London Marathon Guide: History, Course, Training and Tips For Race Day

While the mere thought of running a 26.2-mile marathon is enough to leave many exhausted, some cannot wait to sign-up for the sheer thrill and excitement marathons bring. 

The London Marathon is one of the six World Marathon Majors that attracts runners from across the world. They want to take on the challenge of running one of the world’s most famous marathons – both for the accolade of having a London Marathon finishers medal around their neck and for the joy of achieving their goal.

Join us as we take you through the details surrounding the London Marathon by looking at its history, the course and its features, how to qualify for the event, and great training tips and strategies. 

This is the London Marathon. 

History of the London Marathon

The London Marathon has a long, rich history and was first run in March 1981. Created by Chris Brasher, an Olympic Games steeplechase gold medalist, and John Disley, a local runner, the London Marathon was inspired by the New York Marathon. It has since become a popular run that sees tens of thousands of runners take to the streets of London to win the coveted title and earn themselves that million-pound cash prize. 

While the introductory race only had 7,741 runners, this number has grown, and the most recent marathon in 2023 saw over 49,000 people on the starting line. Unsurprisingly, the London Marathon is the most watched marathon in the world, with over 5 million people tuning in to watch runners do it tough.

More formally called the TCS London Marathon, Virgin Money has sponsored the event for the last few years. It’s the second-largest run in the United Kingdom after the Great North Run in Newcastle.

It has a mostly flat course and takes runners on a scenic journey around the Thames and past some incredible landmarks, including the London Eye, Cutty Sark, the Tower of London, and Big Ben.  

The London Marathon has, of course, seen a few notable moments since the first run back in 1981. Here are just a few of the more pertinent highlights you should be aware of:

  • 1981: The very first London Marathon takes place. The 26.2-mile race had its starting line in Blackheath, with runners crossing the finish line on Constitution Hill. The London Marathon saw its first and only tie for first place as American Chris Beardsley and Norwegian Inge Simonsen crossed the finish line holding hands with a time of 2:11:48. 
  • 1982: The finishing line of the London Marathon was changed to Westminster Bridge. This remained the finishing line until 1993, when it was changed to The Mall, a popular road in Westminster in front of Buckingham Palace. This year, the United Kingdom celebrated a double-win as both the men’s and women’s races were won by Brits Hugh Jones and Joyce Smith. 
  • 1983: The London Marathon event date changed from March 29th to April of that year. Wheelchair entrants were permitted to enter the London Marathon. Denise Smith and Gordon Perry won the women’s and men’s races, respectively. 
  • 1994: Katrin Dörre-Heinig of Germany won the race for the third year in a row, becoming the first runner (of five) ever to do so at the London Marathon.
  • 1996: Mexican runner Dionicio Cerón earned his third consecutive win at the London Marathon, becoming the first man to do so.
  • 2003: UK’s Paula Radcliffe completed the marathon in 2:15:25, a world record that still stands today.
  • 2005: The segment around the Isle of Dogs (between miles 14 and 21) switched from clockwise to anticlockwise.
  • 2006: The London Marathon became part of the World Marathon Majors, joining other popular marathons like the New York City and Boston Marathons. Italy’s Francesca Porcellato became the first runner to win four consecutive London Marathons.
  • 2016: Tatyana McFadden of the USA becomes the second (and only other) runner to win four consecutive London Marathons.
  • 2019: Fundraising efforts see runners and their sponsors raise £66.4 million for charity, the highest amount raised in a single day for any fundraising event. The chosen charity for 2019 was Dementia Revolution. This year also saw Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge set the men’s course record by completing the race in 2:02:37.
  • 2020: Covid enters the equation and sees the London Marathon moved to October that year. The event was eventually run as a virtual event that saw 37,966 people run the race within the 24-hour window, landing it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the “Most Users to Run a Remote Marathon in 24-Hours.”
  • 2021: The London Marathon was postponed to October.
  • 2022: The London Marathon was once again postponed to and run in October. 
  • 2023: The latest edition of the race saw a staggering 43,965 participants cross the finish line from a starting group of 49,272 runners – that’s a finish rate of 89%.

