Considering a marathon? 5 questions to ask before signing up

Deciding to run your first marathon is exciting, full of possibilities – and lots of questions. We’ll help you answer them.

A marathon is one of the ultimate running challenges, testing your mental and physical barriers. Perhaps you’ve been inspired to attempt one by watching running events recently. The London Marathon has the power to energise even the most casual of runners (or non-runners) to sign up for a race. And the stats show that older people are up for the challenge: of the 58,015 people who took part in the 2023 race, almost a quarter (24%) were aged over 50.  

After watching it, you might find yourself itching to get your foot on a start line. But deciding to cover the 26.2-mile (42.2km) distance is the easy part. 

An older woman running through race finish tape with other competitors behind herCredit: Shutterstock / Rawpixel.com
Consider these questions before you sign up for a marathon

As a four-time marathon finisher and run leader, there are five questions I recommend you think about before signing up. These include practical questions such as where you want to run and what your training plan will look like, as well as those that address the physical and mental barriers you’ll need to push through to stay on track to achieving your goal. 

I spoke with running coach Gil Cramer to find out how you can prepare yourself for the task at hand and give it your all. And I’ll add my marathon insight to keep you on course. 

1. Which marathon do I want to run – and why?

For your first marathon, consider picking a race that has some meaning for you. The first marathon I chose was with RunThrough at Goodwood Racetrack in Chichester, West Sussex. I decided that was the one for me, as I completed my first 5km (3 mile) run there.  

Finding your own ‘why’ is key, explains Cramer. “It doesn’t have to be a huge reason. It’s just about what your driving force [for doing the race] is.” 

Alternatively, picking a race abroad could give you the opportunity to travel and see somewhere new. “Cities hosting marathons tend to have an incredible welcome for runners,” he says. Popular options include Boston, Tokyo and Rome – but there are plenty of others. Research countries that appeal to you and see if there’s a marathon you can apply for. 

Once you have a shortlist, find out everything you can about that particular marathon. Look at practical considerations, such as how many aid stations there are (they’re a lifeline when you’re out there) and whether the route is clearly marked, so you won’t get lost. Also think about what would make you comfortable in a race. For example, are there toilets along the route? If you can’t easily find the information, e-mail the event organiser. 

In addition, read what others have said about it to gauge less-tangible factors, such as what the crowd is typically like – it’s hard to emphasise how big a role this can play in getting you to the finish line. 

It’s also worth noting that not all marathons are run on tarmac. Trail marathons can include running up hills, through forests and past lakes, which can be incredibly enjoyable but demands different training – so be aware of that, too. 

Trail runner in mountainsCredit: Shutterstock/Lukas Budinsky
Trail marathons can include more challenging terrain than road

2. What will my marathon training plan look like?

A training plan will look different for everyone, explains Cramer, who recommends tailoring your plan to your individual needs.  

“The race plans you find online are all great, if you can implement every part of it into your routine. However, we all have different things going on in our lives. We have different nutritional needs and different health restrictions which can influence us.”  

He suggests speaking to someone who understands and can offer insight. This could be a running coach or running communities. There are lots of groups online, or if you have a running app on your phone, such as Strava, there are groups you can join to connect with other runners. 

Another thing to note is that marathon training takes up a lot of your free time. Typical plans are between four and five months long, and you’ll be running between three and five times a week, gradually increasing your distance up to race day. 

Miniature figurines running across a calendarCredit: Shutterstock/miniartkur
Marathon training takes a lot of planning

If you’re a beginner runner, the main thing you’ll want to concentrate on is getting the miles in. So, get comfortable running for long periods of time and be consistent. If you’re a more experienced runner you’ll already have a running base, so build up your miles from where you are. 

Whatever your level, Cramer recommends including strength and mobility skills in your plan. “Lunges, squats and skipping are great to add in, as is yoga. Doing these things can help cut down your recovery time.”   

3. Am I prepared – physically, mentally and practically?

Moving your legs and feet is only one part of the marathon experience – there’s also the mental aspect too. Keeping your focus as you train week in, week out can be challenging. Cramer advises asking someone to hold you accountable. “Get support from someone,” he says. “Have them push you forward and check you’re sticking to your plan.” 

He also advises being adaptable in your approach. “If you ever think you can’t get your training run done, ask yourself if there’s a way around it so you can.” Life will get in the way, but if you’re hungry to become a marathon runner, you’ll do whatever you can to achieve it.  

If you start to struggle with training motivation, you need to question why. “It’s either a sign of no accountability [i.e. there’s no one to nudge you to tell you to do it], or else that something might be happening in your body,” says Cramer. “Make sure you’re not over-training and if you feel something’s not right, find out why.”  

Having the right running gear can also affect your runs. It’s important to wear what’s right for your body, not just what the top running company is endorsing – so take the time to find kit that suits you, particularly when it comes to running shoes. I’ve compiled a list of running kit essentials to help you get started. 

Man in running kit tying his shoelaceCredit: Shutterstock/Maridav
Having the right gear is key in marathon training

4. How will I deal with setbacks?

Things won’t always go to plan when training for a marathon, but Cramer argues that setbacks are actually a great tool for learning. “If you just don’t feel like going for your scheduled run, revisit your ‘why’ to get your motivation going again.”  

It also helps to get comfortable knowing you’ll struggle some days – and that’s OK. If you really can’t face running, put on your trainers and go for a walk or a hike instead. Bank some time in your legs, so you’re still moving forward.  

Injuries are another significant setback that lots of runners face during their marathon training. If you find yourself experiencing niggles or issues, Cramer recommends assessing whether it is what he calls ‘green pain’ or ‘red pain’ – and taking the necessary action. 

Runner clutching kneeCredit: Shutterstock/PeopleImages.com – Yuri A
Injuries can cause setbacks and may need assessing if they’re persistent

“Green is you feel it, but you don’t think it’s going to affect you that badly,” he says. In this instance, you might look at adapting your training – your route, the intensity, your kit or something else – to minimise the impact and avoid making it worse.  

Red injuries are more persistent. “This is when it becomes something that you are consciously aware of all the time,” Cramer says. In this instance, you should seek advice from a doctor or physio. 

5. How will I rest during my marathon training?

Rest time is just as important as the training itself. This is when your body gets chance to repair and recover from the exertion of training, and is key to minimising the chances of injury. So be sure to fully cool down after a run or workout, and schedule rest days in your training plan. 

Listen to your body and give it what it needs. Ice baths, saunas and massage guns or/balls are some of the most popular tools runners use on rest days. But there are also simple, free activities we can do. “Walking and hiking is so underutilised by runners,” says Cramer. “It’s low impact and it works your cardiovascular fitness too.” 

Ultimately, preparing for and running a marathon is a personal journey that requires dedication and motivation. So if you can answer these five questions and still find yourself desperate to sign up, go forth and find your marathon. I wish you the very best of luck. 

Rebecca Frew

Written by Rebecca Frew she/her

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Becky Frew has written various articles for newspapers and magazines focusing on fitness, is a qualified run leader, and a certified sleep talker trainer who loves to help advise people how they can nod off easier. When she is not writing or reading about fitness, she is at hot pod yoga, bounce class, training for an ultra-marathon or booking anything with a medal and free food at the end.

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