How To Run a Marathon In Six Steps

Running a marathon is a mammoth task.  With so much training and things to consider, it is easy to forget crucial things or be under-prepared in one element.  In this post, I’ve boiled down the essential points required to run a marathon into six steps.

Last week I covered the essentials of marathon preparation.  Today I’m gonna go through the key points you need to follow on the big day.   Note: this is a distilled post – I’ve written many more in-depth marathon-running advice posts which you can explore here.


Here are my six steps to running a marathon:

1. Dress Appropriately

By the time you are lining up at the start line, there’s no excuse for not having the right clothing.  Your shoes should be a model that you’re familiar with and comfortable in – same goes for your socks.   Your shirt and shorts should be designed for running – other off-the-shelf products might absorb sweat and chafe after a few hours on your feet.  On that note, you should lightly lubricate your feet and any potential chafing areas – such as your nipples.  Raw, chafed skin is never pleasant – especially when you’re trying to run 26.2 miles.

A hat is useful for keeping the sun off your face, and I always wear a buff around my wrist which I use to wipe down any sweat.

If your race starts in the early morning, you may want to take extra layers with you while you wait at the start line and can discard when you start running.

(here’s our guides to selecting the right pair of running shoes, socks and shorts).


2. Here’s What to Bring with You

Besides clothing, there’s quite a lot to remember to bring along on marathon day.   You’ve got to remember your race bib (and maybe timing chip) – I always pin the bib to my race shirt the night before the race.  What else to bring?  You should bring along any gels or snacks you plan to use (more on that later).

I typically run with a running vest, which is a bit like a waistcoat with pockets.   It is super-light and allows me to carry a bunch of things during a marathon.  Along with my gels, I will bring a water bottle, sunglasses, a couple of wet wipes (in case I need to use a portaloo) and my phone – for music and photos.

Many people are more minimal in their approach, only bringing a couple of gels – if anything at all.   Finding room to carry anything more than two gels can be tricky – which is why I now opt for the running vest.

The other item that you want to bring along is a GPS device, discussed next!


3. Pace and a Good GPS

The secret to a well-run marathon is a fairly even pace throughout the race.  Go out too fast and you’ll crash and burn later on – it happens to a huge number of runners on every marathon I run.  Before you start your marathon, you should have at least an idea of what your rough finishing time should be.   From this, you can work out your pace.

It is easy to get carried away in a marathon and set off too quickly.   This is especially true at the start, when you may get swept along in the crowds and high energy.   Having a GPS device – normally a GPS watch – helps you focus on your target pace.

Some advanced marathoners run a ‘negative split’ pace – this means they actually speed up throughout the run.   Almost every first-time marathoner or novice, on the other hand, runs the second half of their marathon notably slower than their first half.

It’s easy to spot the consistent-pace runners at the finish line – they’re the ones with smiles on their faces, looking tired but happy.   The ambitious starters, on the other hand, have spent the last 10km battling with themselves and are likely in a lot of pain towards the end.   Finish with a smile on your face – choose an achievable pace and stick to it throughout.

How To Run a Marathon In Six Steps 1

4. What to Eat and Drink

In the morning of your marathon, you want to load up on foods that fuel – but avoid overeating.   My strategy is to prepare an energy smoothie, with bananas, oats, orange juice, peanut butter and a mixture of nuts and seeds.   This is an easy-to-process bomb of fuel that loads me up, ready for the marathon.

During your marathon, you want to eat things that quickly replenish your energy levels and are agreeable to your stomach.  Finding something suitable can be harder than it sounds.   For example, I really struggle to eat solid foods – like Clif bars – while I run, but fortunately, I don’t have much of a problem with energy gels.   Energy gels are small sachets of calorie-rich goo, designed to deliver you a fuel boost as quickly as possible.   They are also sickly sweet and many runners really struggle to process them.

Related: How Frequently Should You Take Energy Gels During Races?

If you can handle energy gels, I highly recommend them for marathons.   I typically take one GU gel at the start line, then one every hour during the race.  By the end of a marathon, I am usually starting to get kinda sick of the taste of them.   Each gel has different guidelines on how regularly to take them, so check out the instructions.

If gels aren’t your thing, look at what you can eat – and also find out what is provided at the aid stations.  Common examples of things marathoners eat are nut butters, bananas, fruit, sugary sweets – you have to find out what suits you during training, so you’re prepared for race day.

In regards to drinking and fluid levels, it is important to stay hydrated.  However, there is the flip side of drinking too much water.   This can lead to stomach slosh and a general grim feeling that can put a dampener on your race.   The latest medical advice for endurance sports is to drink to the point of quenching your thirst, and no more.   You should also drink small sips continuously, as opposed to all at once.

Salt levels can be funny things during marathons.   You excrete salt in your sweat, and your body needs a good level of salinity, so are you run it is a good idea to look at ways to replace those lost salts.   This can be through energy drinks or salty foods.  I typically take a couple of SaltStick salt tablets with me and swallow them around the halfway point.

Related: 18 Healthy Whole Food Alternatives To Gels For Runners


5. Aid Stations and Toilet Stops

Prior to the marathon, research the location and number of aid stations and toilets on the route.   Find out what the aid stations are going to provide because this can influence what you bring along.   For example, in a marathon with only one or two basic aid stations, I would bring along my own water bottles and plenty of gels.   Many city marathons, on the other hand, have aid stations practically every kilometre handing out water, energy drinks and snacks, so plan appropriately.

Knowing the location of toilets in advance can help a lot too.   Carb-loading, running far and especially eating energy gels can cause you to need to go at short notice.  This is also why I always bring a couple of wet wipes with me too – you can never be sure of the condition of race toilets, especially if a few dozen runners have passed through it before you did.


6. When Things Get Tough

Intrinsic to the idea of a marathon is the fact that is should be a challenge.   Factors that will influence how tough you find it include your underlying fitness level, how much training you put in and your ability to avoid injury.

However, it gets pretty tough for everybody at some point.   Some even hit The Wall – that terrible, energy-killing, invisible boundary that makes you want to call a taxi and go home then and there.

Here are some things to consider for when the going gets tough:

Walking is okay. If you get totally fatigued or injured, remind yourself that walking is alright.   In fact, it can give your legs a brief rest and let you get your energy back so you can run later.   I’ve seen myself implement a walk/run strategy when in a tough spot – walk for one minute, run for two – this helps you push through.

Your finishing time isn’t everything.   Say you reach the 20-mile mark after 3hrs and are completely done.   You had hoped to complete the marathon within four hours, but now that’s looking unlikely.   Well – it’s fine.  Instead of running those last 6 miles, you can walk them.   Even at a gentle walking pace, the longest it will take you is two hours – so then you finish a marathon within five hours.   That’s pretty sweet!   Those two hours of humble walking will be forgotten about when you cross the finish line.

Injuries.   Getting injured during a marathon is a complete bummer.   If you’re injured but can still sort-of run (for example, a calf strain), you’ve got to weigh up whether it is worth pushing on and potentially making your injury much worse.  Another option, as noted above, is to simply walk.   At least for a while.   See if you can shake off the injury.

DNF (Did Not Finish).   This is what gets published against your name in the results if you drop out of a marathon.  It completely sucks to DNF, but if you are having real issues – such as injury or illness – then sometimes there’s no other option.   A DNF can be hard to process, but there is usually a silver lining in the cloud.  Marathons are great achievements, and failing to complete one often makes people all the more determined to reach the goal later on.   Take the opportunity to address the gaps in your training, or the factors that led to your injury, and use them as motivation to rebuild yourself – stronger and ready for the next marathon.

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Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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