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How to Run a Sub-4 Hour Marathon First-Time

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In November 2015 I succeeded in running my first (and only!) marathon in just under 4 hours, which for many runners is a key goal. I’ve already written a full race report here but I also promised to write a blog post explaining how I managed it, full if all the tips I wish I had known. Check out my monthly updates for the full story (Months 1 & 2, Month 3, Month 4, Month 5) but as we enter 2016 and people are signing up for challenges and beginning to train for marathons, not least the London marathon in April, I thought it would be useful to give a proper explanation all in one place.

         I have to say up front that I wasn’t originally aiming for a sub-4 hour marathon, I merely wanted to survive! But to my amazement the training I had done made it physically possible for my body to manage it and I was of course ecstatic about this! Another disclaimer: I’m not a fitness/medical/sport expert and everyone’s body works differently, so I’m not making any promises about the best way for you to train, I’m just hoping to impart a little wisdom on the matter, having been through the 5-month training myself and having managed to run a marathon in 3 hours 55 minutes.

37 key lessons I learned

General tips before you start:

  • Get a gait analysis and buy specialist running shoes and moulded insoles straight away – I suffered a tendon injury that stopped me training for an entire month and it was a direct result of wearing unsuitable trainers. Lots of running shops offer free gait analysis, which will tell you about your running style and whether you overpronate or supinate, so you buy shoes and insoles that help correct for this.
  • Download Spotify and Audible – this is not a plug for these two services (others are available and all that) but these were my saving grace! Spotify has great running playlists and engrossing audiobooks were what got me through my 578km of training! I do run slower while listening to a novel than to upbeat music, but on the plus side my legs went into autopilot while my brain concentrated on a good plot line, so much so that hour-long training runs went by in a flash!
  • Download the Strava app to track your runs – A seriously good app that tracks your distance, speed, pace per km or mile and has a man’s voice telling you this regularly. It also shows the route take, tells you when you’re improving and acts like a social network for runners. All in all indispensable.
  • Pick a marathon that allows you to train during the summer if possible! – In summer it’s an absolute joy to jump out of bed early and run before work when you have sunshine peeping through the curtains, likewise after work. But if you’re unlucky enough to be training in winter then prepare for rain, running in the dark and restricting your runs to streetlit areas = not fun.

Making a training plan:

