Marathon First Phase

As spring marathon training starts, I thought I’d give you some tips for this phase of your training. If this is your first marathon, you are probably feeling a little overwhelmed at the challenge you have taken on. If you’ve run one or two marathons before, or you’re a seasoned marathoner, then you’ll know what to expect. However, it’s always good to remind ourselves of what this first phase of training is all about. 

And if your chosen marathon is a tough trail event, you are going to have some unique challenges that the road runners won’t have. Because of this, I’ve provided you with my top 5 tips no matter what type of marathon you are doing, and then added some extra tips for the trail marathoners. 

So, this first phase of training is all about building a base. It’s about getting you used to increasing your mileage and allowing enough recovery for your body’s tissues to adapt. There are lots of other things going on as well, such as improvements to your cardiorespiratory system and adaptation to utilising more body fat for fuel than you may be used to. So, with this in mind, here are my top 5 tips:

1. Have a training plan

This may sound obvious if you already have a training plan, but you may be surprised to learn that there are a large number of runners who don’t follow a training plan.

If you are one of those runners that doesn’t have a plan, I would strongly suggest that you find one you can follow. Some good ones that I’ve seen online are from the Virgin London Marathon team and the one from Bupa. These are both 16 week plans, and while the structure is pretty good, they don’t include any strength or precision work which I believe is vital. They also don’t really include much speed work at any point of the plans: something from my own experience is important as you transition into the next phase of training (approx. 4 weeks time).

One set of plans that does include speed work is from The Running Clinic, and I also like this one because it displays the different phases. However, it is a 20-week plan so you may need to adjust to suit your time frame.

There are also some great books on Amazon with plans. Here are is a selection:

2. Get the right plan for you

If you already have a plan, make sure it is right for you. We are all different and life often gets in the way of training. There is no point in trying to follow a plan that has you running 4 or 5 days per week when you struggle to get out more than 3 days. Missing sessions or cutting runs short can lead to frustration, guilt, and being underprepared.

If you can’t find an off the shelf program that suits, you could consider getting a personalised plan from a coach such as myself or someone else you can trust. Alternatively, if you are interested in the mechanics, you can learn a little bit about recovery and adapt your off the shelf plan to suit your needs.

3. Stick to the plan (with flexibility!)

Ideally, you want to get into the habit of sticking to the plan as written. Most training plans have been designed in a specific way to take you through all of the adaptations and progressions that you need to reach your race day goal.

Getting into the habit of sticking to the plan in this first phase and not giving yourself excuses such as the rain, wind or cold is very important for the later stages of training.

However, if you have to miss the odd session or cut them short on occasion, that’s fine – you need to be somewhat flexible. As mentioned above, this can lead to feeling guilty and underprepared so it is vital that you reflect on how you feel about this. If you notice that you are getting into the habit of missing runs or avoiding certain types of runs, you need to take stock: are you on the right plan? Does something need to change, and if so what?

Use this first phase to learn how you are adapting to both the distance volume and the number of runs and make changes where necessary. Don’t ignore it as it will come back to bite you later! And that brings me to my next tip…

4. Listen to your own feedback

If you pay attention, your body and your mind will let you know what’s going on. Running a marathon is hard and your body and mind need to adapt to the stress you are going to be putting on them. While it may seem that it’s all physical stress, think about those last 6 miles or so when you may need to dig deep and push on. This part needs training as well, which is why it is so important to also push hard in training. To clarify, I am not saying you need to run fast/hard all the time, when injured, over-fatigued or go beyond what your plan tells you – it is simply that pushing on when you could easily give yourself an excuse to quit will really help you in those final stages on race day.

But the flip side of that is knowing when to calm it all down. Training for a marathon is tiring, there is no getting away from that. But there is being tired and there is being exhausted. Being tired is normal, especially as you progress to longer and harder sessions. Being exhausted though, is not good.

When you get over-fatigued you are more likely to get injured. This can happen due to poor decision making, overuse by pushing through when you should be recovering, and a general lack of control when your nervous system is tired. Knowing when to tone it down comes with experience, but even if this is your first marathon you can tune in to your body and mind. If you are in any doubt then ask. Either ask me a question here, or ask someone else you can trust – don’t suffer in silence!

