experience.  

Anyway, I got round.  I loved the experience.  I did it in 4 hours and 5 mins and I managed to avoid hitting the wall.  So I must have got some things right!  My best half marathon time before then was 1:48 and I’d done a 10k in 46 minutes.  I’m telling you this because the hardest thing I found was how to pace myself.  I spent hours agonizing over what time I thought I could do and how I was going to pace myself.  I obsessed about breaking the 4 hour mark – in the end I wouldn’t have cared if I’d taken 8 hours – the thrill of completing my first marathon was all that really mattered.

So, I’ve pulled together a load of tips that I found useful.  I’ve said there’s 10 but that was just to give it a snappy header!  Even if just one of them helps get you round it was worth it though, right?!  

Let me know what great tips you’ve picked up and enjoy your big day! 

1. Be prepared
There are plenty of books and articles to tell you how to taper in preparation for the big day.  It is hard to go from full-on training to taking it relatively easy – especially if you don’t feel like you’ve done enough.  But tapering is as important as your other preparations so show it the same respect. 

I found that having a deep massage during the taper period really helped get rid of a couple of niggles.  Get one booked early as you may not be able to get an appointment at short notice. 

Clothing and comfort – you should have tested out your race kit on your longest runs.  Find what is still comfortable after 20 miles and stick with it.  Try different things on your long runs – eg Vaseline your toes, BodyGlide for other chafing, cycling shorts if chafing is still a problem etc. 

Get your race day logistics sorted.  I felt quite stressed until I had finally got to the start line – there is so much to think about – especially if you are away from home and on your own going to the start line.  Plan it all out and give yourself lots of time to get there.

2. Be realistic about your marathon pace
If your half marathon PB is 2 hrs you aren’t going to do the marathon in 4 hrs.  Use a marathon pace converter to turn your half marathon time into a target marathon pace:


Even here, be realistic.  I’d run a 1:48 half marathon and trained well going into my first marathon. Maybe I am capable of a sub 3:50 marathon but for my first one I gave it everything and came away with 4:05.  I’d hoped for sub 4hrs but looking back I think if I’d have started any quicker I might have really blown up badly.  For most runners it will be the first time running more than 20-22 miles so it doesn’t really make sense to set yourself a stretching time target.  Completing your first marathon and enjoying it enough to want to do it again is probably the best outcome to aim for.

3. Plan to run an even pace
In big city marathons it is very difficult to speed up towards the end of the race – even if you feel that you have some energy left – as the road ahead of you can be so congested.  If you have been running at 4 hr marathon pace for three hours, everyone around you will be doing broadly the same or slowing down and it becomes almost impossible to get past people.  Also, it is psychologically easier to maintain a pace when you are very tired than to try and increase your pace.  It can also be easier to be ‘on target’ all race than feel like you are behind and knowing you need to speed up. 

Remember to contain your excitement at the start and stick to your even pace.  Your target pace should feel ridiculously easy for the first five miles but you are banking energy for the last five!!

And be a bit wary of relying solely on a GPS watch.  My Garmin went wonky through Canary Wharf due to the tall buildings and as a result my pacing was completely thrown.  Also, all the weaving around due to the crowded road meant my Garmin said I’d run 26.7 miles at the finish!!   Try and get hold of a pacing wrist band – there were loads at the Virgin Marathon Expo and they give you each mile split to achieve your goal. 

4. Take an extra gel
By now you will have worked out a gel strategy on your longer runs and should have a belt or some way of transporting enough food for the race.  It is sensible to take more gels on the day.  If you were fine with four gels on your 20 mile run – one every five miles – I’d recommend probably taking six at least for the big day.  The extra shot of energy in the last couple of miles could make all the difference.  The benefit of not running out of energy in the final mile or so far out ways any additional hassle from carrying extra gels!  Also, I nearly lost a gel from my belt at around 10 miles – another runner very kindly pointed out that one was slipping out of my belt – so, best to have plenty!

