A Beginners Guide To Marathon Training: Gearing Up For Your First Event

With the London Marathon justunder two months away, there will be people across the country pounding the pavements and preparing for their first ever endurance event. There are various reasons why each year individuals sign up for the 26.2 mile event in the capital whether they are running for charity, improving their health or just because they want to be a part of the day and have always dreamed of running 26 miles in a hilarious costume. The thing which binds these people together is that whatever their reasons they must all undergo training to take part. The marathon is a physically demanding event which requires a lot of motivation, patience and dedication from participants.

Below I have addressed some of the important basics that all first time runners should be aware of.

Mileage and Progression

It is recommended that you begin training for a marathon a minimum of 16-24 weeks before the event. Even if your only goal is to finish the 26 mile race, you need to train in order to cross the finish line without putting your health at serious risk. Those who run marathons without adequate training increase their risk of injury, particularly lower limb hard tissue injuries as the impact force with each running stride is at least three times our own body weight. They also put a ridiculous amount of strain on their cardiovascular system and muscles as they will not be adapted to cope with such a demanding endurance event.

When you commence your marathon training, it is ideal to build up to running 20 miles per week fairly quickly in order to make the kind of progress you will need. Outdoor training is particularly important during this stage as you will get used to the hard terrain that you will predominantly be running along during the marathon.

It is advised that you do not increase running mileage by more than 10% per week as you risk burning out and making yourself more prone to injury. Overtraining increases recovery time so trying to progress too quickly will actually hinder progress as you will decrease your ability to cope with training. Decreased immunity is always something you have to be particularly aware of. Endurance athletes who train outdoors in the winter months are susceptible to colds and flu and even more so if they are overtraining.

Vary your training with weeks where you focus on long distance runs (for example 7-10 miles) and weeks where you take it a little easier (3-5 miles). Allowing your body more time to recover during the more relaxed week will ensure that you are able to push further the following week. Too much, too soon is not a good idea.


The first issue with training of this magnitude is correctly estimating your energy demands. Most people tend to underestimate the calories that a workout of this nature requires. When you think of the extra energy you will require for mechanical movement, you probably haven’t even considered that the impact of running on lower limbs and recovery from each training session will also require more energy.

Your daily intake should be divided as follows; 60% carbohydrates, 20% lean protein and 20% healthy fats. The carbohydrates you consume should be from sources such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Doubling up the amount of meals you consume on a daily basis is a better option than piling up your plate in one sitting in a bid to increase calorie intake (unless you are carb loading prior to the marathon of course).

Carbohydrate Loading

We have all hit ‘the wall’ when running. It is a result of the depletion of your bodies preferred energy source, glycogen. Glycogen stores usually range from 100-120mmol/kg of bodyweight, but if these stores diminish, your body begins to mobilise its fat stores for energy. Despite fats higher energy content per gram, it is not broken down as quickly or efficiently meaning you hit a low spot during exercise until the energy can be utilised. This ‘low’, or the window of time just before its onset is the optimum time to consume an isotonic beverage, but in order to increase the time until onset, or reduce the duration of the ‘low’ an athlete can/should stock up on starchy polysaccharides 2-3 days prior to the event...this is known as Carb - Loading!

Starchy polysaccharides are the main fuel for any activity above and beyond 65% of maximum exertion, therefore an athlete should stock up on starchy polysaccharides 2-3 days prior to the event.  During the loading phase, an ideal diet would consist of approx 80-90% carbs, aiming for approx 5-10 grams of carbs per kg bodyweight (Minehan, 2004).

The best sources of starchy polysaccharides (complex carbs) include porridge oats, wholegrain pasta (the wholegrain slows the rate of digestion), sweet potato, basmati rice, quinoa, legumes (baked beans, cannellini, broad, butter and kidney beans), peas, lentils and chick peas. Alongside this, starchy carbs also deliver some key nutrients involved in energy delivery, muscle repair and general healthfulness including fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins.