A great way to learn about your body and mind is to keep a running diary or log. After a run, write down how it went and how you felt, how you slept the night before, eating and drinking etc. I have notes on every run I’ve done (some more detailed than others) going back to when I started in 2009. The notes can be as detailed as you want: the main thing is to capture enough so that when you look back it will be of help to you the next time you do this session, race or workout.

5. The magic happens in the recovery

If you know me, then you know this is one of my favourite mantras. Whenever you subject your muscles, connective tissue and bones to repetitive stress such as running, the tissue breaks down. Most runners understand this in a weight training context, but don’t seem to relate it to running. But it is exactly the same process – your body doesn’t know whether you are lifting weights or running on the road or trail. All it knows is that it’s being put under stress.

And whenever your body’s tissues are broken down, they need to have adequate recovery to repair and get stronger. It is during this recovery phase such as sleep, less intense sessions and active recovery (massage, foam rolling, cross training, lighter sessions etc), that the repair and strengthening happens. And it’s not just your muscles, connective tissue and bones that need this: your nervous system also needs to get stronger.

In fact, adaptations to muscle mass to get stronger often takes six or more weeks. Connective tissue can take much longer. Normal microdamage to bones can be repaired and adapted to between 8 and 12 weeks. But, strength gains can happen much quicker with the nervous system. This is because it can instruct muscles to recruit more fibres and motor units in a muscle, making it stronger without increasing the physical size of the muscle. This is often why you can see strength gains in just a couple of weeks. your nervous system ca also take advantage of better movement skills (see my next tip) as it will recruit muscles that work well together.

Whether it is better motor recruitment, bigger mass, stiffer connective tissue or stronger bones, adequate recovery time is critical. Stress is cumulative and if you don’t allow time for it to be adapted to, you are heading for injury and misery.

6. Move well

The cumulative stress mentioned above can cause you all kinds of niggles and pains. Maybe you do the right thing and recover well and start adding some strength work. But, if you are not moving well in the first place, you are at risk of loading areas of your body that are not designed to handle that load. Because running places so much force on your system, learning to move well is essential to reducing cumulative stress in compensating areas.

For example, runner’s knee is a very common complaint. This is particularly true as you start to increase your distance and/or speed. The thing is, in almost all cases, the pain of runner’s knee is caused by improper movement. Just resting and adding strength work is not going to help over the longer term. Yes, strength work can help and you may get away with it but if you are not moving correctly then you are just making incorrect movement patterns stronger. At some point the piper will need paying!

I would recommend at the very least, getting some video of you running so you can see any obvious areas to address. Of course, what I would really suggest is that you get a professional to assess you – and I don’t mean a running shop for a shoe-selection gait analysis (as good as they are for shoe selection – they won’t tell you anything else). In the assessments I do(RunForm and RunTest), I place a lot of emphasis on correct movement. I strongly believe this is important for all runners at all abilities and for all types of running, but it is critical for higher volume and/or higher intensity running.

7. Have Fun

Yes, marathon training is tough! Yes, marathon training is tiring! Yes, you may feel like you’ve bitten off more than you can chew…

But if you can always find something to smile about, even when you are being battered by the weather or hurting in those last miles of a long run, you’ll progress so much quicker.

Run with friends or a group. Find some appropriate music, if that’s your thing. However you do it, learn to enjoy this phase of training and it will take you through to the future phases with a sense of accomplishment and excitement!

Extra tips for trail events

Running trails can be very different from road running. The terrain is likely to be uneven and often there are steep hills and other obstacles to negotiate. All of this takes the precision aspects of running to a different level.

Balance, balance, balance!

My top tip is all about balance. In fact, I’m going to wrap up everything into this section and include everything single leg.

When running on trails, you are going to be relying a lot on foot stability, leg strength and balance. The amount you will be calling on these things will vary with the terrain, but you can be certain that if the ground is going to be uneven at all, then you’ll need good skill in these areas. You’ll also be calling upon core stability and strength to help control your movement as you go up and down hills and across unstable ground.

I’ll write more posts looking at these areas in more detail, so for now here are a few I’ve done to date:

Better night vision

Foot strengthening (also contains links to related articles)

Core stability 1, Core stability 2

Injury

Running Form Blueprint

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