With 2020 well underway, how are your new year’s goals going? If you’re one of the tens of thousands of runners tackling your first marathon in 2020, chances are you’ve already pinned a training schedule to the fridge and are limbering your way through RED January, running every day.

The physical benefits of long-distance running are immense. New research funded by the British Heart Foundation shows that marathon runners can expect to see a drop in their blood pressure, as well as more elastic arteries - with older, slower entrants reaping the greatest benefits. Running also reduces your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, as well as strengthening joints and muscles.

And running also boosts mental health. Regular aerobic exercise improves sleep, mood and memory, decreases cognitive decline and aids the ability to cope with stress. Studies show that running can be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression, and leads to long-term changes in the brain in addition to releasing those short-term endorphins.

If your training has got off to a flying start - congratulations! But, as the saying goes, running is 90% in the mind. So if those 26.2 miles are in your sights, our seven steps can help you not only get into shape but also into the right mindset, to cross the finish line: 

  1. Plan ahead. Training for a marathon takes between 16 and 20 weeks, with at least three runs each week. There are many free training schedules online; find one with a mix of tempo and interval training and a weekly ‘long’ run, which should build up to 20 miles before race day.
  2. Keep in mind the reason behind your goal. You may be running to raise money for your favourite cause or to lose weight and improve your health. Positive imagery can help you focus, such as a photo of the person you’re running in memory of or a vision of yourself reaching the finish line.
  3. Focus on small training goals, not the overall picture. If you’re completely new to running, concentrate on achieving a 5K run without stopping, then focus on building the distance to 10K. The same applies to marathon day; set yourself a number of mile markers or visual landmarks beforehand and think about passing each one at a time.
  4. Warm-up and cool down properly, with stretching exercises and by walking for three to five minutes before each run. Factoring in a low-intensity exercise, such as yoga or pilates, to your weekly schedule will help improve flexibility and resistance to strains and sprains.
  5. Fuel your body well. Increase your protein intake during training, in order to speed up muscle recovery, and balance with carbohydrates for energy. Drinking plenty of fluids - on training and non-training days - is essential to repair damaged cells and keep joints in tip-top condition. Get used to eating and drinking during your longer training runs, whether you prefer to replenish with sweets, energy tablets or gel packs. Don’t be swayed by what you see other runners consuming on the day - stick to what works for you
  6. Take setbacks in your stride. It’s inevitable that some running sessions won’t go to plan, or that you’ll face illness or injury at some point during your training programme. Listen to your body and rest; it’s frustrating, but it’s the surest way of getting back to fitness in the ‘long run’ (sorry!).
  7. Reward yourself. Training for a long-distance event can be boring, challenging and lonely, but the thought of regular small treats or one big reward following your achievement can keep you motivated and your spirits up.

If a marathon is a stretch too far, there is still plenty you can do to boost your fitness and mental health goals. Read our guide to beating the January blues, as well as taking small steps to a longer life. And it’s never too early to get your little ones on the right ‘road’ to fitness by keeping active as a family in winter. Who knows, they might thank you in years to come, after completing their first marathon!