DISCLAIMER: I’m not claiming this to be any kind of program, or anything more than a collection of what I did, what I found useful and what worked for me in preparation. I’ve tried to make things more general to provide a good starting point for a variety of people, but ultimately we are all a collection of individual differences, and will need to adapt as we go to find what works best. As always, get the all clear from a medical professional before jumping in to any fitness/nutrition endeavour and don’t take chances with injuries - get them checked out.
Marathons are rough.
They hurt your feet, knees, hips and soul, and that’s a best case scenario by the halfway mark.
There’s also nothing like making it to the end, crossing the finish line after 26.2 miles (42km) in a pile of blood, sweat and glory.
I’ve ran a few in the past, but preparing for the 2018 Edinburgh marathon was a bit of a learning curve - they were much easier weighing around 62kg (9.7 stone) than the 83kg (13 stone) lump of traps I am today.
While I was by no means the heaviest runner out there, I did have to adapt my training to make sure my legs could handle the transition from their usual 1-8 reps per set in the gym, to nearly 5 hours of constant pavement pounding.
This article isn’t going to lay out a training program for you to follow, because I didn’t follow a program. Instead, I tried to follow certain principles from month to month, and listen to my body. That is, right up until I started pushing the mileage up too quick and injured my foot weeks before the run.
Fortunately I was able to recover, and relying on the foundations I built with the months of training allowed me to stay on brand and FINISH IT.
As more of a collection than a beginning/middle/end story, feel free to skip sections and jump to what you want to know. I've not mastered in-article-heading-linking, so you'll need to do it the old fashioned way and scroll.
What can I say, I'm all about using dem muscles.
The sections are (in order):
Training Principles Nutrition Principles Race Day Tactics Recovery
Bench and Zercher Squats, All You Need?
If you take a look at my social media, you’ll see 99% of it is benching or some kind of strength work. This was not an accident, my main goal was to build some big lifts, and finishing the marathon was secondary to these. If I had prioritised running, my marathon time would have been much better, but my lifts would not have been as good.
Contrary to popular belief, we can improve both at the same time, albeit slower than if we pursued just one goal.
Cardio will not kill your gainz - but following bad principles will.
One of the keys is to divide and conquer, if possible doing your running on seperate days to your gym days so that you are as fresh as possible for each training session. If done on the same day, do your lifting first and your cardio last - cardio requires less focus/mental arousal, so isn’t affected as much by doing work before it.
The other key to doing both is nutrition - remember you are burning more calories by doing more work, so eat more! Building and maintaining muscle requires a calorie surplus, and adding running to the mix means we need an even bigger surplus - everyone will be slightly different, but if in doubt, more is better.
As we’re doing more, lifting AND running, this will mean either more training sessions per week, or training smarter to get more bang for our buck with each training session. If you have a life outside fitness, the latter is the way to go.
Get the Most from Your Runs
Optimising your lifts is a topic too broad for this running article, but the core advice is the same for optimising your running sessions: be SPECIFIC and be PROGRESSIVE.
You will not learn Spanish by taking Chinese lessons, and the same goes for our running.
We are training for a long run at a steady pace, so how should we train? Bingo.
If you’re running several times a week, the majority of your sessions should be at the pace you’ll be moving at on race day - if this is your first marathon, a good rule of thumb is to move at a pace where you can have a conversation with someone (ie not constantly out of breath).
There are other ways to run, things like hillsprints and intervals are great accessories to add in and can improve your endurance, but they are accessories - the main bulk of your training should be at your race pace. This doesn’t mean all long runs either, it is good to vary the distances so your body can recover well while still making improvements and practicing good technique. For example, you could do a long run on Sundays and have a shorter recovery run on Wednesdays (between half and two thirds of the long run distance).
Ideally, try to get 2-3 runs in a week - 2 steady pace runs, and one sprint/interval style for - but if life gets in the way, one long run a week is better than no runs. Just remember that the more prepared we are from training, the easier the race will be to finish.
Bonus Benefits of Long Runs
Now there’s a bunch of programs out there that claim they can prepare people for an endurance event using only high intensity work, so you never have to do any long boring runs. This sounds great, but isn’t going to work for a couple of reasons - especially if this is your first endurance event:
Without doing any long runs you won’t have a good sense of pace, if you’re spending your training time sprinting and walking, you’ll be flabberghasted when it comes to finding a steady pace. By practicing the pace you’ll be moving at on race day, it’ll be easier to get into the groove and coast through the monotonous miles.
