5 Tips For Runners Tackling Their First Marathon

This is a guest post by Shaun Dixon, who is an elite runner and head coach at Let’s Get Running. A self diagnosed ‘run-addict’, he uses his experience of training and competing over a range of distances to coach runners of all ability levels. Shaun is training me for the 2017 London Marathon.

Thinking of tackling your first Marathon? Here are 5 tips to read before you kick off your training.

1. Be patient.

Don’t take on too much too soon-you’ll find quickly find yourself injured, ill or both. Give yourself some time, and slowly build up to it- you need to be fit at the end of the training period not the beginning.

There is a fantastic stat about Marathon running. 95% of those who line up on Marathon day will complete the race but only 72% of those with a place actually make it to the start line. Your number 1 goal should be to get to the Marathon fit and healthy.

So be patient, both in terms of volume increases and the pace of your runs too. The key to improvement, rather boringly, is consistency. Establishing a good routine of steady or easy pace running is an absolute priority- preparing a base level of fitness on which you can build. You can’t build anything on shoddy foundations. So take it easy- always run with your next run in mind, so finish feeling there’s more in the tank. You want to get out and want to run, not sit and wallow in a hole of fatigue!

2. Set yourself a target

All runners struggle with motivation but it’s easier to deal with dark periods if you have a clear goal for the run.

I like people to have a race goal. It could be anything from, simply getting round to running sub 3hours, but it needs to be firm and measureable. If you want to work to a time but don’t know where to start, I suggest running  a 10k race or time trial. An online race time predictor or calculator will then give you an estimated marathon time based on this performance (Runners World is a good place to start). It’s no guarantee but it’s better than a blind stab in the dark!

3. Lock in your routine

If you look at the routines of the majority of top athletes they are fairly regimented. They know when they will run and roughly what each run will look like. We don’t have the luxury of structuring our lives around our running but we can make sure sure our run time is sacred. Set an hour aside, arrange to meet a friend, or join a group to make sure your run plans don’t get shelved.

If you’re wondering how many runs you should commit to each week then it all depends on your goal. The beauty of running is, for the most part, you get out what you put in. If you’re aiming for a time beginning with 3 you need to commit to 4 ‘sessions’ a week ( though this can include a cross training session). 3-4 sessions should be a good target for all runners aiming for a Marathon. Beginners should start with 3 and progress to 4 or 5 if the body reacts well to the training.

4. Think about your body- don’t just tick boxes.

It’s very easy to get very bogged down in numbers when Marathon training. You must follow a 16 week plan, include a 20mile run as your longest run 3-4 weeks from race day, and run all your miles at such and such a pace to run this or that time on race day. Focus on getting your body into the best possible shape to run, not fitting in with a generic structure.

Once you have established a good base of steady running it’s worth having a think about the attributes you need to improve as a runner and thinking about how your training works to support that. Tempo runs, intervals, strides and fartleks can all be a little intimidating at first but understanding their benefits and importance should make them less daunting.

If we were to build a Marathon Runner from scratch here’s what we would need.

Strong Running Body. Built by a consistent routine of steady aerobic running and your long stamina building runs.

Big Heart. Improved by sustained, reasonably challenging runs (tempo, threshold, some fartleks and Marathon pace runs for faster runners. Running at a controlled challenging intensity trains your heart to pump rich, oxygenated blood to the muscles!

Big lungs. This involves interval training- spending some time running at your maximum comfortable range of breathing, in order to improve your ability to take on, and use large volumes of oxygen. Our focus should be on giving the lungs a workout- not flat out running but running where your aerobic system is challenged but not over extended. Breathing should be deep and rhythmic and you should be maintain for the pace for 15mins without stopping.

As a basic guide you should be aiming for a series of intervals of between 2-5mins each, with a rest between each half or ¾ as long as each interval, and a total volume of c.20mins hard running.

Efficient Movement Patterns…brain training!

Efficiency of movement can be improved in two ways; Strength and Conditioning to improve strength and mobility, and through regular faster running!

Running fast is really important. In being more dynamic and explosive you make use of a larger range of muscle groups; improving their capabilities and the efficiency of the communication from brain to muscle. Essentially you’re building your arsenal and figuring out ways to activate those weapons! There are lots of different ways to approach this- from hill sprints to ‘strides’, (relaxed technique sprints).

