This Is What It Actually Takes to Run a Marathon

Updated 08/07/18

Welcome to my marathon training journey, where I’ll be taking you along with me as I prepare for the full 26.2 miles of the London Marathon. Call this your definitive guide: From the highs (crossing that finish line) to the lows (the long training runs, so help me), I’ll be taking you along throughout my journey. Whether you’re in training or you’re just intrigued to know what it takes to get marathon-ready, you've come to the right place. Let’s do this!

The London Marathon is officially less than four weeks away. Ahead of me are weeks of long runs, speed runs, strength training, sweat, and probably a lot of tears. To be completely honest, I'm not entirely sure I'm ready for it, which is why I'm sharing my journey with you. "A problem shared is a problem halved," or so the saying goes.

Don't get me wrong—I'm not a complete novice. I've run half-marathons and I have spent a lot of time pacing the pavement. I like to think I'm a relatively fit, healthy person. I know I'm more than capable, but running a marathon is as much about your mind as it is about your fitness, and right now my mind is a little anxious about what I'm about to take on…You with me? This is what it takes to recover from a marathon.

How to Recover From a Marathon

No matter how much you prepare for a marathon, nothing can prepare you enough for just how much of a mental game it is. Plus, given that it was the hottest ever London Marathon on record—and I, along with the thousands of runners running, had trained in freezing cold conditions—we were not prepared for the heat. I loved running it, but I also hated it (sorry, I won't sugarcoat it for you). One second I felt like an indestructible warrior pounding through the streets of London; then two miles later I felt like I was about to collapse on the floor. It's a climb, that's for sure (yes, I am quoting Miley Cyrus The Climb because that is my running track—listen to the lyrics then judge me).

But what am I supposed to do now that it's over? This is how I've recovered with the help of a few products and expert tips. Alex Crockford, Fiit personal trainer, said the most important thing to do post-race is to re-hydrate. This goes without saying really, but your body has just been under a serious amount of pressure, and having a well-hydrated body helps to remove toxins, plus it can speed up recovery. I make sure I drank a ton of water but popped a rehydration tablet in my drink to make sure I was getting extra minerals and vitamins. These help your body absorb water quicker, which helps to combat signs of dehydration and battle fatigue—both of which my body needed help with.

Another obvious aspect of marathon recovery is to refuel. You've just burned thousands of calories, and over the next week it's important to get them back as your body repairs itself. Alex recommends steering clear of junk food, but don't forget quality nutrition. I'll admit I ate a burger after running (no regrets), but I've been trying to focus on eating high protein, vegetables, and healthy fats to help combat inflammation. Adding superfoods with antioxidants to a bowl of morning oatmeal can help boost circulation, too.

Once you've consumed your body weight in food and water, it's important to treat your legs to a little R&R. As soon as I got home, I had a bath loaded with Westlabs Epsom Bathing Salts ($13) to help relieve my tired muscles; I also poured a little of Oskia Vitamin E Bath Oil ($98), because what's a bath without a luxurious oil? This one smells like rose and raspberry and is every bit as dreamy as it sounds.

I then spent the evening (and next day) sitting with my legs elevated and booked myself in for a sports massage to work out any tension buildup. It's probably the only reason I'm able to walk now. I also booked myself a hot yoga class—Ruth Voon, an instructor at TriYoga, told me that the use of infrared heat is incredibly therapeutic, and helps to increase blood flow, push you deeper into your practice, and aid better circulation, which in turn helps the body with healing and reducing muscle stiffness.

I'd also really recommend swimming after running a marathon if you want to stay active. Swimming is one of the best low-impact exercises you can do while still getting a full-body workout. The last thing I've done to aid an easy recovery is to be kind to myself. I still can't quite believe I ran a marathon, and while the conditions made it hard to go for my ideal time, I'm really proud of what I've achieved. Enjoy celebrating, have a glass of wine, eat out and enjoy your first Sunday spent on the sofa—not out on a long run.

