8 steps to running your strongest marathon

We distil decades of running experience and expertise to help you reach the start of your next marathon healthy, happy and ready to race.



by Cindy Kuzma

In some ways, 1980 was a lot like 2016 – there was a contentious US election, a notably left-wing and divisive Labour leader in the UK and a new Star Wars film. But in the world of marathons, the now-and-then finish-line photographs look very different. Back then, marathons were largely reserved for the speedy, mostly male, elite. In 1980, only 1,145 UK runners crossed the finish line of a 26.2-mile race, in median finishing times of 3:32 for men and 4:19 for women. Today, well over 100,000 British runners complete a marathon each year. Many are older, far more are women and the finishing times reflect the broader appeal (and more inclusive nature) of the event. By 2015, median times had increased to 4:03 for men and 4:44 for women. Nearly one third of RW readers plan to tackle a 26.2 race in the year ahead, according to a recent survey. But you probably have no plans to log 70-100-mile weeks, as many marathoners of the past did; in fact, the typical RW reader runs about 20 miles week. Fortunately, a decade and a half into the second running boom, coaches have adapted the training methods of elites into plans that will fit the schedules of average athletes. We asked the experts who’ve appeared in these pages over the years to spell out the best strategies for runners with full lives.

Above all, stay healthy

Since he began coaching marathoners in the 1970s, coach Jeff Galloway has maintained ongoing contact with runners; through the years, he’s talked with more than 400,000, he says. His surveys show that only about five per cent (!) of first-time marathoners who begin training to go 26.2 miles actually cross the finish line that season. Some get too busy, others burn out – and many fall victim to injuries. ‘If you talk to seasoned runners and ask what they’d do differently, they almost always say, “I should have put more effort into taking care of my body”,’ says exercise physiologist Greg McMillan. Fortunately, experienced coaches and exercise scientists have identified key behaviours that keep athletes strong and healthy as they prep for the marathon. Build the following habits into your routine from the beginning.



1/ Run easy

Speedwork has a place in marathon training, but it’s a small piece of a big puzzle. On most runs – especially the long ones – resist the urge to push your speed; instead, travel at a slow, steady pace, advises running coach Janet Hamilton. You should be able to have conversations with your running partners (an underrated perk of marathon training is the friendships that can be forged over the miles).

Easy running reduces the impact on your body and staves off fatigue, enabling you to log more miles with less risk of injury. What’s more, it actually prepares you better for the distance. When you run a marathon, most of your body’s fuel comes from your aerobic system – your hardworking muscles need oxygen-rich blood to power each contraction. Your body adapts to easy miles by strengthening your heart, sprouting more capillaries to infuse oxygen into muscles, and building more mitochondria, the factories within cells that produce energy. ‘You’re getting the foundation, all of the horsepower,’ says McMillan. ‘Then later, when you want to go fast, you’ve got a bigger engine.’

2/ Strength train

Runners of the past may have scoffed at the idea of using valuable training time for anything other than even more mileage, but modern marathon runners know better – and are healthier, more well-rounded athletes because of it. A good strength-training programme will help to counteract the harmful effects of our sedentary lifestyles, as well as the repetitive motion and impact stresses of running, strengthening weak links and ensuring that joints move through their full range of motion.

Many runners have weak hip and glute muscles, which can drive your knees out of alignment and cause muscle imbalance, tightness and pain from your hips to your knees, says coach Jenny Hadfield. And if you don’t have the core strength to make it through 15 seconds of planks on each side, then you’re not durable enough to maintain your form throughout a 26-mile run.

Counteract these deficiencies and build a solid strength-training habit by doing three or four targeted exercises after your runs at least three times per week. Smart options include planks and side planks, squats (working up to single-leg versions), lunges, clamshells and glute bridges. On your long runs, move at a slow, steady pace to reduce injury risk and fatigue.



3/ Fuel properly

‘If the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn, even Big Macs.’ This quote from John L Parker Jr's 1978 novel Once a Runner makes interesting prose but terrible nutritional advice. Cleaning up your diet early in a marathon-training programme helps you shed extra weight and ease stress on your joints without depriving yourself of calories you need during the heaviest weeks of training, says McMillan. To do it, swap refined sugars and carbs, as well as fried and overly processed options, for wholefoods such as vegetables, wholegrains, fruits and lean proteins. These healthy-eating habits support your training throughout the cycle, providing the energy and nutrients your body needs to cope with the demands of higher mileage.