The key to working on speed is to always consider the purpose of the session. You should always aim to run fast but relaxed- gurning faces and shoulders around your ears are a big no-no!

5. Practise positivity

Very few endeavours require as much mental fortitude as long distance running, and your enjoyment of the training and race itself will hinge on the nature of your mindset.

Charlie Spedding, the last British man to medal in the Marathon at an Olympic games, had a simple yet highly effective method to mentally prepare himself for big events. Everyday in the lead up to the 1984 games he told himself that the Olympic final would be the best day of his life.Over and over again, for the next 3 months. He started to believe it and on race day he felt relaxed, confident and eager to run. He produced an incredible performance to take an unexpected bronze medal. You can do the same thing. Be really positive. The marathon will be fantastic experience- so remind yourself how great it will be.

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Shaun Dixon of Lets Get Running
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Joining Reebok for the London Marathon

I’m delighted to announce that I will be joining Team Reebok as a Reebok Floatride Ambassador for this years London Marathon.

I ran London last year, and it was one of my favorite marathons ever, so I was disappointed to miss out in the ballot this year. Reebok and The Running Bug saved the day however, and I look forward to working with my coach Shaun Dixon over the next few weeks to get in shape for London!

I am also looking forward to trying out the new Reebok Floatride shoes for the marathon, and letting you know how they perform.

Better get back on the training wagon!

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2016 London Marathon Race Report

I travelled with my family to London on Friday evening for the London Marathon on Sunday. We were staying beside the Excel Arena, where the marathon expo was being held, so it was nice and handy for registering (though not so much for actually getting into the marathon itself!). We attended the expo on Saturday morning, and I was very impressed – it was by far the largest marathon expo I’d ever seen, and it was meticulously well organised – despite the huge crowds, (and the fact that I didn’t have the correct paperwork!), I ended up getting my number in a few minutes. We visited a few of the exhibitors, and I got my picture taken with the giant version of the finishers medal.

We spent most of Saturday sight-seeing, with me trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid doing too much walking. Catherine and the boys also needed to get their bearings for the next day so they could watch me.

One thing that struck me was that the weather was much colder in London that it had been at home – I had been concerned setting off that it would be very warm for the race, but that certainly didn’t seem to be the case.

Sunday morning dawned cold and bright – perfect conditions for a marathon. I felt very relaxed in the lead up to this marathon, and slept like a log the night before. After a light breakfast in the hotel, we set off on the combination of trains, tubes, and walking, that would get us to the start line in Blackheath.

As we were waiting for the train into the city, Catherine asked why I was wearing different socks than usual; I looked down, and realised that I was so relaxed when I had changed after breakfast, I had forgotten to put on my running socks, and was still wearing the ordinary casual socks I had on this morning. Damn. I considered going back to the hotel, but decided to keep going. They are only socks after all – it would be a good opportunity to test the hypothesis that my feet are blister-proof….

The closer we got to Greenwich Station, the bigger the crowds grew – I have never seen so much lycra in one place in my life. It was like dying and going to runner heaven.

Once again, the organisation was superb – anyone wearing a marathon number didn’t need to pay on the tube, and there were marshals in the stations directing everyone the right way – this is something that other city marathons could definitely learn from.

Once we got off at Greenwich, it was time to walk to the start. The ordinary runners like myself were starting from a different point to the elites. Even without the marshals, it wouldn’t be too hard to find, as 40,000 runners (plus many multiples of that number in supporters) are hard to miss! When we got to the corrals, I said goodbye to my family, and went off to find my starting point. I will never forget the start line – the sheer numbers of runners, along with the colour and pageantry was truly stunning. As were the queues for the toilets, which, thankfully, I didn’t need.

I found my corral, and lined up. I got chatting to some other runners, and we swapped stories and advice as we waited. Some of the costumes were amazing – I started beside Upsy Daisy, and I saw rhinos, tigers, dinosaurs, elephants, astronauts, a telephone, Jesus, a Minion, and countless others. I can’t understand why you would do that to yourself, but you have to respect the sheer insane bravery of it.

