The London Marathon is one of the most iconic races, attracting runners from all over the world. Over one million people have completed the course, and it has raised more than a billion pounds for charity!
Completing a marathon is an amazing achievement of hard work, dedication, and mental strength, and it’s something you’ll be proud of for years to come.
But training can be daunting, especially if you're new to running. That's why our experts at Fitness First have pulled together a comprehensive guide to training; providing tips, advice, and the motivation you need to get you started.
- How long does it take to run the London Marathon?
- How to train for the London Marathon
- London Marathon day tips
- Reasons to run a marathon
- Surprising facts about marathons
How long does it take to run the London Marathon?
The time it takes to complete the London Marathon can vary widely depending on several factors, including a runner's fitness level, experience, and pace. The course includes 26.2 miles through the streets of London, with several hills and challenging sections along the way.
According to The Mirror (based on data from the 2019 London Marathon), the average time to complete the course was 3 hours and 48 minutes for men and 4 hours and 23 minutes for women.
How to train for the London Marathon
From booking your accommodation to sticking to a training plan, what you do in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the marathon is key to completing the race, avoiding injury, and managing the physical and mental demands of the event.
Establish a training schedule
You need to find or create a training plan that works for you, your current fitness levels and your goals. You should focus on each of the following aspects of marathon training in the months leading up to the event to improve your overall fitness and running abilities.
1. Base mileage:
If it’s your first marathon, your goal should be finishing the race. Your training plan should concentrate on building up your running distance and endurance. Improving your base mileage — the number of miles you run — over time is a way to gradually increase your running ability.
You should begin jogging regularly, around three to four times a week, increasing your mileage by no more than 10% each week in the run-up to race day. For example, in week one, you may run a total of 10 miles across 3-4 runs, which you increase by 10% in week two, running 11 miles.
Once you’ve built up your base mileage and feel comfortable running at least 3-4 times a week, it’s time to start introducing a long run each week. Ideally, this should start 12 to 16 weeks before your marathon date, but this will depend on your fitness and running experience.
You should complete long runs at a slower pace, with a focus on building stamina. You may want to begin with a long run of eight miles and gradually increase by one to two miles each week until you’re running 20 miles or more.
3. Speed work:
If you’re looking to beat your personal best, incorporate hill sprints and interval sessions like HIIT training (a type of exercise alternating between periods of high intensity and rest).
And even if you just want to complete the marathon, whatever time you do it in, running at a faster pace during these workouts teaches your body to become more efficient at using energy and oxygen. Even fitting in a one-hour weekly HIIT session can lead to faster race times and improved performance during long-distance runs.
To learn more, read our beginner's guide to HIIT training, or book a visit to experience our facilities at Fitness First for free.
Rest days are essential during the training process, as they allow your body to recover and repair from the physical stress of running. This can prevent injury, reduce fatigue, and improve your overall performance.
Most training plans include one to two rest days per week, but how many you need will depend on your fitness level and general health.
Think about your nutrition
As you inch closer to the London Marathon, it's time to make sure you're fully prepared for the big day, which means ensuring you're getting the right nutrition.
Race week is all about being sensible. So, as well as being confident enough to ease off your training and not go crazy with any last-minute fitness tests, you should also consider prepping your ideal diet. By now, you'll understand just how important getting the right fuel can be, especially for big events, so be wary of opting for last-minute superfoods with the hope that they'll give you a boost on the big day.
Quality protein is key for building strength, especially if you combine your strength work with aerobic exercise. Still, you need to eat according to the training you're doing — don't just repeat the same meals each day! More carbohydrates are required to prep and refuel on intense training days, including the big day. However, rest days should focus more on protein and healthy fats to rebuild and repair muscle.
Some essential foods to add to your diet that will support your training efforts include:
- Basmati rice — Rice is a carbohydrate that provides a sustained release of energy over an extended period, so it's ideal for intense training days. Also, get your hands on some sticky rice to make yourself some rice cakes you can take out to refuel on long runs.
- Eggs — Eggs are fantastic little packages of protein, vitamins and minerals that support muscle recovery. If you're on a rest day or not training until the evening, an omelette or scrambled eggs are the perfect way to start your day.
