Go the distance with Martin Yelling

If you successfully secure a charity place in the Virgin Money London Marathon, you’re going to need a training plan that takes you all the way to the world-famous Finish Line on The Mall. Top running coach Martin Yelling is here to help…

If you secure a charity place at the Virgin Money London Marathon, Race Day is going to be an amazing day of running for you. You’ll run with thousands of other runners in one of the world’s greatest marathons, past some of London’s most iconic landmarks and through streets lined with crowds cheering you every step of the way.

It will be a day that tests you physically, mentally and emotionally but all the ups and downs will be worth it when you run down The Mall, cross the Finish Line and collect your medal. It will be a day to create memories and to remember forever.

But first, you’ve got to make it to the Start Line. You’ve got to get through the training over the winter to ensure you’re physically and mentally ready to tackle 26.2 miles in April. It’s unlikely to be a smooth road the whole way but we’re here to give you the best chance of making it to Race Day confident you can achieve your personal goals, whether you’re a marathon debutante looking for your first finish or an improving runner giving the marathon distance another go.

Your marathon journey – training

Train right

You are going to have some moments in the Virgin Money London Marathon that are tough. You’ll probably want to stop. In fact, you’ll probably have moments when you’ll want to stop, sit down and cry. This is why the training you do before Race Day plays such an important part in your preparation.

Teach your body and mind what to do between now and Race Day and you’ll have a much easier time. You’ll be physically ready; your body will be able to cope with the miles, with the pounding and with the hours out on the roads. Your mind needs to be ready too – ready to keep you moving, to keep driving you forwards, to relentlessly pursue your ambition to make it to The Mall and to finish. Training is wonderful because it gives you all that confidence and more.

Completing a marathon is an exhilarating experience but it’s no stroll in the park.  Whether you choose to walk-run or run the whole way it will push your physical and mental limits. It’s a steely test of endurance in many ways and is about so much more than rocking up to the Start Line and completing 26.2 miles.

When you cross the Finish Line of the Virgin Money London Marathon it will be testament to your commitment, stamina, motivation and dedication to go the distance in training as well as on Race Day.

The smarter you prepare for your marathon, by putting in the right training at the right times in the months before the race, then the easier your marathon will feel on Race Day.

There’s no magic potion, quick fix or simple short cut to marathon success. It takes months of consistent walking, jogging and running to make it to the Finish Line. Completing a marathon isn’t easy; it takes time, patience, commitment, persistence and determination.

Completing a marathon is a massive challenge but a life changing one. Once you’ve climbed and summited the marathon mountain you’ll be ready to tackle anything.  

Planning your marathon journey

If running simply isn't what you do (until now!) then take your time to get started. Be patient. If you’re a new runner who hasn’t done any exercise for a while, spend the first few weeks of your new regime regularly walking and building up the miles until you feel confident and competent enough to break into short periods of jogging with regular walk breaks.

If you’re a more experienced runner, think about how this marathon build-up might be different from previous ones. Reflect on what you’ve done in the past that has helped you to get in good shape. Keep the things that have worked before in your plan but also consider what you might want to change.

Build routine and consistency first

There are no hard and fast rules about how long to run for; it’s down to personal circumstances, motivation, fitness levels and goals. However, as a beginner or an improving runner, consistency of regular running is the most important thing you should aim for between now and Race Day. One week of running won’t make you a marathon runner; many consistent weeks put together will. It takes time for your fitness levels to improve so don’t expect miracles overnight.

Stick with the plan

Doing too much, too hard, too soon, more often than not ends in injury, frustration and disappointment. Think of your training as a layering process. You need to build up the time you are able to run over many weeks and months. In doing so you are building a strong body and mind that’ll be more than capable of completing 26.2 miles. Be gentle and progress slowly at first. This is especially important if you’re a beginner or new marathon runner.

Progression means gradually and appropriately increasing the duration, intensity and frequency of your running to optimise long-term performance and allow gradual overload and adaptation as your body and mind become stronger. Appropriate progression takes time, patience, discipline and planning. Good progression is balanced, seamless and smooth.

Staying motivated

Becoming a successful first-time or improver marathon runner is a mixture of patience and persistence. You will experience highs and lows in your journey. Enjoy the highs, accept and learn from the lows. Set yourself a small target each time you leave the house to run and don’t be daunted by the challenge you have set yourself. The more you do, the easier it will become and the more achievable your marathon finish will be.

Get out and get started and you’ll soon find that once you get into your training, you’ll actually want to go for your run. Each time you do leave the front door, run with purpose, passion and intent.

Your marathon journey – what to do, and when

Before Christmas: get ready

Now is the time to get ready for training. This is especially important if you’ve been inactive for a little while (or for a long time). Use this time to begin to build regular physical activity into your week and to start gentle walking or walk-running. Arrive at Christmas feeling ready for January.

January: get started

Develop your routine. Establish how much time you can realistically give to your marathon training each week and how many weeks you feel you are able to commit at this level. Look at your work, social, home and lifestyle schedule and determine how much time you have available to train. Commit to running at least three times a week. Devise a structure that is realistic rather than overambitious.

It may take a number of weeks to establish and integrate your ‘training budget’ with your commitments and other priorities but developing a routine is a great place to start. Just how much you do will depend on your marathon aspirations, but finding time to include it in your week really helps you ring-fence your run time. Once you have the routine established, stick to it as much as possible. If you stop and restart it’ll be much harder in the, ahem, long run.