Finally the countdown began to the start on Charlton Way, and I braced myself to cross the start line………..and braced myself, and braced myself……..finally, 24 minutes after the first runners took off, I made it across the start line! The crowds lining the route were huge, and made plenty of noise.

It took me a mile or two to get my pace right, and get my bearings, as runners were scattering in all directions, and some stopped in the middle of the road, or worse, ran straight across the road to greet people they knew – this meant I had to be very aware of what was in front of me to avoid collisions. As I came around a bend at mile 2, there was a small group of religious folk of some description, dressed in priestly garments praying by the side of the road – as I passed one of them flung holy water across the road, getting me right in the face – I’m not sure of its religious properties, but it certainly woke me up. We later passed a guy standing with a bible in his hands shouting biblical passages. Takes all kinds I suppose.

I felt really good at this stage – my legs felt strong, I was full of energy, and was running well within myself. I ignored my watch, and ran at a pace that felt comfortable. I had started just in front of the 5 hour pacer, and I assumed I would finish somewhere in the region of 5 hours. Just before mile 3, the elite and “ordinary” runners routes joined up (though I presume all the elites were gone well ahead by now!), and from here on we had a handy blue line on the road that showed the measured route – this is useful when you run an unfamiliar route, as it means you can take the racing line around bends even if you can’t see them ahead with all the other runners.

The next couple of miles brought us through Woolwich and the crowds were amazing – I regretted not having put my name on my top when I heard so many shouts of encouragement to those who had – will definitely do this next time!

Mile 6 and 7 brought us back through Greenwich, past the Cutty Sark, where the crowds watching grew even bigger – the noise at this point was deafening, and it was difficult not to get carried away and break into a sprint!

I was still feeling great, and was pleasantly surprised when I found myself passing the 4:45 pacers. I consciously made myself take down my pace a little, as it wouldn’t be the first time I left it all in the first half of a marathon, but I was definitely feeling great.

The next few miles were fantastic – I lost count of the number of bands and DJ’s I passed, including a guy who had set up on his balcony and was having great interaction with the runners. I have never run any marathon that came anywhere near London in terms of crowd support – not just the number of supporters, but the way they really got behind us, and it really helped to feed off that energy.

Somewhere around mile 9, I stopped for a quick toilet break, and was back on the road in no time. However, my left leg felt a little stiff, especially around the hamstring. I had been having trouble with this hamstring for a while, so I did what I always do – I ignored it.

We passed over Tower Bridge at the 12.5 mile point, and it was one of the most memorable events I have ever had since I started running. Memories of time spent in London with my late mother when I was a small child, and thoughts of having passed over the bridge with my own children the day before, coupled with the huge support of the crowd, and the truly extraordinary view meant it was very emotional moment for me, a feeling I hadn’t expected. It made me fall in love with London a little bit. Strange the stuff that gets you when you run. It’s all part of the reason we do it I suppose.

tower bridge
Tower Bridge (pic mirror.co.uk)

Shortly after this I passed the halfway point, in a time of 2:29. I was happy with this, and felt I might be on for my first negative split – I felt really good, and decided that I would try to speed up a little if I still felt this way by mile 16 or so. My optimism was short-lived.

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George the Fucking Lighthouse

The stiffness in my left hamstring turned into pain over the next half-mile or so, and I got a fairly sudden cramp at 14 miles. I had to literally stop dead in my tracks, and I hobbled over to one of the crowd barriers to massage life back into it. This was only the second time ever I’d gotten bad leg cramps, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I got back on the road, and tried to run it off, but it wasn’t happening. I was reduced to walking for around a half mile, and then the cramp disappeared as suddenly as it had appeared. I was able to run again, and I hoped that was the end of that. Unfortunately it wasn’t, and after another mile or so, the cramp was back again, and I had to go through the same rigmarole of massaging it, walking a bit, feeling ok, running, and then cramping again. For the next few miles, I fell into a pattern of running when I could, and walking when I couldn’t. At least I had plenty of company – and no small amount of friendly cheering, slagging, and good-natured abuse from the spectators – my favourite being the guy who shouted “Hurry up mate, you’re being passed by a fucking lighthouse” as, sure enough, a lighthouse went by….