Are Sports Massages Worth the Money?

Probably the only sentence I can string together to explain how I was feeling pre-marathon is: "helphelphelphelphelp." Yep. That's pretty much it. When it was a week away, I'd officially come out of my, It'll be so fine stage and was well into my, Oh my god, why did I sign up for this? stage. And while I was excited, I was most looking forward to crossing the finishing line, booking myself into a spa and having a much-needed sports massage—because, in answer to the question above, YES, they are worth it.

Stupidly I didn't have sports massages the whole way through my training, and it's something I wish I'd done sooner. Sports massages essentially work to help reduce tension, improve efficiency and realign the muscle fiber. This reduces the risk of imbalances that could affect your running gait.

Ellen Cook, a sports massage therapist at Ten Health and Fitness, told me that sports massages are often seen as a solution to an injury or tired legs, but if we were to get one throughout training, they can actually prevent injury. She suggests getting one weekly during training and scheduling it into your diary as a regular habit so you don't forget.

The main thing I felt after my first sports massage was relief. My tired, achy legs felt lighter, running felt easier, and all that built-up tension in my legs was gone. And while it can get pricey booking in for massages, it's something I wholeheartedly recommend doing when training so intensely. Cook also told me that getting a massage straight after a race can help to help flush out any lactic acid that's built up in your legs. This can help to reduce the build-up of toxins and make recovery more bearable.

If you can't justify booking weekly appointments (I totally get you), Cook suggests having regular baths after long runs, as the heat can help to provide similar benefits to a massage by warming the muscles.

Sports Tech: What Do I Need?

I thought it might be helpful to delve into the world of fitness trackers and tech because it's an absolute minefield. There are so many watches and apps available that it's enough to put you off running altogether—but it needn't be that difficult. These are some of the things I used throughout my marathon journey. 

The first thing I did when curating my marathon plan was to log back into my Nike+ Running app. I've used this for years now, and it's one of the only apps I find both easy, and helpful—and it's free. Of course, you can go to Google and type "12-week marathon training plan," but the thing with that is that anyone can do that. And if anyone can do that, it means your plan isn't personal to you, and that's exactly what a training plan should be.

The Nike+ app allows you to input the number of weeks you have, your measurements, how often you can run, how far you've run previously and at what time. It pulls all of this information together to build you a tailored plan that adapts and changes as you train. So if you end up doing more (or less) training, the plan notices and curates a new plan to go along with your schedule.

Now, if you're a normal person, you run with just one piece of tech. You track your run on one single gadget, and that's more than enough. Unfortunately (for me), I'm not that person, as I took both my phone and a fitness watch. You see, I used the Nike+ and my Garmin Vivosport ($170) for two completely different things. Let me explain: The app is where I tracked my runs—it's where I kept myself accountable. My Garmin Vivosport, however, is where I looked while actually running.

With its built-in GPS, I tracked my distance, pace, and time as I ran, and was able to keep tabs on whether I was going too fast or too slow and adjust accordingly. You can even map out your route on the Garmin Connect app beforehand. For me, the best runs happen when I feel in control, and having all the information I need to keep me going on a painfully long run ensures I can keep going. 

There are other watches: The Apple Watch Nike+ ($399) is another favorite of mine. Not only does it look super sleek (you could totally wear it out and about in the day too), but you have all your other apps there so if you wanted to go for a run sans your iPhone, you can. Or there's the Samsung Gear FitPro2 ($170), which feels super lightweight on the wrist and is perfect for people who prefer 'less fuss' tech. I'd recommend going to a tech shop and testing a few out and speaking to the experts. You can get a real feel for which watch you prefer that way, especially as you're going to be spending a lot of miles together. 

