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26 tips running a marathon for the first time

If you’re reading this I’ll bet you are midway through a training plan and wondering what the big day will be like and ‘can I run a marathon?’ Fear not, if you’ve done the training you can absolutely do the day.

If you’re here because you are thinking of running a marathon without training – we’d really advise heavily against that decision! If you’re asking – How painful is running a marathon? Well the pain is in the training! The regular running for several months is tough – the race is the party day!

If you have been training we are here to help you know what to expect and we’ve gathered some helpful information for the day itself-  all the things we wish we’d known for running a marathon for the first time and tips for finishing a marathon!

Strap in! Here we go. 3.2.1.

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what to expect on the day if you’re running a marathon for the first time

  1. Almost done. So you won’t complete your entire 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. Kit checks. Run in your exact marathon kit for a few long runs before the big day. It can be tempting to get a whole new outfit for the marathon. 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 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.
  4. 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! Put some pre-run toilet roll in your kit bag – as it might run out in the portaloos at the event start line. This is totally normal and don’t worry you’re not going to get an upset stomach on the way round. 
  5. 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. 
  6. 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!
  7. 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. 
  8. 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. 
  9. 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. 
  10. Believe it’s possible. 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.
  11. 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. 
  12. 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. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. Taper worries. In the last week or so before the marathon you’ll probably think you’ve forgotten how to run. 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.
  15. 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!
  16. 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. Visualising is a powerful technique used by pro athletes, so have it in your armoury.
  17. 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. 
  18. 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. 
  19. 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. 
  20. 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. 
  21. 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. 
  22. 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.)
  23. 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. 
  24. 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. 
  25. 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. 
  26. 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 27 for after the run. Don’t forget to stretch! You’ll be glad you did…