The Golden Rules of 26.2

When I did my first marathon in 1976, the event was thought to be for experienced club runners aiming to break three hours. Thirty-six years on, well over a million people of all speeds, shapes and sizes have run a marathon, and the event has become much more accessible. It’s a very honest sport: put the work in and you usually get the rewards. And if you don’t, there is usually a good reason for it. Here are the 12 golden rules that I have learnt in three and a half decades of marathon running.

1. Build up to it

If you want to run a successful marathon, don’t rush into it. Start with shorter events, gain experience and build endurance, then tackle a marathon when you get fitter and stronger. Paula Radcliffe and Haile Gebrselassie had been running for well over 10 years before attempting their first marathon. I regret running my first marathon aged just 18. I trained well for a few months after leaving school but wasn’t ready, started too fast and much of the last 10K was walked. I ran 2:54:42, but was capable of quicker.

2. Long runs are key

Whether you want to run sub-3:00 or sub-5:00 for the marathon, the key session is the weekly long run. The more you do, the better your endurance. Other runs – speedwork, midweek distance runs and marathon-pace runs – have their place but they’re not as crucial. The key to a good marathon is how well you hold your pace in the last 10K and that ability comes from doing plenty of long runs. In recent years, I have tried to do about six long runs of around 20 miles across the 15 weeks before the marathon. That gives me the confidence I need to know I can hold a pace over the second half, when the going starts getting tough.

3. Be consistent, be sensible

Consistent training (for example, 15 weeks at 40 or 50 miles a week) is better than five weeks at 100, then five weeks off through injury. However, it is best to miss a few days if you aren’t feeling well or have an injury, rather than run through it and make yourself feel worse. A lot of runners lose sight of the fact that rest is a vital component in any schedule. Yes, there has to be some training in which you get used to running while tired, but do this too often and you could break down.

4. Race other distances

Races are more fun than training and you can practise pacing, hydration and running in crowds. I’d suggest running a half marathon, 10K or 10-miler once a month to monitor your progress. The merits of a 20-mile race are more debatable. It’s probably fine for a marathon-pace run, scheduled four to six weeks before the marathon, but a flat-out 20-mile race will probably take more away from your marathon than it will enhance it. In my 30s, I ran some very good 20-mile races in March but never got near that pace when I did the marathon a month later.

5. Don’t skimp on speed

On the face of it, 26.2 miles doesn’t seem to require a great deal of speed – endurance is the key. However, there is a link between your 10K ability and what marathon time you can run. A sub-3:00 marathoner, for example, needs to be able to be able to run around 40 minutes for 10K. A sub-3:00 marathon translates as 43:40 for each 10K segment, and if you are going to put four of those back-to-back then you’re not going to be comfortable if 41 minutes is near your limit.

6. Get treatment

Sometimes a small niggle can become a serious injury. Getting it sorted quickly before an injury develops could save a lot of frustration. A good sports therapist will be able to spot a problem before it prevents you from training, so booking in for regular massages is worthwhile. It’s only regular visits to the osteopath, physio and sports therapist, together with more stretching, core and weights work, that has kept me training and able to race regularly.

7. Train smarter as you age

As you get older, speed decreases, stride length shortens, recovery takes longer and injuries increase. For my first 30 years of marathoning, I stayed fairly healthy despite sometimes doing crazy things like running a pair of sub-3:00 marathons in a week, twice in the same year. But if I’d carried on doing that, I have no doubt I wouldn’t be running respectable times in my 50s. I now focus on one marathon a year, give my body a rest from long runs during the summer and work more on speed. I don’t train as hard as I used to, but I train smarter: resting more, staying offroad where I can and doing speedwork on grass. Consequently I have been able to stay at pretty much the same level from my 30s to my early 50s.

8. Fuel your efforts

Good nutrition and hydration can make a huge difference, both in training and in racing. The biggest change in my marathons over the last 10 years or so is my use of gels. I regularly used to run out of energy in the last six miles but since using gels, I have been far stronger over the closing miles. I usually find four is sufficient for my needs in the marathon.

9. Have a target

It is important to have a target to keep you motivated. Early on, it helped me telling others what time I was aiming for to increase my drive. But in later years the motivation has been to do well in my age group, or to help others. Two years ago I ran with someone doing their first marathon, while last year, on limited training, my goal was to extend my sub-3:00 streak to over 35 years.

10. Be realistic

It helps to know what time you are capable of in a marathon and then adjust your pace to that time. Until you have the experience of knowing how your body will react past 20 miles in a race situation it is best initially to err on the side of caution. Before you run a marathon, you should know fairly well what pace you will attempt based on your training, past races, recent injuries, weather conditions, the course profile and even your age.

11. Pace sensibly

Many marathon runners do everything perfectly in training and then blow it during the race by suddenly deciding they feel great and attempt a pace they have never raced at before. Invariably this leads to a good first half followed by a painful second half and a time much slower than you are capable of. I used to blast out in marathons and hang on, but I paced my sub-2:30 PB more sensibly and in later years my key has been to conserve as much energy as possible over the first 20 miles, so I’m at my freshest for the crucial last 10K. 

12. Recover and review

The most important thing after a marathon is to rest and recover. However the race has gone, take some positives from it and congratulate yourself on the achievement. At some point, analyse what went right and wrong in training and the race itself so you can make adjustments for next time. And don’t return to hard racing too soon. The body may seem to have recovered but a speed session or short race can show otherwise – as I have found to my cost in recent years. Recharge both your batteries and motivation for your next challenge.