Yoga for Runners

Being the high-stress person I am, exercise is my zen place. It's what I do to relax, unwind and clear my mind, and training for a marathon was a huge part of that journey. And so was yoga, alongside all my running, of course. Previously, I found yoga…well, a bit boring. I'll admit it. I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie, meaning I would rather exhaust myself in a HIIT class or with cardio than slow things down in a yoga class. But with lots of running comes achy joints and the desperate need to stretch—which is why I'm now a yoga convert. 

I've been using Movement for Modern Life, an online platform, where you can find thousands of yoga tutorials at your disposal, from yoga for runners to yoga to help you wake up. And you can do it from the comfort of your own home, so there's no excuse. If a subscription service isn't your thing, YouTube channels like Yoga With Adriene have an abundance of brilliant videos, including ones for runners. 

Back to our yoga specifics and why it's good for runners… "A great deal of tension is held in the body during marathons, so the whole body needs attention and decompressing," Kat Farrants, founder of Movement for Modern Life, told me. "Which is why yoga is a wonderful way to stretch the whole body, and most classes will be of tremendous benefit to your training schedule." 

She also went on to say that although some stretches will target the obviously tight areas (think hip flexors, hamstrings, and quads), whole-body stretches, especially the upper back and shoulders, shouldn't be overlooked. 

The thing with marathon training is that you're putting your body under intense pressure daily, so recovery is one of the most important ways you can release tight muscles. Farrants recommends incorporating 10 to 15 minutes of yoga and stretching twice a day. And while this may seem like a lot, I did yoga every morning during my training and definitely saw improvements in my running and recovery time.

I've also been loving Tulua Turmeric Ginger Probiotic Shots ($48 for 12), which contain turmeric and ginger root which help ease inflamed muscles. Do some yoga; then take this shot. Trust me, your muscles will feel more relaxed in no time.

What to Do When You Can't Physically Run

While I was training, I unexpectedly experienced a serious amount of snow where I live. Naturally, I lost it a little bit. So, I decided to share what I did while it was too dangerous to step out for a run.

First things first: Do not panic.

I won't lie—the first thing I did when I saw snow forecasted was panic. I panicked all week because I couldn't manage to fit a single run in due to the weather. But after speaking to my dad (the man I go to for all my exercise-related woes), I decided that what will be will be. Life throws you curveballs all the time, and sometimes you just have to go along with it. So I wasn't able to run that week—but, I can still move my body; I just have to get creative.

Do keep moving.

If it's just the weather stopping you from running, there are other ways you can train. I decided to keep my cardio up by using my trusty ClassPass membership to hit up two 1Rebel Ride sessions (both of which have killed me) alongside my normal Pilates classes. The good thing about indoor cycling is that it helps to increase endurance while working your lower body, including your glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Sound familiar? Obviously, it's not as good as running when training for a marathon, and if you do have access to a treadmill, get yourself on there.

Hopping on the rower is another great way to stay active when you're unable to run. The rowing machine enables you to push yourself hard while using muscles you probably didn't even realize existed. It's important to get the technique right, as if you're using it incorrectly, you won't be experiencing its full benefit, but if you can withstand a lengthy session on the rowing machine, you'll reap the cardiovascular benefits.

Finally, have some trust in yourself.

This is something my dad told me after the aforementioned panicked phone call. Trust yourself: You've probably come a lot further than you thought with your training. The whole point of an intense marathon plan is that in doing so much, you allow yourself rest and recovery time if you're injured or can't run. Even if you have a week off, you're probably still doing better than you think.

Fueling Your Body When Training

I still don't feel like I've fully grasped exactly what, when and how much to eat before I set off begrudgingly for a long run. I like to think I have pretty good eating habits (aside from my sweet tooth), but I eat a pretty balanced diet, and since training, the only thing that's changed is that I'm hungry all the time. By all the time, I mean every single second of every single day. I'm now a machine, and it's time I learned the correct way to fuel and refuel my body pre- and post-run.

