If you have been marathon training ahead of tackling the London Marathon for the first time this year, you’ll have spent a few months preparing yourself for the physical demands of running 42.2km (we hope!). You may also have prepared mentally by working out strategies for pushing through when the going gets tough.
There are, however, aspects of the London Marathon that are hard to prepare for if you haven’t done it before. With more than 40,000 people on the course and several times that number lining the London Marathon route to cheer them on, it’s one of the best races in the world. Even if you’ve completed one or two other races the chances are they won’t have entirely prepared you for what you’ll experience on the streets of the UK’s capital.
Fortunately, more than a million people have already completed the London Marathon, so there is a huge body of knowledge available to first-timers looking for useful advice. I’ve run the race five times, and Coach has been publishing advice from race veterans and elite runners like Olympian Mara Yamauchi since 2016. All that experience is gathered for your benefit right here. Read on for our top tips for first-time London Marathon runners.
1. Don’t Get New Gear At The Expo
“Tried and tested” is the mantra to live by for the gear and nutrition you use on marathon day. Snazzy new shoes could lead to blisters, a new T-shirt could be a chafing nightmare and that tasty new energy gel could result in a mid-race dash to a Portaloo. It’s worth checking out the range of gear at the London Marathon Expo and maybe picking up some kit to use after the big day, but stick with what you know for the race. Stay familiar, stay safe.
2. Download The Official Race App
The London Marathon is a supremely well-organized event and that extends to its free app, which is the best way to find out your exact finish time and splits quickly, as well as tracking other runners you might know around the course.
- Follow your favourite runners with the London Marathon tracker app
3. Use Vaseline
You can tackle chafing in all sorts of ways—tight base layers and 2-in-1 running shorts are a good bet—but having a trusty tub of Vaseline is a time-honored solution. It’s also useful for using as lip balm because breathing hard through your mouth, even on a warm morning, for 26.2 miles will chap your lips something rotten. A sticking plaster over each nipple is also an excellent preventative measure to consider.
4. Plan Your Routes To And From The Race Meticulously
Public transport on both Transport for London and Southeastern trains is free with your race number (tip 4½: don’t forget your race number), but with huge crowds of people heading to the race, don’t let travel become a nightmare. Work out how much time you need, then double it to be safe. And don’t underestimate how big Greenwich Park is—once you get there, you still have a pretty long walk to the starting area. On the way back time is less of an issue—but plan a route with minimal walking and stairs, obviously.
- London Marathon travel: How to get to the race
5. Download The Runner Guide
In the past, runners received a magazine containing all the details you needed to get to the start line, including relevant train times—but in a bid to become more sustainable, the race organizers now email these details and put them on the event website. Just make sure you download the final instructions to your phone before leaving for the start. You don’t want to be trying to access it on your phone as the signal strains under the demands of the crowds.
6. Get In The Loo Queue ASAP
More than 40,000 people will be running the London Marathon. That’s a lot of pre-race nerves, which leads to a lot of pre-race dashes to the Portaloos. Even if you don’t think you need to go, get into the queue when you can. Chances are by the time you make the front you’ll be grateful you did. Oh, and you'll probably need to go two or three times before the race starts. Funsies.
7. Bring Some Old, Warm Clothes With You
Once you’ve dropped off your bag at the race you’ll probably still have an hour or so to wait before you start running. Even if the weather looks great it’ll still be chilly when you’re in your shorts and T-shirt waiting for the start. There will be charity collection points around the start so you can wear old clothes to stay warm and then give them away before you start. You can also opt for the tried-and-tested “black bin bag” approach, if you have no clothes you’re happy to donate.
8. The Start Is Not The Start Of Your Race
It can take anywhere from two to 40 minutes to actually cross the line after the gun sounds because of the number of people filing through. This can be stressful if you’re not expecting it. Just relax and make sure you’re in the right pen. Speaking of which…
9. Get In The Right Starting Pen
Your London Marathon start time and place will have been determined in advance. There are four start zones—Blue, Red, Yellow and Green—and within those there are pens for runners expecting certain times. It’s important to be with runners going at your predicted pace so you don’t have to dodge slower people for the first few miles, or get swept up and set out too fast.