The London Marathon is one of the six marathons that form the World Marathon Majors. The others are New York City, Tokyo, Chicago, Boston and Berlin.

Course Records and Wins

While the London Marathon might be “newer” than the other marathons that form the World Majors, it has had its fair share of world records shattered and new course records set. 

Here are the winners of the London Marathon since 1981:

Men’s Division

YearWinnerNationalityFinish Time
1981Dick Beardsley and Inge SimonsenUSA and Norway2:11:48
1982Hugh JonesUnited Kingdom2:09:24
1983Mike GrattonUnited Kingdom2:09:43
1984Charlie SpeddingUnited Kingdom2:09:57
1985Steve JonesUnited Kingdom2:08:16
1986Toshihiko SekoJapan2:10:02
1987Hironi TaniuchiJapan2:09:50
1988Henrik JorgensenDenmark2:10:20
1989Douglas WakiihuriKenya2:09:03
1990Alister HuttonUnited Kingdom2:10:10
1991Yakov TolstikovRussia2:09:17
1992Antonio PintoPortugal2:10:02
1993Eamonn MartinUnited Kingdom2:10:50
1994Dionico CeronMexico2:08:53
1995Dionico CeronMexico2:08:30
1996Dionico CeronMexico2:10:00
1997Antonio PintoPortugal2:07:55
1998 Abel AntonSpain2:07:57
1999Abdelkader El MouazizMorocco2:07:57
2000Antonio PintoPortugal2:06:36
2001Abdelkader El MouazizMorocco2:07:11
2002Khalid KannouchiUSA2:05:38 (world record)
2003Gezaghegne AberaEthiopia2:07:56
2004Evans RuttoKenya2:06:18
2005Martin LelKenya2:07:26
2006Felix LimoKenya2:06:39
2007Martin LelKenya2:07:41
2008Martin LelKenya2:05:15
2009Samuel WanjiruKenya2:05:10
2010Tsegaye KebedeEthiopia2:05:19
2011Emmanuel MutaiKenya2:04:40
2012Wilson KipsangKenya2:04:44
2013Tsegaye KebedeEthiopia2:06:04
2014Wilson KipsangKenya2:04:29
2015Eliud KipchogeKenya2:04:42
2016Eliud KipchogeKenya2:03:05
2017Daniel WanjiruKenya2:05:48
2018Eliud KipchogeKenya2:04:17
2019Eliud KipchogeKenya2:02:37 (course record)
2020Shura KitataEthiopia2:05:41
2021Sisay LemmaEthiopia2:04:01
2022Amos KiprutoKenya2:04:39

