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Training for a Marathon - The 10 Dos and Don'ts

I know how the fantasy goes. Those wonderful dreams of striding along through the parks, powerful, effortless, and then the cheers and tears as you finally spill over the finish-line. The reality, as any runner knows, is a little different.

Two weeks ago, more people than ever before in history set themselves exactly the same New Year's Resolution: this was the year they were going to run themselves their first marathon.

It is a great goal and it is a great achievement. A few of these joggers may even decide that they actually enjoy running.

I know how the fantasy goes. Those wonderful dreams of striding along through the parks, powerful, effortless, and then the cheers and tears as you finally spill over the finish-line.

The reality, as any runner knows, is a little different. If it's your first marathon, then there will almost certainly be the cheers and the tears at the end of the race.

But getting to the stage where you're capable of peeling off 26 miles... well, it's a bit of a slog. In fact: it's a hell of a slog. Do not underestimate how much of a slog and how much of a time commitment it will be.

Of course there will be a few unexpected highs along the way, like when you go off for a perky six-miler and realise that, completely unwittingly, you have slipped into this Zen state where you are in flow and even rather enjoying yourself.

But make no mistake, there will be any number of lows: getting up for those early morning runs at the weekend; enduring some considerable degree of pain; and also enduring some considerable degree of boredom as, for the 15th time, you slog around the park by yourself.

Still... you'll be on such a high after completing your first marathon that you'll still be fizzing even a week later.

It is possible that you've set your heart on running a marathon this summer.

Not that I'd necessarily recommend training for a marathon in such a short time. Ideally you'd set yourself up over six months or a year.

But this, very simply, is how to train for a marathon in three months flat. Say, something like the London Marathon. It's on April 14, in case you didn't know; a few charity places are still available.

1. Get the right shoes.

Running has got to be one of the cheapest sports going. You just slip on your shoes, open that front door and you're on your way. You don't have to pay a bean in gym memberships. There is no entry fee. The only cost, really, is paying for that first pair of shoes.

But there are running shoes... and there are running shoes.

Look on the internet and you will be able to find yourself old stock running shoes going for just 20 quid. It can all seem very tempting.

And if you're only running a few miles every week, then it won't make much odds what shoes you wear.

But if you're going to be running long distances, you can do yourself a large favour by spending a little more money on your footwear. Specifically: you want to get your running style analysed by a pro. They will tell you the right shoes for you.

There are a number of different running styles. Some people are over-pronators (their feet roll too much when they strike the ground) and some are under-pronators (their feet don't roll). Then there are those fancy-schmancy runners whose heels don't even strike the ground at all.

All you have to do is get the running shoe that's best for you. (And once you've found it, then just go onto the net the next time you need a new pair and get the same style of shoe half price.)

2. Get yourself a running-mate

Your running will be a whole lot more fun and a whole lot more interesting if you have a running-mate - preferably a running-mate who is going to be joining you in this impossible quest.

That's not to say that running by yourself can't be great. Sometimes, when it is pouring with rain, and the wind is howling about your ears, it can be fantastically exhilarating. Running by yourself can be a great way for mulling over problems. (Dead handy if you're a novelist and have come up against some intractable plot problem.)

But for all the joys of running alone, the whole training experience will be much (much) more enjoyable if you have found yourself a solid, dependable running-mate.

Someone to chat to on those two-hour-long training runs. Someone to share your woe-is-me horror stories as, four weeks before the race, you start to develop shin-splints. Someone to share those indescribable highs when - finally - you get in from a 20-mile run in the rain. A trouper, basically, who will understand the sheer hell that you're putting yourself through.

Although spouses and lovers will hopefully be fully supportive of this crazy little project you've set yourself, they will be unlikely to understand the huge gamut of emotional highs and lows that you'll be going through.

That's why you need a running-mate.

A running-mate can, sometimes, give your training - and indeed your race - a nice edge of competition. Although of course it doesn't matter who comes in first, because you're only in it to complete the race... But, well, if you had the chance... You'd still like to beat 'em! (When I ran my first marathon in New York City in 1998, my running-mate Geoff Stead beat me by two minutes. Howl!)

