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Top five mistakes first-time marathoners make

Marathon fever can cause novice runners to make crazy decisions in preparation for the big day

If you are taking on your first marathon this year, lucky you – you have timed it just right. After a few years of virtual marathons, the streets will be buzzing with spectators cheering you along the final 26.2 miles of your marathon journey. I’m so excited for you. But I’m guessing you probably feel more nervous and overwhelmed about the distance than excited right now. Nerves are good, but they can let us make some crazy decisions along the road to marathon day.

As it is your first time to experience marathon fever, let me share the mistakes I want you to avoid.

1) Take the focus off the start line

A marathon is so much more than the big day out. When you look back on this year, most of your marathon memories and lessons learned will actually come from the months of training. If you are only focused on that marathon day, you risk adding unnecessary stress and pressure to your marathon build-up due to the amount of uncertainty right now. Decide instead to appreciate and celebrate each week of marathon training that you complete. Don’t wait until it is all over to be proud of yourself. Break down the marathon journey into logical stepping stones by including some shorter races along the way. The weeks will add up, you will gradually build strength, confidence and endurance. The race day will seem much less daunting by the time it finally arrives.

2) Choose a realistic training plan

There are many different paths to the marathon start line, but it would be foolish to ignore the benefits of having a practical and realistic training plan in place. Seeing your future on paper helps you visualise where you are going but also stops you from rushing into long mileage too quickly. A training plan of four runs per week (each run having a different purpose) is sufficient for most first-time marathoners. Taking time now to research training plans and coaching options will stand to you later in the summer. Remember that your life outside of running plays a huge factor in your marathon success. Whatever path you choose to follow, make sure your roadmap offers you time outside of training for recovery as well as family, work commitments and unexpected setbacks.


3) Be selective about where you take advice

Advice will come from all corners once people know you are training for a first marathon. Runners will be delighted to share all their tips and horror stories with you. Even those who have never completed the distance can often feel obliged to tell you what to do. Choose wisely who you listen to. If you cannot decide on a training approach yourself, get support from a coach, a running club or a friend who has been down this road before. Be open-minded to tips from other runners, but don’t get distracted or panicked by how other runners are structuring their training. There are lots of subtle differences in training plans but they all lead to the finish line. Having one clear coaching voice in your head will make it so much easier to filter out what information is not relevant to you and help you focus on your task at hand without instilling unnecessary worry and doubt.

4) Slow down your long runs

It is impossible to know your marathon pace right now as you have never ventured into long distance before. By the time the autumn arrives you will have a clearer view of what pace will be realistic, but for now make sure to manage the pace in your long runs. Don’t be afraid to run slowly. Run your weekly long run at a pace that is at least one minute per km slower than your normal 10km pace. This may feel too comfortable, but it’s important to remember that the goal for these long runs is to train your body to spend longer time on your feet and build endurance. If you can breathe comfortably, talk and relax along the way then you are doing just right. All the minutes on your feet add up. You will gain nothing by running long runs fast other than tire yourself out for the following week’s training.

5) Don’t commit to a time target

I know some of you already are visualising a time on the clock as you cross that marathon finish line. Where have you even chosen this number from? We often pick a desired marathon finishing time based on what we consider to be a “good” marathon time or we select a time we know someone else has achieved. Unless you have completed a marathon before, it is very hard to predict an exact finishing time so early in training. No two runners are the same so please don’t compare yourself with others. As a first-timer, I recommend that instead of a time target, set a goal to enjoy the training and run the distance on race day. If you don’t enjoy your first marathon, you will struggle to take on a second one. I have met many a marathoner disappointed and disillusioned with their first marathon just because they finished a few minutes slower than the time they expected. Don’t let that be you. You get to decide how to define your marathon success. Your approach to finishing times can really impact your anxiety on marathon day and your appetite to run more marathons.

Make yourself proud

The fear of the unknown that goes with a first marathon is naturally your biggest concern. My job, and the job of all marathon coaches, is to build your confidence, knowledge, endurance and mindset. I really want you to be able to appreciate the amazing atmosphere and feel confident and proud of yourself as you get carried along the streets later this year. But its up to you to make that all possible.

Put the groundwork in now, take it one week at a time and you can treat your marathon day as a celebration of your summer of training.

- Sign up for one of The Irish Times’ Get Running programmes (it is free!). First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.

  • Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
  • Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
  • 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark. Best of luck!

- Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Her marathon coaching programme is now open for booking and kicks off late June.