Women’s Division

YearWinnerNationalityFinish Time
1981Joyce SmithUnited Kingdom2:29:57
1982Joyce SmithUnited Kingdom2:29:43
1983Grete WaitzNorway2:25:29 (world record)
1984Ingrid KristiansenNorway2:24:26
1985Ingrid KristiansenNorway2:25:41 (world record)
1986Grete WaitzNorway2:24:54
1987Ingrid KristiansenNorway2:22:48
1988Ingrid KristiansenNorway2:25:41
1989Veronique MarotUnited Kingdom2:26:56
1990Wanda PanfilPoland2:26:31
1991Rosa MotaPortugal2:26:14
1992Katrin DorreGermany2:27:39
1993Katrin DorreGermany2:27:09
1994Katrin DorreGermany2:32:34
1995Malgorzata SobanskaPoland2:27:43
1996Liz McColganUnited Kingdom2:27:54
1997Joyce ChepchumbaKenya2:26:41
1998Catherina McKiernanIreland2:26:26
1999Joyce ChepchumbaKenya2:32:22
2000Tegla LoroupeKenya2:24:33
2001Derartu TuluEthiopia2:23:57
2002Paula RadcliffeUnited Kingdom2:18:56
2003Paula RadcliffeUnited Kingdom2:15:25 (world record)
2004Margaret OkayoKenya2:22:35
2005Paula RadcliffeUnited Kingdom2:17:42 (world record)
2006Deena KastorUSA2:19:36
2007Zhou ChunxiuChina2:20:38
2008Irina MikitenkoGermany2:24:14
2009Irina MikitentoGermany2:22:11
2010Aselefech MergiaEthiopia2:22:38
2011Mary KeitanyKenya2:19:19
2012Mary KeitanyKenya2:18:37
2013Priscah JeptooKenya2:20:15
2014Edna KiplagatKenya2:20:21
2015Tigist TufaEthiopia2:23:22
2016Jemima SumgongKenya2:22:58
2017Mary KeitanyKenya2:17:01 (world record)
2018Vivian CheruiyotKenya2:18:31
2019Brigid KosgeiKenya2:18:20
2020Brigid KosgeiKenya2:18:58
2021Joyciline JepkosgeiKenya2:17:43
2022Yalemzerf YehualawEthiopia2:17:25

Entrants Statistics

The London Marathon brings runners from all over the world together as they fight it out for the title of winner. With numbers growing each year, it’s clear that this is a popular marathon. 

Here’s a breakdown of the number of runners who’ve taken part in the London Marathon since its inception in 1981:

1995 27,000


Spectator records are not easily attainable for an event of this scale, but these numbers are estimated to be around 70,000 people. The BBC broadcasts the London Marathon live to over 5 million people from 195 countries worldwide. 

The Impact of the London Marathon on Communities

The London Marathon brings much revenue to the city of London and the UK as a whole, with much more being raised for charity. While we cannot ignore the revenue the city sees in tourism, accommodation, and other costs, it is important to remember that all proceeds of the event are donated to a charity of the organizer’s choice. 

To date, the London Marathon has seen over 1 million runners cross the finish line, with more than £1 billion being raised for charity. 

London Marathon’s Impact on the Global Running Community

The London Marathon has always been a popular event on the runner’s calendar and has opened its entries to countries across the globe since the very first race in 1981. 

With runners from Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Germany, Poland, and the United States often earning the title of winner, it’s clear that this multi-nation race is great for runners from just about every country. The most challenging part about this marathon is shockingly not the race itself but getting a bib, but more on that later.

The London Marathon Course and its Features

The London Marathon might just be one of the most scenic runs of all the Major World Marathons that takes runners on a journey around the Thames and past some incredible landmarks, including the Surrey Quays, Tower Bridge, and the Tower of London, and the London Eye. 

The last 385 yards of the race are the most spectacular and give runners views of Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and the beautiful St. James’s Palace, located right alongside the finish line at The Mall in Westminster. 

Starting points vary slightly for the different groups and are located at the following points in Blackheath:

  • Red Start: This group of runners takes off from Charlton Way, Greenwich Park.
  • Green Start: These runners start the race at St John’s Park.
  • Blue Start: This group takes off from Shooter’s Hill Road. 

The course is the same for all groups and takes runners downhill past the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, the Old Royal Naval College, the site of the Cutty Sark currently dry docked in Greenwich, the Surrey Quays, and to the halfway point at Tower Bridge. 

The second half of the race is as flat as the first, with runners going through Limehouse, Canary Wharf, Polar, upper and lower Thames Street, past the Tower of London, and on to Birdcage Walk before those last 385 yards to The Mall, where they will cross the finish line. 

While the course is not too difficult to follow, organizers have made it easier for runners by placing a blue line on the road to mark the course of the London Marathon accurately. 

The course has not changed much over the last few years, with organizers keeping to the same route and only making minor changes to the starting line. 

