Everything you need to know about the marathon – by a former winner

If running 26.2 miles is your dream, here’s some expert advice on how to choose a marathon, how to train for it – and why it’s so worth it.

There’s no arguing the marathon distance and the 26.2 miles (42km) that it involves has a certain appeal. Ever since the first London Marathon was run in 1982, it’s an event that has captured the public’s imagination and has become a must-tick for millions of bucket lists. 

After all, running one looks fun, it’s a challenge that clearly is achievable, given the incredible diversity any marathon finish line features. And of course it’s a fabulous way to raise money for any causes close to your heart. 

So, what are you waiting for? We’re here to inspire you and help you take those first steps towards marathon success. 

Two runners looking focused running towards the cameraCredit: PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock
Running a marathon is a challenge, but equally it is very achievable

Set a target

How to choose your marathon

Top of the bill will probably be the London Marathon, partly because of the coverage it gets on the BBC – but more because it’s an iconic event that takes in all the sights of London, and everyone who is running looks like they’re having a blast.

It’s always worth entering your name into the ballot to get one of the coveted places. However, more than 500,000 applied for the 50,000 slots available for the 2024 race, so you do need a back-up plan. Or your favourite charity may have slots available for runners willing to raise a predetermined amount of money. 

Personally, I opt for an overseas race using World Marathons as my go-to choice for ideas and details on how to enter them. There’s everything from the Midnight Sun Marathon in Norway to events in popular tourist destinations like Malaga. Mix your holiday with a marathon for the perfect blend of inspiration, a sense of achievement and reward. And you can more than likely guarantee an entry. 

And, of course, Britain has many amazing marathons outside London, including Edinburgh, Belfast, Newport, Leeds, Manchester and Brighton to name just a few.  

Preparation

How to get ready for the training

Race entered, you’ll now have to start thinking about preparation. Part of what makes the marathon distance so appealing is the fact you can’t just rock up and run it without any training. Trust me, 26.2 miles is relatively easy as long as you’ve done all the work.  

“The marathon is the ultimate test for professional and amateur runners,” agrees Eamonn Martin, winner of the London Marathon in 1993, the last Briton to do so. “I love it because it is really tough, but it is achievable for so many. Really difficult but doable – as long as you do some running, though,” he warns. 

His advice is simple: kit yourself out with the right kind of cushioned shoes. “Spend the maximum you can afford,” he advises, “then mix your running with cross training to minimise the impact.” 

“Obviously, you do need to run, but I’d recommend keeping the running down to every other day and use non-impact training, such as cycling or swimming, on the days you don’t run. That gives your joints time to regenerate and keeps you fresh and motivated. 

“Remember, it doesn’t have to be all running. Strength training for runners is massively important.” 

Marathon runners running down a street lined with palm trees in MalagaCredit: Reinholds Nulle/Shutterstock
Malaga – popular with runners as well as tourists
  • Wear cushioned shoes. 
  • Mix and match your training – run one day, do non-weight bearing cardio work the next. 
  • Stretch more and work on general mobility. 
  • Give it time. You won’t get fit in a day. This is a long journey. 
  • Training for a marathon is very individual, but a long run (as slow as you wish) is a must. Make sure you build in recovery time after a longer training run, though. 
  • Keep an eye on your diet. Increasing your protein is massively important for older runners. 

The right kit

Choose the right shoes for the marathon

Choosing the right shoe can be a complicated business, says John Jennings from Runners Need, a specialist chain of running shoe stores. “Carbon-plated shoes use a thin carbon fibre plate that is incredibly lightweight so that runners can continue to run for a long distance. They include the New Balance Supercomp Elite or Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 3. Non-carbon plated shoes tend to be cheaper and are not as stiff, giving a more comfortable ride, such as On Cloudmonster. Then finally, we have max cushioned shoes, which have a stack height (how far off the ground your foot is) of around 30mm (1in), such as the Asics Gel Nimbus 25. They offer unparalleled comfort and reduce impact on your legs and joints.” 

 

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A runner’s eye view

What the marathon distance means to those who do it

Martin was one of the finest runners of his generation. He won the Commonwealth Games 10,000m in 1990, and before that in 1988 he ran a British record for that same distance in Oslo. In 1993, he followed the early pace through the streets of London before launching his famous sprint finish across Westminster Bridge (where the marathon finished back then) to record a famous victory. To date, he’s the last Briton to achieve this (he’s now the British team manager for cross country).  

“I was having lunch with Dave Moorcroft (the former world record holder for 5000 metres) recently to celebrate his 70th birthday, and he said to me he wished he’d run a marathon. That was all that was missing from his career. Remember, he was the world record holder for 5000m [in 1982], so that says it all. He wished the marathon was part of his CV. 

“The marathon is the ultimate challenge. It has all that history dating back centuries, and today it’s a classic challenge that takes place in almost every big city in almost every country around the world. I know there are longer races, but the marathon is tough and hard enough.”  

Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Updated:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.