  • Start preparing long before the marathon itself – I registered for the marathon 8 months beforehand and picked a training plan, and I then began the actual training 5 and a 1/2 months beforehand. Don’t leave it all to the last minute like your would an exam – ‘cramming’ does not work!
  • Build up mileage gradually – I was not a runner beforehand and I didn’t enjoy running to start with! I started preparing for my marathon over a year in advance, with a 10km race in September 2014 (1 month’s training) and a half-marathon in February 2015 (2 months’ training) before beginning my 5 months’ training for a full marathon in May 2015. Give your body time to build up the mileage bit by bit, or else it’ll prove too little, too late.
  • Choose a training plan that involves plenty of exercise other than running – I made a huge mistake in only focusing on running. I started off following a 24-week Nike+ training plan that involved far too much running and not nearly enough cross-training or other exercises. Too much running, in unsuitable trainers, is how I ended up with posterior tibial tendon damage and missed a month of training! Even after a month, running was still painful and I was risking long-term damage. I can’t stress enough how important it is to exercise and strengthen your entire body, not just your legs.
  • Get advice from an expert – My saviour came in the form of Siobhan Henderson who runs the Switch Fitness London studio on Garratt Lane in Wandsworth. How I wish I’d spoken to her at the very beginning! One consultation with Siobhan in Month 3 of my training revealed exactly what I’d been doing wrong. I hadn’t been stretching properly, I had paid no attention whatsoever to my nutrition and I hadn’t been strengthening any of my core or glute muscles. She discarded the Nike+ training plan and wrote a completely new one for me herself. Here she is in the video below explaining the concept behind her fitness studio.
  • My initial training plan (not to be followed) – I started off following the 24-week Nike+ plan and running five times a week, running a total of 24km in Week 1, 31km in Week 2, 32km in Week 3, 27km in Week 4 and so on – basically completely random. But at least it was a schedule to follow initially and it did give me an idea of how gradually you should build up mileage week-by-week.
  • My revised training plan – To strengthen my muscles all over Siobhan gave me a daily 15-minute stretching regime, told me to attend four 30-minute classes per week at Switch Fitness, explained how to improve my nutrition and instructed me to do just one long run every weekend.
  • My stretching and warm-up regime – I was given various stretches using a foam roller as well as two elastic bands, one for glutes and one for opening up the chest and upper body. This regime was tailored to my particular muscles, so you’ll need to get an expert to tell you which stretches you need.
  • Four high intensity fitness classes a week – Siobhan’s studio runs a variety of 30-min and 55-min fitness classes, including specialist weight loss and fat burning classes but I focused on the high intensity interval training (HIIT) classes with names like Blitz X, Drive, Dynamic Basecore, Frame and Fascial Stretch. These classes are designed to increase metabolism and get the heart racing using kettlebell weights, body weight and suspension exercises and luckily I could fit them in both before & after work as the studio is close to my house. I really felt these working my muscles, with that satisfying burn you can feel afterwards that means you’re making definite progress. I loved the various teachers and the fact that it’s a female-only studio, with small classes with on average 6 – 8 participants. You can also book onto classes through a great app.
  • My nutrition plan – The focus during training is on protein, not carbs. Carb-loading only comes into it immediately before a very long run. Siobhan sent me 2 weeks’ worth of protein-heavy recipes and she did also suggest protein shakes and the like, which I didn’t quite get round to.
  • My weekly runs – So by the end I was running just once a week, but was still strong enough to run a sub-4 marathon. I took my cue for the distance of the weekly run from the Nike+ training plan, as follows:
    • Week 1: 8 km
    • Week 4: 10 km
    • Week 8: 12 km
    • Week 12: 16 km
    • Week 16: 21 km
    • Week 20: 32 km
    • Week 24: 42 km
  • Keeping on track – As part of the training programme at Switch Fitness you have a 10 minute catch-up with Siobhan herself every week to review your eating and exercise (and your weight and dress size if you’re on a weight-loss programme). Having this individual attention was something I’d never experienced before and it really did provide me with the motivation to keep going to the classes. I really can’t recommend Switch Fitness enough, as it really was the only way I got my fitness up without putting strain on my injured tendon. During my month of injury I went through a very stressful period of doubting my ability to recover and run the marathon, which is just disastrous when you’ve been fundraising and have already told the whole world and his wife that you’re training for a marathon. Getting Siobhan’s advice and a completely new training plan was a miracle and I honestly don’t think I’d have managed the marathon without it. If I weren’t abroad on my sabbatical already then I would definitely be continuing to exercise at Switch Fitness, as I loved how healthy and strong my body felt. I would recommend it to anyone.

During the training itself:

  • Find running buddies of a similar speed – A good weekly catch-up with my schoolfriend Imy on a Friday morning before work, running from Parsons Green to Hammersmith to Putney and home, was the run I most looked forward to each week! Other runners also share tips and new routes.
  • Run in scenic areas and switch up your route often – Fingers crossed you live near a large pedestrianised area like a park, or else you’ll be stopping at traffic lights, breathing in exhaust fumes and dodging prams left right and centre, not to mention getting bored of the scenery. Luckily I live near the Thames Path, and I made an effort to find interesting running routes whenever I went on holiday, to Copenhagen, Stockholm and Lake Como.
  • Run on an empty stomach – Whether morning or evening, I always ran before eating, to feel lighter and not need loo stops. Planning to end a run at a good brunch spot or by cooking a big fry up always helps with motivation too!
  • Don’t risk injury by doing any adventure sports too close to the marathon – I climbed the Welsh 3000s Challenge half-way through my training and in hindsight it was far too strenuous an activity for my marathon legs, and I significantly worsened my tendon injury and sprained an ankle in the process. Neither hurt at all during the walk but it certainly contributed to my month “off games”.

The day before the marathon:

  • Eat pasta – the Athenians did a great job of offering pasta dishes the day before the marathon and I even managed to avoid the complimentary dessert wine (my favourite!) the waiter gave us after dinner. Drink plenty of water and avoid fizzy drinks.
  • Do a 4km rehearsal run – Particularly relevant if you’re running a marathon in a different country/climate. Wear exactly what you’ll wear on the day and practise carrying your gels, phone, headphones, spare battery (if you need) and work out what else is missing. For example, I discovered that Athens in November is sunnier than I thought, so I then took sunglasses on the actual day of the marathon.

