I've run nine marathons - 15 things you need to know before running your first 26.2

Let the running experts impart their wisdom.

Training tips for a marathon: Health Editor Ally Head running the London Marathon in 2021
(Image credit: Simon R Photos)

Public service announcement: it's London Marathon weekend. Feeling inspired seeing all the amazing runners lace up to tackle the 26.2 and Googling training tips for marathon? Well, you're in the right place.

Running a marathon is no mean feat. You'll end up with black toenails, DOMs for days, and a completely incomparable sense of pride, achievement and sheer elation. It's like nothing else - and yes, absolutely anyone can do it (if you train).

So, where to start? As a Senior Health Editor who's run nine marathons in her time - the London Marathon, three times - I can confidently say this will depend on your fitness level. If you workout four times a week and run semi-regularly as is, you'll want to try a different plan than, say, someone who's never run before.

But there are some universal training tips for a marathon that apply to everyone. We've asked run coach and athlete Johnny Mellor, run coach Steve Vernon, and FIIT personal trainer Sean Kazab to share the fifteen most important things you need to know pre-running your first race - including what not to do come race day (we're looking at you, brand new running trainers or accidental alarm snooze).

Don't miss our guides to the many benefits of running, or expert explainers on how to run faster, while you're here.

Training tips for a marathon: 15 need-to-knows

If you're thinking about running or have trained for your first one, you're likely feeling a combination of excitement, nerves, and what runners call "maranoia"- marathon paranoia, aka a slight nagging feeling that you haven't quite done enough in training.

In training

1. First things first: pick a plan (and stick to it)

Want to run a marathon? First, pick a training plan (there are lots of great free options on the likes of Runners World). Most span twelve, sixteen or 20 weeks and will gradually build your body up to be able to tackle the distance come the big day.

As Kazab points out, research has shown those who have a specific workout plan are significantly more likely to achieve their goals. Similar to smashing your weekly home workouts or gym classes, a running training plan will guide you through a number of weeks of training with expert guidance. (Our guide to how to run for longer might help, too). Plus, as the trainer emphasises, having a solid plan in place takes decision-making out of the process so all you have to focus on is each session.

There are many training plans out there claiming to be the best but realistically, the best plan is the one that you can stick to and that fits in with your lifestyle.

Try this: when picking out a plan, look at the number of sessions per week and make sure it's something you know you can stick to. Less is sometimes more.

2. Workout your goal

Knowing how to run for longer can feel daunting, and this one's one of the most important tips. As Kazab says, without a goal, you can’t score. Whether yours is to finish - that's a feat in itself - or aim for a certain time - also impressive - remember not to compare yourself to others. This is your marathon, and your journey.

"Having clear specific, measurable and deliberate goals will help you develop a clear action plan," he explains.

Try this: Whatever your goal is, write it down and make it clear.

3. Don't do too much, too soon

FYI, a lot of running injuries are caused by doing too much, too soon.

Try this: Remember to pace yourself. Gradually build your running up from whatever fitness base you're at - our running tips for beginners feature may help.

As long as you've ticked off the majority of your miles and followed (most of) your plan, you'll have done enough. Marathon training is a fine balance between too little and too much - yes, rest is as important as training. Plus, trusting in your training is often as important as the training itself.

4. Remember to strength train, too

You might assume that training for a marathon simply means running loads, right?

Wrong. "Weight training is something endurance runners often neglect but its importance for both injury prevention, as well as improvements in performance, have been proven time and time again," explains Kazab.

Try this: Add in one to two full body strength training sessions a week - the workouts on Fiit’s Marathon Prep Collection are specifically designed with runners in mind.

Read our full review of strength training for running, here.

5. Prioritise sleep

Sounds simple, not so much in reality. "A consistent sleep routine is one of the most underrated methods of improving your recovery," explains Kazab.

Try this: Ensure you have a good night's sleep before all of your runs, where possible. Growth hormones released in your sleep are key for tissue repair and recovery, so getting a consistent seven to eight hours in bed will only be beneficial. Wondering how you can get to sleep? Our guide to insomnia treatment is here to help. As a Health Editor, I swear by my sunrise alarm clock for optimum shut-eye.

The day before the race

6. Plan in advance

One thing to keep worries at bay? Have a clear race plan, and have a clear post-race plan, too, advises Mellor.

Try this: "As well as having a race plan in place, do make sure you've made a plan to meet friends and family after the race," he advises. "The finish line is often very congested - knowing what set place your loved ones will be at after the marathon will help you push through the harder miles."