Nutritional therapist Karen Alexandra from Wild Nutrition told me that with any exercise, fueling yourself with the appropriate nutrition is vital. Eating the correct balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates is key to your performance both on race day and during training. I feel like I currently have that locked down. I eat carbohydrates in abundance and am still not bored of my morning oatmeal. I date an Italian, so there's no shortage of olive oil or healthy fats.

Plus, I eat a range of protein from beans, chicken and protein powder. Another thing I'm loving is Wild Nutrition's TurmaForte Full Spectrum Tumeric ($27) supplements. Given that I'm putting my body under extreme pressure, these supplements help to reduce any inflammation in my joints. Turmeric is a known anti-inflammatory, and it's not something I'd necessarily include daily in my diet, so having it in supplement form makes it so much easier.

As a runner, there should be a focus on a higher intake of carbohydrates a few days before a long run and equally on the day of the run. Before any long distance, it's important to eat the right amount of carbs to gain muscle-fuelling glycogen, but it's also important you eat the right carbs to ensure your body is receiving optimal nutrition and can repair for the next run. Think potatoes, butternut squash, beetroot, brown and basmati rice, quinoa and buckwheat.

Karen also recommends a breakfast with at least 100 grams of carbohydrates before any long run—like oatmeal with honey and six to eight almonds to get some healthy fats in there too. Then allow at least two hours to digest before you start running.

Why Strength Training Is as Important as Cardio

If there's one thing I learned during my training, it's that strength training is as important as the running itself. When I first started my marathon training, I just focused on running and left time for little else, which resulted in me injuring myself and having to postpone my place. At the time, I was gutted, but now I'm glad I've taken the time to educate myself in other ways of training to help build my strength to carry me around the 26.2 miles.

Personal trainer Adam Hewitt from Ten Health and Fitness confirmed that strength training is as important as running when training for a marathon, as pounding the pavements can take it's toll on your joints and strong muscles help protect them. Think of it this way: If the body isn't strong enough to take the increased volume (read: very, very long runs) then you're at more risk of injury. An injury is what you need to avoid at all costs.

The best way to approach strength training is with a program focused around your goal (in this case, to run a long way) but also your weaknesses (in my case, lazy glutes). In time, this effort will pay off improving both my movement and my functionality (read: my ability to run this race). All while easing any stress on my body.

My plan starts with a warm-up, but it swiftly moves into glute activation and reformer work, using a range of exercises with a loop around my knees. This includes squats, glute bridges and hamstring pulls. Hewitt gave me these moves to activate muy glute, the band offers added resistance to make the moves tougher. Compound movements utilize multiple muscles, so you're getting more bang for your buck.

We then moved on to crab walks (my least favorite exercises ever, as I have the tendency to collapse medially, which leads to knee valgus)—which is essentially when your knee caves or sinks as you squat or land. By doing crab walks, I was able to activate my glutes, strengthen them and improve my knee control.

Next in my strength plan is the bit you'd normally associate with "strength training." Hewitt and I focused on a range of movements done in sets of 10. From goblet squats to Nordic leaps to single-leg step-downs, Hewitt made me move from two-leg to single-leg movements to help improve my lower-limb strength. Strength training for runners should include a lot of single-leg work because when running, you spend more time on one leg than two.

I'll admit I was initially confused by the type of training Hewitt and I discussed. It didn't feel like the type of strength training I'd practiced before, but after two sessions, I was hooked. The thing is that most of us live busy lives, so it just takes a little planning to fit running and strength training in, but I promise it's worth it. Granted, this is a tailored plan, but if you're planning on taking on a challenge like a marathon, I'd highly recommend visiting a personal trainer and sorting out a strength plan.

Let's Talk Sneakers

I've run in a lot of sneakers. With full support to no support, my feet have seen and felt a variety of shoes that have both helped my running and ruined it. Given that I've grown up with a father who does Ironman Triathlons for fun, I've always felt clued up when it comes to sneakers. I know not to step out for a run in my weekend Vans, and I also know it's better to have a pair for the gym and a pair for pacing. But finding The Ones (aka the shoes you're going to commit to running 26.2 miles in) can be a tricky task. 

