The unofficial London Marathon guide

If you are reading this guide because you have a place in The London Marathon, congratulations! Here's where, what, why and how to start your journey to the finish line.

The unofficial London Marathon guide

You are about to embark on the greatest journey a runner can take. From Paula’s huge world record run to the thousands and thousands of committed fundraisers running each year, the London Marathon is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

The Running Bug, in association with RunningwithUs, brings you the ultimate London Marathon Training Guide. How to prepare, what/when to eat, how to build core strength and the best race day strategy - all these questions are answered by professional running coaches.

The key to any marathon campaign is to see it as a progression, both in terms of your fitness and your running but also a chance to learn more about yourself over the months.

This guide will help you get every step of your journey right from preparation and training to conditioning, stretching, nutrition and getting it right on the day – including a guide to the course itself.

You can also get your FREE London Marathon training plan - whatever your level - in the training plan section of the Running Bug website.

Explore our Marathon Zone for all the advice and info you need to complete your marathon with our community of other marathon runners to keep you motivated.

Your ultimate guide includes the following:

  1. Your London Marathon coaches 

  2. Preparation 

  3. The key runs 

  4. Nutrition 

  5. Core and conditioning 

  6. Stretching 

  7. Tapering 

  8. Race day 

  9. The course 

  10. Get your own personal running coach and training plan

Your London Marathon coaches

The Running Bug is incredibly lucky to have some of the world’s best – and most approachable – running coaches on hand to help you not only get through this, but make the London Marathon one of the best memories of your life.

And we think it’s important that you trust the advice you are getting. So here’s a bit about each member of the RunningwithUs team, all of whom have great experience both as runners and coaches in tackling the London Marathon course and helping runners of all abilities, from beginner to elite, get their training right.

Nick Anderson competed internationally for England and Great Britain, and currently coaches some of the UK’s top distance runners. He also has a half marathon PB of less than 65 minutes!

Nick has paced the elite women’s field at the London Marathon, has coached podium finishers at the London Marathon, and commentated on the 2014 race for Eurosport – so he knows the course like the back of his hand! 
Reassuringly Nick also supports thousands of charity runners every year to complete the distance for the first time.

Phoebe Thomas is known as a TV and stage actor but we know her better as a top coach and brilliant runner! Phoebe has coached runners to marathon PBs for many years, and she’s also run close to 3 hours for the distance herself.

Tom Craggs is one of the UKs most respected young coaches having gone from a 14.5 stone sedentary 25-year-old to now coaching hundreds of runners to marathon PBs and regularly running under 2.45 in the marathon. He also ran a sub 3 hour performance over the course in 2009.

Lucy MacAlister is a GB distance runner with a marathon PB of 2.36 set when she won the Austin Marathon. She has also run sub 2.40 over the London course. Lucy is a top coach of both juniors and seniors.

Preparation

Any good marathon campaign is built on firm foundations. Check out our top tips under the three headings below and set yourself up to succeed.

Planning

  • Be realistic about the time you have to train. Don’t work to a 6-day a week plan if you know you can only train 4 days a week.
  • Get yourself a training diary to log and record your progress.
  • Ring-fence your training time in your diary – don’t let it become ‘I’ll squeeze it in when I can’.
  • Think ahead and plan for training pinch points such as Christmas or a holiday abroad, and think about how you can still get training in, even if it is through cross-training.
  • Plan your day – think about not only your running but also your rest and nutrition – if you are training in the evening for example think about how you’ll fuel yourself well in the day to really nail that run!