The focus on carbohydrates for endurance athletes tends to make them neglect their protein and fat requirements. Low dietary protein will increase muscle recovery time and have a detrimental impact on training. It is also more likely that you will suffer from fatigue and anaemia thus undoing all your hard work in training. 1.4-1.7g per kg of body weight is recommended for endurance athletes. I would recommend that you stay at the upper end of this if you are training for an event of this magnitude. The use of protein shakes, particularly post-workout, is an extremely good idea when you are training at a high intensity day after day. Although we would usually associate protein supplementation with strength and power athletes, it is also highly important to an endurance athlete.

Hydration is highly important to marathon runners. The intake of water is vital to the chemical reactions that occur in the body to utilise energy, aid muscle repair and prevent damage to cardiovascular, skeletal and digestive systems. One of the main consequences of training is perspiration (sweating) and energy store depletion. Therefore achieving the ideal ratio between electrolyte and water is integral, and is achieved through the replenishment of body water, electrolyte, and moderate to high glycaemic index carbohydrate. During intense physical activity, you can quite feasibly lose 1 litre of fluid an hour, and depending on exercise intensity and ambient air temperature, this value can increase to more than 3 litres!

The average isotonic beverage delivers fluid, salt, glucose, fructose, maltadextrin and minerals, meaning consumption of these drinks supply a surge of semi-sustainable carbs lasting approx 30mins, plus a faster fluid and electrolyte absorption rate via osmosis (salt is rapidly absorbed drawing fluid into the circulation) to sustain muscle mineral balance and hydration (Metzger, 2008).

Isotonic powdered formulas and pre-made bottled beverages deliver fluid, electrolyte and carbs all in one! They contain expertly moderated quantities of sodium, which is integral to maintaining electrolyte balance and therefore training capacity. Depletion of any mineral impacts on muscle contractile tissue and energy delivery! Sodium is also vital to rehydration, through consuming Sodium your body absorbs more water via a process known as osmosis (movement of water from an area of low solute i.e. sodium concentration, to an area of high). This osmotic shift speeds up the absorption rate of fluid, promoting thirst and further encouraging hydration!

Energy gels are a great alternative to isotonic drinks. The bloating and ‘stitch’ that can sometimes accompany liquid energy replenishment during training can be avoided if a more concentrated source of glucose and/or maltodextrin is consumed. The average energy gel comes in the form of a small and convenient 35g sachet. They are easily consumed and readily absorbed, providing a rapid delivery of carbohydrate to the muscles. The inconvenience and digestive difficulties that can result from consuming a carbohydrate bar mid- exercise, make energy and electrolyte gels an ideal training accompaniement.

Hard training creates free radicals in the body that can lead to serious degenerative diseases. Boost your immune system, and battle those free radicals with foods high in antioxidants. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables, and choose the most colourful ones you can find. Blueberries, oranges, strawberries, red cherries, kiwis, apples, broccoli, carrots and yams all contain high levels of powerful antioxidants that are easily assimilated.

By consuming a high nutrient diet, you will ensure that your body receives the vitamins and minerals it needs to function optimally despite the high stresses placed upon it during training. Eating healthy fats will help you to process vitamins A, D, E and K.

Gym Training

Supercompensation is the process your body goes through to develop and improve. The principle of performing in a state of fatigue is what separates the best from the rest. You can improve the muscular endurance of specific muscle groups by using bodyweight exercises such as press ups, sit ups, lunges, bounding, planks and squats in the gym or opt for using weights. Contrary to popular belief, runners should be lifting weights too. Keep the weights relatively moderate and stay within a long rep range (12-15).The key to improving muscular endurance is to perform these exercises to failure, which will eventually extend the time to fatigue, increasing muscular endurance!  Core strength is essential to succeeding in any activity and so back/abdominals are a great focus for your initial gym sessions.

Stretching is another highly important activity to be included in your training regime as this improves range of motion, reduces risk of injury and decreases recovery time between training sessions. Yoga and pilates are perfect options. It is great to enjoy a more relaxing training session where you can think clearly and focus on your goals while increasing coordination, balance and flexibility.