One last thing. One day, one awful day, you will be due to get up at 7am to go for a humungous 20-miler, and it will still be dark, and it will be raining and windy, and perhaps you did have a little too much to drink the previous night, but anyway... it can all seem rather daunting, and you'd much rather just turn the alarm off and go back to sleep.

But if you've got a running-mate, you can't do that. Because your running-mate is going to be banging on your front-door in 15 minutes, and they are going to want you to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed... and, somehow, when it comes down to it, you just can't let them down.

3. Start slow

It is quite possible that you've set your heart on running a marathon and you haven't run in over a decade. Well - so long as you're not clinically obese - then it's still just about possible.

The first time I really started running was in Central Park, New York City, in 1997, when I tried to run around the reservoir. (It's the reservoir in the climax of Marathon Man. A FANTASTIC film.) The run was only about a mile, but I had to stop three times before I made it back home. It was gruelling.

No matter. The point about this running business is that you're in it for the long haul. And each time you go out, you'll get just that little bit better.

Second time I ran round the reservoir, I only needed to stop twice. A week later I was running a mile. Three weeks later, I was running three miles. And six weeks later I was actually... RUNNING.

Just go with what works for you. Especially in the early stages, do not push yourself too hard - otherwise you are going to get all manner of injuries which will put you out of the race. What you're hoping for is that, every week, you'll be able to run just that little bit further.

Your weekly work-out should roughly consist of three average length runs in the weekdays, and one longer run at the weekend. These are going to be the building blocks for your marathon. Your regular run should not be too much of a stretch. Your long run at the weekend SHOULD be a stretch. Just that little bit further than you've run the previous weekend.

Of course you want to mix things up. Variety will help. Joining a running club is good. New routes keep things fresh.

Ultimately, you want to be able to run six miles fairly easily. Work out your regular circuit, a nice life-affirming route that you're happy with. You're going to get to know this quite well.

The six-mile run is the key to running a marathon. You want to be putting in three of these a week. And then at the weekends, well that's when your regular runs turn into an eight-miler, and then a ten-miler, and before you know it, you'll be dashing off a cheeky little half-marathon.

4. Learn to stretch

If there is any one thing that is going to put you clean out of the marathon, it's not stretching properly.

One day you'll be gliding along, calf muscles a little bit achy from your long run at the weekend, but anyway you'll keep on plugging away and then, P-tttoinngggg! A tendon's gone and you will not be running again any time soon.

The problem about stretching is that if you have not had your own personal P-tttoinngggg moment, then it all seems like a bit of a bore. Why bother to stretch? What good's it doing you anyway? What's the point - isn't stretching just for little old men? And although at the start of your jog you may do a couple of half-hearted toe-touches, you really just want to get out there and get running - so you don't bother.

And you don't bother.

And your muscles will get tighter and tighter until they're like an old elastic band that's been left out in the sun, and suddenly... P-tttoinngggg, and then, as my Scots grandmother used to say to me and other such scamps who thought they knew best... "Well, ye ken noo!"

Basically: if you don't stretch and stretch real good, then you're going to pick up a ton of injuries and you will be very unlikely to complete a marathon. Get an expert - somebody who really knows what they're doing - to show you how to stretch properly.

The drill is to stretch before you run and then, crucially, afterwards.

Before your pre-run stretch, you want to have a very slow ten minute warm-up. Stretch. Str-e-e-tchhh!

At the end of the run, (and after your warm-down) have another nice, long stretch. This will be one of the best bits of your whole day, so don't miss out.

If you're short on time, then cut a mile off your run rather than forego your stretch.

I know, of course, that if you have yet to have your own P-tttoinngggg moment, then this will all sound like preachy blabbering gibberish. Well... You'll ken soon enough!

5. Learn to roll

Even if you are stretching properly, you will still probably have some sort of problem with your legs - quads, knees, shin-splints, Achilles tendons... you name it, I've had it.