- Beans and pulses — High in fibre, iron and B vitamins: eating a range of legumes is one of the best ways to ensure that vegetarians and vegans get their full complement of amino acids. And these amino acids aid muscle repair, helping to reduce soreness. Meat eaters should also stock up and ensure they're included in meals — mixed-bean chilli is a brilliant slow-cooked option!
- Turkey — The go-to choice for lean, quality protein. It's also high in beta-alanine, aiding high-intensity training and reducing fatigue. Adding turkey breast to most meals in your diet is effortless — you can even grill turkey steaks or use turkey mince to make a hearty chilli or some tasty burgers. Veggies and vegans should stock up on Quorn as a protein-packed meat-free alternative.
- Dark chocolate — Although reaching for milk chocolate is tempting, opt for 70% cocoa content or higher. Just a few squares of dark chocolate feel like a treat and deliver a decent dose of beneficial flavonols. These lower LDL cholesterol, stabilise blood-sugar levels and help to improve blood flow. Therefore, dark chocolate can improve overall health in small doses, possibly enhancing athletic performance.
- Tinned sardines in tomato sauce — These little gems are packed with omega-3 oils and quality protein. Plus, the tomato sauce is loaded with lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that can ease muscle inflammation. Mash onto some wholemeal toast for a fast, easy and effective recovery meal.
- Sweet potatoes — Baked, roasted or boiled in stews, sweet potatoes are a versatile carbohydrate source high in fibre, vitamins A, C and B6, and antioxidants. They have a lower glycemic index than regular potatoes, which means the energy release is more sustained.
You should test your nutrition when training; knowing what to eat before, during and after your race will make a big difference in how comfortable you are throughout the race. This is why you should always test out your nutrition while training.
Find out what pre-race carbohydrates fuel your long runs best and determine what quick source of calories works best for you during the race — be it gels, sports drinks or nutrition bars.
Never try a new form of nutrition on race day; you can’t afford to risk any gastronomical problems, so give your body what it’s used to.
Read our guide to the best foods you can eat before a run to learn more.
Get the running gear
Having the right running gear is crucial for any long race. Your running shoes are the most important part of your kit, and you should always ensure you are wearing the right type. If you’ve committed to a marathon, it’s worth having a gait analysis to see how you run and what shoe would work best for you.
The rest of your kit is also essential. Some people love the support of leggings or tights, while others prefer shorts. Women need a highly supportive sports bra for their long runs, and no runner should forget the importance of accessories, like gloves or athletic tape.
Just like your nutrition, never try out new running gear during a race. Wear something you know you’ll be comfortable and supported in and shoes you’re confident won’t hurt you.
Focus on sleep
The importance of sleep is something no marathon runner should overlook. It’s vital for the body’s recovery, and you should try to get seven hours a night at the very least. This should increase to eight hours a night the week before the race.
Lack of sleep can lead to stress, weight gain, slow muscle recovery and lack of concentration — all of which are detrimental to runners.
Set a goal
Setting the right kind of goals is the beginning is the difference between a smooth marathon journey and a difficult one.
Do you have a time in mind, or do you just want to complete it? Maybe you want to raise thousands for charity? The key to success is to write your goals down, set a few intermediate checkpoints, and away you go.
Prepare for the day
1. Book your accommodation as soon as possible
The London Marathon is an incredibly popular event with athletes from all over the world. If you’re not local, make sure you book your accommodation well in advance so you don’t end up paying extortionate prices or having to stay outside the city.
The morning of the race should be reserved for mentally and physically preparing yourself — not panicking about arriving at the start line on time. Having a bed ready and waiting for you in the city also means you’ll be able to enjoy a nice recovery session once you’re over the finish line.
2. Decide if you’re going to be sponsored
Completing a marathon is a massive achievement and an excellent opportunity to do something good. Many people will be willing to sponsor you to run such a long distance, and plenty of charities would love you to represent them.
Knowing that you’re running for a worthy cause will also spur you on and add to your feelings of accomplishment at the end of the race.
3. Get to know the route
It’s worth checking out the marathon route, getting to know what landmarks you’ll be passing and the areas where the crowds are. Having a grasp on whether a route is flat or hilly and where the water stops, and toilets are will help you plan your race better.
If you’re not from London, you can get to know your race via Google Maps.
4. Set up a playlist
A runner's motivation differs from person to person, but many people swear by a motivational playlist. Some runners like upbeat pop, others swear by fast-tempo rock, and some find their drive in Lebanese folk music.