Treadmill running is a possibility although it is very different from road running. Pool jogging is an excellent way to train if you need a day or two of lower impact training for your joints. As well as these options, you can opt for attending a spin class as a type of cross training for your running. Spin classes are social, challenging endurance cycling classes which are perfect for those looking to improve stamina and overall fitness level.

Running Shoes

It’s the way our ancestors moved around and it is arguably the way we are designed to move. The structure of the foot is designed to bear the weight of the entire body during walking, running and various other activities. Running in bare feet encourages increased plantar pressure and strengthens muscles in your lower extremities. Running barefoot causes a fore-foot strike in most cases, which encourages pronation of the foot (a mild, shock absorbing twist which allows the foot arch to compress). This places pressure through the arch which is designed to bear weight.

However until very recently, most running shoes were designed with an abundance of heel cushioning which encouraged a heel-strike running style.

A fair amount of running shoes available are highly cushioned shoes which encourage us to lead with our heels when running (75% of runner’s heel strike). When you lead with your heel, the force exerted on your lower limbs is ~300% of your body weight. This can cause ankle, knee and lower limb injuries. When you think about it, it is almost inevitable that you will get injured at some point when you repeatedly put that much strain on your body.

As evidence has mounted against shoes that make you adopt an ‘unnatural’ running style, a shift in the industry has occurred. Bulky, padded shoes have been replaced by thinner, more flexible models which are designed to simulate barefoot running. Shoes with thinner insoles help provide sensory feedback which is necessary for accurate foot positioning. However, be wary if you have been running in highly cushioned shoes for a long time. Switching to barefoot style running can lead to tendonitis as it requires greater strength than running in thick shoes.

Regardless of your stance on the running shoe debate, the most important thing is that you choose a shoe which is right for you!

Full article: How To Choose Your Running Shoes 


One of the biggest mistakes made by those exercising outdoors is to wear heavy winter jackets and coats in a bid to stay warm in the winter months. The issue with this is that because exercise generates a lot of heat, you are in danger of becoming too hot during your workout and doing more harm than good! I know this sounds ridiculous when it is freezing cold outside, but it is true. The ideal way to dress for outdoor winter training is to wear relatively thin layers which can easily be removed during exercise. Depending on the weather on the day of your marathon, you may decide you only require one layer. The most important thing to consider when running a great distance for a lengthy period of time is comfort. We hear many stories about chafing in certain areas and with everything else to cope with during the marathon, it is not something you want to have to deal with as well.

The layer closest to your skin should be a synthetic material (such as polypropylene) which helps to draw sweat away from the surface of your skin. Avoid cotton garments as they tend to become wet with sweat and stick to your skin which leaves you vulnerable to catching a chill and more vulnerable to uncomfortable friction between your skin and the surface of your clothes. Avoid anything heavy as it will seal in the heat and will be detrimental to both your training and your health.

When our body is subjected to a cold environment, blood flow is concentrated at the core of our bodies to protect our vital organs which leaves our hands, feet and ears vulnerable to frostbite.

To ensure that your hands remain at optimum temperature during training in the cold weather, my advice would be to wear two layers of gloves. A thin glove with a thicker wool or fleece glove over the top of this. Apply the gloves before you leave the house to ensure that your hands have not already been subjected to the cold before you cover them up. By wearing two layers, you can easily remove the outer layer if your hands become too clammy without exposing your skin to harsh winds and freezing temperatures.

You may also want to take the type of socks you wear into serious consideration. Buying shoes which are a ½ or full size too big may be worth an investment in the winter so you can ensure that your feet stay warm without circulation becoming an issue if your shoes are too tight. It is very easy for feet to become cold during training, which can lead to a burning/pins and needles sensation. If this happens you will need to bring a stop to training.

Last but not least, you may also find that cool winds whipping by your ears will give you a headache. Ensure you invest in a warm headband/hat/ear muffs. Personally, I would opt for a headband or ear muffs as the important thing is to protect the ears and hats may cause you to overheat. If this happens and you have to remove your hat you leave your ears vulnerable to frostbite.

Obviously if you are planning on running the marathon in a costume you will be ignoring everything I just wrote...

Motivation Tips

Even the most motivated of people hit lows along the way, but there are tips you can follow to help you stay on track to achieving your goals.