Crowd Support and Cheering Sections

Crowd support is vital for any sporting activity and helps encourage and motivate athletes to give it their all and push toward the finish line, even when their bodies are screaming for them to stop. 

And, while the London Marathon has incredible crowd support, some sections are not as busy, and this is where runners tend to find they need it most. The Isle of Dogs, located in Canary Wharf, is one of the quieter sections of the route. 

Some runners, however, find that the cheering can get a bit much and prefer to pop in their earbuds and listen to music as they follow the course that the London Marathon follows. 

Qualifying for the London Marathon

Like any other marathon, qualifying standards need to be met to get a bib for the London Marathon. Gaining entry into this race works on a ballot system. Space and field size is always an issue, and as safety requirements must be met, the organizers of the London Marathon designed a ballot system to select their participants. 

Qualifying runs must be from an event with a certified marathon course and should be completed within 18 months of the London Marathon you’re entering. The London Marathon is one of the most oversubscribed marathons in the world, and the chances of being drawn in the ballot are less than 10%.

You can also apply for a Good for Age entry. While it’s not a guaranteed entry, your chances are higher with this than with the ballot. The London Marathon also has a Charity entry system, so if you want to support a cause close to your heart while running the marathon, this is a good option.

Classes and Cut-Off Times

Runners who wish to participate in the London Marathon must complete a run in the time stipulated by the qualifying standards, keeping their age at the time of the marathon in mind. 

The London Marathon has additional age groups available, and the times vary for men and women. 

Here are the qualifying times for each age group for the London Marathon:


18 – 39: 3:00:00

40 – 45: 3:05:00

50 – 54: 3:15:00

55 – 59: 3:20:00

60 – 64: 3:45:00

65 – 69: 4:00:00

70 – 74: 5:00:00

75 – 79: 5:15:00

80 – 84: 5:30:00

85+: 6:10:00


18 – 34: 3:45:00

40 – 44: 3:50:00

45 – 49: 3:53:00

50 – 54: 4:00:00

55 – 59: 4:05:00

60 – 64: 4:30:00

65 – 69: 5:00:00

70 – 74: 6:00:00

75 – 79: 6:20:00

80 – 84: 6:40:00

85+: 7:10:00

Cut-off times help the marathon organizers determine who can participate, as the number of entrants has dramatically increased recently. The number of entrants far exceeds the available positions for the race.

The issue with qualifying times is that no one knows the precise cut-off time in advance, as this is decided by organizers when they need to reduce the entrants due to field size restrictions. To ensure a place at the starting line, runners should aim to complete their qualifying marathon with as much time to spare as possible.

Charity Teams and the London Marathon

Charity teams are hugely popular at the London Marathon and are a great way for runners to give back to the community as they raise funds for a cause. You can approach the relevant charity of your choice through the London Marathon website to gain entry into the marathon, pledging a specific amount to the charity in question. 

Here are a few of the charities that have been beneficiaries of the London Marathon fundraising efforts over the last three decades:

  • SportsAid
  • Action on Addiction
  • Childline
  • MS Society
  • Mencap
  • Dementia Revolution
  • Samaritans
  • Cancer Research UK
  • St John’s Ambulance
  • Tusk Force
  • British Heart Foundation
  • Leukaemia Research
  • Shelter

From hospitals and research centers to shelters and animal welfare organizations, these nonprofits have greatly benefited from the massive fundraising efforts of those participating in and sponsoring the London Marathon. 

Charity runner in London Marathon
A brave charity runner at the London Marathon, via Julian Mason

Training for the London Marathon

Training for the London Marathon is essential – it’s a more advanced race that tests the physical and mental ability of all runners, no matter their experience. 

With the many training programs available on the TCS London Marathon website and online, choosing one that suits your needs can be tricky. 

It is vitally important to remember the six main principles of marathon training:

  1. Weekly mileage
  2. Long runs
  3. Speed workouts
  4. Easy runs
  5. Strength training
  6. Rest and recovery

Let’s look at each of these in detail to help you perfect your training schedule ahead of the London Marathon.