One of the best ways - by far! - of avoiding these injuries is to get yourself a massage roller. Most rollers are made of foam and are about a metre long and maybe 20 centimetres diameter. They look like a long rolling-pin. There are also shorter, knobblier versions made of hard plastic.

Get a pro to show you how to use the thing - and then, when you're watching telly of an evening, spend ten minutes giving your legs a good rollering.

The pain can be eye-watering! You place the roller under, say, your thighs, lie on top of the thing, and then roll back and forth. It squeezes out the lactic acid as well as the knots in your muscles. Try it on the backs of your legs. And then try it on the sides of your thighs, rollering out those long IT bands... and then you'll really know all about it.

If you can roller every day for just ten minutes, then you'll have a good chance of being injury-free when you get to the start of the race.

One more thing. Every two weeks or so, treat to yourself to a sports massage. That, by the way, is not one of those rinky-dink massages you get in a spa with whale music and the sweet smell of joss-sticks. No - a proper sports massage will be conducted by a complete butcher who is going to be digging his elbows so deep into your knotty muscles that you will be quite mewling with pain. My masseur was Dean and he was a very big, muscly guy, and after just ten minutes, he had me hammering at the massage table and hollering "Uncle!"

Sports massages come in at around £40-an-hour. Go on - treat yourself. It is a unique kind of pain that I had never quite experienced before; the relief when it's all over is mind-blowing. (Much like the end of a marathon.)

6. The Golden Hour

I've already written about the Golden Hour in my tips for running the Marathon des Sables. (That's the race that you'll set your heart on when you're bored of running marathons.)

But it's well worth saying again.

The Golden Hour is the single most important thing that you can do to help yourself recover from a long run. Every single top runner in the world knows all about the Golden Hour and sticks to it religiously. But although it's common knowledge amongst our elite athletes, not so many journeymen runners know about it.

It is simple and it is easy and it is also utterly brilliant.

The Golden Hour is the hour directly after you have stopped exercising.

In this hour, you have to do two things. The first is to get some food inside you. Food that's eaten within the Golden Hour will be much more effective at repairing your muscles and everything else that's been mangled to bits during your runs.

The second thing you have to do is put your feet up. Just lie on the floor and put your feet on a chair so that they're raised up above your head. That's all you have to do: lie there with your feet up, dreaming dreams of what you will do with your marathon medal.

Putting your feet up will help the gunk (technical term) drain out of your legs and back into your body. The next day, particularly if you've stretched properly, you'll feel like you're running on fresh legs.

7. Eat, Drink And Be Merry

A lot of well-meaning friends are going to ask you, "Wow - have you stopped boozing? Have you stopped eating pudding?"

Well... No! Of course not. The point about running a marathon is that you can eat and drink whatever you want, and you're still going to lose weight. That's what happens if you're running over 30 miles a week.

Some runners might see this whole marathon project as the time to turn their bodies into "a temple". They stop drinking alcohol and they stop eating cakes and biscuits, and frankly it seems like they suddenly imagine they're training for the Olympics.

So if you want to make your marathon training as absolutely joyless as possible, then by all means cut out the booze and all the good fatty, creamy stuff that tastes so delicious.

But if you've put in the training, you'll still be able to complete the race whatever you eat or drink. And you'll still lose weight. And you'll still be looking better than you've looked in years. (Particularly straight after a run. I don't know why it is, but runners have this extraordinary glow about them after a long run. Well worth remembering if you're going on a date.)

8. Your longest run

It's not easy judging how much to increase the length of your long runs at the weekend. In a perfect world, with a year of training, you would increase your long runs by just a mile at a time, until after nine months you were able to comfortably cruise through a 22-miler.

But unfortunately this little luxury is not available to you - because you, of course, have only got three months to get ready.

What happens if you force the pace too quickly is that you'll get injured - shin-splints or tendonitis, or one of those other little niggly grizzlers that can stop your training programme dead in its tracks.

