running a marathon - recovery

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Running My First Marathon

A marathon is only 26.2 miles right? Wrong!

1. It is going to take over your life in ways that you could never imagine

Marathon training is a journey of at least 16 weeks.  During this time you are going to eat, sleep and breathe marathon. You will go to bed and wake up thinking about food choices, fuelling strategies, which practice events to enter, how you are going to fit all of your runs in this week….the list goes on!  Sacrifices are going to have to be made.  You may have to miss weekends away or special events.

When your friends are meeting for a drink or 2 at the weekend you will likely choose to be at home resting for your Sunday long run.  Saturdays will be about mentally preparing and fuelling correctly for your long run after which you will collapse in a heap for the rest of the day focussing on recovering and analysing your statistics.

Late nights will be a thing of the past, hot baths with Epsom salts and foam rollers your new best friends, preferably whilst listening to a podcast about running, reading about how to improve your performance or analysing your statistics on Strava.  You will become a bit of a marathon bore to everyone around you so be warned!

2. It is going to hurt!

You know that running a marathon is going to be a challenge, hey that’s why you are doing it, however nobody tells you how hard the cumulative effect of increasing the mileage week on week and pushing your body more than it has been pushed before is going to feel throughout your entire training journey, not just on marathon day.  You will feel constantly tired and achy throughout, sometimes utterly exhausted for weeks on end which will probably make you quite grumpy to be around.

A good marathon training plan is about pushing your body when your legs are tired and you feel like you would rather curl up in bed, this is how your body adapts to run the distance. There are running coaches and focused personal trainers that can help you devise a plan, if it’s your first long, organised running event, it might be a good idea. You may lose toe nails, get blisters, pick up niggling injuries but it will all be worth it for the sense of achievement that you are going to feel crossing that finish line. Training is the hard part.  Sorry to say though that even if you do all of the preparation possible, your body is still going to still feel like it has been hit by a truck come race day, unless you are one of the lucky few.

3. Keeping a training journal helps

Keeping a diary is a visual way of keeping track of and reflecting on everything to do with your training, including running times, distance, average heart rate, route, elevation, hydration and fuel strategy that day.  Other important details you can document include things like weather, sleep that week, nutrition, mood, where you are in menstrual cycle (women only!), cross-training, recovery information, whether you ran with somebody?/ time of day.

I told you it would take over your life!  Basically you can be as geeky as you like! Even down to what socks you wore or any niggles.  A private place for you to reflect, dream, worry, plan to your hearts content.  You may notice patterns in things that work for you and things that don’t.  Use your journal as a resource to help you to improve plus to document how far you have come and what you have achieved so far.

4. Pilates is a secret weapon

This maybe a personal thing but I firmly believe that doing a “Pilates for runners” You Tube video at least once a week has prevented me from getting any injuries.  We all know that strength training is beneficial for runners and I did include this in my plan too, however I feel like Pilates also ticked a lot of other boxes.  There are 100’s of videos online to choose from whether you have a spare 10 minutes or hour, intensity can vary too.

Pilates practice includes work on breathing, good posture and strengthening the important core stabilising muscles, so that the body can perform as it should under fatigue.  This combined with increased body awareness helps to eliminate injuries as good biomechanics can reduce compensatory movements which can be the root cause of many running niggles.  Why not give it a go, you don’t need any equipment other than a mat but there are simple pieces of equipment that you can buy to enhance your practice such as resistance bands and Pilates balls.

5. Recovery starts as soon as you finish your long run.

This seems obvious but it was a learning curve for me.  Having not run these distances before I perhaps underestimated the power of recovery after each session and doing everything you can to make sure you are as recovered as you can be for next training session either next day or day after.  My routine now, especially after long run is to walk for at least 5 minutes at end of run rather than just stopping, I then have a recovery drink as soon as back in house within 15 minutes post run to replace carbohydrates, electrolytes and help muscles start to repair themselves.  I then stretch, have a warm shower, Epsom bath if I have luxury of time that day and eat a meal as soon as possible, consisting of right balance of good carbohydrates, protein and good fat.

Depending on how hard session was I may then go for a walk with the family, passing the job of Sunday lunch to my husband, or collapse on the couch in a heap.  The other thing I do is try to get an early night, although usually this is not optional as I am shattered, and foam roll whilst watching television before-hand.

6. You are likely to run further on the day

As a first time marathon runner I was alarmed on the day to see that my Garmin had told me that I had run 26.8 miles.  Trust me, psychologically this extra distance is a killer and physically every extra step is hard! How could this be possible? I will definitely know for next time to try and run as close as possible to the blue line on the floor which has been measured as precisely 26.2 miles and is hugged by the elite.

All of that running around people and on kerbs particularly at the beginning not only caused mental frustration but also increased my distance and wasted energy.  Just be patient and go with the flow, use the first few miles as a warm up. The other extra steps may come from trying not to break your ankle by stepping on one of the 100’s of water bottles discarded on route after water stations. Be aware of this and practice avoiding obstacles in training. 

7. Take on carbs from beginning of race

I knew that energy gels would be required at some point but wasn’t really sure about the specifics.  What I have now learnt is that it is important to take on carbohydrates from beginning of the race having also had a good breakfast – my go to choice for breakfast is a cinnamon and raisin bagel with peanut butter and banana, sprinkled with coconut sugar, plus a strong coffee and pint of water before leaving the house.  How far before long run you eat breakfast is different for everybody as we all metabolise differently.

Whilst running consider taking on extra carbohydrates every 20 minutes from the start of race to keep supplies stocked up and prevent you “hitting the wall”.  If you wait until this point, it is more difficult for your struggling body to process the carbohydrates and it can be too little too late.  Luckily gels don’t disagree with me but if they do try other options like whole food or energy drinks.  Also hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

8. The little details count

A marathon will always be hard and most people consider investing in new trainers however comfort on the day can be heavily influenced by attention to detail.  Vaseline, my new best friend stops the chafing caused by sweat rubbing in places you probably don’t want to hear about, even lip balm on the eyebrows stops salty sweat trickling in and stinging my eyes.  In training I kept getting blisters in between my toes until my research led me to toe socks and I haven’t had one since.  I also tie my shoelaces 3 times so they don’t come loose.

9. Think differently about half way

I was given this advice before my first marathon and I feel like it helped a lot.  I was told by a much more experienced runner to think of halfway as 20 miles not as 13.1 miles.  The last 6.2 miles are by far the most challenging and should not be underestimated, you need to keep something in reserve. Do not underestimate how hard those last 6.2 miles will be if you start out too fast or haven’t trained enough.

10. Maranoia is real!

No word of a lie! It would be safe to say that in the last 2 weeks before my first marathon I was more nervous about making it to the start line fit and well than I was about physically running the distance.  As I started to taper and theoretically concentrate on making sure I was as fresh as I could be on race day I suddenly became hyper sensitive to every illness and sniffle around me.

When we got an email to say that someone in my daughter’s class had tested positive for COVID this nearly tipped me over the edge as I was already sitting on the edge trying to make sure that I didn’t catch the nasty stomach bug doing its seasonal rounds.  Luckily I wasn’t experiencing any niggles as apparently this period of time is also a time that runners totally over dramatise every bodily sensation sending them into irrational states of panic about whether this new sensation or niggle is the end of their running career.  And breathe….!!!

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