Investing in a wellness planner to jot down your plan or trying journaling for anxiety may also help ease race day nerves.

7. Check your kit

Again, sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people end up scrambling around for safety pins or Vaseline come race day. Running shoes? Check. Gym leggings? Check.

Try this: "The day before the race, do a final kit check," shares Mellor. "Pin your number to your vest and make sure you’ve not forgotten anything you might need on race day."

A basic (but not extensive) list might include:

Mellor likes to make notes on his phone in the week before the marathon to make sure he's prepared.

8. Prepare yourself mentally for the tough bits

Tough patches are inevitable in a marathon - how you tackle them is up to you (but our guide to reframing negative thoughts might help).

"These tough bits can sometimes come earlier than you think, so it's good to think about how you will overcome them with positive self talk and reminding yourself of all the hard work and training you have put in," shares Vernon.

Try this: Have a clear action plan for how you're going to overcome negative thoughts and emotions mid-race. "There is no need to panic if you have done the work, so simply slow down and allow it to pass," advises Vernon.

9. Break down the mileage

This one's really key. "The overall distance can be daunting, so break it down with process goals," recommends Vernon.

Try this: Whether you'll aim for distance markers - ten miles, fifteen, twenty, twenty five and then the finish - or instead focus on landmarks or where your friends and family cheering along is up to you. "You can reward yourself by having some of your favourite fuel or listening to a motivational song - anything that gives you a boost", advises Vernon.

10. Sort your fueling

On the topic of fueling - made sure you've worked out what works for you prior to race day. You'll need to fuel little and often, explains Mellor - as a general rule of thumb, you'll need at least 30g of carbs per hour minimum.

Try this: "If you have eaten and hydrated well in the 48 hours before, your glycogen stores will be optimised, but you will still need to drink and fuel along the way," he explains. Try to sip at drinks at regular intervals and take on some fuel either in the form of a sports drink, gel or sweets at least once every hour.

Our expert-led explainers on what to eat after a workout and the best protein powders might come in handy here.

11. Eat simple foods

On the nutrition topic, don't eat anything too different in the week leading up to race day. "The final week before the marathon isn’t the time to make changes to your diet," shares Mellor.

Try this: Instead, eat foods that you know sit well with you. Prep your fridge (or bag) with porridge pots and basic carbs that you know work for you.

On race day

12. Give yourself enough time

You don't want to be scrambling around pre-race, as we've touched on, so make sure you're prepared.

Try this: "Wake up in plenty of time on race day and give yourself sufficient time to go to the bathroom, eat and get to the start line so you’re not rushing," advises Mellor.

Also note here: it's normal not to sleep well the night before the race. You'll be nervous - this is bound to happen.

13. Don't try anything new

Again, you'll have heard it before but would be amazed at how many people do it. "Don’t wear anything new in the marathon - this includes running shoes, gym leggings and any other workout kit," explains Mellor.

Try this: Opt for trainers you've worn before and broken in, advises the athlete. "Break any new kit in for a couple of weeks before racing in them," he advises. "I like to do a final dress rehearsal two weeks out, which includes running in the kit and trainers I plan wearing on race morning."

14. Remember to take the first half of the race steady

It’s likely you will have a goal in mind based on your training - make sure you don't set off too fast, as you'll come to regret it in the second half of the race, shares Vernon.

Try this: "Run steady for the first half - it's easy to get carried away with the adrenaline from the crowds and hearing your family and friends on the road, so be smart," he adds.

15. And lastly... enjoy

Because, ultimately, that's what it's about, right? "Make sure you enjoy the race," stresses Vernon. "We all know the marathon is hard for all abilities, but you can still enjoy it by soaking in the incredible atmosphere along the way and sharing the journey with fellow competitors out on the road," he says.

Try this: Smile when you start to suffer….if it works for World Marathon Record Holder Eliud Kipchoge then it's worth trying, says Vernon.

What is a marathon?

Simply put, a long-distance running race, of 26.2 miles or 42km. "It's over eight Parkruns or 105.5 laps of a running track," explains Vernon. "Either way, it’s a long way!"

Is it normal to feel nervous before a marathon?

Short answer? Yes, explains Mellor.

"It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous pre-race and it’s worth remembering thousands of runners are going through exactly the same," he shares. "Nerves are good - they show you care. Remind yourself of the tough sessions you worked through and trust that you've given it your best shot. It's all you can do," he concludes.

Ally Head
Senior Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Senior Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, nine-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She's won a BSME for her sustainability work, regularly hosts panels and presents for events like the Sustainability Awards, and is a stickler for a strong stat, too, seeing over nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.