-  Find a reason to run. In other words, run for something which is close to your heart that will keep you motivated through the tough times. It can be anything from a specific charity to running for a loved one or taking yourself on an incredible journey to improve your health, but whatever it is, it should be important to you.

-  Listen to music while you run. An mp3 full of your favourite up-beat tempo tracks will help keep you focused and able to power through when your mind and/or body want to give up. Ensure that you remain safe by keeping your music at a reasonable volume when road running so you can hear traffic.

-  Buddy up. Taking this incredible journey with a friend or family member by your side will help keep you motivated and provide you with support when you need it most. You don’t have to go it alone, unless you want to of course.

-  Pace yourself. The worst mistake that first time runners make during an event is to let the competition overwhelm them and follow the pace of surrounding runners. This will only lead you to tire quickly and you will end up disappointed with your finish time/ if you do not manage to finish. Find your perfect pace during the training leading up to the event and stick with it.

-  Mix up your route. One of the many benefits of outdoor running is the scenery so make the most of it. Taking varying routes with different inclines/declines and terrains will prevent boredom setting in and this will also be the perfect opportunity for you to vary the distance of your runs without passing points which will tempt you to think ‘I could just take the shortcut home now’.

-  Time yourself. While many people may not be aiming for a specific time during their first marathon, it is great to keep track of your run times during training so that you can see how far you have progressed. There is nothing more motivating than seeing the benefit of all your hard work.

-  Track your heart rate. Again, this is optional but your heart rate is a great way to measure your endurance progress and increasing capacity for aerobic exercise.

-  Reward yourself. It is important to reward yourself once you reach a goal or finish your first ever marathon. Such amazing achievements deserve rewards and allowing yourself some down time will help you to regroup and think about the next step, whether there is another marathon you wish to compete in or you plan on taking on a totally different sporting event now you have increased your fitness level.


Applegate E, Effective Nutritional Ergogenic Aids, International Journal of Sports Nutrition, 1999, 9:229-39.

Williams C, Brewer J & Walker M, The Effect of a High Carbohydrate Diet on Running Performance During a 30km Treadmill Time Trial, European Journal of Applied Physiology, 1992, 65: 18-24.

Bussau VA, Fairchild TJ, Rao A, Steele P & Fournier PA, Carbohydrate Loading in Human Muscle: An Improved Day 1 Protocol, Journal of Applied Physiology, 2002, 87: 290-295.

Metzger J, Carbohydrate Super‐compensation: Fact or Fiction? Understanding the Truth Behind Carb‐Loading, Science In Sport, 2008.

Minehan M, Department of Sports Nutrition, Australian Institute of Sport.Carbohydrate Loading, 2004.

About the Author

Job Role Sports Nutritionist and Social Media Coordinator Qualifications Bsc Sport and Exercise Science Steph has a competitive athletic background which spans 19 years. As a child she performed with the English Youth Ballet and had performed on the West End stage by the age of 10. Her enthusiasm for sport and fitness continued to grow as she did, encouraging her to learn more about nutrition and training. She began using her knowledge and personal experience to help others when she began coaching at the age of 16. From here, she went on to study Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Essex during which time she also received the Most Promising Newcomer Award from her University to mark her outstanding contribution to sport. During her first year of study she was introduced to partner stunt acrobatics and artistic gymnastics. After one year of dedicating herself to a lifestyle revolving around her sport, she was training with the best team in the UK who are currently ranked fifth in the world. Steph has worked in both the private and public sector coaching children and adults from grassroot to elite level as well as providing them with cutting edge advice on how to reach their goals. Steph has received awards for her choreography and has competed nationally and internationally meaning that she can back up her scientific knowledge with a wealth of experience. As our resident Sports Nutritionist, Steph is here to provide the most current and evidence based fitness, health and nutrition information to help you reach your health and fitness goals.


  • all natural health vitamins
    February 4, 2013 all natural health vitamins

    This post gives truly quality information. I’m definitely going to look into it. Really very useful tips are provided here. Thank you so much. Keep up the good work.

Post a Comment

Please wait...