13 top tips for improving your marathon performance

Whether it’s your first marathon, or you’re an experienced long-distance runner, effective preparation before the race and knowing what to do after the race is key to a solid performance and good recovery.

We spoke to our expert physiotherapists at the King Edward VII’s Hospital Physiotherapy Unit and discovered their top tips for guiding your marathon preparation for the best results.


1. A one size marathon training plan doesn’t fit all

There are plenty of marathon training plans available online, each one differs slightly depending on your ability, available time and previous long-distance running experience. Some are based on time spent running, others are based on how far.

However, they won’t all suit you. The most important thing is finding one that fits in with your lifestyle and fitness level. Pushing too far can result in injury or not having enough recovery time before race day, and not pushing enough may hinder your performance.

Training for, and running a marathon is far from easy, it will push you to your limits mentally and physically. So a marathon training plan isn’t going to be painless, but it’s important to listen to your body and if you have any current injury it’s best to be seen by a sports and exercise specialist or physiotherapist as early as possible.


2. Importance of trainers and clothing

Wearing the right footwear is more important than many people think. Don’t be tempted to buy a pair of trainers based on what they look like, it’s far better to choose trainers based on your feet and the way you run. Do all of your training and run your marathon in the same running shoes to avoid blisters as much as you can on race day.

In terms of the rest of your kit, everyone has different preferences, but wearing whatever is most comfortable for you is crucial to your success. Some like to run in shorts for minimum disruption, some like compression leggings. Some like a running vest with arm warmers that can be removed, others prefer a longer sleeved top throughout.

Wearing something new, that chafes, twists or causes discomfort or annoyance on race day is the last thing you need. Experiment with your kit during training, not on race day!


3. Warm ups work

Do you want improved endurance and reduced injury risk? Then complete a dynamic warm up before every run. It should incorporate active movements to get your muscles primed and firing, especially important if you have been sitting in an office all day.

Think of legs swings, lunges and jog throughs to name a few. No more static stretches before your run — save them for after.


4. Don’t neglect strength training

Training for a long-distance run might make you focus all your efforts on running. However, sharing her experience Roseanne Feinberg, Lead OP Physiotherapist here at King Edward VII’s Hospital, has seen that the majority of injuries we see at the Hospital, are those who have only focused on running when training.

It is important to incorporate strengthening to ensure your muscles have a good length tension relationship to decrease the likelihood of overuse injuries and optimise performance.

It is recommended that you book in for an assessment to get a specialised programme from your physiotherapist as there is no one size fits all approach due to the unique muscular balances our bodies have.

The specialised programme could incorporate balance, strengthening, yoga and pilates exercises for your legs and core. Which, come race day, could be the difference between a win or loss over your running buddy.


5. Treat your niggles

Be kind to your body, and after a long run remember to stretch, massage and self trigger point your tight muscles. If they remain untreated they can cause biomechanical abnormalities in your running gait and can lead to overuse injuries.

It’s advised that you consult a physiotherapist first who can guide you on which technique would be most suited for you.


6. Rome wasn’t built in a day

You shouldn’t increase your total mileage each week during your training by more than 10%. For example, if in the earlier weeks you run a total of ten miles, aim to run a total of 11 the following week. Later on, if you run 20 miles in one week, run 22 the following week.

Remember, if you miss a day, then don’t berate yourself. It’s more important to be at your peak on race day, than to try to squeeze in too much training around your daily life and become overwhelmed.


7. Keep hydrated

Some marathon runners describe “hitting the wall” at around mile 17 or 18, and this is in part down to dehydration when they’ve lost valuable electrolytes such as sodium.

Dehydration can lead to fatigue and cramping, and on especially hot days can lead to heat exhaustion and the end of your race.

While training, aim to drink enough so that your urine is always the colour of pale straw. Any darker, and you’re not drinking enough. Drink regularly during your marathon, every four or five miles, and if necessary, consume an energy drink for added electrolytes.


8. Have a running buddy

Having someone to run with on a regular basis, and even complete your marathon with, has enormous benefits. Running buddies add an element of competitiveness and drive and can help keep each other focussed and committed.


9. Reap the rewards of rest days

All good training plans will incorporate rest days. Without rest days, you may overtrain and sustain an injury. Have at least one rest day a week. Use your rest day wisely, and this doesn’t have to mean sitting on the sofa. A rest day is a perfect day for a session of stretching, yoga or pilates.

Good sleep and nutrition is important too. Make sure you have good ‘sleep hygiene’, that is, a good routine in the evening that allows you to wind down, switch off and sleep restfully. Avoiding the blue light from your phone, not drinking caffeine or alcohol before you go to bed and making sure your bedroom is cool, dark, comfortable and free from clutter will all help you sleep better.


10. Don’t stop moving

Rest is important, but equally important is your recovery run — or your first run after completing your marathon. When to do this also requires you to listen to your body, as there are no hard and fast rules as to when to begin running again.

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS, will usually start a day or two after marathon day. DOMS causes stiff, painful muscles due to tiny tears within the muscle fibres from running for sustained lengths of time. The more pain you feel, the more tears that need to repair.

Most physiotherapists suggest completing a recovery run within the first three to seven days after running a marathon, depending on your level of DOMS.

Run at a slow pace, slower than your own personal marathon pace, and aim for under an hour. If it feels too painful, then you may have ventured out too soon. Give it another day or two and try again.


11. Build in other light, recovery exercise

During this recovery time, light exercise will help to improve circulation and help supply blood and oxygen to the muscles. This will leave your muscles less stiff and able to heal and recover more quickly.

Better circulation helps to remove the metabolic waste that would’ve built up during running and also speed up recovery.

As well as light running, build in other types of low intensity exercise such as walking, swimming and cycling. You could also try foam rolling, that will help to knead out knots and tightness that will hinder your mobility.


12. Stretch and practice yoga during training and beyond

Undoing tight muscles will enable you to stretch more effectively, so using a foam roller will also benefit your ability to stretch. Practising yoga is a really effective way of stretching your muscles, and importantly, also relaxing your body and mind.

Running can result in sorer, tighter muscles. Lengthening and loosening them with yoga helps to elongate your muscles, in turn improving your balance, meaning that you’re less likely to sustain an injury. Yoga forms part of an efficient marathon training plan from beginning to end.

We recommend at least two sessions of restorative yoga practice a week, both during your marathon training and as part of your recovery.


13. Practice reverse tapering after marathon day

Once your DOMS has settled and you’re feeling fully recovered, a good way to get back into a running schedule is to reverse the tapering runs you would’ve been running prior to your marathon.

For example, try a couple of regular weekday runs of between three and six miles ending with a longer weekend run of six to eight miles. Then depending on whether you’re running another marathon this season or not, tailor your longer runs to suit.

If you’re not, then perhaps make your longest weekend run ten miles, with regular shorter weekday runs. If you are, or you just want to run further, after a weekend run of ten miles, aim for a half marathon distance the following weekend and then pick up your usual marathon training regime.


More information

  • These physiotherapist-led tips will help you prepare well and support your body during the race as well as afterwards.
  • If you’re injured, the King Edward VII’s Hospital Physiotherapy Unit is on hand to give you help and advice to help you get back to running at your best.
  • Our Sports and Exercise Medicine Department also helps those with running and other sports injuries, in conjunction with our physiotherapy teams.