Patience

  • Be happy with where you are now – forget what your mates are doing and where you feel you need to be on marathon day. If you, for example, should be starting off with a run/walk strategy do this in a planned way e.g. 5 minutes run, 2 mins walk and gradually reduce the walking breaks, rather than aiming to run as far as you can without stopping.
  • Consistency is key – a solid 4 runs a week, every week will see you make better gains than 6 runs one week, 2 the next.
  • The training you do today takes 3-4 weeks to bed in so don’t expect immediate results.
  • Focus on building the base in the early weeks – as we outline below the early weeks should see you focusing on easy running, building a consistent pattern of training slowly without risking injury.
  • The key period is 9 – 4 weeks out (6 weeks that count)

Progression

  • Adding in the variety below is the first stage. Progressing each of those elements is how you really get fit. Turning your 90 minute into 3 hour runs, your 5 x 5 minute threshold session into 3 x 10 minutes, your 30 minutes of marathon pace work into 60 minutes…
  • Be marathon specific – lots of very hard, short intervals can leave you feeling tired and like you have worked hard but are really only doing the icing on the cake in marathon training. Look to increase the volumes of your marathon pace and threshold running as you get closer to race day… not just to run faster.
  • Long runs – We all know these need to build but look to add a maximum 10-15 mins each week only otherwise you’ll risk injury.
  • Take an easy week every 3-4 weeks, cutting back your overall volume by 30-40% and cutting back some of the intensity. This will help your body absorb and heal from the training you have completed before coming back stronger.
  • Practice race pace in a race as you get closer to race day. A great way to include and test big chunks of marathon pace is to run a half marathon at your goal marathon pace as a challenging training run.
  • Progress your conditioning and recovery as well as your running! As your training volume goes up so your focus on rest, conditioning and nutrition also needs to go up.

The key runs

Here are some of the key runs you should think about including in your training. This is not an exhaustive list and doesn’t outline specific sessions, but will get you thinking a bit about variety.

Long runs

These are vital in your plan and key to running well over the marathon. Initially concentrate on increasing the time on your feet rather than worrying about distance. Start off by heading out for at least an hour at a totally conversational, easy pace of at least 1 min/mile slower than your planned race pace. Gradually this will build and closer to marathon day look to include blocks of marathon paced running in the final 60-90 minutes of the run with a maximum long run of 3hrs – 3.30. These runs improve your muscular endurance and condition your body to burn fat as its primary fuel source.

Threshold runs

After the long run, threshold runs are your most valuable workouts. They are run at a controlled brisk pace, you’ll only be capable of uttering a couple of words of speech if needed. Tempo/threshold runs improve your lactate threshold and your body’s ability to utilise oxygen. All this helps to improve your endurance. Looking to include blocks of running at ‘threshold’ effort in a weekly 45-60 minute run – for example 5 x 5 minutes, 3 x 8 minutes, 3 x 10 minutes – gradually building up to longer sustained blocks of 20-30 minutes at this effort.

Easy and recovery running

Training for the marathon requires your body to work harder than it has ever done before. To see improvement without breaking down, you’ll need much of your running to be at an easy or recovery effort. These should be nice and easy and you should feel relaxed. Enjoy the scenery. You should be breathing easily and be capable of holding a conversation throughout the run. Easy running, of 1 min/mile+ slower than your planned race pace should for 50-60%+ of your weekly training volume.

Continuous hills or kenyan Hills

Hill running develops strength in your muscles and tendons, which will be vital for that final 10km push at London. For the marathon ‘continuous hills’ are more specific and useful for most runners than the traditional approach of sprinting up short hills. Run up a 5-10% gradient for 45-90 seconds at a threshold effort. Turn immediately at the top and run down the hill at the same effort, then turn at the bottom and repeat without any recovery until the rep time ends. Like a tempo/threshold run you should look to build up blocks such as 4 x 6 minutes, 3 x 8 minutes, 3 x 10 minutes in the early weeks of your marathon training. These sessions are phased out in the final 5 weeks or so of most plans.

Interval training

For more experience runners interval training at a fast pace helps to boost speed and involve running timed efforts with a controlled recovery. The effort level is around 9/10, depending on the length and volume of intervals used. A typical example might be 6 x 3 minutes @ 5km race pace with a 90 second jog recovery. These sessions improve your VO2 max. One hard interval session for more experienced runners every 7-10 days can take you marathon pace forwards.

Cross training & core conditioning

It is important that your training is balanced with some non-impact activities such as swimming, cycling, rowing, aerobics, etc, otherwise you are more likely to pick up an annoying injury that will set back your training. But more experienced runners should also add cross training to their regime. Endurance running, especially the marathon, requires whole body-conditioning. To achieve this you should aim to work a variety of muscle groups and not just your legs.