Whatever your taste, create a fresh motivational playlist that will keep you going for the whole 26.2 miles. Make sure you have the right kind of headphones for running as well — you don't want to be distracted when you're in the zone!
London Marathon day tips
We’ve put together some tips for the morning, during, and after the race to help you perform at your best. You should begin to think and prepare for the actual event during the training period to almost guarantee a stress-free day.
The morning of the marathon
- Wake up early — Giving yourself plenty of time to get dressed, eat a nutritious breakfast, and make your way to the event is critical for a stress-free morning. This will keep you in high spirits, ready for your run.
- Make time for a carb-filled breakfast — Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose, giving you the energy to perform at your best during exercise. A high-carb breakfast, like porridge and banana or a bagel with peanut butter, two to three hours before your race will prepare you for the big day! Experimenting with different foods during training will help determine what works best for you.
- Hydrate — Drinking plenty of water before your race will keep you hydrated, especially if it’s a hot day. Just try not to drink too much, as this could cause discomfort and regular trips to the bathroom during your run!
- Try to stay calm — Take deep breaths, try to stay relaxed, and remember that you’ve trained hard for this moment. This will keep you focused and in the right mindset for the race.
During the marathon
- Pace yourself — Starting the race too fast could lead to burnout, so try to keep a steady, comfortable pace throughout the run. Energy is something you’ll need later on when you’re tired!
- Refuel — Sports drinks, gels, and nutrition bars are quick, easily digestible sources of calories you can eat during your run, helping you maintain energy levels.
- Hydrate — Make use of aid stations to drink water and sports drinks to prevent dehydration during your race.
After the marathon
It’s easy to simply think about the race ahead, but if you fail to plan for your recovery, you’re more at risk of injury and will take longer to recover overall. Although it’s tempting to immediately begin celebrating your incredible achievement, taking the time to do the following after you’ve finished running is the key to a quick recovery.
- Elevate your legs — Immediately after you’ve finished running, lie on your back and elevate your legs with a pillow or against a wall for 10 minutes. This will help with blood flow, reducing swelling, which occurs when blood pools in the legs. Foam rollers are also a great way to aid recovery after a marathon, helping the blood flow back into tight areas and back into muscles used specifically during the run.
- Rest — Ensure you have the rest of the day planned for relaxation and sleep, and keep your activity to a minimum for at least two days afterwards.
- Refuel — Eating a meal or snack that includes carbohydrates within 30-60 minutes after finishing the marathon can help replenish glycogen stores, increasing your energy levels which will have depleted after long-distance exercise.
For further recovery tips, take a look at our post-marathon recovery advice.
Reasons to run a marathon
Reminding yourself why you've chosen to do the London Marathon, whether it's to raise money for charity, boost your confidence, or try something new, can encourage you during training or even on the big day. You could write your reason down and stick it somewhere you often look to keep you moving towards your goal when motivation is low.
And, of course, once you've got the running bug, you'll quickly realise there are no limits to what you can do. The London Marathon has played host to almost every incredible story you can imagine, with runners defeating seemingly impossible barriers.
Here are some common reasons people choose to run a marathon.
1. To improve focus
We all know focusing the mind is important, especially during a marathon. And there’s loads of science out there which concludes that running promotes mental and physical health, which then helps when it comes to concentration and problem-solving.
Training is all about focus and routine, and marathons are tremendous for getting you into the right mindset. Even once the run is over, the excellent focus you have developed during training will stick with you, allowing you to set and achieve your daily goals. This can improve productivity, reduce stress, and improve our overall well-being.
2. To improve your diet
Marathons are odd things; to the outsider, they seem to come with all sorts of dietary requirements you could never stick to. However, once you start training, you'll be more aware of nutrition, and you may find yourself making healthier food choices, as you know they'll improve your performance.
Dinners involve more carbohydrates for vital fuel, fats suddenly become a friend that rebuilds muscle after a hard workout, and hydration is vital, as it includes electrolytes that help prevent muscle cramps.
Throughout your training, you will discover what works for you. Sure, you may still have a beer at the weekend, but you'll understand the consequences for your next run and get back to healthy eating.
3. To increase your strength
Running can do so much for your overall fitness; it improves the mobility and flexibility of tendons and ligaments, making them stronger. Throw in a bit of speed work, and muscles start to put on a bit of bulk as well.
