How to train for your first marathon?

Want to tackle those 42.195 kilometres for the very first time? In this blog post I’ll tell you about the ins and outs of doing the research, how to train and the best ways to recover. Follow me on my journey as in just over a month I’m running my first marathon in Rotterdam!

Research

So you want to run a marathon? Are you sure? Because a marathon is LOOOOOONG.

Have you done long runs before? Taken part in any races? Good going!

There are all sort of races across the globe at different times during the year. Pick one that suits you best. How? Think about the timing: does the race date work for you? No holidays or work trips around that time? And more importantly: do you have enough time to train in the months before the race? Can you free up a few hours during the weekend, in the evenings or even at lunch time to get your trainings in?

In this world of climate change it is also important to think about the weather. I barely endure hot summers as they are, let alone having to go for long runs when it’s 40°C! So I picked a race in early spring, meaning I’d have to layer up for my trainings during autumn and winter. That’s fine by me but with storms for the past 3 weekends I’m a little less excited about training in this weather. Then again, if there is a storm on race day I’m well weathered for it!

After a long run
After a long run

Sign up

Some races sell out in no time. You can enter a ballot and hope for the best. Or it might be possible to run for a charity or in a team with colleagues. So make up your mind about the race you want to run and sign up as soon as you can – before it sells out (or before you can change your mind). But do pay up for the cancellation fee – you never know what happens during training.

Registration for the Rotterdam Marathon opened in September, about 6 months before race day. I checked when it had opened the year before and started following Rotterdam Marathon on Instagram and Twitter not to miss out. So when they announced that you could register I spotted it the same day and signed up on the next.

Running next to the Rhein when in Bonn
Running next to the Rhein when in Bonn for the weekend

Training Plan

So you’ve signed up! Things are about to get REAL! Now you need to pick a training plan. It all depends on how much time you have until race day and how often during the week you can/want to train. Do a quick Google and you’ll find loads of schedules.

I signed up to the Rotterdam marathon in September to give myself as much time to train as possible. I also reckoned I could manage 4 trainings a week. That is quite a lot and requires a fair bit of organisation, but has been manageable. Mind you though, it will impact on your social life! You might not be able to go out as much, need lots of sleep and healthy food habits.Oh, and you tend to talk about running … A LOT!

I found this 6 month training plan by Nuffield Health and adapted it to my needs. So the plan tells you to do the following:

Three runs per week:

  • Speed – shorter, faster
  • Interval – 200m – 1km distance
  • Endurance – Long and steady

It also incorporates one to two strength and conditioning sessions per week:

  • Full body resistance
  • Metabolic conditioning

And one to two active recovery sessions:

  • Myofascial release (foam roller / lacrosse ball / orb / tiger tail / rumble roller)
  • Stretch techniques (PNF / Band assisted/distraction)
Lunchtime workout at the gym
Lunchtime workout at the gym

How did I do it? Well, first of all I had to catch up. The training programme includes 5 weeks for every month, but as you might have noticed that is not how an actual calendar works. So when I started fitting it into my schedule I realised I’d have to start with week 3 instead of 1 to be on track!

For the runs I always did my longest run during the weekend, usually on Sunday. The ‘shorter’ run (3k at the start of the plan and now about 10k) I did in the evenings or on Fridays, which is my day off. I just run them at whatever speed I feel like running on the day.

For the intervals, well, I’ll be honest with you: I REALLY dislike them. So much so that I found myself not doing them. At one point I decided that it would be better to run a 5k instead to still complete 3 runs a week rather than skipping the intervals. I started doing a 5k on the treadmill at the gym, and I found that really worked better for me.

For the strength and conditioning session I also go to the gym close to my office. I use a lunch break for this (the session itself usually only takes 15-20 minutes) or I go after work. I did adapt the exercises a bit as I’m not able to do a body weight pullup for example and I don’t think I will any time soon.

Recovery

Recovery goes beyond just stretching after your workout and OH MY, I’ve felt it! Not only should you stretch properly, it’s also really important to pay attention to what you eat. You need to make sure you’re feeding your system the right things. Oh, and you need to sleep – lots!

