Seven Essential Marathon Training Tips

Author and marathon runner Michael McEwan shares his best advice to help keep your training on track.

Train like you’ll race

As much as possible, I try to ensure that my longer training runs closely replicate the conditions I’ll face on Race Day. For example, the mass start for the London Marathon is normally at 10:00. Consequently, I try to start my longer runs every Sunday morning around the same time. This gives me the opportunity to rehearse my Race Day routine many times before the day itself.

Things like knowing what time you need to set your alarm for, when to eat breakfast and, just as importantly, what to eat for breakfast are essential aspects of your preparation. That way, when marathon morning dawns, nothing should feel new or uncharted; you’ll be in a well-practised routine and comfortable with running at that particular time of the day on that particular day of the week.

Focus on the dot

Some runs are better than others. That’s just the way it goes. Some days, you feel light and bouncy; others, you feel heavy and sluggish. To help you through the latter, it helps to have something to focus on. That’s why I always draw a small dot on my left hand, between my thumb and my forefinger. I call it my ‘totem’ and it is designed to act as an emotional trigger that focuses my mind on something else when I can feel negative thoughts starting to materialise. That dot can represent anything you like: a family member, a lost loved one, a favourite place, a post-marathon holiday - you choose. All that matters is that it diverts your mind away from unhelpful thoughts.

It is a trick that helped golfer Louis Oosthuizen maintain both his concentration and composure as he closed in on Open Championship glory in 2010. Having such a visual stimulus and giving it a pre-assigned meaning or value is invaluable.

Use social media...

Training for a marathon can be a lonely experience. A brilliant, rewarding and invigorating experience but a lonely one, too. That’s where social media comes into its own. I’ve found that sharing pictures and updates on my progress has been extremely beneficial, particularly on Instagram, where fellow marathon runners can find and communicate with one another using simple hashtags like #LondonMarathon and #ReasonToRun. The confidence boost that you get from a random stranger liking your sweaty photo or leaving a message of encouragement is enormous.

It’s great to see pictures of other people’s progress, too. It reminds you of the scale of the race and of the shared sacrifices that marathon runners all make. That, in itself, is wonderfully unifying.

...but don’t overuse it

One downside of social media is that it can make you obsessed with what other people are doing and, if you’re not careful, against all reasonable judgement, you’ll start to compare yourself to them. You might, for example, notice that somebody has clocked up more miles than you during a particular week, or has less rest days than you, or is eating and drinking different things to you, or appears to be further ahead with their training than you are – and I guarantee that your first instinct will be to panic. Don’t. Just because their training plan isn’t the same as yours doesn’t mean it’s better.

People train differently. So what? Accept that and commit 100 per cent to your own schedule.

Treat yourself

Crossing the Finish Line shouldn’t be your only reward for committing to and completing a marathon. It is, in fact, just as important to treat yourself throughout your training. Not in an obscenely self-indulgent way (nor, for that matter, in such a way that you are going to undermine all of the hard work you’ve been putting in). Instead, reward your efforts in a way that keeps you motivated and ‘on plan’. As an example, if I feel I’ve trained particularly well for, say, the first three or four weeks of my training schedule, I might treat myself to a new running top. Two things about that: one, you get the very superficial kick that comes with buying something new; two, you get the more subliminal benefit of wanting desperately to go out and run again to try out your new top.

Accept pain

Running a marathon requires dedication and determination, and it will, unquestionably, hurt at some point. If it didn’t, more people would do it. Don’t waste energy worrying about the possibility of pain. Instead, accept it for the inevitability that it is. If you can, even try to embrace it. Why? Because the pain will pass but the memories and satisfaction of being a marathon runner will last for the rest of your life.

Don’t let it become bigger than it is

It is easy to let the significance of events and occasions amplify in your own mind, sometimes to such an extent that they become intimidating. That’s counter-productive. Instead, never ever forget that the basic principle of completing a marathon involves putting one foot in front of the other between two pre-defined points. Left, right, left, right, left right, as fast or as slow as you like. That’s all there is to it. One foot, then the other, over and over, until it’s done. That’s as tough as it needs to be.

You can do this. Believe me, you can.

Michael McEwan is the author of 'Running The Smoke: 26 First-Hand Accounts of Tackling the London Marathon'. Order your copy now from RRP £14.99