In addition to getting through six gels in 4 hours I also ate a lot of slices of banana, orange and a few handfuls of Jelly Beans handed out by kind spectators, so don’t underestimate the amount you will need to eat.  I also calculated that I must have drank 12 bottles of water.  And no, I didn’t need to go to the toilet!!  That’s how much your body can need to get you round. 

5. Put your name on your vest, run near the crowd and smile! 
You are running 26 miles, right?  Well, you are going to need all the help you can get!  If you are doing a big city marathon there is likely to be a good smattering of supporters along the way.  In London there are very few sections of the route where you won’t see supporters and in most places they will be at least five deep.  Use the crowd to help you. Put your name on your vest and run close to the crowd.  The buzz you get from a crowd cheering your name can make all the difference – especially if you are suffering. 

It sounds funny to say smile at the crowd but smiling releases stress in the body and can help take your mind off things.  Try making eye contact with supporters to get them to shout your name – and say thank you!!  Every little helps.

6. Focus on your technique
Running a marathon uses up an enormous amount of energy.  Your performance in the last five miles (and therefore your overall result) depends on how long you can preserve your energy supply.  When you are running 5ks and 10k races you might not think too much about technique or trying to save energy but in a marathon it could be the difference between really enjoying the race and having a mare!  

When you get tired your technique tends to go out the window.  You get to the point where you really are just throwing one leg in front of the other.  To be honest, you aren’t even aware of how much you are heel-striking and slouching over your hips.  By the end of a marathon you are grasping for any help you can get.  So imagine if you had been able to preserve even 5% more energy by just focusing on a shorter stride, keeping your contact point with the ground right beneath you instead of overstriding and heel-striking, which is like putting the brakes on with every step.  Focusing on your technique can also take your mind off the pain!

7. Take care in the drink stations  
The drink stations can be chaotic.  Get yourself to the side of the road early so that you are ready to grab something from the station and aren’t veering in at the last minute.  Then get out of there!  Carefully pull away to the middle of the road to avoid other runners making a last minute lunge.  Make sure you look where you are running as there will be loads of half empty bottles on the road which can spell disaster if you hit one and go over on your ankle.  If you aren’t planning to get a drink, get into the middle of the road and avoid the chaos!

8. Toilets, showers
Big city marathons will have portaloo stops at regular intervals along the course but these can become incredibly busy.  In London there are quieter spots on the route where men (particularly) tend to go – the tunnel on the way to the Isle of Dogs is a favourite spot!  You’ll see plenty of runners dashing into pubs along the way too.  

I found the showers very welcome.  I tried to run through the line of showers every five miles or so just to bring my body temperature down slightly.

9. You will slow down, but you don’t have to hit ‘the wall’
All the stats show that the vast majority of marathon runners slow down in the last few miles.  The trick is to pace yourself correctly and make sure you are fuelled to the finish line. Even so, you need to be prepared mentally for the extremes of the last few miles and have some tactics for coping with it.  Hitting the wall is simply a function of going too fast for your fitness, burning through your supply of energy and not refueling enough to get you to the finish.  With sensible pacing and enough food you should be able to avoid the wall but you will still be on the limit for the last few miles.

10. Train your brain as well as your legs  
A marathon is as much a test of your mental toughness as your physical strength.  Your brain tends to try and protect the rest of your body from unnecessary suffering so it will start to tell you things are hurting long before the end of a marathon.  However, if you can trick your brain to stop sending those messages, the legs will almost certainly keep going for much longer.  There are various techniques such as visualizing success and yourself finishing the race strongly or chanting positive mantras.  For me it was counting to 100 over and over again.  It is a tactic used by Paula Radcliffe and it seems to work by giving your brain something else to think about instead of “ow, this is really hurting!”  It is simple too – so after 24 miles when you can’t work out if you are coming or going you can probably still just about remember how to count.   

Good luck and remember to smile all the way round!