After finishing the Melbourne Marathon last year, a surprising number of people told me that they secretly harboured dreams of running a marathon, and did I have any tips? Now clearly, having only run two marathons, ‘tips’ are about as much as I can offer…but having only done two marathons, I’m probably better placed to remember what it’s like to think about tackling your first marathon than someone who has done a lot of them. And anyway, this blog is free, so at worst, you’ll get what you paid for!
So here are my tips for training for your first marathon:
Train for it like it’s your second marathon
Roughly 80% of your first marathon will be spent worrying that you won’t be able to make the distance. Whereas, with your second marathon you can actually spend a little more time taking in the experience of the run (apart from the final 7kms…that’s a real shit-show!) So, as much as possible, know that if you do the training, you can make the distance…and start from there.
As I furiously touch every piece of wood around me, I can say that I’ve trained for both of my marathons without suffering a serious injury, and I’m pretty sure that’s because I gave myself a lot of time to get my body ready. I did my first marathon as part of my training for an Ironman, and so I had done 10 months of training for it by the time I got there. For my second marathon I trained for just under 4 months, but I had been running at least once a week prior to this.
If you’ve only been running occasionally, or only running shorter distances (5 – 10 kms), then your body is going to have to do a lot of adapting to the increased workload, so make sure you give it plenty of time.
Get a coach
A coach will layout a training program that will get you ready. A coach will adapt training to your circumstances, but will also be that voice in your ear that gets you out of of bed on those cold, early mornings (although I did pay extra to get my coach to break into my house and whisper ‘Get out of bed’ each morning…you may simply use will-power), and a coach is there to answer all those questions that pop up along the way. One of my clearest memories of my first marathon is chatting to my coach on the day before and asking ‘So, do I need to put band-aids on my nipples to stop chaffing?’ and him saying ‘Oh mate, YES!’ (ladies, you’ll be fine…but fellas, it’s not until you see a guy with patches of red soaking through their t-shirt where their nipples are that you realise just how much you can chaff over 42kms!)
I’ve had two coaches (one for the Ironman and one for the marathon last year), and they have both been fantastic in different ways. The most important thing is that they know what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it. For the marathon last year I worked with Amanda Meggison (who I HIGHLY recommend) and I explained that I wanted to run a sub 4hr marathon, that I wanted to include other sports in my training (ie swimming, cycling and gym) and that I wanted to involve my family wherever possible. Amanda developed a program that did exactly that!
By the numbers
This really depends on your personality, but I found that having a record of my runs really helped. I’ve got a Garmin watch, so I could see my pace, heart-rate, time and distance for each run. A LOT of the changes you will see are incremental, and often so small that you don’t actually notice them…but if you have an actual record of each run, then you can see them over time.
Hitting daily and weekly goals is also a remarkably good motivator.
If you’re combining your training with a full-time job, or a family, or indeed – both. Then you’re going to find it really hard to get big sessions done during the 9-5 day. So you will have to look at running early in the morning, or once the kids are in bed. This is actually incredibly therapeutic! You get to see sunrises as you run along empty bike paths, and see how cities change after dark. I’ve had the pleasure of running for hours in National Parks and on country roads where I might only see 1 or 2 other people, and do you know how many times I’ve feared for my safety…not once! In fact it wasn’t until I was chatting to a few female runners about an evening run and they simply said ‘Oh, I don’t feel safe running by myself at night’ that I realised how much I had simply taken this for granted.
Now I’m not saying that women can’t or shouldn’t run by themselves, I’m just saying that as a man, it didn’t even factor into my calculations. In fact, soon after having this realisation, I was running early one morning in Northcote when I saw a young woman on the path in front of me, and I was suddenly left wondering ‘Do I keep my distance, or is that going to be creepy? Do I run closer to her and act as a Guardian Angel (knowing full well that from her perspective, some creepy guy is now running REALLY close to her and looking smug)? Do I run past her and give her as wide a berth as possible, or yell something as I approach so as not to give her a fright?’ It was really fraught…for about 8 seconds, then I realised that she was actually a LOT faster than me and she disappeared into the distance.
But seeing as I don’t really have any advice to pass on here, I would love to hear from female runners about how they deal with this.
You’re already 1,000 words into this blog and I’ll bet you’re pretty sick of me already…well just imagine having to listen to this as an internal monologue 24 hours a day! Believe me, it’s not pleasant. So I am a massive advocate for listening to something as you run, whether it’s music, or podcasts or audiobooks…just make sure you can also hear the world around you.
Consistency is key
The biggest difference between preparing for my first marathon and my second, was my willingness to listen to my body, and take a break if I had to. With my first marathon, if I could feel a cold coming on, I would often ignore it and hope that by training I could fight it off. Invariably this meant that I would get a day or two more training in, and then crash hard with whatever illness I had hoped to avoid and miss multiple days of training…then try desperately to make this up as soon as I felt better, and fatigue myself so that I was vulnerable to getting sick, and then repeat the process.
For this marathon prep, if I felt like I had a cold coming on, I was willing to take a day or two off and let my body fight it. While this meant I did miss a day or two of training, I was able to bounce back quickly and not have to panic about making up for multiple days of training. The result was I had much better consistency, and my fitness and pace improved in line with that.
Race when you can
I remember doing a group training session for the Ironman where we did some sprints, and one the guys next to me said ‘I signed up for an Ironman so I didn’t have to do this fast stuff anymore!’ If you’ve signed up for a marathon, you probably feel the same…and if you’ve never been much of a runner, you’re probably not all that keen on racing against anyone. But the other big difference between my first and second marathons was the number of races I did as part of the training. I signed up for the Rapid Ascent Trail Running series and it was amazing, but any of the Sri Chinmoy runs, or a Park Run or just a local fun run, is a really good way to push yourself and see what you’re capable of. I guarantee that you will get something out of every race you do, even if it’s just the experience of having a complete stranger cheer you on!
So there you go, all the information you could ever want on running your first marathon…you are now morally obliged to go and run one!