With a busy working schedule, regular business trips abroad and a family, it can be hard to fit in training for a Marathon.
Since running my first official marathon – London 2014 - which I finished in 3 hours 17 minutes, I’ve learnt a few things about myself, and more importantly from others that helped me build on that first outing. I thought I’d share how I manage to train for a marathon with a busy schedule - with a huge caveat that I’m simply an amateur runner with no medical or professional training; or qualifications.
At the end of the day, in my opinion, there’s only one way to prepare for a marathon and that’s to get out there and run. A lot.
With the London Marathon just over a couple of months away, you might be surprised to hear the one time you’re unlikely to see me out running is at weekends. After a busy week at work, I always try and reserve my weekends for family time, as well as a well-earned day or two of rest. As a result, I’ve had to come up with some ‘work-arounds’ to fit the miles in, as well as develop better habits to keep me on course.
Have a consistent routine
The key thing with marathon training is to have a consistent routine. Whilst I’m never really sure what I’m doing most weekends, beyond spending as much time as possible with the family, during the week my day normally starts at around 9am and finishes around 6pm, give or take half an hour. It’s called rush hour for a reason.
- The Run Commute
If you’re looking to identify a good time to practise regularly, replacing commuting time with running time is a great place to start. It takes me around 40 minutes to commute by train and tube, or 45-50 minutes to run. There’s no way I can spare time for a 50 minute run followed by a 40 minute commute, but adding 10 minutes onto my morning routine? That works.
I generally set off at 7.45am, get to the gym by 8.30am for a shower, and then arrive at work by 9am. I save 15 minutes before I leave home by not having a shower when I get up. Alternatively, I leave at 5.30pm to be home by 6.15pm, have a quick shower, and then I’m ready to spend half an hour with my daughter before bedtime.
Aiming to achieve a solid 10k during these sessions not only makes sense (it’s short enough to be completed before or after work), it’s also become the foundation for my marathon training. Though I appreciate there’s great wisdom to be had in trying to fit in other kinds of runs into my schedule- tempo runs, training runs, threshold pace interval training, Lasso 800s - I like the simplicity of sticking to a distance I know I can complete on a regular basis. Again, it’s all about consistency.
I get that many runners like to just get out there and be free, but when you’ve got a busy schedule a small amount of fuzzy planning makes a big difference. By fuzzy I mean having a reasonably firm idea of where you’re going to go, how long it’ll take, what you need to carry, etc, but understanding that you might run faster or slower for no good reason, and you might explore some side street or even get lost for a while.
I try and run to or from work three or four times a week, and then cycle or take public transport if all else fails. Or if it’s tipping it down. I’m not that dedicated (and I’m a speccy). I have to vaguely plan ahead, which means having shoes and a suit in the office, plus other clothes that don’t respond well to being stuffed into a backpack. I once had to buy shoes as I’d forgotten I’d taken my shoes home, and my Adidas weren’t going to work in an important meeting. You live and learn.
- Run routes
Living in Wandsworth and working in Soho means my commute is around 10km, mostly along the River Thames. London is a fantastically green city, with the majority (57%) of London covered with parks, canals and river routes. With so much green space, and such good public transport links, there’s all sorts of routes to be had that don’t involve too many busy intersections and polluted streets, and could be combined with a commute from further afield (a “half and half” commute).
- Travelling on business
When I travel on business I find great running routes on Google Maps in every city I go to. I’m next off to Los Angeles in March, and I’m already planning my jetlag-destroying early morning runs. Despite its car culture, LA is a runner’s dream with long straight boulevards, plenty of pavement (sorry, sidewalks) and the roads are pretty quiet until around 8am. From my hotel in Century City it is literally a right turn and then right again, and a straight run all the way for a sunrise over the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica 10km later. Then a taxi, or if I’m feeling energetic a run back to the hotel to make it a half marathon before breakfast.
Whilst that sounds very glamorous, I’ve found equally great morning runs whilst away on business in Frankfurt, Milton Keynes, Watford or Luton! It’s all a matter of looking for them!
Never forget: a marathon is simply 4 x 10.5km runs
Now whilst running a marathon is a little bit different to running a 10km, it’s always good to remember a marathon is simply 4 x 10.5km runs. I think a threshold run is runner speak for ‘running as fast as you can sustain without getting a stitch or collapsing’. That’s the only sort of run in my book. You get to know your distance and your threshold, and it can vary wildly for no good reason, but living life slightly on the edge is good mental as well as physical training.
With practice – running at least 3 times a week – you’ll find you can do a 10km run in your sleep. When I was flagging desperately on my first marathon with 10km to go I told myself I could do a 10km any day of the week, and just treat it as one of those!
Build up the distance with extended morning runs
Inevitably, you’re going to have to go the distance and build in a much longer run once a week. This is where those early morning sessions come in handy, again. You see, I’m actually a fan of fitting in a half marathon before work (see my article about running a half marathon before work with a group here). You’re training for a marathon after all, therefore you shouldn’t make a massive deal of a half marathon – doing it before breakfast, with a backpack on, puts the half marathon in its rightful place as a training run.
And, I always go for the extended morning run rather than the extended evening run. It’s ok for me to leave before breakfast once a week; much less so to turn up late from work through my own volition by having chosen to go for a run.
How and when to fit in the longer runs
When it comes to marathon training there’s no avoiding the fact that you’re going to have to fit in some seriously long training runs, peaking a couple of months before the big day. So, if you’re running London this year you need to fit in at least two long training runs in March.
I’m afraid there’s no other way to build endurance apart from endurance distance running. Running a 10km home then the next day a 10km to work (or your longer run) is good practice for running on tired legs, but sooner or later you’re going to have to extend your long run to 25km, then 30km and ideally beyond. For me it’s this 20-30km stage which can be the hardest, as the end is still so far away, but you’ve got to suck it up and make it mind over matter.
The good news is that the days are getting longer and milder, which means a 5am start isn’t out of the question for a long 3-hour training run before work – and the added distance gives you the opportunity to explore a different route. Luckily for me I’m in LA in mid-March, so one of my long training runs will be a 34km round trip to the Griffith Park observatory and back, but I’d be equally happy with a river run to Greenwich with the sun rising over the Thames often being just as beautiful as it rising over the Pacific Ocean (and with fewer Hollywood hills to conquer).
The Easter weekend and holidays can also give chance to break my golden rule of not running at weekends, but again using an early morning start so that you’re back in time for a huge brunch with the family or friends. Just remember that those shops that have always been open for essential top up drinks might well be closed, as I learned to my peril on my first long training run before my first marathon attempt (I ended up hydrating from a tap in a park intended for dogs!)
Enjoy the run and remember to rest
Be sure to relish the early morning sunrises, the fresh air, the river runs and parks; relish the tired legs and the exhaustion telling you you’ve pushed it further than you thought possible. Relish not being on a packed commuter train or stuck in traffic, but running free, even if some days you’re running slower than ever for no good reason.
Enjoy your weekends of rest - your body can only rebuild when it’s resting. Remember that exercise doesn’t make you fit, it's the rest that follows exercise that makes you fit. Eat as much good food as possible – you are what you run.
Smile – you’re a now a runner and you’re amazing!