When it comes to fuelling each run, you can power through short efforts on water alone. For runs lasting 60 minutes or longer, supplement with 30-60g of carbs per hour from sports drinks, gels or everyday foods such as pretzels or jelly beans, says Hadfield. Afterwards, refuel with a healthy snack or meal containing protein and carbs – for instance, a turkey and avocado wrap, or chocolate milk – to jump-start muscle repair and tamp down the ‘runger’ that might otherwise strike with a vengeance. And whatever you do, practise your night-before, morning-of and mid-race fuelling plans on every long run. Make notes in your training log about what works and what leaves you feeling bloated, nauseous or lacking in energy so you’ll know exactly how to make your body happy on race day.

4/ Sit less

Time and again, we’ve heard that ‘sitting is the new smoking’, raising the risk for obesity, heart disease and early death. And if that’s not enough to scare you into standing, runners face additional damaging consequences from staying seated. ‘Sitting puts your hips in the absolute worst position for what you want to do when you’re running,’ says McMillan. Your hip flexors tighten and your hamstrings shorten, clipping the backward extension of your leg that makes for a healthy stride. Plus, your shoulders tend to hunch over, triggering back pain and constricting your breathing, says Hadfield.

Standing desks can help, but a recent research review in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise suggests working upright alone can’t counteract all the damage sitting causes to physically active people. Take at least one break an hour to get up and walk around your building or even head outside for a few minutes. And if you have the space and the privacy, do a few office-friendly moves to bring your body back to equilibrium. Hadfield suggests walking or lunging backwards to open your hips, or dropping down to all fours to do cat-and-cow stretches, which will ease strain on your back.



5/ Sleep well

So many good things happen when runners turn out the lights at night: your muscles repair themselves, your hunger hormones reset, your brain makes new motor connections and you awake restored, refreshed and ready to run again. In one study, the number of hours of sleep per night was found to be the number-one predictor of sports injuries in teenage athletes, and experts suspect that similar findings apply to grown-ups. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine advises healthy adults to get at least seven hours of sleep per night, and while every athlete differs, most runners need even more sleep as their mileage increases, notes McMillan.

It’s OK to miss a few runs – especially if you’re sick, tired or stressed. ‘I always tell athletes in training – as soon as you can go to bed, you should to go to bed,’ McMillan says – no ifs, buts, or more scrolling through Netflix about it. To make sure you fall asleep quickly and sleep soundly, try to avoid all screens for at least an hour before you hit the hay.

6/ Choose the right shoes

Minimalist, maximalist, zero-drop, stability – today’s runner practically needs a specialised glossary to understand the types of footwear available, let alone select the perfect pair. Experienced friends, a coach or trained running-shop staff can help point you in the right direction. But the best way to find the right shoe for you is to try and try again, says Bart Yasso, chief running officer at Runner’s World US. Head to a running-shoe shop late in the day (your feet tend to swell as the day goes on) and test several different brands and models. Put them on side by side for comparison, looking for a pair that allows adequate room for your toes, supports your arch in the right place, doesn’t slide off your heel and seems to move with your foot rather than pushing it in a different direction, says Hamilton. Consider rotating several different pairs (this can reduce injury), and replace them every 300-500 miles - sooner if you feel new aches and pains.



7/ Be flexible

A sensible training plan serves as a solid guide for your preparation. But don’t stress if you miss a few days. ‘If you do 85 per cent of the training, you will achieve 95 per cent of the results,’ says RW writer-at-large Amby Burfoot. ‘Everybody misses runs; just try to do most of them.’

In fact, sometimes extra rest days will actually increase your chances of getting to the starting line strong and healthy. Whether it’s due to a crazy day at work, illness or pain that gets worse as you run, the smart runner is going to take a few days off over the course of 16 weeks, if they’re training intelligently, says Burfoot. On the flip side, those who stay slaves to the training schedule and push through the miles even when they’re short on sleep, frazzled or injured put their race in peril.

8/ Set smart goals

If you’ve run races of other distances, you can plug your times into an online calculator to get an idea of where you might finish. But Galloway says runners hung up on the numbers are prone to train at a level that’s harder than their bodies can handle – even if they avoid injury, they tend to have a lot less fun. ‘I tell people, this experience is going to be one you’ll remember for the rest of your life,’ he says. ‘If you want it to be one of those really great experiences, don’t have a time goal.’

In fact, the wide range of motivations and goals just might be the biggest difference between marathoners of today and those early trailblazers. ‘Forty years ago we all ran because we wanted to break three hours and set a personal best; it was pretty much a selfish endeavour. Now, there are manifold reasons for training for and running a marathon,’ says Burfoot. You can aim to raise money for a charity, collect medals, check off an item on your bucket list or live a long, healthy life. Setting non-time goals can provoke psychological changes that are as profound as the physiological responses to running, if not more so. The new definition of winning? ‘Find your reason for running, or your many reasons, and embrace them,’ says Burfoot.


Photography from Getty Images


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