If you’re already a runner, but you want to challenge your mind and body further, then you could consider signing up for a marathon. Although it takes a significant amount of time and effort to prepare for and run a marathon, it often ranks high on people’s list of lifetime achievements. Marathon running involves discipline, pushing past your limits, and learning how to support your training with the right diet and nutrition – and the results can be incredibly satisfying.
If you’re interested in running a marathon, then it’s worth doing some research before committing to the full 26.2 mile distance.
With that said, here are six things to consider before signing up.
1. Your current health and fitness levels
There’s no two ways about it: marathon running is tough on your body. Completing the full 26.2 miles takes runners a global average of 4-5 hours, and requires an incredible amount of endurance and determination.
Before signing up for a challenging physical endurance event like a marathon, it’s important to take your health and safety into consideration. Running for multiple hours is likely to exacerbate existing injuries or health conditions (particularly those of the heart and lungs). So, it’s worth getting a health check-up with your GP to make sure you’re fit to take part.
Plus, as disappointing as it would be, it’s important not to run the race if you’ve been feeling under the weather prior to the event – as studies have found clear risk factors for injury in runners who had been unwell or taking certain medications before the marathon day. It’s also important for women going through perimenopause to make some health considerations and to speak to a doctor before beginning training.
Aside from existing health conditions or injuries, the main challenge of any endurance exercise is that the body will eventually run out of fuel. Marathon runners call this ‘hitting the wall’, because once the body starts burning its own fat stores or isn’t sufficiently hydrated, you can start to experience feelings of fatigue and nausea.
Hitting the wall can put you at increased risk of injury, but it’s also guaranteed to be a significant mental obstacle to overcome. Though, many people enjoy the mental challenge and see it as a way to exercise their mental discipline and willpower – and to gain a new perspective.
It’s worth having a read of this article from Verywell Fit to find out more about some of the other challenges of marathon running that people encounter along their journey.
However, if you’re interested in running a marathon, then you’ll probably have a good idea how tough they can be – as this is often part of the appeal. It’s not uncommon for people to get addicted to running marathons, and to return year after year to try and beat their previous time. Plus, there’s no denying the incredible fitness benefits you’ll get from training your body to endure such a long run.
Many people also enjoy the lifestyle that comes with preparing for a marathon; as it can motivate them to train regularly, and eat well – which we’ll cover in more detail below.
2. Your training plan (and if you have time to train)
Perhaps the most important consideration before running a marathon is what training regimen will work for you in the lead up to the race.
Preparing your body for an endurance run will require commitment to a regular schedule of frequent exercise, which can be built up gradually over time until you’re ready for the big day.
The amount of time you’ll need to train to prepare for a marathon will depend on you and your body. But Marathon Handbook recommends at least three months for those with a background in running – with four to five months considered ideal.
Over this period, you’ll need to go for a run most days each week, increasing the distance gradually over time until you can comfortably run close to the target marathon distance of 26.2 miles.
REI recommends running 3-5 times per week, with a longer run every 7-10 days, to get used to running long-distance. They also recommend that beginners should aim to build their weekly mileage up to 50 miles over the course of four months, making sure not to build distance by more than 10% per week. For more information on how to build your training plan, check out REI’s detailed guide.
You may also want to incorporate some weight training into your marathon prep. While carrying too much extra bulk during the race would be counterproductive, runners can tend to lose some lean muscle as a result of their training. So it can be helpful to maintain your strength to balance this out.
Naturally, a marathon training plan will be physically tough, but it will also require mental toughness. While it’ll help you build discipline over the months, there will still be hard times where it’s difficult to get up and go – perhaps because of bad weather, not wanting to get up early, or just not being in the mood. Therefore, it can be helpful to try to stay organised if you want to stick to your regimen.
It can be worth attempting a half marathon first – whether that’s as part of your distance training, or as a goal in its own right to see whether you’d enjoy the full thing.
3. Diet and nutrition
When training for a marathon, it’s also likely that you’ll need to change your diet, to make sure you’re getting enough calories to fuel your training.
As well as the more general nutrition rules that we’re all advised to follow – like eating a healthy, balanced diet, avoiding processed food and sugary drinks, and staying hydrated – you’ll also need to up your protein intake.
Protein is important for building and repairing muscle, which is key when looking to increase your running distance. Building muscle also helps you to avoid injury – as strong muscles and tendons keep the body in proper alignment and resist impact more effectively – which, as previously mentioned, is a real risk when undertaking endurance exercise.
Carbohydrates and fats will also play a large role in providing your body with the energy it needs to make it across that finish line – especially in the days leading up to the event. While your diet will need to include all of these nutrients, the specific ratio and sources will depend on you and your body.
It’s always best to speak to a dietitian about your needs before you start training. Your GP can give you a referral or you may be able to refer yourself by contacting the dietetic department at your local hospital. You can also find a list of private freelance dietitians (approved by The Association of UK Dietitians) here.
For more information on how to organise your marathon prep diet, check out this article from BBC Good Food.
4. Your choice of trainers
It might be tempting to go all out and buy shiny new sportswear and gadgets for your race day – but the beauty of the marathon lies in its simplicity. All you really need to be able to participate in a marathon are some comfortable exercise clothes, a good pair of running shoes, and a water bottle.