You know you’re in trouble in a marathon when you get passed, in quick succession, by a lighthouse, an elephant, a large green telephone, and a leopard who is desperately seeking a toilet.

I knew two things at this point – I was going to finish, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. I did what I do best, put my head down, and ground it out.

By mile 21, my leg seemed to start loosening out a bit, and I managed to string a few relatively decent miles together, and, despite the weariness in my legs, I actually enjoyed the last 5 miles a lot – the crowds willed us on, and there was some great banter. I passed a lot of runners in the last few miles (according to the timing info, I passed 753 runners in the last 5 miles), including the telephone, and, best of all, Jesus. Jesus was wearing nothing but a loincloth (and a timing chip), and carrying a spectacularly large cross, and shouts of “Jesus is coming” ran through the crowds as he passed. I can only imagine the state his feet are in today.

The Embankment seemed to go on forever, and I was very relieved to see Big Ben getting closer as I neared the final stretch.

What a feeling it was coming past the gleaming Victoria Memorial and seeing the red carpet on The Mall with the finish line ahead! For once, I didn’t have a sprint finish in me, and I jogged to the line, relieved and delighted to get to the end of this wonderful marathon.

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Job Done!

I collected my medal, and wandered off towards the finishers area to meet my family. It felt like an extremely long walk, and I considered simply sitting on the ground and resting several times. Eventually I met up with Catherine and the boys, and they helped me find a friendly masseuse to knead some feeling back into my aching legs.

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Ouch!

Incidently, despite my incorrect socks, I didn’t get any blisters – maybe I am blister proof.

This will definitely go down as one of my favourite marathons ever – my time was poor (5:23:57 for the record), and I did plenty of suffering, but the atmosphere, the organisation, the wonderful location, but most of all the sheer goodwill and humour of the Londoners make this an amazing experience, that I would advise any runner to try.

At no stage did I feel I was suffering alone, and there was plenty of water at every aid station I passed – there were sports drinks and gels also, if that’s your thing. All the marshals I met were friendly and efficient, and the course was fantastic. I cannot think of a single thing about this marathon that I would change – a great credit to the organisers.

I would like to offer a huge thank you to Children with Cancer UK, for offering me the opportunity to run this marathon on their behalf – if you can, please donate here – any amount, no matter how small, is greatly appreciated. Thank you to all those who have donated already. Thank you to the Mason family for allowing me to run this marathon in the name of their wonderful son Eric.

Thanks to Catherine, Adam, and Lee for traipsing around London with me. Thanks also to my sponsors Elivar.

I would like to offer my condolences to the family and friends of Captain David Seath, who died while taking part in the marathon. RIP.

I really hope I get the opportunity to run this amazing event again.

London Marathon Charity Fundraising

I will be running the London Marathon on April 24th this year to raise funds for Children with Cancer UK, in memory of Eric Mason. I would appreciate any contribution you can give to this charity – ALL donations go directly to the charity, I am paying all my own costs. I realise that everyone has lots of calls on their income right now, and there are many worthy charities seeking funds, but I would ask that you keep this cause in mind for a donation, no matter how small, as it is very important. You can donate on my fundraising page here.

Thank you for any donation you can give.

children with cancer uk

London Marathon Fundraising Page

I have set up a fundraising page here for Children with Cancer UK. I will be running the London Marathon in 2016 to raise funds for this worthy cause, in memory of Eric Mason. I appreciate any donation, no matter how small, that you can give. I will be paying all the costs (travel, accommodation etc.) myself, so every penny raised will go straight to Children with Cancer UK. I will be organising some fundraising events over the next few months, and will keep you informed – please feel free to suggest any fundraising ideas you may have. If you are a business that would like to donate in return for some promotion, feel free to drop me a line. Thank you!

children with cancer uk

London Marathon 2016

I am delighted to announce that I will be running the 2016 London Marathon on behalf of Children with Cancer UK. I will be fundraising over the next few months, so I would appreciate any help, suggestions, patience, and, of course, donations, that you can offer. I will be paying all my own expenses, so all donations will be going directly to the charity. I will be setting up a fundraising page shortly, which I will post here.

children with cancer uk