1. Weekly Mileage

Running a marathon is no laughing matter and not for the faint of heart. You must train your body and mind to run the 26.2 miles of a marathon, which takes hard work and perseverance. It takes runners months – and sometimes years – to achieve. 

To prepare for the London Marathon, you must run at least four times per week and focus on increasing your mileage each week. 

Several marathon training programs are available, so be sure to find one that suits your needs, experience level, and lifestyle. You can also work with a running coach to custom-create a plan.

Your marathon training plan will start with less mileage than it’ll end with. Never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10%; otherwise, you risk injury.

2. Long Runs

You should do one long run every week. Long runs shouldn’t be more than 35% to 40% of your weekly mileage. Each week, you’ll increase the long run distance to build up your endurance. 

Long runs should be done at a comfortable but challenging pace. They should be harder than easy runs but easier than your tempo or interval sessions. Long runs allow your body to learn how to manage longer distances, build confidence, and burn fat for fuel.

Your long runs should also be used to practice your hydration and fueling strategy to see what works for your body. Because the London Marathon is largely flat and fast, you won’t need to include too much hill training in this block.

3. Speed Workouts

Speed workouts are vital to building your aerobic capacity to run faster and longer before you get tired. Your speed workouts for marathon training will typically include tempo runs and interval sessions.

Tempo runs are a sustained effort at a challenging, uncomfortable, but tolerable pace. Tempo runs teach your body and mind to handle hard efforts. Interval runs push you to run at a fast speed for short bursts and allow you to do more work in less time, so you don’t strain your body.

4. Easy Runs

Most marathon training blocks last 12 to 24 weeks. First-time marathoners give themselves more time to prepare, at least 16 to 18 weeks. Most of the mileage you do in your training will be easy runs.

Most training plans include 2 or 3 easy runs per week. These runs should be at a slow, relaxed pace where you can easily hold a conversation throughout.

5. Strength Training

To run without injury or pain, you need to support the physical structures that allow you to run, which is done through strength training. You should include two strength sessions of 20 to 30 minutes weekly. 

Strength workouts can include resistance bands, free weights, bodyweight exercises, or circuit training. Ensure your posture and form are correct to avoid injuries. Include exercises that strengthen your legs, core, back, and shoulders.

6. Rest and Recovery

Recovery days give your muscles time to mend while still including low-impact activities. A rest day means no activity at all. Rest days allow your body to recover from the strain and effort of the activity load and reduces mental burnout.

The two weeks before your marathon are vital to your marathon’s success. You’ll start reducing your mileage and intensity, allowing your body to rest for the marathon.

Races to Help You Prepare for the London Marathon

You can participate in several races or events to help you prepare for the London Marathon. 

From running clubs to virtual running events, here are a few popular runs those in the UK can do ahead of the marathon:

The Vitality Westminster Mile

This is a fun 1-mile run that starts at The Mall and has its finish line in front of Buckingham Palace. 

The Vitality London 10000

Fancy a 10k to get you in the running zone and prepared for the London Marathon? The Vitality London 10000 is a great 10k run that takes runners on a route passing some of the more popular landmarks in the vibrant city. 

Brighton Marathon Weekend

Take a trip to the stunning coastal city of Brighton to participate in the Brighton 10k while enjoying the fresh air and festivities that Brighton has to offer.

Details about these events can be found on the TCS London Marathon website. 

What You Need to Know about the London Marathon

London Marathon Guide
London Marathon Guide, image CC via Dan Huddleston

The London Marathon has a pretty flat course to follow. While this might be a relief for runners who dread hills, it can be just as exhausting to run on flat roads and terrain for a long period – your legs will also tire from the constant repetition with no variation. 

