7 Practical Strategies For Surviving Your First Marathon

Running your first marathon is a massive life event – completing 26.2 miles on foot is a testament to your dedication, your training, your grit, and your athletic prowess.

And while I always advocate that 90% of your race day performance depends on your marathon training, there’s the 10% left on the table for race day which can make a huge odds.

No matter how many miles you clock during your training, the decisions and actions you take on race day itself can make the difference between a great, or terrible, race.

A great first marathon result is a combination of a well-prepared body, and a strategic approach to the race.

With that in mind, here are my 7 top strategies for your first marathon, to help you survive – if not thrive!

1. Have a Start Line Plan

Before you even arrive at the race location for your first marathon, you want to know exactly what your plans are at the start line.

Start lines can be big, busy, confusing places with huge lines for portaloos and bag drop services, and confusion and anxiety as to where you’re actually meant to go when the race starts.

Here are some of my tips for your start line strategy:

  • Arrive with an abundance of time, if the logistics allow for it. It’s safe to assume that most runners plan to arrive around 30 minutes before the race begins, and in bigger races this can cause a huge influx of people that overwhelms the facilities. Try to get there 15-20 minutes before the crowd so you’ve got time to do anything you need to (bib pick-up, toilet visit, bag drop) and to figure out where the start line is.

  • Plan to visit the bathroom, at least once. Race nerves get to every runner, whether it’s your first marathon or your 50th. So even if you go to the bathroom 30 minutes before the start, you’ll probably need to go again 10 minutes before the gun goes off. Keep an eye on bathroom lines and listen to your bladder, but in general, take advantage of the facilities before the race starts.

  • Warm-up gently in the 15-20 minutes before the starting gun fires. Things like light jogging, jumping on the spot, and dynamic stretching can help to waken up those stiff, sleepy muscles – especially if you have an early-morning start. Just be aware that the effects of a warm-up are only good for about a quarter-hour, so don’t perform them too far in advance.

  • Most medium to large city marathons have different starting pens to group runners with others of a similar ability. Make sure you’re aware of which starting pen you’re assigned to, and figure out how to get there.

    TIP: try to make your way towards the front line of your starting pen, especially in a big marathon. That way you’re less likely to be held up behind other runners when the race starts.

  • Chug your pre-race snack (energy gel, for example) 15 minutes before the starting gun. Most of these sports nutrition products take around 15 minutes to actually digest and kick in (refer to the label for exact timings).

  • Get your GPS watch ready; it’s very easy to forget all about it when the race begins, and then only realize you missed it a few hundred meters down the road. Keep your finger over the START button, but don’t push it until you cross the start line (forget about when the starting pistol goes off, that’s the gun time. Your time is measured by a timing chip, and begins when you physically cross the start line).

2. Don’t Go Out Too Fast

This is my most important recommendationespecially for first-time marathon runners – in terms of things you can get right or wrong on race day.

The simple truth is that in any given marathon, most runners go out too fast.

It can be hard to avoid, and it’s something I’ve certainly been guilty of.

After months of preparation, your legs have never been more poised in their life. The big day arrives, and the infectious energy and anticipation at the start line flows into your bloodstream.

By the time the starting pistol fires, your brain is firing with adrenaline – making every step feel light and free.

It feels like you’re gliding rather than running, and it’s easy. You get the sensation that you could go even faster, so why not?

Warning: this is an enormous error!!!

The faster you go at the start of the race, the more you’ll suffer in the later stages.

So, how fast should you run?

This brings me to my next point…

3. Aim For a Constant Pace Throughout Your Marathon

I could spend a good few hours talking about the merits of various marathon pace strategies, but to keep it simple if you’re running your first marathon I recommend aiming to hold a constant pace throughout.

Holding a constant pace throughout your entire 26.2 miles means that:

i) you’ll be holding back in the 1st half of the marathon

ii) you’ll be able to tap into those stored reserves in the 2nd half to maintain your pace.

This is especially true in those first few miles, when it’s tempting to go faster. The problem with this approach is that the faster you go, the more rapidly your muscles will fatigue…and will more likely lock up and refuse to run in that 2nd half.

A constant pace means that you’re never over-stressing your cardiovascular system, your fuelling abilities, or your muscles – everything is going to operate at an even rate which is *hopefully* sustainable for your entire 26.2 miles.

What should your pace be?

If you are aiming for a specific finishing time, you want to run at a pace that’s about 5 minutes faster than what’s necessary – those 5 minutes will allow for any toilet stops, unplanned issues, or slow-downs.

Check out our marathon pace charts to figure out what pace correlates with your target finish time.

If you have no time-based goal and simply want to finish your marathon, my recommendation is that you run your race at a conversational pace – this means a speed at which you can comfortably sustain a conversation with someone next to you. It definitely helps to figure out what this pace is in training, so you can stick to it on race day.

Whatever you do, try not to wing it on race day – it increases your probabilities of hitting the wall, getting injured, and having a horrible experience

strategies for your first marathon

4. Take Nutrition Seriously

One of the most important strategies for your first marathon to get right is your fuelling strategy.

It’s something many runners don’t spend enough time on, especially rookie runners who don’t have that much distance running experience.

You want to be eating small amounts regularly throughout your marathon – energy gels are the perfect solution, as long as you’re comfortable with them.

Which brings me to my next point – trial all your fuel in advance during your training…don’t leave anything to race day.

Your stomach does funny things during long runs – mainly because your body prioritises blood flow to your muscles, so your stomach gets a little neglected – and suddenly, something as innocuous as a banana can have you laying on the deck, battling stomach cramps.

5. Use Music As Motivation – Sparingly

There’s been a slew of studies that prove listening to your preferred playlist can improve your performance, so I encourage you to take your headphones along to your marathon.

But a word of advice, from experience:

Don’t listen to music throughout your marathon. Save it for the last 5-10 miles or so, when you are uncomfortable and need some inspiration to push you through.

If you listen to music for the entire run, you’ll find that it’s effects gradually wane, and when you really need that boost it won’t be so potent.

Keep your playlist upbeat, inspiring, and stick to old favourites.

6. Remember That Walking Is OK

Walking, in fact, can be part of a well-planned walk/run strategy that can lead to an impressive finishing time!

Don’t be too quick to dismiss the idea of taking a walking break – or several – during your marathon. At times, it can be a very effective way to give your overwhelmed legs some respite, before pushing on.

And it’s worth noting that a brisk walker will have the same pace as a plodding jogger. So don’t feel too bad about stopping to march – just keep the tempo up.

7. Take Advantage of my FREE Marathon Training Bootcamp!

Guys, I run a FREE 5-Day marathon training bootcamp – it includes a bunch more stuff on race strategy, as well as much more advice for your marathon training.

I give you access to all my training plans, and each day check in with some fresh marathon training advice!

If you’re interested, drop in your details below – and I’ll get right back to you:

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

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 good beer. More at his bio.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.