Nine Real-Life Tips for The First Time Marathon Runner

Running your first marathon can be a daunting experience. With these nine tips you’ll be sure to have an edge when you walk up at the starting line.

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Running a marathon is one of life’s most gruelling yet rewarding experiences. For the first time marathon runner however, 26.2 miles of continuous running presents a daunting if not insurmountable challenge. If you’re thinking about running your first marathon, or maybe you are currently in training for one, you’ve undoubtedly absorbed as much information as possible regarding what to expect and how to achieve this life goal.

In chronological order, here are nine tips unlikely to be found in any book for someone about to embark on their first marathon.

Two Months To Go – Surface Work And Why You Should Not Shun The Treadmill

There are numerous books and websites that will tell you that the secret to finishing a marathon starts many months before the actual race. If you are aiming for a four hour marathon – a respectable time for any first-timer – you need to be running consistently for months before the big day. Though there is no magic point in time when you should start training for a marathon, the general guideline is that four months of focused training should get you safely over the line.

The problem with this theory is that most books will tell you that you must run in conditions similar to the actual race. Though training in a similar climate and at an appropriate elevation to the actual marathon are paramount in your preparation, with the average marathon training schedule consisting of hundreds of miles of running, training on just pavement could damage your body. The last thing you want is, come race-day, your knees, feet or shins to have been compromised due to your training routine that results in a sub-par performance during the actual marathon.

Alternate your runs between road-work and using a treadmill. Your knees will thank you when the race is over. Running on grass can be beneficial though it does tend to sap some of your energy. Beach work is also a good idea as it builds endurance but don’t overdo it as the surface has a tendency to quickly tire inexperienced runners and be almost de-motivational.

Top tip: Remember, treadmills have inclines too! When running on a treadmill you should always be at least a 2° incline. Vary this level during your work-out to simulate terrain including the all important running downhill.

One Month To Go – Incorporating Yoga Into Your Training Routine

Training for a marathon is not just about running. You’ll be increasing your calorie intake to fuel your long runs and you should also be doing some light weight work in the gym to prepare your muscles for the pressure of a non-stop four hour work-out. Introducing yoga to your routine is an integral element to marathon success with many professional athletes regularly performing yoga for its benefits toward their overall fitness and well-being.

Yoga will help in two main areas. Firstly, it will tone your muscles and help with suppleness; factors that are key to a successful marathon. Secondly, and more importantly, yoga will add a calming element to your training. Running most days of the week can be a stressful endeavour for anybody so regularly spending an hour to balance yourself both physically and mentally is invaluable. Remember: though intensely physical, a marathon is mostly mental. Having a strong mind going into the event will aid you in more ways than an extra run or weights routine could do.

Top tip: Stay clear of Bikram yoga. During your training period your intention is to stay as hydrated as possible. Bikram is great though it does have a tendency to dehydrate the body.

Two Weeks And Counting – Running With Gels

A vital pick-me-up during a marathon, gels are probably not something first-time runners are totally familiar with. Loaded with calories, carbs and sometimes caffeine and amino-acids to stimulate race-goers into further action, gels have been known to give depleted marathon runners an almost magical surge of much needed energy towards the end of a race. You’ll likely need gels when hitting the dreaded wall around mile 19 or so as the phenomenon, caused when your muscles and liver are literally exhausted of glycogen, can be countered by immediately ingesting high calorie foods.

Gels will probably be handed out during the race by numerous companies wishing to promote their products. The problem with taking a gel for the first time during a marathon is that you may have a negative reaction for varying reasons. Purchase some gels towards the end of your training schedule and try them out during one of your long runs (the 20 mile run a couple of weeks before the marathon is a good candidate). Remember to take water when eating a gel and be careful of the wrapper edges. You’re going to be in enough discomfort towards the end of the race and the last thing you want to do is cut your mouth along the way.  

Top tip: Gels come in varying and inventive flavours. Buy a few different ones and find the one you like. Fair warning though: a lot of them taste like washing up liquid no matter how hard the companies try to improve their flavour.

Final Week – Time For Some Musical Inspiration

For people who find running without music more conducive to their program, skip this section. For the majority of other people out there who use music as a motivational device and distraction – read on.

Music can be the difference between achieving your goal time and not finishing at all. A week before the event, work out your playlist for the marathon and fill your MP3 player with tracks that you think will help you along the way. Keep the tempo up-beat and, if you think you might skip the track during the race for whatever reason, leave it off. The idea is to start the playlist and not touch your music player again until after the race. You don’t want to expend any energy shuffling through songs when running.

I mention music as a distraction for the main reason that marathons for most first-time participants are usually quite a painful experience. Don’t worry, pain goes away, knowing you ran a marathon lasts forever. That said, a large part of running a marathon is pain management. Listening to music you like or can personally identify with can be the perfect distraction and pain-blocker. Some people pull caps down over their faces or wear sun-glasses. Others mostly close their eyes during the race in an effort to focus on simply putting one foot in front of the other. Whatever you do to block out distractions and motivate yourself to keep going, having a fixed playlist will be a comfort during the race.

Top tip: I run with an iPod Shuffle for its size and ergonomic design as it helps me know I’m always in control of my inspirational soundtrack. During my first marathon I used something much bigger and more cumbersome which I actually dropped during the race and cost me time. Invest in a small and reliable device. Finally, put your favourite song around the three hour mark (mile 19). You’re going to need it then.

Nearing The Big Day – Going To The Expo

A few days before the actual race, the marathon sponsor will probably swing into your city and set up an expo. Attending the expo is sometimes mandatory as it’s where you will need to register, but other times you don’t have to go – especially if you’re an out-of-towner and you’re flying in for the race.

