So you’ve taken the plunge and signed up for your first big long distance race. Congratulations! Running a marathon or an ultra marathon is a huge achievement for anyone, both physically and mentally.
But like any big goal, your success (and enjoyment of this crazy adventure) will be determined by how well you’ve prepared and how committed you were to the training.
So where to start?
Well, I can tell you from experience that running a marathon requires more than just going for a few long runs. There’s a recipe for success and whilst the quantity of ingredients will vary slightly from individual to individual, it’s important that you don’t miss anything out otherwise the cake will certainly not rise.
Here are my top 10 tips for acing your first big race:
- Get yourself a coach
‘Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much’ – Helen Keller.
Enlisting the help of a coach is truly my number one tip, especially if you’ve got no idea where to start or how to progress.
Finding a local running group is a great start but I also recommend online training, where your coach will input your daily training session into an app, you’ll complete it, your GPS watch will upload your data and your coach will provide feedback. It’s that simple and it’s affordable.
Your coach will ensure you get the right mix of speed, tempo, hills, endurance and strength work, without burning you out. They will also tailor your training to your work/life balance. But finally, they are also the perfect person to hold you accountable to your training. It’s easy to make excuses to yourself, but much harder to explain to your coach why you missed that Sunday long run.
Look for a coach that has sport/fitness qualifications, is an experienced runner and ideally has a good understanding or personal experience on the course you are running.
- Develop a daily stretching and mobility routine
This is the part of run training that everyone seems to neglect, but without it, your chance of injury increases massively.
Running form plays a big a part of your performance and a key part of good running form is ensuring that your body moves efficiently.
A daily stretching, mobility and foam rolling routine keeps muscles and joints healthy and also allows them to relax, release and recover after all your big sessions.
If you’re not adding this key part to your training you risk burnout, pain, injury and you’ll be running like the tin-man from the wizard of Oz.
You don’t need to spend hours stretching or on the foam roller. 10-mins a day in front of the telly will keep you mobile.
Simply focus on your running muscles: feet, calf muscles, quads, hamstrings, hips, glutes and the spine. Download my ‘Stretching and yoga guide for the everyday athlete’ for quick stretch routines and a complete photo guide.
- Strength is just as important as speed
Good core strength, as well as strong calves, quads and glutes, is crucial for lasting the distance without injury. Core and hip stability and strength will help prevent back pain and injury and ensure you maintain that all-important running form when you start to fatigue. Leg and glute strength will get you up those hills quicker and more efficiently.
Some runners are scared to train for strength in the fear that they’ll bulk up. The key is to focus on endurance rather than bulk. Start incorporating squats, lunges, deadlifts, calf raises, planks, mountain climbers and bear crawls.
Again you don’t need to spend hours a day on strength. I personally aim for a daily 10-min core session (or Pilates class) and 2 x 45-min kettlebell sessions each week.
Stay tuned for my new e-book on core strength, it will include some easy at-home core strength sets you can work on.
- Learn how to breathe properly
Regular run training, combined with a busy work-life schedule, can result in breathing dysfunction. What I see mostly in my run clients is shallow, rapid, over breathing. This is not an efficient way of getting oxygen to those all-important muscles and organs. You’ll fatigue quicker and the nervous system will be under increased pressure.
What we want to see is controlled, diaphragmatic, rhythmic breathing. Focus on slowing down your breathing, allow the rib cage to expand and contract in a sideways manner and the belly to rise and fall. But keep the upper chest still.
Whilst running you’ll most likely be breathing in-out via the mouth as it’s the quickest way to get large amounts of oxygen in. When at rest, you should be breathing in-out through the nose as it reduces the chance of over breathing, increases the production of nitric oxide in the body and filters the air.
- Rest and recovery
After training the body needs time to adapt to the stresses that it just underwent. Rest and recovery allow the body to replenish energy stores and repair damaged tissues. Neglecting to rest or not getting enough of it can lead to injury and burnout.
Working with a coach is one great way of scheduling adequate periods of rest and recovery. Make sure you’re getting 8+ hours of quality sleep a night and reduce the inflammation in your body by staying off the processed foods and drinks.
- Commit to the training
The easiest way to improve your performance and prepare yourself for the long run ahead is to simply commit to the training. And this is where the mental strength is required.
Getting out of bed early each day to train, giving up your Sunday morning with family, spending time cooking healthy food etc it all takes time and commitment. Some days will be hard, so it’s important to reconnect with your ‘why’.
Why did you choose to take on this adventure? What does it mean to you or your family? How will you feel once you get to the finish line? A strong mindset and clear vision will help you get through the dark early morning training sessions.
If you want to build mental strength, try incorporating a daily meditation practice. Download my FREE meditation guide for athletes. It’s the perfect kick-starter guide for those new to the practice.
- Nutrition and hydration
Nutrition for race day and recovery will be very different.
Race nutrition will all depend on the length of the race, your intensity during the race, the temperature and conditions, what your stomach can handle and other personal factors. There is a science behind ensuring you have just the right amount of calories to match your output. Hammer Nutrition is a great place to start planning your race day nutrition plan.
In your recovery phase, you want to refuel your system with natural whole foods. Lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, clean and lean protein and good quality fats. Alcohol and processed foods high in sugar and saturated fats increase inflammation and slow down the repair of muscles. Dairy and high amounts of animal protein can also have an inflammatory effect on the body so don’t go crazy.
Looking for some meal inspiration? Download my FREE e-book ‘Refuel – Nourishing recipes to feed your tired and hungry muscles’.
- Plan your gear well in advance and train with it
Nothing new on race day. That’s the advice you’ll hear from experienced runners when it comes to shoes, gear and even nutrition. Make sure you’ve chosen and trained in your gear well before race day. Knowing where you’re susceptible to blisters and chaffing, and getting used to wearing hats or sunglasses and carrying poles and packs will ensure you’re well prepared for the big dance.
- Train on course
If you get the chance make sure you train on the course you’ll be competing on. Getting to know those sneaky hills and stairs and mentally preparing yourself for what’s ahead will help. If you can’t train on course, try and find a similar profile and match it. If the course is hilly, make sure you train on hills, if it has a long downhill section, train for that. The more you know ahead of time the better you’ll perform on the day.
- Find a good masseuse
I can tell you that there’s nothing better than having a long massage after a week of solid training. This crazy adventure is also meant to be enjoyable so I encourage you to find a good masseuse that will not only release your tired muscles but give you that well-deserved break and downtime.
And finally, enjoy the ride. It’s crazy, it’s demanding, but you’ll learn so much about yourself. You’ll surprise yourself with your ability to achieve great things and you’ll meet some amazing friends along the way.