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On the day of the marathon:

  • Have a light carbohydrate breakfast – Ideally rehearse the exact sequence, food and timings beforehand to ensure your stomach digests in time for the start. I actually didn’t manage to “rehearse” a breakfast but luckily a bowl of cereal with banana worked ok on the day!
  • Fully charge your phone/iPod! – I can’t think of anything worse than hitting “the wall” without any music because my phone had run out of battery. It would be torture! I even carried a small spare battery pack to charge it just in case as my iPhone 5’s battery is so unreliable.
  • Wear lots of layers to the start line – You’ll be able to leave a bag of belongings to pick up later, so dress up warm for as long as possible before the start.
  • Queue for the loo – even if you don’t need it, stay in the queue until you do (or jog around to get things moving), as otherwise you’ll have to pause mid-marathon for the loo. I stopped at half-marathon point for the loo and wasted 3 minutes in a queue, and every single minute is precious when you’re aiming for a sub-4.
  • Find your starting block and stretch, stretch, stretch – By now you know which stretches your body needs to wake up! I also took and used two stretching bands I’d been using in training and left these with my extra layers to pick up afterwards.
  • Energy gels – Again, rehearse using these while running to be sure they don’t give you an upset stomach. I used gels with caffeine for an extra boost and took one just before the start line and then every 45 minutes after that.
  • Drink water and lucozade at every available pit stop – Even if you’re not thirsty, you’ll be more dehydrated than you think. And if you’re running in Athens in 25°C for example, then perhaps even follow my lead and carry a water bottle for the full 4 hours! I also poured water over my legs, arms and neck to help cool down.
  • Calculate timings and monitor them religiously – To run 42.175km in exactly 4 hours you need to run a kilometre in exactly 5 mins 40 seconds. But not every kilometre is born equal and the Athens Marathon for example has a ruthless hill for half of the course! So you need to run slightly faster than that to give leeway and to mitigate the dreaded “wall”. I finished the marathon with 5 minutes to spare and for your sanity in the last hour of the marathon you definitely want to have some spare minutes. In actual fact you want to aim for more like 3 hours 45 minutes (a pace of 5:30/km) to give yourself some leeway.
  • Do. Not. Start. Walking. – No matter how tired you are, never walk. Once you start walking from exhaustion, you’ll never be able to coach your legs into running again! I got “the fear” about walking, so I literally didn’t stop at all!
  • You will run further than the 42.175km of the marathon – I wish I’d known this! You will deviate from the official 42km route while overtaking and going round bends, and these tiny deviations will add on a whole kilometre! So when I reached the 41km flag, my Strava told me I’d run the full marathon distance – pure torture at that stage! In the end according to Strava I actually ran 43.4km. It will also affect your timing and pace calculations, so I suggest you attack the marathon as it were actually 43km.
  • Prepare for “the wall” – Conserve your energy for the wall. That moment where your thighs are on fire, your lungs ache, your heart is pounding out of your chest, your brain is extremely stressed, you feel almost paralysed in a repetitive left-right-left-right motion, you’re crying and you’re panting so hard that other runners turn around to see what on earth is wrong. Maybe the last two were just me… Except that “moment” lasts for 45 excruciating minutes. Expect the wall and don’t underestimate it.

After the marathon:

  • Soak up the congratulatory atmosphere! – Wear your medal with pride and lap up the friendly congratulations from strangers after you cross the finish line. The Athenians in particular are very proud of being the birthplace of the marathon, so they love the event and were very sweet about it. Not everyone finishes the marathon (alarmingly there were even a number of flashing high-speed ambulances) so if you make it to the end, no matter what your time is, then you should feel really proud of your achievement.
  • Stretch, stretch, stretch – The more you stretch the quicker your recovery.
  • Avoid stairs – Fortunately our Airbnb apartment had a lift! But in restaurants/metro stations whenever we came across a staircase, I fully needed my mother or sister to lean on, as stairs are just out of the question.
  • Get a sports massage – Lots of marathons offer free massages afterwards, but queues tend to be lengthy. I had a massage that evening from my mother and a few days later from a qualified sports massage therapist in London through Urban Massage LINK.
  • Avoid alcohol – I was so dehydrated that even 24 hours later when I attempted my first G&T, I fast-tracked straight to drunk within an hour and then zoomed into an awful hangover an hour after that. With an already aching body, a hangover feels grim.

          And there you have it, the 37 things I wish had known from the start of the long, long, long training journey I went through to reach the finish line in Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium in just under 4 hours. Good luck to anyone else attempting it and try to avoid the mistakes I made early on!

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