10. Don’t Panic If You’re Going Too Slowly At First
If you do start in a crowd of people running more slowly than you’d like, it’s not worth dodging around and pushing through in an attempt to up your pace. This will tire you out and you’ll probably still be running slowly anyway. Go with the flow for a couple of miles and you’ll find the crowds will start to thin out—then you can pick up the pace more easily. There are 26.2 miles to cover, so losing 30 seconds over the first couple of miles won’t kill your PR.
11. Don’t Succumb To Adrenaline In The First 7km
You will feel amazing at the start of the London Marathon. The excitement of the event coupled with a week or two of tapering means it’s easy to start quicker than you planned. That’s especially true between miles two and four where there is a long downhill section. It’s vital to stick with your planned pace and not let the adrenaline push you on too quickly. There’s a lot of distance still to cover. More than you think, in fact…
12. Remember You’re Going To Run More Than 42.2km
Bit of a downer, right? With all the people you have to dodge, the chances of you following the most direct racing line are more or less nil. It probably won’t be that much more than 26.2 miles, but it’s another reason to go with the flow early rather than weaving constantly to try to get through the starting scrum. And there’s one more way to minimize wasted effort.
13. Keep An Eye On The Thin Blue Line
During your marathon you’ll notice a blue line on the road. This line marks the most direct race line for the event, and is the accurately measured distance for the marathon. If you’re shooting for a PR, this is the line to stick to where possible.
14. Prepare For Your GPS Tracker To Be Wrong
The GPS on even the best running watches isn’t perfect, so you can expect the total distance it logs to be a few hundred meters out. Pace yourself with the mile and kilometer markers on the course and use your tracker as a general guide. If you’re set on a certain time, grab a pacing band at the Expo or online so you see what time you need to hit at each mile without having to do the math on the fly.
15. Don’t Be Afraid To Use The Toilet During The Race
This might sound obvious, but if you’re gunning for a time and you feel the urge to answer the call of nature, don’t fight it. Just go to the toilet—they’re found every two miles on the course. Running in discomfort with the added stress of trying to hold it in will ruin that part of the event for you, and you have a lot of distance to make up any time lost. Plus you’ll feel so good after you’ve gone that you’ll probably sprint the next bit fast enough to get back on pace anyway.
16. Look At The Race Map In Advance
Check the London Marathon route not to avoid making a wrong turn but to find out what is on offer along the way and when. Water is available every two miles, and sometimes there is Lucozade Sport on offer as well or instead; at miles 14 and 19 you get running gels if you want them. It’s worth using these to save on the ones you have to carry yourself.
15. Don’t Down Your Gels
It’s vital to top up your carb stores during the race, but sip your gels—don’t down them. As running coach Nick Anderson told us when we spoke to him about long runs, if you gulp your gels the odds of upsetting your stomach will rise fast.
“Quite often people whack the gel down like it’s a Jägerbomb, and suddenly 40g of carbohydrate is hitting the stomach wall and the body can’t deal with it,” says Anderson.
“The side effects of that are stomach ache, needing to go to the loo, feeling nauseated. The best thing you could do is to sip on a gel and take five to 10 minutes to finish it. Then the absorption rates are higher.”
18. Take Headphones
The London Marathon is a uniquely well-supported event full of incredible landmarks, but the whole course doesn’t involve the screaming crowds on Tower Bridge or the Mall. There are sections like the Isle of Dogs where the crowds will thin and you’ll be pleased to have some music or podcasts to listen to. Some people also find the constant cheering a bit wearing, so you may want to block it out after a while anyway.
19. Consider What You Need At The End Carefully
After you put your body through a marathon it understandably needs some support once you cross the finish line, so it’s worth packing some select items into your race bag to collect afterwards. Warm clothes are a must—your body temperature will drop after running a marathon even on a hot day—and a change of shoes is usually nice as well. You may also want a certain kind of food to help you kick-start the recovery process.
- This London Marathon recovery plan is essential pre-race reading
20. You Get A Load Of Free Stuff With Your Medal
Naturally, completing a marathon is its own reward, but it’s also great to get free things with your medal afterwards. Check out our London Marathon medal freebies round-up to see what you can get.
21. Kit Makes The Best Souvenir
I’ve run London five times and picked up a variety of trinkets, like keychains, along with medals and race tees, but a souvenir you’ll use regularly is the one to go for to commemorate the day, and running kit fits the bill perfectly. The race sponsor, New Balance, has a range of London Marathon 2023 kit including the official London Marathon jacket, or for something even more eye-catching, US brand Tracksmith sells limited-edition gear around all the major marathons.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.