By only adapting to short distances, your bones/ligaments/tendons won’t have much resistance to repetitive impact over a long period of time. On average, a person takes 2,000 steps per mile - if your training never exceeds 20,000 steps (10 miles), how do you think your soft and hard tissues are going to cope with 52,000 (26 miles)? This doesn’t mean you need to run the full distance in training, just make sure you’ve got a solid long run under your belt before the big day so your body doesn’t get a shock (about 19-23 miles is usually enough).
Despite the various common knowledge and old wives tales, there are few studies done on muscle cramp (because of it’s unpredictable nature, it’s hard to induce and determine it’s cause). However, the two most popular theories are water/electrolyte loss and muscle fatigue. Dehydration and electrolyte loss we can counteract with in race nutrition (energy gels and light snacks), and muscle fatigue we can counteract by training our muscles to last for long periods of time - by running for long periods of time.
Again, short high intensity work is a great accessory to the main bulk of your training, but it is just an accessory. Remember what your training to do.
Just like our gym lifts, we need to expose our bodies to greater stimulus to force it to adapt and grow. For running, this is no different.
No matter how small we start, as long as we are consistently adding we’ll build a strong foundation and some huge mileage. At the very beginning I started by monitoring my time, initially with 15 min jogs, adding 6-7 mins each week and then switching to tracking mileage. In general we want to be adding only a little amount, so don’t worry about jumping up miles or half hours at a time. Start small, and build.
Unfortunately, like lifting, this isn’t a linear process, and we can’t just keep adding indefinitely until the end of time. We can get so far, sometimes very far if you’ve got a knack for it, but pushing beyond that can be just too much for our body to handle without a rest.
If we’re training over a long period of time (months/years) we can benefit from using wave loading. With wave loading, we gradually add distance (or weight) for a few weeks, then reset to a shorter distance (or lighter weight), and gradually add again.
The rate that we load and for how long will vary from person to person, but I find a good starting point is 4-6 weeks per block. We can also take a break or easier session between blocks (a deload), but they aren’t essential if you’re feeling good and taking the sessions in stride (lol).
Eat eat eat. If your trying to preserve or build muscle mass, you’ll need to eat even more.
If you’re into macros, a good starting point is:
1.5-2g of protein per kg of bodyweight
5-8g of carbs per kg of bodyweight (if you’re doing a lot of intense training, you’ll need closer to 8g of carbs per kg of bodyweight; if you’re only doing a couple of sessions a week, closer to 5g of carbs per kg of bodyweight will suffice - as always with nutrition, try to monitor and adjust as you go to find what works best).
We’ll not worry about defining specific fat aims for cardio, just aim to get them from good whole food sources (unsaturated fats) and reduce saturated fat consumption as much as you can.
If you’re not into tracking macros, check out Day 10 in my 12 Days of Liftmas: 2017 post (click here) to see how you can estimate portion sizes using just your hands. Again, this will provide a starting point and you’ll likely need to monitor/adjust as you go to find what works best.
2 days before race:
Carb loading - in the days leading up to the race, consuming 8-12g of carbs per kg of bodyweight (eg if you weigh 80kg, consume 640-960g of carbs per day. If you weigh 60kg, consume 480-720g carbs. If you weigh 100kg, consume 800-1200g carbs per day) can help increase our endurance performance by making sure our muscles and liver are filled to the brim with glycogen - one of the main sources of energy the body consumes while moving. Our bodies also utilise fat, but because it’s so densely packed with energy, and our bodies have sufficient stores (even if you’re super shredded, a 72kg runner with 4% body fat has about 22,400 calories worth of energy stored as fat), so we don’t need to load up on fats - just consume your regular daily amount.
Morning of Race:
Don’t consume too much! Too much food in your stomach will take a long time to digest, so when it comes to the race your body will be diverting some blood/energy to digestion, which would be better used in in your leg muscles. When planning breakfast, think about how long it is until the race:
>1 hour before race: 0.5g of carbs per kg of bodyweight
2hrs before race: up to 1g of carbs per kg of bodyweight
4+ hrs before race: 1-4g of carbs per bodyweight, 0.25g protein per kg of bodyweight
Don’t consume unfamiliar foods - the last thing you need is an iffy tummy while out running, or worse, diarrhoea. It has happened to people in the past, it’s not a club you want to be part of.