On the other hand... if you don't put in the long miles, then you might still just about be able to complete the marathon, but you'll be in a whole world of pain by the end of it.

Ideally, three weeks before the start of the race you will be capable of running a 20-miler. Twenty-two miles would be even better, but, just like Dirty Harry tells us, "A man's gotta know his limitations."

So this means that four weeks before the start of the race, you have to be pushing out an 18-miler. (I never said it was going to be easy.) Five weeks before the race, it'll be a 16-miler...

But, if you can possibly avoid it, you don't want to up your weekly mileage by much more than 15 per cent. If you're running 20 miles one week, then the week after, you don't want to be going much above 23 miles. Take it easy. Stretch. Don't get injured!

9. Raising money for charity

If it's your first marathon, then it would be churlish not to run it for charity.

It will also make it more difficult for you to pull out of the race. At some stage in your training, you will undoubtedly think to yourself, "What on earth is the point in continuing with this complete waste-of-time activity?"

But if you've been sponsored to run the marathon, and if you know that your favourite charity will be losing out on several grand because you failed to complete... well it's quite an incentive. (Though one friend, James Evans, was sponsored a huge sum to complete the New York Marathon - but only on condition that he broke four hours. He missed it by under a minute. He was hurting!)

The only problem is that most of your friends and family will be suffering from "charity fatigue" having been tapped up three times a week by perky colleagues who want to be sponsored for spending an hour in a tub of baked beans.

So although running a marathon might be an enormous personal achievement for you, it's not going to be that big a deal to your friends. They'll have heard it all before, and doubtless they'll have heard it from somebody who's just about to bounce round the world on a Space Hopper.

Whatever you do in life, how ever far you run, how ever many Oscars you win, there's always going to be some other monkey who's done it bigger and better than you.

That doesn't mean that you can't tap up your friends for money. You've just got to be a little bit more creative.

So if you just email all your friends and say, "I'm running a marathon, please sponsor me," then you're not going to raise too much money.

Better by far to have a film night. Most cinemas will give you quite a good price for one of their screens on a Monday or Tuesday night. Invite all your friends, give them a glass of wine and charge them £15 a time. No-one is going to complain about that. In fact if you pick the right movie, most of them will love it - and they'll be signing up for a lot more than just £15.

I had a huge hit with "Casablanca", which everyone knows about, but which very few people have actually seen. As films choices go, stick with the classics. Have I mentioned "Marathon Man'...

10. The next goal

Many runners go into a deep slump after they've completed their first marathon. They've had this goal for so long and they've been training all hours of the day, and then suddenly the whole project has come to the most thundering halt. They don't know what to do with themselves.

What usually happens next is this. Eventually, after some considerable reflection, they come up with a really good idea: they're gonna run themselves another marathon. Only this time they're going to run it faster...

And for a short while, it can be very satisfying chasing after your own tail on this perennial quest to improve your Personal Best time.

But after a while, it can all seem rather banal. You beat your last marathon time by ten minutes... You broke 3 hours 30 minutes... Well at the time it is all very satisfying, but, like the actual marathon medals themselves, it very quickly becomes a case of... So What?

Before you've even finished your first marathon, you already want to have lined up your next goal - whether it's another long run, or whether it's something like Tough Guy.

Personally, I'd try something different. That's not to say that you won't keep on running. With a bit of luck you'll be hooked on running for the rest of your life.

But what you're actually looking for in life is something that's going to be a stretch - and although running a marathon is a stretch, completing a second marathon is not nearly as much of a stretch.

No - "a stretch" would be trying your hand at something completely different. Something that you might actually fail at.

Me? I was an absolutely useless swimmer, so I had a year's worth of swimming coaching and then tried to swim the Hellespont. And failed to swim the Hellespont. No matter. Try again. Fail again.

Fail better.

And now, unlike my friends who did actually manage to swim the Hellespont last August, I will have the pleasure of going back again to Turkey this year to have another shot. Now that's a goal worth having. And this time it's personal.

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