Greek yoghurt, homemade granola and berries
Greek yoghurt, homemade granola and berries

Nutrition

I generally eat quite healthy I think (with the occasional piece of chocolate – I’m Belgian after all!). But for the very first time in my life I felt my body – not my head! – telling me it needed different foods. I came back from an 18k run and I felt so cold and energy-deprived that I decided there and then I’d change my diet. I’ve stopped drinking alcohol and focused my attention on these foods: berries, greek yoghurt, peanut butter, dates, oranges and orange juice, salmon & tuna, chia seeds, quinoa and oats. I make sure I drink plenty of water as well.

It’s also important to test what you can or can’t eat before or after a run. I find that it works for me to eat something (a few bites from a protein bar for example) about an hour before my run. If I eat something too heavy or don’t wait long enough after eating then I get really bad stomach cramps. I try to drink a lot in the morning if I’m doing a big run. However, I try to stop drinking between an hour and 30 minutes beforehand or I find myself needing the toilet during my run.

I’ve also tried one of them energy gels for the first time two weeks ago and it worked quite well! I went for a citrus flavoured one, which tasted quite nice actually! Will test eating gummy bears during my next long run.

Cool down exercise

When I finish a run I make sure I walk it off for a bit. Then I usually do about 6 different leg stretches on both legs for about 20 seconds each. And then it’s time to drink, have a quick bite to eat and a hot shower!

Foam roller
Foam roller

Deep stretch

I’m a foam roller convert and can’t stop telling people about it. After running the half marathon I did a sports massage and it hurt like hell. I mean, it was good, but also really really painful. They guy told me I needed to take better care of my legs and recommended me to get a sports massage more often, or to buy a foam roller, and that’s what I did.

It’s almost another workout in itself, holding the foam roller on every knot and let gravity do its work. But it really helps the recovery process in my opinion, so I try to stick to it as much as I can.

The day after my long runs I sometimes do a deep stretch yoga session (I like this video by Adriene) which really helps me to relax and stretch my muscles in different ways, in addition to using the foam roller.

Lots of sleep in a comfy bed
Lots of sleep in a comfy bed

Sleep

Okay, this one might sound obvious but: SLEEP! You’ll need lots of it to help you recover from all your runs and workouts.

Not only will it help you recover, it also helps you not to get injured. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and just cannot go back to sleep. So the next day I’ll feel like an utter zombie. But despite feeling this way I’m also stubborn and don’t want to give up on my training schedule. So at one point I went to the gym to do a strength and conditioning session on 3 hours of sleep. I was really proud of myself that I had made it to the gym and did the workout! But the next day I woke up with a major pain on the inside of my right upper leg, and it took about 3-4 days to recover from it. You learn the hard way I guess?

Ice

Taking an ice bath to cool down your muscles after a long run is supposed to be really good for you. But I really can’t stand a cold shower, let alone taking an ice bath! The only two ice baths I’ve ever taken were when I did Tough Mudder, and I intend to keep it that way!

It might not be an ice bath, but I did start using Deep Freeze on my legs. Last time I did a long run I put it on my legs after my shower, wrapped myself in a blanket and ate my lunch, getting hot flushes from my food and cold flushes from the Deep Freeze all at once! Not the most pleasant experience, but my leg muscles were fine the next day! My knees weren’t but hey, you win some, you lose some.

Not in the mood for running
Not in the mood for running

Train, train, train (your brain)

Yes, you need all those months to get used to running greater distances and going for a run more often. But the training is also a mental one. It’s about putting on your running shoes when its cold or raining, when you have a headache or a cold, when you’re moody, hormonal or you just really really don’t want to. That, for me, is why the training is sometimes harder than race day itself. On race day you have the adrenaline (and fear) running through your body and people cheering you on. There is none of that when you’re running bent over, against the winds of storm Ciara, Dennis, Ellen or whichever of their friends is coming to visit.

 

Voilà, those are my suggestions when it comes to training for your first marathon! After my race I will write up a post on how it all went, whether the 6-month training programme lived up to expectations and if I’d do anything differently. In the meantime you can read some of my other running-related posts:

Are you training for a marathon? Which one? What is your go-to suggestion for marathon training? Would love to hear from you in the comments!

10 thoughts on “How to train for your first marathon?

Add yours

  1. Good plan. Don’t be afraid to walk if you need to. Layers of old clothing that you can quickly discard once you warm up is good. The day before all I eat is complex carbs; pretzels, fig newtons, etc. I can’t drink energy drinks until the 2nd half just water until the 2nd half. Best of luck.

    Liked by 1 person

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