Nutrition

Fuelling your training correctly is crucial to ensuring you progress. If you are under-fuelled for sessions you will not hit the required intensities, if you are not eating the right foods at the correct times around your training your body won’t heal and recover. Follow these top tips which focus on getting the basics right. For a more specific and detailed nutrition plan you’ll need to speak to us directly as this is unique to you.

‘Never hungry, never over-full’

Small but often is a great mantra for fuelling for distance runners. Don’t leave big gaps between main meals. Instead snack on high quality carbohydrates (fruits, veg and whole grains) and protein rich foods (meats, fish, beans, eggs).

Not just ‘what’ but WHEN

Leaving a gap of 3-4 hours without eating before a training session can prevent you hitting top efforts in threshold and interval sessions. Current research shows that your body is also most receptive to nutrients in a 20 minute window after a run – look to get in a 4:1 or 3:1 mix of carbohydrates with protein, perhaps through a recovery shake as soon as you can after long runs or hard sessions to promote recovery.

Consider micronutrients

Vitamins and minerals are vital to immune health, iron levels and cell repair – a diet rich in anti-oxidants, Iron, B12, Zinc and Vitamin C is important for runners. Be aware you will deplete these faster than non-runners. For information on how to include more of these get in touch with the team at RunningwithUs.

Hydration

2-3 litres of fluids a day should be the minimum for most runners and consider adding an electrolyte tablet (such as High5 Zero) that will help the stomach absorb more of the water.

  • A well rounded, healthy diet is optimum for nutrition and comes before sports specific products (e.g. gels, energy bars or protein shakes) which can be useful but should not form the basis of your daily diet.
  • Practice your race day nutrition and fuelling in your long runs and hard sessions. If you intend on using gels for example you will need to know how your body responds to them well before race day.
  • Pre-breakfast running can be a useful addition for marathon training. Running before breakfast at an easy to steady effort can teach your body to metabolise stored fats as an energy source as well as being good at using the food you eat.

Core and conditioning

We keep talking about strong foundations; you have the opportunity to set a great routine for yourself well before Christmas. This routine should include getting your core, strength and conditioning and stretching in place to complement your running. Aim to work through these conditioning exercises 2-3 times, 3 times a week and the stretches below every day.

Our top 6 core and conditioning exercises:

Finger crusher

Get into a sit up position, find the natural arch in your back, place your hands under the arch, engage your lower abs and pelvic floor and push your spine down on to your hands, trying to crush you fingers. The next level: Do slight alternate leg lifts, while still keeping the pressure on your
hands even.

The plank

Keep a straight line from the neck down through the legs to your ankles, engage all your core muscles by sucking your belly button up to the ceiling. Keep your chest over your elbows. The next level: Hold this for 30 seconds to one minute and build it up gradually. If this is too hard to begin with, you can avoid lower back pain by doing this with your knees on the ground.

The bridge

From the sit up position, keep your stomach strong, engage your glutes and roll up into a bridge. Keep your hips high by squeezing your glute muscles. The next level: Make this tougher by crossing your arms over your chest.

Side plank

Make a right angle with your supporting arm, your feet together and your stomach strong. Rise up, making sure you squeeze your glutes and push your pelvis through. Hold it for 30 seconds. The next level: Lift your free arm into the air, keep your side really strong, and don’t let your middle sag.

One legged squat

This also works everything in a full chain movement. Stand on one leg, engage your glute on your standing leg, keep your hips facing forward and aligned with your knee and toe. You don’t want your knee to roll inwards, so squat down as far as you can without that happening. The next level: You can use a Swiss ball between yourself and a wall for balance.

Split leg lunge

This works the running muscles in a full chain movement. Point your toes forward, keep your back heel lifted and with hands on hips, lunge down, squeezing the glute of your rear leg. Make sure everything goes down in the centre and not forwards. Your knee should NOT be over the front of your toes, lunge forward with a bent back knee. The next level: Once you’ve nailed this move, you can progress to driving the knee up from the lunge.