February: get stronger

Build on your routine, be consistent and develop your distance. The most important element of your marathon build-up is running consistently. If you approach your training dipping in and out of running as your motivation peaks and falls, your fitness will be slow to develop and progress will stagnate. Miles covered in February and March are the money miles, meaning you’ll be able to cash your 26.2-mile cheque in London on Race Day.

March: go longer

By the time March rolls around the miles that you’ve covered in February and January will be really kicking in and you’ll be feeling more confident and will be able to run for longer. Now is the time to teach your body to deal with the distance and build up your long run (see below). It’s also the time to master your pace judgement and work out how you’ll stay well fuelled and hydrated.

April: the final touches

April is about holding yourself together, staying healthy and injury-free and putting the final touches of ‘less not more’ to your running. It’s easy to panic in April, think you’ve not done enough and try to ramp up the miles. Don’t. You’ll only arrive at Race Day feeling tired if you adopt this approach. April is all about balance and confidence. Do enough running to stay strong and keep building your Race Day fitness but not too much so that you reach the Start Line worn out and lacking motivation.

Go long for marathon glory!

Whether your plan is to run-walk the marathon, run the whole way, or run it as fast as you can, 26.2 miles is a long way. Long runs are the miles that build the stamina and endurance necessary to cover the marathon distance.

Long runs develop a strong foundation. They develop efficient running, help your breathing feel easier, make your heart stronger, help your body use its fuel for running and help you to get used to being on your feet for a long time, which builds your strength and helps to reduce muscle soreness, aches and pains – although you’ll certainly experience some.

‘Long’ means different things to different people, though. For a first time marathoner with no running background, your long runs will mean starting from scratch. If you are already a regular runner, you are more likely to be able to string together a greater distance. Either way, you should gradually build up the time/distance you are able to run over many weeks to train your body to cope with the marathon distance and give you the confidence that you can achieve your goal.

At first, focus on increasing the time on your feet rather than worrying about distance covered. Long, slow runs are usually done at controlled and manageable pace (perhaps 45 to 60 seconds slower per mile than your target marathon pace, see the below). On a long run it is the fatigue of the duration that you are training your body to handle. What feels controlled and ‘easy’ at the start of the run will get harder to maintain as the run progresses and this will become intensified as the duration increases. Long runs also give you the chance to practise your Race Day hydration and fuelling strategies as well as your pacing.

Perfect pace

Get your pacing right and you’ll have the race of your dreams. Get it wrong and your marathon will be very hard in the second half. Marathons can be very tough in the final six miles if runners ‘hit the wall’ as a result of poor pacing, insufficient training and inadequate nutrition.

Don’t think only serious or speedy runners require a marathon target time and a race pace strategy. If you think having a pace plan doesn’t apply to you because you ‘just want to finish’ then think again. Even if your goal is to get round, you should know your target pace to within a few seconds each mile or kilometre. Knowing this will give you confidence that you are in control in the early stages of your race and are on track to reach your goals throughout the race.

One of the biggest mistakes novice (and experienced) marathon runners make is getting their pace wrong. Newer runners typically need to learn to slow down (especially at the start of a race), while more experienced runners need to learn to run faster for longer. Running too fast too soon in the race doesn’t just make the second half much, much harder but it can also jeopardise reaching the Finish Line at all.

Knowing what pace to run is about understanding what effort you can sustain for the duration of your event. It’s about having patience at the start, feeling in control, feeling confident and the master of your race and being ready to face the demands of the final stages of your race fresher, stronger, more focused and bang on target.

Working out a pace strategy that matches your race aspirations and motivation will really help you to have a much better race experience. Start by establishing a target finish time (for example, four hours and 30 minutes) then work out what pace (or ‘mile split’) you need to run at to hit that time (for example, a 4:30 marathon is 10 minutes 18 seconds per mile). The best marathons are run at an ‘even pace’, which means starting off controlled and feeling good and trying to hold roughly the same mile split for each of the 26.2 miles.

To really understand what it feels like to run at your race pace, you need to practise this pace during your long training runs. This doesn’t mean you have to run the full race distance at race pace, but it does mean that you should include sections of training runs at, or close to, race pace. This is especially important as your long runs build in duration.

To help you get started on your marathon journey, I’ve put together two 16-week training plans – one for first-time marathon runners, and one for improvers. These will take you all the way through from January (week one) to week 16, which starts on the Monday of Race Week. See below for more information on the five types of running that make up the schedules.

Plan ahead

A training schedule will help you to structure your running and will provide appropriate progressions and workouts week by week. The key with using a training plan is to make it personal to you. Make the plan fit your life, not your life fit the plan! If you’re feeling tired, adapt the plan or go for an ‘easy’ run instead of trying to force yourself to fit in the workout and risk fatigue, injury or illness.

Easy or recovery runs (less than 60 per cent effort)

During an easy run you should feel relaxed. You should be breathing comfortably and be capable of holding a conversation throughout the run. If you’re a new runner then nothing may feel easy at first! Slow down, walk if necessary and control your effort.

Steady runs (60-70 per cent effort)

These are the bread and butter of your training, the ‘miles in the bank’. Steady runs build the base that is the foundation for the rest of your training. Conversations are still possible at this pace but in sentences rather than long gossip.

Tempo runs (70-80 per cent effort)

Running at tempo pace is great for improving your running economy. It’s a sustained cruise pace that requires concentration but you can hold on to. You will find them slightly uncomfortable as you try to run faster but they are worth it.

Long runs

These are a real focus of the plan. They should be used to develop strength and endurance but also to practise your target marathon pace and control. Long runs are shown in both time and distance on the training plans.