Our Top Tips for running a marathon for the first time
Hello and welcome to the great adventure of marathon running. You are in the very small number of people brave enough to take this challenge on – so let’s start with huge congratulations. If you’re here and reading this perhaps you’re midway through a training plan and wondering what the big day will be like. You might be starting to worry – ‘can I really run a marathon?’ Be assured it is very normal to start worrying about this. You are not alone. Fear not, if you’ve done the training you can absolutely do the marathon day itself.
Keep reading for the best advice to make the marathon day the huge success you deserve.
How tough is running a marathon?
Good question. It’s a challenge – which is exactly why you want to do it. A word of caution though – if you’re here because you are thinking of running a marathon without training – we’d really advise against that decision! It will put a huge strain on your body and you are very likely to give yourself a running injury or worse. Don’t do it!
If you’re asking because you’ve been training and are wondering how painful running a marathon is and if you’re up to the task? We’d suggest that the real pain is in the training! The regular running for several months is tough – the race is a challenge but it is your celebration day for months of miles put in and digging deep to get to the start line.
Running a marathon for the first time
If this is your first marathon then we are here to help demystify both your training and the race day itself – compiling all the things we wish we’d known for running a marathon for the first time and tips for finishing a marathon. Whether you are chasing a time, or just aiming to finish, there will be advice here to help.
How hard is it to train for a marathon?
Can I run a marathon? Yes. Strap in! Here we go. 3.2.1.
ps we don’t have the top 10 tips for running your first marathon – we have 26 – that’s one tip per mile!
Training plan tips for marathons
- Don’t overly fret over your training. If we speak plainly – you probably won’t complete every run on your training plan. And that’s ok! Life, legs, work, the kids – things will mean you don’t do every single run on your training schedule. Don’t panic on race day – you’ve done the majority of it.
- The other end of the message is do make sure you’ve done enough. The above said, adrenaline isn’t everything. It will kick in and help you along for miles at the start. But not 26.2. If injury or illness has meant you have missed significant chunks of training, consider defering your place or doing a difference race. A marathon is too far to ‘wing’ on the day.
Tips for on the day of the marathon
- Check the weather. Don’t overdress on the day. So we have already covered that you’re not wearing anything new on race day – but don’t forget to dress for how warm you’ll be a few miles into the race. Some events have a staggered start so you might be in a holding group for a while – in that case bring an old jumper or top or use a big bin sack to keep warm. You can throw this to the side as you set off. At big events charities will collect up these jumpers to be donated or passed on.
- Kit checks. Run in your exact marathon kit for a few long runs before the big day. When you’re running a marathon for the first time it can be very tempting to get a whole new outfit for the big day. Don’t do it. Make sure every item you wear has been worn on a long run. Do those shorts chafe? Are those socks comfortable with those trainers? If you’re wearing a charity bib – give that a long test run too. Leave nothing about your kit to chance – because if your skin is raw after a mile, the marathon is a long way to go feeling uncomfortable. We recommend a good tube of body glide which you apply on all edges – where your clothes and skin meet. This brand on amazon is the original and we think – the best. Money well spent on the big day!
- Comfort break planning. On race day, get to the start in plenty of time to use the toilets. Build in time to go twice – your stomach will be feeling the stress and a pre race poop is likely! The pre-race nerves will pump adrenaline though your body, which speeds up the time it takes for food to travel to your gut. This is totally normal and don’t worry you’re not going to get an upset stomach on the way round. Put some pre-run toilet roll in your kit bag – as it might run out in the portaloos at the event start line. . If you are worried about needing to stop for a wee, or you have an overactive bladder there are things you can do to try and improve the situation. Avoid irritants such as caffeine on race day. Drink plenty of fluids – even though this might seem counter intuitive, because you don’t want your urine to be concentrated and irritate your bladder.
- Kit bag. At bigger events it’s often possible to leave a bag at the start which is shuttled ahead of you ready to be collected at the finish. Think carefully about what you want in here. You might want – a warm jumper for when you cool down at the end, clean socks and trainers or very comfortable slip ons, a bottle of water or an energy drink, your favourite post race snacks. If there isn’t an official drop off, make sure you have these items in your car, house or wherever you’re staying.
- Step carefully. Watch your feet and ankles at the start. Silly as it sounds, really look where you’re going those first few miles. In your training you’ve pounded those pavements mainly on your own, and now there are thousands of runners all next to each other and discarded water bottles and detritus on the ground. Just take extra care where your feet are going. A rolled ankle half a mile in would be very annoying indeed. But don’t worry people spread out after the first mile or two and you can run your own race. We just don’t want the event cut short when you’re running a marathon for the first time.
- Feet care. Smother your feet in anti chafe cream or simple Vaseline will do it. It’ll stop the rubbing and blisters. Whilst you’re at it, apply it on the edges of all your clothing too, and over your nipples! That salty sweat can rub mercilessly over 3-5 hours so prevent it if you can.
- Aid pace. Walk through the aid stations. Pause, get water, get gels or food. Unless you’re trying to break a world record, a few seconds of walking isn’t going to make a difference so take your time and make the most of refuelling.
- Slower steps. Walking isn’t giving up. Those miles after 20 are hard. If you have to run/ walk or simply walk during those last few miles – you’re still moving forwards.
Mental tips for your first marathon
- Toughen up. It’s meant to be hard. Remember that when the training feels tough and on the day itself. You can do it, but it’s meant to a challenge. That’s why you’ve taken it on. Develop a mantra like ‘this is what I signed up for’ to repeat to yourself when the going gets tough.