This can make it easier to perform daily activities like bending and lifting, and you’ll be less susceptible to injury.
4. It may make you feel younger
Muscle power declines about 7 per cent a decade, meaning that by the time you’re 65, you’re about a quarter as strong as you were in your 20s. Unless you take up running! Running won’t stop the natural decline, but combined with a gym session or two a week or the odd Pilates class, you’ll slow it right down.
5. It encourages healthy competition
Chances are, you’ll line up in a marathon, not concerned with where you finish. This is absolutely fine and a great strategy for runners of all abilities.
After the race, you’ll probably check where you finished overall, where you were in your age group and how well your friends and colleagues did. This means that you’ll probably look to improve the next time you race, which is great!
Investing in a GPS watch can help you out with training and improving your speed and endurance. It’s an excellent way of tracking improvement, keeping you motivated on those rainy days where sitting on the couch seems a better option than a quick five-miler!
6. It’s a great way to see the world
As you can see from the London Marathon, the course includes some spectacular sights — Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace, to name a few.
However, there are so many other races out there. How about a run by Loch Ness (there’s a great marathon there) or along the seafront at Brighton? And what about a marathon that finishes on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii? Or perhaps New York, Berlin, Paris, or almost every major tourist destination you can think of, including Everest and the Great Wall of China? The possibilities are endless!
Surprising facts about marathons
To get you in the spirit of training for the London Marathon, we’ve put together some interesting facts about marathons.
1. Running a marathon burns over a day’s worth of calories
Although the number of calories burnt while running varies slightly from person to person, with weight, gender and speed all playing their part, Healthline estimates running a mile burns around 100 calories. As you’ll be running 26.2 miles, you’ll burn a whopping 2,620 calories during a marathon, which is around a day’s worth for some people!
2. The 100 Marathon Club is a real thing
Entry to The 100 Marathon Club is reserved for runners from the UK and Ireland that have completed 100 marathons or more. The club record is held by Steve Edwards, who, as of September 2021, has completed a total of 1,188 marathons!
3. The fastest marathon was under two hours
Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya holds the record for the fastest marathon. He ran the distance in 1 hour, 50 minutes, and 40 seconds! For comparison, the average finish time is 4 hours and 18 minutes for men and 4 hours and 44 minutes for women.
4. The oldest person to run a marathon was 100 years old
The oldest marathon runner is Fauja Singh, born in 1911, who ran the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon aged 100 in a time of 8 hours and 11 minutes.
Eight years earlier, he set the marathon record for the 90+ category in a time of 5 hours and 40 minutes.
5. The coldest marathon ever was -52 degrees Celsius
The coldest marathon ever recorded was the 2007 Yukon Arctic Ultra, which took place in February in Canada's Yukon Territory.
During the 2007 event, temperatures dropped to a bone-chilling -52 degrees Celsius, making it the coldest marathon on record. Only a small number of runners were able to complete the course, with many experiencing frostbite, hypothermia, and other cold-related injuries.
6. Olympic marathons for women didn’t start until 1984
For a long time in the 20th century, women were not allowed to take part in marathon races, and it was believed the distance was too physically challenging. The first women's Olympic marathon was not until 1984 when Joan Benoit Samuelson won the race in a time of 2 hours and 24 minutes. Her victory was a historic moment for women's sports, and it helped to pave the way for greater recognition and opportunities for female athletes in the years to come.
7. A Chilean miner trained for a marathon while being trapped underground
Edison Pena trained for his first marathon while being trapped in the 2010 Chilean mine accident. He was trapped for over two months with 33 other miners and spent his time running 6 miles a day. He completed the New York marathon less than a month after being rescued from the mine.
8. A marathon can make you temporarily shorter
You could be half an inch shorter after a marathon, as the discs in your back leak water and become shorter under the repetitive strain of around 50,000 steps. But don’t worry; the result is only temporary, and research has shown that running can actually help form new disc cells and avoid disc degeneration.
Train for the London Marathon with Fitness First
Now you know how to prepare for the London Marathon, it’s time to start planning your training schedule. And at Fitness First, we have a wide range of fitness classes, personal training sessions and more to help you increase your fitness and endurance.
Or, if you’re not ready to do the full 26.2 miles and want to know how to train for a half marathon, take a look at our guide.
For more helpful tips and advice on fitness and nutrition, check out our blog.