Stretching

Our top 6 stretches:

Glutes

Sit with one leg out straight. Cross the other leg over, keeping knee bent. To feel stretch in backside hug bent knee into chest. Keep back straight.

Hamstring

Lie on back. Keep one leg on the ground. Raise other leg holding the back of the calf. Bring up to feel the stretch in the middle (or belly) of the hamstring. Use a rope or towel around the foot to help if you need to.

Quads

This can be done lying on your side in a straight line. Grasp the top of the ankle with the same side hand and bring heel to backside. Hips should be pushed forward. If you do this stretch standing and lose your balance, you have weak core stability.

Hip flexors

Kneel on one knee. Take the other leg forward with a large stride. Push hips downwards until a stretch is felt in the front of the hips/quads.

Calf stretch (Gastrocnemius)

Stand with feet shoulders width apart. Take one foot forward and keep feet parallel. Maintain the arch in the forward foot by pressing down with the toes to stop foot rolling in. Straighten back leg and feel stretch in top area of the calf.

Calf stretch (Soleus)

Repeat position as for number five. But this time bend back leg to take stretch into lower calf above Achilles.

Tapering

The ‘taper’ involves gradually cutting back your training 2-3 weeks out from race day to allow your body to recover, building strength and your energy stores.

Here are our top tips for getting the taper right;

  • Maintain the frequency of your running, but cut down volume and some intensity. If you are used to running 4 days a week, keep running 4 days a week but shorten the runs and reduce some for the really high intensity sessions.
  • Maintain short blocks of marathon pace running in 30-45 minute runs.
  • Don’t spend ages walking around the expo or sightseeing with friends and family in the days before the race. Spend as little time on your feet as you can during this final period.
  • Look to reduce your running volume by about 30-40% in the first week, 40-60% in race week.
  • Focus on positive mental training and focus - remember your best sessions and all that you have achieved over the last few months!
  • Don’t go mad on the carb-load – as you are reducing your training volumes if you maintain the same food intake your body will naturally store more without the need to stuff yourself silly on pasta, which will leave you bloated and feeling heavy.
  • Preservation is key - protect, repair and rest – aim for 8 hours sleep a night, reduce unnecessary walking or physical activity. Stop any heavy, high intensity conditioning and gym sessions.
  • Don’t use the time to do all the other active jobs you need to do – now is not the time to do those big gardening and DIY jobs!
  • It’s common to feel sluggish in your taper – don’t worry about this, it’s your body mentally and physically recovering.

Race day!

The hard training is done and race day is the time for you to be organised, confident and most importantly to have fun as the culmination of months of harder work.

  • Wake early and be organised getting to the start. It’s quite a walk up from Greenwich – plan enough time to take this slowly!
  • Eat the breakfast you have practised with and take food to bridge the gap between breakfast and the race start.
  • Warm-ups are not necessary. Simple. Marathon is a game of energy preservation above all else. Build into your pace slowly over the first few miles and wear warm clothing to the start. You have 26.2 miles to warm up.
  • Be prepared and have a strategy but stay FLEXIBLE – you have practiced your race pace in training, consider starting a fraction slower than this pace, run the middle 20km of the race on your target pace and then throw everything at the final 10km. Don’t worry if you have the odd difficult mile – focus on the next.
  • YOUR race - run your strategy and don’t get caught up in the race or the negative talk and thoughts of those around you.
  • Find your mental strategy – when the going gets tough positive self-talk can be great in keeping you on pace. Remember why you are running. Dedicate the miles to someone special in your life. Concentrate on 2 or 3 key aspects of your running form (how is your posture? is your face relaxed?) and don’t get overwhelmed.
  • Remember to smile and take in the crowd!

The course

London Marathon – the pinch points:

The first 10km

As you leave Blackheath everyone that has trained for their race pace will suddenly decide they are Mo Farah and throw it all out of the window… apart from you! The course goes gradually downhill from the heath through miles 2-5. It’s easy to get carried away so don’t try to ‘bank time’ early on – stick to your plan and hold yourself back. Consider training to run the first 10km a few seconds a mile slower than your planned race pace. Get to 10km and Cutty Sark feeling fantastic.

