6 things I wish I’d known before my first marathon

Training for my first marathon, run many years ago, felt pretty straightforward. I had a goal and a plan to meet it. Running it on the day was a different matter. Whilst I enjoyed the experience overall, it didn't go to plan and my recovery was painful and slow. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and looking back it was easy to see where I'd made some classic mistakes right from the start. Read what I did and learn from the things I should have done differently.

I thought:

  • That a 16-week training plan would be enough: For an April race, I was certain that starting in January (having previously run a few 10Ks) would give me plenty of time to prepare; after all, the plan showed that I'd be able to build up my distance by then. When I look back, I was really not adequately prepared. I should have started much earlier and spent  a few months getting myself strong enough to cope with the demands of marathon training.

 

  • That my training needed to focus solely on just running: I chose a training plan that was focused on running, so running is all I did. It was only when I became injured in the weeks before the main event that I realised my body was nowhere near strong enough to cope with the demands I had been placing on it. I should have included strength work in my training each week, and done some form of stretching to keep my body in good shape.

  • That completing every single session on my training plan was essential, regardless of how I was feeling: if my plan said to run 10K and I felt tired or off-colour, I still did it. I was terrified that if I missed a session, I’d never make it to the finish line. It was only in the latter stages of training that I realised the aim of marathon training is to get you to start line as fit as possible and uninjured. I should have listened to my body and missed or adjusted sessions when feeling tired or sore.

 

  • That having a really precise time goal to meet was key: based on my experience of running mostly 10Ks, I set my heart on completing my first marathon in under 4 hours. When my time from a half marathon (my first) partway through training confirmed this might be possible if everything went my way, I became more determined than ever. It was my only goal. When, on the day, things did not go to plan and I knew by halfway that finishing in 3-something was highly unlikely, I was mentally unprepared. I lost all focus and motivation and struggled to the finish. I wish I had set myself 3 goals – a dream goal, a very realistic one and one that was simply to finish. I’d have been happy with my performance then.

  • That I would be able to run the whole way: it never occurred to me that walking might be involved. Yes, I'd walked a little in training  but assumed that on the day, with the benefit of the taper and the adrenaline from the crowd, I'd be able to run the whole way. After all, everyone ‘runs’ a marathon don't they? I wish I’d known that I would need to walk a bit – then I would have practised it in a more structured way in training and it would have been a lot easier to get running again. I wish I had prepared my mind for having to walk as well as my body.

 

  • That trying out one or two gels on training runs would be enough: I tried out the brand that would be offered on the day in training, but never had more than a couple on a run. It wasn’t much fun to find out at about 16 or 17 miles on race day that my stomach simply couldn’t digest any more sugar, leaving me bloated, uncomfortable and struggling for energy for the rest of the run. I should have practised using race nutrition much more carefully.

If you're planning your first marathon for next year, by all means plan the running you will do, but make sure it only a part of the wider preparation you do. Come race day, you'll thank yourself for thinking of the bigger picture.

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