Taking on 26.2 miles might not be new to you, but running the Virgin Money London Marathon is a very unique experience. The crowds of runners and supporters; the route itself with its iconic sights and all the challenges it presents; the all-important finish on The Mall. It all adds up to a very special event.
To get the inside scoop on how to make the most of your big day, we spoke to RW deputy editor Joe Mackie (5-time Virgin Money London Marathon finisher, 3 as a RW Pacer) and Steve Vernon, Elite Performance and Activation Manager at New Balance, the new official Virgin Money London marathon clothing and footwear sponsor – see their new marathon training range here! Read on for some very honest pearls of wisdom, because not all marathons and marathoners are built the same.
The big picture
Joe: Marathon runners – and particularly first-time 26.2ers – can get fixated on following their training grids to the letter (or digit). But remember that your goal is to get to the finish line on The Mall on April 22nd, not to finish any one particular session on your training plan at any cost.
Your training plan is an ideal scenario and, obviously, the more sessions you can tick off, the better prepared you will be to finish the race. However, pushing yourself through a session when you’re carrying a niggle can set you back further, and trying to cram in extra miles to make up for missed sessions can send your body beyond its limits and into breakdown.
Tune into your body, respect the vital process of recovery, don’t be afraid to skip a session if your body tells you it needs to. An awful lot of would-be first-time marathoners don’t make the start line because they fail to do this.
Joe: Having said that, you might be able to get away with winging it for a 10K, maybe even a half marathon, but for the big ‘un you will need a structured training plan with adequate total miles and varied sessions – long runs, tempo, runs, speed work, hills – to develop the fitness and strength (mental and physical) required to get you to the finish line.
Steve: Also, supplementing running training with cross-training such as swimming or biking is often a good idea to avoid injury and give your legs an active rest from the pounding effect of running. Many of the world’s best runners supplement running training with additional cross training to help increase their aerobic fitness without having to run the extra miles.
Joe: Your in-run fuel and hydration strategy is key to a getting through 26.2 miles. This should be refined through experimentation and practice throughout your training to discover what type, volume and timing of gels and drinks your body tolerates best, and responds best to. Race day is not the time to start trying new things. Plus, by using gels in training your body will become better at absorbing them.
Steve: Joe’s right, every runner has different and specific nutritional needs for optimal performance. The best ways to find out what works for you are by experimenting through trial and error and making fueling practice a regular part of your marathon-specific workouts.
Joe: Same goes for your pre-run meal and snacks. Find a formula that works and stick with it. I’m a big fan of porridge with banana and honey or the classic beans on toast. But you may need something with less fibre. Experiment to find the right combo for you.
Steve: Stick to what you know and what your stomach is happy with. Don't try something just because you have read about it the day before!
Joe: Your race day kit should be thoroughly tried and tested. But, throwing a meteorological spanner in the works, the London Marathon falls in that period when the UK is never quite sure what season it is. Consequently, I’ve run London on chilly days and very warm days. Have a couple of kit options to suit warmer and cooler race day conditions that you’ve completed long runs in and are totally comfortable with. Check the weather the day before and select what you think is best. New shoes on race day are an absolute no-no.
Steve: Looking good and feeling good can have a positive mental effect so choosing the right kit is important. Comfortable kit you trust will also enable you to stand on the start line in confidence. It can make a difference! Find the right marathon shoes for you by using the New Balance shoe selector guide.
Joe: Lay all your kit our carefully the night before with race number pinned on. Contrary to what you may think this is not simply an Instagram opp; it saves time and stress on race morning when the last thing you want to be doing is desperately searching for safety pins.
You’re all set!
Plan your journey
Read the Final Instructions in your race pack, check what colour start you’re heading off from and work out the closest station. Save your legs for the miles ahead.
Leave time to get in line
It's 100% guaranteed on marathon race morning that your paranoia about dehydration will leave your bladder feeling like the Thames barrier in a storm surge. Be prepared for the fact that this goes for all 40,000 assembled in Greenwich Park and leave ample time to queue for the loo between baggage drop and start pen.
Scientific fact 1: No marathon runner has ever regretted applying a little lube to prevent chafing on race day.
Scientific fact 2: No marathon runner’s race day experience has ever been enhanced by bleeding nipples. Get some Bodyglide.
Harness the energy
You will be nervous, that’s normal. Rather than trying to fight the pre-race tension, try to embrace it and let the adrenaline flow as you tick down to the start time.
Find a pacer
The RW Pace Team has pacers with flags running finish times in 15 minute increments from 2:59 to 5:14. They will be at the back of the start pens corresponding to those finish times. If you’re looking to finish in one of those times, using a pacer is a brilliant way to take the stress of checking your watch and watching your splits out of the race.
Go with the flow
If it’s crowded as you cross the line then for those first few hundred metres just let yourself be carried at the speed of the runners around you. Whether it’s slower or faster than your goal pace, don’t waste energy or risk getting in a tangle of legs, just go with the flow until things aren’t so tight.
Now, calm down…
Okay, now it’s opened up and the adrenaline is pumping, but stick to your goal pace however slow it feels. Go too quick now and it’ll come back to haunt you later.
Run the course, not your pace-band
London can get congested, particularly if you’re running at around 4-hour pace. There are pinch points, such as around Cutty Sark, when you may be slowed to walking pace due to the crowding. Don’t panic. Don’t waste energy trying to fight your way through and, when you get clear, don’t sprint to get your next mile split back on track. Think about picking up the lost seconds (or minutes) as gradually as possible over the entirety of the remaining miles. Or, if you’re able to follow a pacer, trust in them to do the mental arithmetic for you and tuck in behind the flag.
Beware the ten-mile mind-trick
Yes, you feel amazing. You are fitter than ever, well-rested, fully carb-loaded and charged with the greatest race-day atmosphere. You’ve run 10 miles and you feel like you could run forever and considerably faster than you had planned, but there is a long, long way to go. Stay on the pace you have trained for; letting your speed drift up now may feel effortless but you will more than likely pay a heavy price after another 10 miles.
Smell the roses (and listen to the bands, maybe high-five a couple of spectators…)
Don’t be so focussed on the finish that you don’t enjoy the journey. London Marathon is a 26.2 mile carnival of the human spirit. You’ve worked damned hard to get here and it should be one of the great experiences of your (running) life. Try to soak up every minute and enjoy every step. And you should be grinning all the way across Tower Bridge.
Somewhere out there, in the badlands of the Isle of Dogs, the seemingly endless drag from there to Embankment or the dark and often smelly tunnels, your body and mind will feel utterly battered and spent. The finish line will seem to lie beyond an impossible expanse of distance, time and willpower, but believe in yourself. You have done the hard work in training and you can do it. Dig in. Don’t think about the miles left to run, just think about ticking off one step, one minute, one mile at a time.
There will come a moment, probably around the time you hang a right at Westminster when you stop hoping you can do it, and you know you can. However heavy your legs feel your mind will feel suddenly lighter and your shuffle will feel more like a glide. Savour the crowds on Birdcage Walk and the change in course markers from miles run to metres to go, savour the final turn in front of the palace and the final yards through the grandstands, savour crossing the line and seeing your own exhausted elation reflected back on the faces of fellow finishers around you. Savour it all, you’ve earned it.
As the official clothing and footwear sponsor of the Virgin Money London Marathon, New Balance have 30 marathon places to give away. To enter the competition, tell them why you are inspired to run before the 30th November 2017 for your chance to win a place. Good Luck! Visit newbalance.co.uk/londonmarathon