Your Marathon Training Guide from a Running Coach & Physiotherapist

Written by: James Lee


Less than 6 months to go until the London Marathon…here’s your training guide.


The clocks have gone back, which for many marks the end of the outdoor season, but not if you’re on the list for the London Marathon in April 2024. Whether it’s your first time or your regular racer, it’s now time to start thinking about your plan for the big day.

At Healf, we focus on four pillars of health that promote true healthy living so we sat down with musculoskeletal physiotherapist and running coach, James Lee, to get the down low on exactly what you should be prioritising, now and in the future when you’re prepping for the big day

"It’s important to stay consistent with training, don't skip weeks in a plan if you have had time off training"

Q1. So James, the marathon is coming up and we know people should probably start thinking about their training now. How far in advance do you advise people to start training?

I would normally advise a minimum of 4-6 months of training prior to a marathon event.  This very much depends on where you are starting from of course. Those who have previous running experience or run long distance regularly may not require such a long training routine. It’s also important to consider what your goals are with the race too - do you aim to just to complete it (which is an achievement in itself), or do you have a specific time in mind? That will guide how much time preparation is needed.

Q2. Preparing for the big day - what should we be eating?

Nutrition preparation should begin when you start training and develop as you start to run for longer. It is important to be properly fuelled for endurance exercise so that your body has enough energy to complete the session. You wouldn’t put fuel in the car and expect it to travel a good distance!

I tend to work with my clients to understand what their body burns naturally at rest and how exercise then increases that output. It is important to not be in a calorie deficit when training for a marathon, this will impact your ability to recover properly, perform well and can increase the risk of injury. Longer runs require more fuel  before, during and after the run to recover. 

Q3.  What would be your protocol for someone running the marathon in April who wants to start training now?

This very much depends on the individual (their training history, injury history and goals). A training programme for a seasoned marathon runner will differ significantly from someone running their first marathon. However, every programme should involve:

  • Gradually increasing running volume in the week (miles or kilometres ran) each week by no more than 10-15% - this means that you won’t be going from 5k to 15k in a week!
  • A mixture of easy paced/easy effort runs - here we’re thinking interval runs and long runs building towards marathon distance. Majority of these runs should be at zone 2, in other words an easy conversational pace, so that you are primed for your tempo runs and speed work
  • De-load weeks where running volume and/or intensity reduces every 4th-5th week to have a natural reduction in training load so the body can recover. Recovery is incredibly important pre and post training, with consumption of fuel throughout the run too.
  • Strength training sessions - by strengthening your muscles, you can significantly reduce your risk of injury as your joints are less susceptible to damage and wear and tear
  • Cross training sessions to help build overall aerobic fitness. You might be training to run, but building your aerobic fitness is crucial. Think cycling, swimming or using a cross trainer.
  • Optimal rest and recovery - factoring in rest days, good sleep, a balanced diet (ensuring you’re fuelling and recovering correctly) with optimal protein and carbohydrates for recovery and fuelling, but there’s more on that to follow!

Q4.  What would be your advice for a new runner who's managed to grab a space?

Follow a structured and individualised running programme that is suitable for your running experience & avoid running on consecutive days. You’ll want to start with a short running distance and each week build this gradually. Your first few runs should be at an easy, conversational pace and build in faster running after a 6-8 week period of consistent running.

Don’t forget to include 2x strength workouts a week focussing on key muscle groups used when running such as Hamstrings, Glutes, Quadriceps and Calves and include cycling or cross training once or twice a week too.

Stay Consistent & Realistic…

It’s important to stay consistent with training, don't skip weeks in a plan if you have had time off / unable to run. The same goes with optimising nutrition for fuelling longer runs with carbohydrates and recovering well across the week consistently with protein, carbohydrates and a balanced diet.

Don't try anything new on the day

No new shoes, gels, nutrition, caffeine etc - if you've used it before and it has gone well - stick with it!

Most importantly, enjoy the training process and enjoy the big day itself!

Q5. Could you advise any exercises runners can do at home?

Linking back to the importance of strength training alongside aerobic exercise, I advise adding the below to your routine:
Split squats: This helps to build control in one leg as well as targeting key muscles used when running; 10-15 repetitions x 3 sets

Hamstring Bridges: The hamstring muscles are utilised in running and often under-trained so important to include them for this programme! I recommend using doing these on a single leg if able 10-15 repetitions x 3 sets

Calf raises: both with a straight and a bent knee: 12-15 each leg, slow and controlled tempo x 3 sets

Side planks: To build core strength and glute muscles required for stability with running. 30-60 seconds on each side x 3 sets

Q7. We always hear that carbs are the answer, what are your thoughts?

Carbohydrates are king in all aspects of nutrition for endurance sports. Especially marathon running and should be used before, during and after running. Working with a Nutritionist that specialises in sports can be incredibly beneficial but some of the key take homes are:

  • Before you run, consider a carbohydrate rich meal. Carbohydrates 1-2 hours before running will help with preparation and allow enough time for you to digest pre-run too.
  • Keep your stomach settled. Staying clear of foods that can upset or unsettle your gut pre-run is key. I tend to avoid foods that are too fibrous or rich. Think of this as the perfect time in training to practice what suits you well.

For runs of up to an hour our body can rely on the pre-run fuel, natural carbohydrate and fat stores to help maintain training efforts. As we get over the 1 hour mark of training it is then important to utilise a carbohydrate source mid run to continue to fuel ourselves. The amount of carbohydrate to utilise very much depends on the duration you are aiming to complete the run in, what your gut is happy to tolerate and your needs from a body composition perspective.

Q8.  What about gels and hydration?

It is commonplace for people to use gels, such as those from Maurten, during running events now with most gels containing around 30g of carbohydrates (similar to a banana). It is important to practice using the gels in your training runs to the same amount you are hoping/required to use when competing. I recommend starting on the lower end of the recommended amount and build up your gut tolerance to higher carbohydrates while running.

Post run it is important to refuel with a balanced meal (protein, carbohydrates and fat) and this should continue in the days following a big endurance event!

Hydration is another important piece of the puzzle for nutrition when training and during the race. In a similar light to carbohydrates during running it is important to practice the intake of electrolytes prior to race day. Everyone has different rates of sweat (weather dependent) and sweat can have a higher concentration of sodium in it. You can perform a sweat rate test on some training runs to understand how much you sweat and therefore how much fluid you need to replace to stay hydrated. The 'saltiness' of your sweat (whether you leave behind white marks on clothes, or the dog licks you!) can be estimated by certain companies also. You can do a more specific sweat test to understand what concentration of sodium is required within the fluid you are taking on throughout your running.

Within Jame’s coaching, he offers training video analysis of running techniques whilst optimising training programmes. As a musculoskeletal physiotherapist he supports clients returning from injury in collaboration with coaches and to help individuals get back on track with training for an event. Find out more here.


This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Healf