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How To Train Smart For Your First Marathon

The Do's and Don'ts of Marathon Training

· Health

Are You Ready For This?

There is no way around this; it's going to be hard! Whether you put in a lot of training or not your body has to do something fairly abnormal. Perhaps a homo sapien circa 30,000 years ago would be ok with this challenge, but modern humans just don’t move like this on a regular basis.

how to train smart for your first marathon

A Brief Guide

So you have decided it’s time to try your first marathon, and I bet this isn’t your first online search, or your last to gather as much information about preparation as you can. I am not here to provide you with the most in-depth, scientific information about marathon training possible. I am your stepping stone into the first couple months of training. I can help provide you with some very basic tips that will ensure you get off to a good start!

Take The Training Seriously Or Else...

First up, make sure you take this training seriously. Not only because it is the healthier and safer way to run a marathon, it’s far more rewarding in the end when you put in a lot of effort beforehand. I ran the Toronto marathon with no training and the Hamilton marathon with 3 months of training. The results (no surprise): cut my time in half, less pain, more enjoyable accomplishment, and learned a lot of things about running efficiently. I only ran the Toronto marathon because my wife said "there’s no way you could run one without training." I have a habit of taking really bad bets like that. I’m here to give my best tips for how to train smart for your first marathon. Because, you seriously get a way better experience when you know what to look out for.

Step Into Something More Comfortable

Before you even start logging the kilometres do yourself a favour and get proper running shoes. Many things can go wrong if you don’t know what the proper marathon shoe is for your foot. There are many great specialty running stores like Running Room, Running Free, etc. They not only find you a shoe that helps with your specific footstrike, but get the size right too. Are you running with a forefoot, a midfoot, or a heel-strike? Your local running store can help tell you which shoe will help with whatever landing style you have. Also, a lot of runners don’t even realize that you need a shoe with some room at the front when training for a marathon. I didn’t know this and paid the price with my toenails. They began turning black and falling off. Luckily I got that turned around with a proper fit for marathon training.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men Often Go Awry

Next up, make a solid training plan for you marathon training. You can find many sites that will give examples of marathon training plans. Most are based around how much time you plan to give your training before the race. You may also need to sample a few because not all training plans will suit you. I used an excel spreadsheet to track my runs for two reasons. I wanted to track my runs throughout the week and make sure I was hitting my goals. I also wanted to clearly define my training expectations. It is harder to be hitting your goals when you don’t clearly define your boundaries. Don’t just run randomly every other day and think that’s training.

excel spreadsheet of marathon training plan

Don't Be One Dimensional

My training consisted of HCT (hill climb training), PB + workout (punching bag and weight training to give my legs a rest), a mid-range run of 10 to 15 km, and one long run per week or 20 or more km. Why did I set it up this way? Research has shown that after 60 to 90 minutes of exercise our bodies slowly stop seeing benefits. We go into a ‘survival’ mode. So we don’t need to hit a long distance every day of the week. Give yourself a day to work on a 5km fast paced run, a mid-range run of 60 to 90 mins (probably 10 to 15km), a short but steep hill run to work on getting used to that if your race has hills, a cross training day at the gym where you get a workout in but don’t tax the legs, and finally a day of rest before you run the 1 big run of the week. This will maximize your training, since you’ll get your distance in but won’t overdo it in any one week.

man standing on a cliff overlooking Bruce Peninsula, Georgian Bay, Ontario

When It Rains, It POURS!

You want to expose yourself to any conditions that you may face on race day. Whether that’s getting hill training in, running on pavement (I run mostly on park trails since it’s softer on the impact) occasionally since most of your race will be on a road, or running in the rain. I hate running in the rain, so I avoided it all Fall during my training. Then guess what happened? You betcha! It was 6 degrees celsius and POURING RAIN! I was soaked, miserable, and totally thrown by this turn of events. So I strongly recommend you get used to the possibility of bad conditions on race day. Running a marathon is just as mental as it is physical so you want your mental preparation to be as solid as possible.

Give Yourself The Time You Need To Train

I had just over 2 months to train, which is kind of pushing it, and so you may need to give yourself more or less time based on when your race is. You also may be relatively new to running and need a few more months to build up to the distance you need to get in before running the race.