I decided to turn to the person who helped me find my marathon shoes, Rebecca Gentry. Mine are the Nike Zoom Pegasus 33 ($130) if you're curious. Gentry is not only a Nike running coach but a personal trainer and an all-around lover of running. She's literally never not running, so she knows a thing or two about sneakers. The first thing we did when I found my trainers was have my gait tested.

"Gait" refers to the locomotion achieved through our movements. It's defined as bipedal, biphasic forward propulsion of the center of gravity through the human body. Sounds scientific, right? In simpler terms, when you have your gait tested, which you can do in places like Runners Need, you have to walk and run for a short while on a treadmill while being filmed and wearing a neutral shoe with little or no support. This helps to highlight abnormalities in your gait so they can see what type of shoe you need. 

This video is then assessed, and a shoe is recommended. I tried a variety of shoes, as I tend to roll my feet inwards, and this means I need some support (but not too much). Gentry told me my shoes should feel comfortable and encourage stability through the whole body from the foot upwards. She also told me there should be about a thumbs width distance from the end of your big toe to the end of the shoe—I can definitely now confirm that this is because when you're running a lot, your feet swell. It isn't pretty, but that extra width will save your feet.

The other aspects of a trainer to consider are very much dependant on the runner and their distance. As I'm training for a full marathon, having cushion within the shoes is essential. It will help me propel my foot forward after 25 miles and (hopefully) keep my feet intact. 

The cushioning is also helping to protect my right foot from injury. As I mentioned before, I tend to roll my foot inwards (due to a tendon injury) and having my gait tested highlighted this. Becs recommends visiting an expert if you're concerned about injury and want your feet checked out.

What to Do Before Starting Your Marathon Training

I'll fill you in on a little secret: I was actually supposed to run the London Marathon before, but because I didn't prep properly and went full speed ahead into my training without thinking it through, I got injured. And you know what? I'm glad I did. Because the next time around, I did it properly. I started my journey with a full body MOT.

An MOT is essentially what it sounds like: a full-body checkup to make sure everything is in working order. Why should you get one when running or embarking upon the longest run of your life? Well, think of it this way: You're about to put your body through an extreme amount of pressure. No matter what level runner you may be or what level of fitness you may have, it's important to get yourself checked out by a doctor before pushing on with your training plan. Ant went on to say we might not realize how our lifestyle impacts our mechanical balance. That's where my MOT came in handy—it highlighted the predisposing factors that could cause me potential injuries during my training.

So what was up? What was my body trying to tell me before I gave up my life to the road? The tendonitis I'd spent months nursing after I injured myself last year was caused by a lazy glute on the right side. After talking about my individual goals, the practitioner looked at my posture in a range of positions and assessed my dynamic movements to watch how my body moved. It transpired that my right leg was a lot weaker than my left, and this was causing me to exaggerate it over to the left as I walked and ran. All because of my lazy glute. Fantastic. This is the important bit, though—without a full-body MOT, I would not have known that my tendonitis was caused by this. I wouldn't have known the correct exercises to do at home or what part of my body to target with my foam rolling.

The doctor also told me that by carrying out a set of exercises at home and stretching out the leg muscles (calves, quads, hamstrings, IT band, and glutes), I would go on to run the marathon fine. Given that I train, of course. My advice if you're planning on running a marathon—or a half, for that matter? Get booked in for a full assessment with a physio; then give the below glute-strengthening exercise a go at home. Chances are, if you have a desk job, you have lazy glutes. Invest in a foam roller to ease tired muscles in your legs and bum after running, and buy yourself a pair of running tights that feel and look great. I'm currently obsessed with Nike Epic Lux tights($64).

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