Easy to digest simple carbs - much like breakfast, complex carbs (pastas, potatoes, etc) will take longer to digest/absorb, so will be sitting in your stomach and diverting a small amount of blood from your muscles to your digestive system. Consume a variety of simple carbs (glucose, maltose, galactose etc), so that while one type of sugar receptor is filling up, the others are still free to grab the other sugars.
The easiest way is to carry some energy gels with you - they’re like those squeezy yoghurts - and consume them at spaced intervals throughout the race. Some people get on fine without any, but having 2-3 on hand can give you a little boost for the race. Some folks go all out having one every 3-4 miles, but the best way to find what suits you is to use them on your practice runs so you’re familiar with them and how often you may need them.
Another option are jelly babies, they are cheaper but they are not as high quality, and bananas - which are a great source of potassium (one of the electrolytes we lose through sweating). Bananas require a little extra planning to carry with you, but you can always have a friend in the crowd give you them at a prearranged location so they don’t get bumped and bruised.
Don’t go overboard immediately - hitting the buffet 5 mins after such a long run could be a bit of a shock to the stomach. Get some light carbs and protein in (we need the protein to stave off muscle breakdown), then once you’ve had a chance to catch your breath and hug everyone start heading towards more substantial food. Once again, everyone is a little different, but for the majority of us inhaling a huge meal immediately after such a long race can result in throwing it up pretty quick. Take your time, flaunt that medal, the food will still be there in 20 mins.
RACE DAY TACTICS
To Sunglass, or Not to Sunglass:
If it’s a sunny day, it makes sense to wear sunglasses - especially ones that won’t fall off while you’re out running. Or, you can let the sun and sweat drip into your eyes for hours on end, and use the rage to fuel the last few miles. The choice is yours.
Jedi Mind Tricks
DON’T THINK ABOUT PINK GIRAFFES
A pink giraffe popped up didn’t it? If not, feel free to skip this tip you robot.
Mantras or self talk while running are helpful, and it makes sense that thinking about giving up, how sore we are, how far away we are, etc will make it more likely that we’ll quit. However, we need to watch out for Trojan horses, or pink giraffes.
In order to not think about something, we need to know (or think about) what it is we’re not meant to think about, so we know what to not think of. So to avoid thinking about a pink giraffe, we first need to think about a pink giraffe to know what to avoid thinking about.
This takes a lot of thinking, and the idea still enters our mind, despite telling ourselves NOT to think about it - and it’s the same for giving up.
So while we might first think “don’t give up” or “don’t quit” are useful, they are Trojan horses - letting “give up” and “quit” enter our minds, where it risks taking root.
A better way, and one that requires less energy spent thinking, is to think positively. Instead of thinking “don’t”, think “do”.
Replace “don’t quit” with “keep going”
Replace “don’t give up” with “keep moving forward”
Replace “I’ll look stupid if I give up” with “I’ll look awesome when I finish”
Taking this a step further, we may want to restrict what we think about solely to the process - instead of thinking about the outcome (the finish line, post race treats, no more running), we keep our mind present and focused on each step (“keep moving forward”, “keep this steady pace”, “one foot after the other”). This can help pass the time as we get fully in the zone and mindful of exactly what we are doing - ignoring what’s going on around us and what lies outside of NOW.
This step can take a lot of sustained focus, so don’t beat yourself up if your thoughts stray to the finish line - as long as you’re remaining positive in your thinking, you’ll be just fine.
Stay positive, stay strong, and keep moving forward. Sooner or later we will make it to the end.
Run Your Own Race
With such a huge crowd at running events, it’s easy to just switch off and go with the flow. While this can save us some mental work, just moving along at the same pace as the people around us, if they are moving faster than the pace we’ve been training at we can pay for it dearly in the last 10 miles before the finish line. Stick to YOUR pace, and ignore what everyone else is doing - no one cares if you get overtaken, chances are you will stroll past half of them later on as they burn out and need to rest after moving too fast too soon. Keep moving at your steady pace, and save your energy for a glorious sprint finish (where all the god photos get taken).