Don't Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

Two weeks before my race date, my brother-in-law invited me to tackle the Great Range Traverse in the Adirondacks. This 16 hour, 25 mile, 7 peak, 10,000 feet of elevation gain hike was a bruiser. It was certainly more difficult than the marathon itself. This was a mistake. I taxed my body too greatly before the race date. After I ran the marathon 2 weeks later I couldn’t put weight on my one foot. I went to the hospital a few days later and learned I had a fractured bone in my foot. I strongly encourage smart training. Get your distances in, but also get good rest in as well. The rest is the most important part in getting our bodies stronger. You need a solid rest day and make sure you get AT LEAST 8 hours sleep every night!

man with an injured arm in a sling
man with brown hair sleeping under ocean themed blankets

Practice Makes Perfect

Every marathoner will tell you this important tip; get a 42km run in well before the race. Don’t let your body and mind be surprised by what a marathon will entail. If you run 35km a couple weeks before the race, you may think “close enough right?” The answer is no! You will find out that the last few kilometres of a marathon are going to be the hardest part of this whole process. So get it done friends!

How To Fuel

The importance of nutrition cannot be understated in the marathon process! When you first start training you may be able to get away with keeping a normal diet, but as the kilometres rack up, your body will change so your nutrition should too. I am not a nutritionist, but one thing I learned was you need to eat more calories and get your complex carbohydrates! What are complex vs simple carbs? Complex carbs have a longer sugar molecule chain than simple carbs. They will be digested more slowly than the simple carbs, and great at giving you sustainable energy during your training. The healthiest complex carbs includes sweet potatoes, quinoa, oats, barley, and brown rice. All you really need to know is that carbs enter your body and are broken down into smaller sugars (glucose, fructose, and galactose) to be used as energy. After a short while your body will call upon glycogen which can also break down fat into something the muscles can use for fuel.

What Happens When You Run Out?

If you have a rigorous training plan and don’t get enough fuel in your cells, your body will burn enormous amounts of fat. This is good in the beginning to slim you down into running shape, but once you are slim your body will run out of energy during a run. This is why a lot of runners will pack a couple energy gels for a long distance run. They are meant to recover your carbs, sodium, and are to be taken with water. I found them super helpful, and you’ll find them at break stations during your marathon race so get used to them now.

Cheers, You’ve Earned This One

If you’re like me, rest day means beer day! But try to keep this in moderation. I found that during training days I avoided alcohol and felt I came back stronger. I also don’t recommend drinking more than a couple drinks, because being hungover is going to bring your training down substantially the next day. You’ll be trying to catch up all week. My rule was no drinks on training days, and when I did indulge I keep it to under 3 drinks. I also never had more than 6 drinks in a single week.

man sitting on concrete bridge drinking a beer beside a beagle

Your Mental Game Needs Training Too!

Have some strong visualization techniques and if you feel lethargic you may need to draw on some mental motivation. This could be anything from positive thoughts such as “I’m going to do an Ironman next” or “I can’t wait to cross that finish line and see my family and friends cheering me on!” Or if you’re like me even something that gets you angry can help keep your mind from dwelling on the toughness of the running. I may be strange in this, but I run best with a little bit of anger boiling around inside. It takes my mind off the run when it gets taxing. I just picture a specific situation with a specific person I used to know, and it always gets me fired up. I will leave that situation out because it is a whole novel to write, and that won’t help YOU get the best out of your training.

Killer Playlist

If you bring music for your marathon training, which many of us do, start using only when you’re hitting the wall. For many people in the marathon that occurs around the 30 to 35 km mark. Your body is low on energy and starting to get sore. So this is the perfect time to add some motivating sounds in your ear. If you play it right from the start then you deprive yourself of that last resort.

Spice Things Up

Pick different places to run - you don’t want to get bored of the same run month to month. Make your training as fun as it can possibly be. Pick some fun country trails to run. Take different roads, paths, parks, etc. Whatever you do don’t get sick of one run. This will sap your mental toughness because you’ll be thinking too much about the run itself. My best runs are when my mind is light and free to drift in and out of thoughts. In fact, as a content marketer this is where my imagination is most often sparked, and I get my best ideas.


Last, but not least, as they say be prepared. Have a solid race day itinerary. If you have a brand of energy gels you like bring them. I didn’t like the Cliff brand they provided at my race, so I’m glad I brought the Hammer brand I was used to. Also, work out how you want the morning to go. For my Toronto Scotiabank Marathon I had to leave my apartment super early and take a train downtown for the race. When I ran the Hamilton Marathon I stayed in a hotel nearby the race, and my nice wife dropped me off in our car. This small difference made my morning less stressful and I was able to stay in the zone before the race. I had my alarm set on my phone, the hotel alarm clock, and my wife's phone. As you can guess, I am not a morning person so I plan ahead for that issue. Also, try to plan your breakfast to be similar to what you’re used to, your body will be much happier with you. Oh and don't plan a lot of running in the days leading up to the race. Your legs will appreciate being fresh for the big day. So, tape those nipples, attempt a good bowel movement, and carb up! You have a big run ahead of you!

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