- Victory lap. Race day is the fun bit. We know nerves can be huge and the worry about completing 26.2 miles sets in – but if you’ve done the training the race is the celebration of that hard work. Really try and enjoy it. This is the victory lap!
- Cheering you on. Take energy from the crowd. Not all marathons have crowds cheering but if they do – look out and enjoy their cheers. Read their banners. Say hello to them. It will feed your energy for the run. They are there to support you because what you’re doing is a fantastic achievement.
- Pace yourself. Don’t get carried away like a bullet out a gun. You might have an exact race pace, but it’s easy to speed up when you’re surrounded by excited runners and cheering crowds. That adrenaline will kick in and you’ll feel like you’re flying! You may not feel this at mile 15, so remember the race is long – and just start off steady. You can always pick up the pace for the second half if it’s feeling good. If you are considering a running watch we really recommend Garmin – which you can use in all your running and strength training and on the big day to check your pace is what you had planned with a simple glance. Some of them are very reasonably priced – a simple one like this will be more than enough for training and the race.
- The final stretch. Be mentally prepared for the last 6.2 miles to be tough. But there’s a reason why most training plans don’t go over 20 miles and you have got it in you. Just be ready at mile 21 to think it will never end. It will. This is where you’ll have to dig deep. Everyone running a marathon feels this way at some point.
- Believe it’s possible. When you are running a marathon for the first time, then believing you’ll finish is everything! Of course you have to train but on the day distance running is as much in the head as the legs. Stand on the start line knowing you’ve done the work and are going to run across that finish line in a few hours.
- Legend status. Remember you’re amazing. What an epic task you’re taking on. You’ve come so far. Just one morning’s running to go. Running a marathon for the first time puts you in a very small number of people on the planet who have achieved this.
- Visualise the finish. In training and on the day itself have a clear image of you confidently running over the finish line. Throw your hands in the air in celebration. Imagine how this achievement will feel. Call on this if you think you can’t keep going. Running a marathon for the first time is tough so call on visualising! Visualising is a powerful technique used by pro athletes, so have it in your armoury.
Food and drink tips for marathon day
- Hydrate! Make sure you plan to intake water for the marathon. Check the water stops on the route and if there aren’t any, carry your own in a belt or water bladder. (One of these will be very helpful for your long training runs even if you don’t need it for the road marathon.) If it’s a trail race you may need your own cup. Road marathons tend to provide bottles. The race organiser will give you all of this information beforehand. A top tip is to use your tongue to taste the sweat on your face. It should be salty. If it’s not – you’re on the way to being dehydrated. Keep that water intake up.
- Food prep. Gels or food? If you’re going to eat anything – test it out beforehand on long runs. Both are great for energy but just make sure you’ve tested your stomach will enjoy them on the day. If you are going to take the gels offered by the race, look up which brand they will be and test them out on your long runs. Remember the rule – absolutely nothing new on marathon day and that includes what you eat and drink.
- Plan your pre race meals. Carbs the night before a marathon are a good choice, but make sure you’ve tried that pasta dinner before, and gone for a run the next day, and made sure your stomach is happy about it. Likewise breakfast on race day. Eat what you usually eat before a long run. No changes on race day. (we know we’ve said this a few times.)
Tips in the run up to the big day
- Taper worries. In the last week or so before the marathon you’ll probably think you’ve forgotten how to run. This is totally normal when you’re running a marathon for the first time – and to be honest quite normal when you’ve run more than one. When you taper you’re preparing your legs for the big day, but your mind will worry you no longer know how to run more than a 5km. Everyone feels this way. It’s a mind trick. Trust the taper – which is giving your body the rest and recuperation it needs before the big day.
- Time isn’t everything. If this is your first marathon – it isn’t the time to worry about your finishing time. It’s good to have a goal, but take the pressure off. If you’re running at a big organised event there will likely be pacers to follow. Sticking with one of these will give you a little group to run with and allow someone else to worry about what speed you’re doing. Besides – this is your first marathon so whatever time you run is a personal best!
- Rest in the run up. Take whatever steps you can in the days and week before your race to get enough sleep. The night before a marathon it’s often annoyingly hard to sleep, and you may need an early start to get to the check in or start line in time. Don’t worry about having had a dreadful night’s sleep the night before – 80% of the runners will feel the same.
- Ditch the alcohol. If you can cut out all alcohol the few weeks before the day itself it will help balance your blood glucose and also aid that sleep we mentioned earlier.
and final words on first marathon tips
Finally – take it all in. On the big day it might go past in a blur but look around and remember! And now, having read our 26 top tips you can know as much as possible about what it’s like if you are running a marathon for the first time.
ps. for after the run. Don’t forget to stretch! You’ll be glad you did.
One more quick thing to mention in a full round up of running a marathon for the very first time…. You might be worrying at the back of your mind about dying in the marathon or wondering what are the risks of dying running a marathon.
Well please be assured that a death during a marathon is incredibly rare. In data from 2012, looking at how many people had run in marathons and died – one in 260,000 people died from a cardiac arrest. If we look at data from the British Journal of Medicine and compare this to everyday risks – that is the same risk as being hit in our own home by a plane crashing out the sky. So please be assured the risks are very low, and by doing the right training, looking after your health and getting screened if there is any history of sudden cardiac arrest in the family – you can remove this worry from your mind.