Sip, Sip, Sip
Whichever race you do, there will likely be water stations dotted around the course. These can be a godsend on hot days, but you must resist the temptation to chug down the full thing. By downing a full bottle of water at mach speed you’ll run the risk of upsetting your stomach (deep-into-endurance-stomach is not prepared for a load of water like resting-at-home stomach is). Even worse, piling in too much water too quickly will dilute your blood slightly, which tells your kidneys you’ve got too much water, so they’ll start excreting more urine and you may start sweating more. This becomes an issue because while your body is getting rid of water, it will lose some electrolytes along with it - meaning you’ll be at increased risk of cramp and your muscles malfunctioning*.
To get the most from your water, sip away instead of gulping it down.
*On a sadder, more serious note, this is part of the reason people with undiagnosed heart conditions have died during endurance races - the electrolyte imbalance exacerbates the underlying heart problem and the result can be fatal. While it is very very rare that this happens, that doesn’t mean we should take our health lightly - make sure you get the all clear from the doctor before commencing training or tackling a huge physical challenge.
Most commonly hitting between miles 18-22, cramps can wreck your day. While they’re not an injury, that are plenty sore and reduce the rate at which you can move, meaning your stuck on the course and away from beer for that much longer. Cramps are largely unpredictable in nature, so the best we can do is be preventative as possible in our training (practicing the pace that we’ll run at and doing an adequate amount of long distance work so our muscles don’t get a shock on the day) and by consuming some electrolytes and water as we push through the course. If your legs do get trapped in the vice grip of cramp, don’t panic. Just slow down, stretch them out, and continue - albeit at a slightly slower pace to avoid extra cramping. If stretching one muscle causes another to seize up, just walk for a bit. It will gradually ease off, and as long as you keep moving forward you can keep making progress towards the end.
Massaging the muscle can work to reduce the rate of cramping, but stopping and setting up a for a good self massage mid-race is tricky. And carrying a foam roller with you could be a little impractical.
By the end of the 2018 Edinburgh marathon all I could manage was alternating walking with power walking - aka walking while swinging my arms wildly. My time suffered, I looked a little ridiculous, but I was able to keep moving forward. Keep moving forward, and sooner or later we’ll reach our destination (preferably one that has food).
Running races are usually pretty quiet, as a low intensity event there aren’t many competitors shouting and screaming to get their adrenaline going. The crowd on the other hand are pretty loud, and it’s a great feeling hearing people cheering everyone on. If there’s no crowd nearby, you can help cheer people on by shouting some motivation - anything by Ronnie Coleman works well, “YEAAHHH BUDDYYY!!”, “LIGHTWEIGHT BABYYYY!!”, “AIN’T NUTHIN BUT A PEANUT!”, as does screaming “WOOOOOO!!!” at the top of your lungs. It can help other people stay motivated, and helps bring your adrenaline up a little to push through harder sections.
It’s win win.
If you’re injured or require medical attention, go get medical attention. Marathons are harsh on the legs and feet, which are essential for walking and other daily activities - so don’t risk making things worse.
Even if you’re not majorly injured, you’ll certainly be sore. This is perfectly normal, and to be expected. The temptation is to lie down and not move your legs for a few days - but that’s about the worst thing to do for them.
This doesn’t mean continue to run everywhere, instead just try to get some light walks and stairs in when you can - using the muscles will help get blood and nutrients into the area, helping them to heal that much faster. This will be uncomfortable, and you’ll have almighty DOMS, but it’s worth getting even a few 10 mins walks into your day.
Aside from moving, the best recovery method is to eat plenty of food - ideally nutritious food, but you’ve just finished a marathon so don’t forget to TREAT YO SELF. Consuming plenty calories will give our bodies the building blocks and energy to repair our tortured muscles and joints, and as long as you have something nutrient dense in there (think fruits, vegetables, whole foods), you’ll recover just fine.
If you’re thinking about ice to recover - do so appropriately. While ice is useful for reducing inflammation, it also reduces the rate of healing. Use ice/cold packs if swelling is restricting your movement, up to 15mins at a time so you don’t get an ice burn, but there’s not much need to use it if there’s no swelling present. We can use something warm to help increase the rate of healing, but if we use it too soon we can increase the inflammation in the area - not making the injury worse, but it can be inconvenient for moving around.