Going to the expo is highly recommended for numerous reasons. Not only is it a great opportunity to meet people from all around the world who, just like you, are running in the race, some of them will also be first-timers and you can share stories, possibly write on a memorial wall and take some photos. This simple practice will turn what has undoubtedly been a stressful time into what it should be – a positive and memorable experience. The expo is also a treasure trove of gear, nutritional products and advice. It’s here you can pick up your gels and maybe even a commemorative t-shirt.

Top tip: Some expos offer free sports massages. Avail of these if you can as they can be instrumental in helping prepare your body for the impending physical trauma of running 26.2 miles.

The Night Before – Massage Time

Speaking of massages, the night before the marathon is when you need to completely relax and mentally prepare. You’ll likely be nervous and maybe even tense from the constant training and preparation. If you have a partner, or even a good friend, ask them for a massage. They don’t need to be good at it or even know what they’re doing but, ideally, you want to work out the remnants of any tension or minor injury you’ve picked up during your training. It will also help you sleep. Focus on the calves and hamstrings as these are usually the muscles that first-time long distance runners complain most about after the race.

You may want to avail of a professional physiotherapist or massage which is also recommended. Tell the person performing the massage that you’re running a marathon the next day and the purpose of the massage is to relax your muscles and prepare them for a long run.

Of course, you might want to book a second massage for just after the race. Give it a day or two though as any massage after such a gruelling event might be painful.

Top tip: Deep muscle massage is something to be avoided. This practice can inadvertently compromise the muscle group in the short-term and do more harm than good.

The Big Day – Time To Put On The Goo

There are three ointments you need to bring with you on the day of the big race. Vasoline to be smeared on any part of your body that may chafe (also a small bit above the eyebrows will deflect sweat away from the eyes and don’t forget your nipples), a balm such as Tiger Balm to be rubbed into your legs and lower back to provide a warming effect and preempt some impending discomfort through mild numbing, and menthol which you should rub on your racing bib. The latter is exceptionally useful as it will help keep your breathing clear during the race.

Top tip: Depending on your marathon, you may see medical crews offering race-goers a white cream to be rubbed on their legs. Most will even rub it in to you as you stand there. This cream is similar to the aforementioned Tiger Balm and will sooth aches and pains. The negative aspect with availing of this salve is the fact that, not only will you lose time having it administered, there is also the dreaded “If I stop it will be harder to re-start” issue with marathon running. If you’re in a lot of pain it might be the only option but, either way, the choice is yours whether or not to partake.

And You’re Off! – Get Up Front

In direct contradiction to what race organisers will likely ask you to do on the day, get close to the front of the race before the starting gun fires. The organisers will quote how the professional athletes will need the space to set off. The reality is, the professional athletes will be running at over 16kph (as opposed to your 10-12kph) and will quickly vanish into the distance.

Being too courteous and going to the back of the throng will have a negative impact on your time. You will undoubtedly have to manoeuvre around costume wearing runners and people with a goal time much longer than yours. You won’t be in the way if you get up near the front and you won’t be overrun or pushed to the ground. Of course, standing next to the ribbon before the race starts is also not a good idea but somewhere in the first 10% of runners is the optimal place to be.

Top tip: Before the race starts you will likely be in the starting area for a long period of time; maybe even hours. Due to nervous energy you’ll likely be hopping about the place. Try and sit down and relax. A lot of people complain that they’re actually tired before the marathon starts simply because they’ve been on their feet for hours before running. Sit down, stretch gently and breathe.

You’re Running A Marathon! – Don’t Experiment With Your Time

You’ve trained for months. You’ve enjoyed some yoga classes and your playlist is full to the brim with your favourite energetic tunes. You know exactly where and at what time you need to be in order to achieve your personal goal. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it’s not going according to plan. Running on your own and running with potentially thousands of people are two entirely different things. You also may not really know the marathon route that well (though driving it before hand is recommended) so don’t be surprised if your meticulous time-plan is thrown off a little. The worst thing you can do if you find yourself behind schedule is to immediately speed up. You’ll be tempted to but don’t. Being behind at the start of your first marathon can happen for numerous reasons but the main culprit is people getting in the way. Unfortunately navigating around these slower runners has meant that you have possibly used up some extra energy in the process. Wait until the field clears and then work out where the time can be made back if you’re still adamant on achieving a particular finish-time. The race pack thins out considerably around mile 6 or 7 when the four hour people start to group together leaving the rest of the pack behind and the more adventurous runners far in front. If you must, modify your pace in small increments at this point. Don’t try and run a six minute mile to make up the lost time as you’re at risk of putting your body under undue stress which could affect the remainder of your performance.

Alternatively, you may find yourself far ahead of schedule and on track for a truly amazing time by your own personal standards. This can happen due to the part adrenaline plays in first time marathon running. Check your pace and consider slowing down even to a gait below what you normally would run at. It will be hard to do but it will benefit your energy levels in the long term. Many first time marathon runners rue a fast start only for the illusion to shatter towards the end of the race when their bodies either breakdown or they are forced to stop altogether.  

Top tip: Find someone who has run a marathon before and at a time you are happy with. You’ll probably find these people in the starting area before the race while chatting to other runners. Ask what their target time is and if you could shadow them. Use these people as markers to give you a good idea of how you are doing. That said, run your own race and not someone else’s. They could be having a great (or terrible!) race themselves, something you don’t want to emulate.

The most important part of running a marathon is coming out the other side healthy. It’s a truly monumental and rewarding experience and if you’re thinking about running your first marathon, these tips should allay some of your fears and give you an idea of the commitment and mindset required to obtain such a personal goal.

Good luck, and see you at the finish line!

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