You’re not really supposed to run a marathon. It’s too far. The human body, quite simply, is not designed to cover this kind of distance. Which is why you need to take your training seriously.
To help you do just that, Runner's World have teamed up with Vifit Sport for our #missionmarathon project. We've recruited Olympic marathon runner Jane Vongvorachoti to create three comprehensive training schedules for three different marathon goals: the #finishliners plan (for those who just want to get to the end in one piece); the #breaking4 plan (for those who are after a sub-4hr time); and the #speeddemons plan (for those determined to finish with a time that starts with a 2). Training schedules coming soon!
At the Runner's World x Vifit Sport #missionmarathon Selection Day, we put 18 eager runners through their paces in a bid to win a spring marathon place, become the faces of our three teams – and get personal coaching, guidance from a sports nutrition pro and support from our three #missionmarathon squads.
We'll be announcing the three winners in due course but, in the mean time, read on for our best tips on how to prep yourself for a marathon, gathered from Runner's World staffers and our #missionmarathon captains. Because it doesn’t matter if you’re Eliud Kipchoge or Geoff from Hull, when you attempt to run, without stopping, for 26.2 consecutive miles, you will need a little help.
Three things that happen every time you run a marathon
1.Your glycogen stores run out. What this means in practice is, if not refuelled in some way, your body becomes physically incapable of moving forwards. You become a zombie. In runner’s parlance, you ‘bonk’. Developing a good nutrition strategy for both race day and your training, therefore, is vital. Our sponsors for the #missionmarathon project, Vifit Sport, offer a unique range of high protein recovery drinks, bars and shakes, all specially formulated and based on extensive research to ensure they provide the optimal levels of protein to help you recover your muscles repair and develop after intense exercise to prepare your body for the next session.
2. Your brain betrays you. For many, it happens at mile two; for others, mile 20. But at some point on the very long and winding road, an unfamiliar voice pipes up in your head – and it does not stop. The voice says different things to everyone, but the theme is always the same. Stop running. Why are you doing this? Why are you putting yourself through it? Everything hurts and you are probably doing yourself damage. Nobody will care if you don’t make it. Just stop.
3. You discover what you’re really made of. How you cope with the two above inevitabilities teaches you about yourself. Things you never knew. Marathon running has been, particularly over the last few years, normalised. It’s easy to forget, amidst the stupefying feats of endurance championed in the media every week – Everest without oxygen; round the world cycles; 40km swimming with a log attached to your trunks – that running a marathon is a truly extraordinary achievement. For many who do it, it will be the defining physical achievement of their lives. No matter what time you cross the line in, doing so is something that should be cherished forever.
All of which is a long way of saying, you should do it. Everyone should. And whether you want to just get round, break four hours, or even finish in under three, the experts from our Runner’s World x Vifit Sport Mission Marathon project are here to help.
If you just want to get to the finish line…
Be consistent with your kit
Race day is incredibly exciting. The noise; the crowds; the amount of food, in your mind’s eye, you see yourself eating afterwards. It’s all too easy to get overexcited. This overexcitement, typically, manifests itself in several ways. Most obviously in the tendency, every year, of thousands of first-timers to shoot off from the start line like rockets. But you’re smart. You’re reading Runner’s World. You’re not going to do that.
What you might do, however, is allow your enthusiasm on race day – or the days just before – to propel you towards a running store for a new pair of shoes, or a race day vest, or even some fancy marathon socks. This might seem innocuous, but it cannot be stressed enough how important it is to have tested every item of clothing you wear on the day thoroughly on your long runs. You can complete every single training run of a 16-week plan, you can wind down a perfect taper and be fresh from 8 hours sleep, but if the socks you’re wearing blister up your ankles by mile 10 you will not finish the race. Do. Not. Experiment.
Always get your long run in
It’s perhaps the most common question first timers ask. Do I really have to run five times a week in order to get to the end of this thing?
Short answer: yes. Yes, you do.
A half marathon, if you’re in reasonable shape from, say, regular five-a-side football or a couple runs a week, you might be able to finish (in pain) without a dedicated training plan. But you can’t blag a marathon. You need a schedule – and you also need to be getting out there and covering your set mileage every week for months before race day. There are no cheats. There is no shortcut. But that doesn’t mean you’re in serious trouble when life gets in the way and you miss a few sessions.
“Complete 100% of your plan and you’re laughing on race day,” says Ben Green, founder of Run Through and our Speed Demons captain for the Runner’s World x Vifit Sport Mission Marathon project. “But as long as you do at least 70% of your plan – and always get your long run in – you’ll be OK.” When circumstances conspire to keep you from lacing up, don’t panic; just find an hour or two to squeeze in a long run and regroup next week.
If you want to break four hours…
Use the triple threat of marathon training
If you want to go under four hours, you need to get serious with your training schedule. Everyone is different and requires a plan bespoke to them, but what will help immeasurably is a training system that incorporates speed work, sheer mileage and lactate threshold training.
Perfect your taper
When you’re desperate to hit a time on the day, what feels like slacking off for a fortnight before the race is incredibly difficult. But you simply have to do it. Even when every fibre of your being is telling your brain your body needs to run, pin yourself to the sofa in front of the latest Netflix sensation.
“There is little physiological value in any mileage, speedwork or long run in the two weeks leading up to the marathon,” explains running coach Steve Smythe. Research has shown that athletes who reduce their training by two-thirds prior to a big event increase muscle power and race faster than when they didn't taper. Relax and enjoy the rest.
If you want to go under three hours…
Invest in the right kit
And ‘right’ in no way means ‘most expensive’ here. Weather forecasts aren’t quite as unreliable as they once were, but they’re still frequently wrong. On race day you need gear for every eventuality: lashing rain, biting cold, sweltering heat; typhoon, hurricane, earthquake. “Buy really cheap outerwear for a few quid that you can just throw into bins when you get too hot along the race,” says Green. It’s also worth forking out for a second pair of shoes. Just make sure both pairs are well worn in – and you’ve packed your favourites for race day.
Try training using your heart rate
The accuracy of wrist-bound heart rate monitors has improved exponentially over the last few years. A recent Stanford University study which tested seven of the most popular fitness trackers found all had an error rate of under 7%.
When you’re training for a marathon time that starts with a two, every run counts – and knowing exactly where you need to improve is absolutely invaluable. “Once you’ve gauged how your heart rate fluctuates during a run, you can quickly use the data to see what you need to work on,” explains Green.
If you are on mile eight of your long run, for example, and your heart rate is low but you’re struggling, you know for sure that it’s your leg strength and muscular endurance that needs work, not your fitness. So you bring in a bit of lower body strength work. If, on the other hand, you’re on your sixth leg of sprint work and your heart rate is off the charts but your legs feel fine, you know it’s your aerobic capacity that requires more training. You can lie to yourself in order to avoid the training you don’t want to do; your heart rate monitor never lies.