Cutty Sark to Tower Bridge and half way

Everything you may have heard about Cutty Sark is true. It’s amazing – huge crowds, TV cameras and helicopters overhead, bands and it’s so easy to get carried away.

Statistics show that the 10km between Cutty Sark and Tower Bridge is so often the fastest 10km of the race for most runners as they get caught up in the moment, paying for it later along embankment. The same is true as the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as you hit the cacophony of noise over Tower Bridge and turn towards half way. Use these moments, be inspired by them, but stick to your plan… remain in control. You are at half way, but you are not yet half way through the real challenge.

Docklands to Embankment

Docklands is no longer the quiet bit of the course, with few spectators as used to be the case. Now it’s where you might look to catch a family member in the crowd or be cheered along by your chosen charity. It’s where you’ll be looking to maintain a consistent rhythm and running bang on race pace, ticking off the miles and being aware of your fuelling strategy. Gathering yourself for a big finish… It’s a common saying but the real ‘half way’ isn’t at 13.1 miles, it’s at 20 miles.

The final miles

The race really begins! Running along embankment, into Birdcage Walk and along the Mall is one of the truly one of the great experiences you will have in your life. If you have got your fuelling and pacing right this is when you will be passing others and feeling fantastic, looking to push on, not looking at the watch just building the effort and building the pace. Pick a vest in front, and pull them in and pass them, then another, then another. Of course the final 10km is hard, that is what makes the marathon so great. If you have paced yourself well you’ll be focused, running strongly and remembering why you are here. As you turn into the Mall, straighten yourself out, put a big smile onto your face… and cross the line.

Would you like your own personal coach and training plan?

We’ve tried to give you a few basic tips in this guide and you may feel confident using one of our 3 generic training plans we have created for you. It’s important to realise that running and marathon training is a very personal journey and if you want a more tailored bespoke approach to training then RunningwithUs can offer you this service.

Getting the right balance of training to suit your fitness, experience goals, work and social life is where having your own personal coach can make all the difference. At RunningwithUs we work with runners of all abilities training for distances from 5km through to ultra running and most of our clients are looking to balance business work, family and training lives.

Sign up for personal coaching and training plans and you could have:

  • Your own personal coach from one of our team who represent some of the most experienced and respected coaches in the UK who have coached those entirely new to the sport through to runners competing in European & World Championships and the Olympic & Commonwealth Games.
  • Entirely bespoke training plans sent every two weeks written to reflect your own individual physiology, work, family and social lives.
  • Tailored nutrition, lifestyle and conditioning advice and plans to help support your running and maximise your training time.
  • Access to group and 1-to-1 training sessions seeing you train alongside GB internationals
  • Access to unique training and racing opportunities in the UK and overseas.
  • Support from our wider team that includes the UK’s top endurance sport physiotherapist, the expert physiologists at St. Mary’s University and our brand partners Saucony and High5 Sports Nutrition.

Here are a few of the testimonials we have had from some of our runners:

‘Nick’s wide knowledge in many areas such as physiology, nutrition, biomechanics and strength and conditioning makes him an extremely effective running coach. Nick has taken me from an average junior who had some talent to one of the best athletes in Europe and the athlete I am today. Nick has been more than a coach to me, helping me with some key decisions in my life such as university choice.’ Andy Vernon, GB Distance Runner.

‘Phoebe helped me realise the individual goals – however small at first – I wanted to achieve for myself and before I knew it, I was ‘training’ – something I thought was reserved for others…the ‘thems’. Having just completed my first 5km I cannot wait for the 10km coming up!’ Jayne Jacobs, Actress.

‘Tom is brilliant at knowing exactly how to build confidence and motivate. In our time working together he has taken me from jogger to now regularly tackling 100km+ 24 hour races. He has introduced me to new training approaches that keep me motivated and, most importantly, improving’ Paddy Maloney, Owner of sports supplement company, Supplement Central

GOOD LUCK GUYS! You're about to embark on what will be one of the most incredible experiences of your life. We can't promise it won't be difficult, but we can promise it will be totally worth it.

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