It’s best to avoid cotton shirts or vests, as this fabric is very absorbent and will trap sweat and moisture against your skin. Synthetic fabrics like polyester are preferable, as they’re much more breathable, and will help you avoid chafing.
While you don’t need to do a lot of shopping, it’s especially important to make sure that your shoes fit well. Since you’ll be running a lot for extended periods during your training and on the big day, you’ll want to make sure they’re comfortable and safe. For more information on clothing choices, check out this guide from Verywell Fit.
It’s best to avoid buying online in this case, and to visit a sportswear shop where you can get your trainers fitted by an expert. If you’re flat-footed, it can also be important to account for this with insoles, which you can discuss during your fitting.
That being said, it’s never a good idea to show up on the big day wearing new shoes, as even if they don’t hurt your feet to start with, you won’t know how they’ll feel after a few miles. It’s best to break your trainers in with plenty of time to spare before the race, so that you’re running as comfortably as you can on the day. For more help with this important choice, have a read of this guide to running shoes from Marathon Handbook.
This is a good rule to apply to the rest of your equipment too, because anything new runs the risk of being unpredictable. The safest thing to do is to get comfortable with your gear as you train, and avoid making any big changes close to the event.
5. How you’ll fuel your body during (and in the days leading up to) the race
It might not be everybody’s first consideration, but it’s just as important to fuel your body during the race as beforehand. To avoid ‘hitting the wall’, you’ll need to be smart about your hydration on the trail. You’ll also need to make sure you load up on enough carbohydrates before (and during) the run to maintain your energy throughout.
Just like with the months of dietary preparation you’ll have been doing up until this point, it’s important to eat well as the event approaches. Marathon experts recommend that you ‘carb-load’ for around three or four days leading up to the marathon, which means that you need to gradually increase the amount of carbohydrates in your meals and snacks.
Carb-loading can be tricky, as it’s definitely possible to overdo it, which can have a negative impact on your marathon performance. Therefore, it’s best to do plenty of research before getting started. You can find out more about how to carb-load and why it’s important on Coach’s website.
You’ll also need to maintain your energy throughout the race, which means you’ll want to bring some carb-heavy energy bars and sports drinks. You’ll need to think carefully about how to carry items on your person during the race – so have a read of this guide from Ready Set Marathon to learn about packs, vests, and pockets.
Hydration is another key thing to consider while you’re running over such a long distance. But, it’s also possible to over hydrate when you’re anxious about keeping it together on the track.
To avoid overhydration, it’s best to listen to your body, and to only drink when you actually feel thirsty – rather than forcing yourself to drink. Once you’ve been running for over an hour, you could also replace water with electrolyte drinks. Electrolytes help to keep our water levels balanced, but are lost through sweat as we exercise.
While it’s always wise to bring your own water bottle on marathon day just in case, marathon events will have plenty of water and sports drink stands spread out throughout the race. So there’s no need to worry about having to make your 500ml sports bottle last the entire journey.
6. Whether you want to run for a good cause
Marathons are a great way to raise money for a cause. So if you’re already thinking about running one, you might want to consider whether there’s a charity you’d like to support?
People love to sponsor friends, family, and even strangers who undertake physical challenges like marathon running – and since you’ll be training for months before the big day arrives, you’ll have plenty of time to set up and promote a fundraiser for your charity of choice.
If you’d like to get involved in making your marathon a fundraiser, then you might want to check out the fundraising page on the volunteering section of our website. Or, you can get started right away by signing up with your charity of choice at Run For Charity’s website.
For some tips on how to get the word out to your potential sponsors, you might also want to check out this article from Motiv Running.
How to sign up for your first marathon
Unless you have your heart set on a particular race, your marathon of choice will likely depend on where in the UK you live. Fortunately, there are loads of great marathons all around the UK to get involved in year-round. If you want to find a marathon near you, then check out Find a Race’s handy search tool.
Marathons typically require a booking fee, which can range from around £20 for local races to roughly £50 for more prolific events. Thanks to the internet, it’s now very easy to book your place.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the larger, famous events like the London Marathon use a ballot system for their places due to over-subscription – so it’s much easier to get a place at smaller local events.
When choosing your marathon, you may want to take into account the different opportunities on offer. You might find your experience will differ quite significantly depending on the location and terrain of your event. For instance, you may find city marathons on flat roads much easier, or you might prefer the scenic option of a rural trail.
You’ll usually be able to find out what’s on offer from a marathon’s website. It’s sensible to double-check that an event has satisfactory medical precautions and crew. But it can also be nice to know whether you might be able to receive a medal or certificate once you cross the finish line.
Running a marathon can be daunting, especially if it’s your first time – but that’s one of the reasons it could be one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of your life. Pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone and achieving things we didn’t think possible, is one of life’s greatest thrills.
If you’re a runner, or even just thinking about getting more active in future, then we hope these tips have helped you gain more insight into how you can start working towards that big 26.2.
Have you been preparing for a marathon? Or, have you been thinking about taking that step to up your running game? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.