To help you prepare, run both flat and hilly routes to help build endurance for just about any course. This is great for building muscle and increasing your V02 max rate, which will help you run the full 26.2 miles of the London Marathon with something resembling a smile.

Wearing comfortable, well-fitting running shoes designed for flat, paved terrain can also make the run somewhat easier and reduce the risk of injuries associated with running on hard or flat terrain for longer periods. 

London Marathon Race Day Strategies and Tips

If your goal is to compete in the next London Marathon, this next section is for you and has a few great tips that will help you prepare for race day. 

Here’s what you need to know:


While the London Marathon sees male runners finish in an average time of 4:21:09 and women average at 4:57:26, elite athletes must shave minutes and seconds off their times to earn a top 10 position. 

For elite men, a good time is roughly 2:04:00 to 2:14:00, while the time for women is around 2:18:00 and 2:28:00. These are, of course, for those in the fastest group of runners. 

Every marathon is different, and your finishing time depends significantly on the course and weather conditions. The London Marathon is known for being mostly flat and fast, but the weather can be cold and rainy, so consider this when looking at a finish time you’d like to achieve.

London Marathon route on Strava
The London Marathon route on Strava

Before the Race

The London Marathon website has a fantastic mobile app with everything from course routes to training tips that can help just about anyone prepare for the event. Download the app, familiarize yourself with the route you will be running, and note any rules and regulations you need to be aware of before heading off to the starting line. 

Consider the weather on race day by checking the weather forecast. April is early spring in the UK and brings fairly cool to moderate temperatures, with the occasional sprinkle of rain thrown in for good measure. 

Carry a lightweight jacket or sweater, and tie it around your waist while running – you can also throw it to the side of the road if you wear an old jacket you aren’t fond of. You can also “go hobo” and wear a refuse bag (with holes cut into it for your head and arms), then throw it away on the start line. 

A very important detail to remember before you start the race is that toilets are often hard to find or the lines are long during the London Marathon. Use the toilet before you get to the starting point.

During the Race

Hydration stations are conveniently located along the entire length of the route. While the first few will only offer water and other beverages, those in the second half of the 26.2-mile run will provide hydration gels and bananas. These are great for that quick burst of energy when you feel your reserves are getting low, so grab a few and use them as needed. 

If you need help keeping your pace, music can help motivate you to keep going and can also drown out the sounds of cheering and other noise that could make you lose focus. 

Pace yourself throughout the run – start slow and ease into the race. Your adrenaline will be pumping, and your legs will feel fresh at the start, but banking time isn’t a good idea in a marathon. Know your pace and stick to it. If you still feel good in the last 3 miles of the race, you can increase your pace then.

Pace and speed are both equally important aspects to focus on. While you want to be as fast as possible to avoid the cut-off points, pacing yourself is crucial to ensure you have enough energy to sustain you for the full 26.2 miles. Maintain a moderate speed and save your energy for that final stretch of the marathon.

The last piece of advice that we would like to share is to stick to the blue line on the road. This blue line helps mark the course and is ideal for runners who need a reminder of the route they should be taking. The marathon is measured as 26 miles 385 yards – and this measurement is based on the blue line. Weaving around the road or running on the edges adds unnecessary mileage and wastes energy.

Next Step: Run the London Marathon!

The London Marathon is a highly-anticipated annual event on any marathon runner’s calendar and takes place in April each year. Starting in Greenwich Park, the marathon route takes runners on a journey past some of the most historic places in London. It provides spectacular views of the most popular landmarks in London. 

First run in 1981, the London Marathon is a sponsored event that serves to raise funds for many charities and has, to date, raised more than £1 billion for charity.

Celebrities are fans of the marathon too, and musician Charlotte Jane had this to say when she crossed the finish line of the London Marathon: “It was very humbling, but easily one of the best things I’ve ever done.” So what are you waiting for? Enter the ballot, cross your fingers, and get ready to experience the thrill of running one of the world’s best marathons.

Author Profile

Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

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