Running a marathon with only 3 months of training and preparation – can it be done? Although far from the ‘recommended’ schedule, it’s possible to be ready for a marathon in 3 months – here’s how.
UPDATE: I’ve actually written a full eBook on how to prepare for a Marathon In 3 Months – check it out!
Marathon In Three Months
Ask any running coach how long you should take to train for a marathon, and they’ll likely say at least six months. But the truth is that lots of us turn up to a marathon having done a lot less than this. We’re busy, we’re lazy, we’re distracted and we’re impulsive.
Back in 2012 I signed up for my first ever marathon on a whim, three months before the event – then committed to training. On the day, I was strong until around the 35km mark, then hit the wall in extraordinary style, and managed to pull my feet over the finish line in 3hrs 58 min.
So can a marathon be run with only three months training? Well, it’s not optimal. But it’s possible – thousands of people do it every year, and it’s how I completed my first ever marathon. It’s not going to be the most graceful or athletic performance ever, but the chances are, you just want to get to the finish line, right?
I made a lot of mistakes in my training, as does everyone – no first-timer’s training plan is bullet-proof. I generally would recommend taking six months or more to prepare your body adequately. But the truth is that people are always going to push to complete marathons with the minimal training possible . . . so I thought I should help by sharing how I did it.
I’ve split this post into three sections:
- how to assess whether you could be capable of running a marathon with 3 months training
- how to train effectively (I’ve supplied a training plan)
- what to expect on race day
Can I Complete A Marathon With Under Three Months Preparation?
There are three factors that will influence your chances of successfully completing a marathon with only three months of preparation:
1. Starting Fitness Level
Are you already fit? Could you go out and comfortably run a 10km tonight? How about 15km?
If you’ve already got a baseline of cardiovascular fitness, this is a massive advantage. Especially if you can already run. Your biomechanics are already familiar with the process of running, and now it’s just a case of building up that base – rapidly.
But if you aren’t currently doing any kind of cardiovascular exercise, then you’re giving yourself a huge mountain to climb. My frank suggestion would be to pick a more attainable running goal, such as a 5/10k or even a half marathon.
If you’re unsure of how prepared your body is, I suggest you download my training plan (scroll down for the 3 month express plan) and try to follow it for the first week and see how you get on.
Another very important ingredient is getting the right shoes early on – here’s our in-depth guide to choosing running shoes.
2. Have A Good Training Plan (and sticking to it)
Getting marathon-ready in three months means you’re going to have a busy, and rigid, training schedule. This means you need to be disciplined – and have the right plan in place before you start.
We’ve got fully customizable Excel-based 3 month marathon training plans here (in km and mile formats) that are a good start. They focus on running, and getting your mileage up at a steep but hopefully manageable pace. The trick is to increase your distance while allowing your body the time to recover.
3. Injury Prevention
This is a big one. With only 12 weeks to prepare and a steep increase in your mileage, injuries aren’t just possible. They’re likely, and almost inevitable if you’re not much of a runner already. There’s a good chance you’re going to develop an injury so severe that it prevents you from running the race. So how do you mitigate against injuries during an intense training schedule?
- Warm up and cool down. Warm up before each run by walking and gradually building up your pace from a jog. Do the same at the end of the run, cooling down gently. Stretching after a run helps too.
- Address injuries immediately. If you do feel an injury coming on, don’t run through it – if it’s a potentially bad injury, this will only make it worse. Instead, address the issue immediately. Research what could have caused the pain and look at ways to mitigate it – using kinsio tape, supports or by going to see a sports therapist if in doubt.
- Recovery time. You’ve got to be smart about your training, and this means giving your legs time to recover between runs. If you begin to feel that your legs are constantly tired, or the onset of an injury, then it’s time to skip a training session and give your legs a break. But instead of wasting that time, why not go to the pool instead? Swimming is great low-intensity exercise that can help massage tired muscles.
- It’s not cheap, but going for a dedicated sports massage can do wonders to tired legs. All those worn knots and internal scars get worked out – though it can leave you stiff for a couple of days.
Note: I’ve actually written a full eBook on how to prepare for a Marathon In 3 Months – check it out!
How To Train
1. Focus on Running
Given you’re on an accelerated training schedule, anything that’s not running should be considered optional, and potentially discarded because it eats into your running time. Follow my 3 month training plan with 3 runs through the week and a long, slow one at weekends. Note: the training plan includes a window for cross-training. Use it if you have the time, but I’d recommend something like swimming or upper body strength training. Don’t do anything that is going to fatigue your legs any more than they already are.
2. Pace Is Not So Important
With only 12 weeks to prepare, you don’t have the time to build up the stamina required to complete the marathon at a competitive, sustained pace. Instead, focus on training to a sustainable – yet slight uncomfortable – pace. Think of it as a ‘conversational’ pace – one you can hold a conversation while running. After all, your goal is just to finish – not break any records. Running at an unnecessarily fast pace increases the risk of injury.
3. The Taper
This is the wind-down in your training in the weeks leading up to your marathon. Given you only have 12 weeks total to train, you want to maximize your training potential while allowing your body enough time to taper. This means rest, recuperate, and get ‘race ready’. In the supplied Training Plan, I have left the tapering period at 4 weeks. However, depending on your state of readiness at this point, you may wish to train for a further week, and taper only for 3 weeks. This would mean that you have 9 weeks of building mileage ahead of you.
4. The Longest Run
Every weekend you should be going out for a long, slow run at a comfortable pace. Each run should get progressively longer. Since you’re trying to squeeze everything into a short period, this means that the incremental increases in long run distance per week are greater. Not ideal, but necessary. Normally for marathon training, I’d recommend a final long run of 35-38km. However, since you want to expedite things, I have set the longest run a little shorter – at 34km. This does mean that on marathon day, you’re going to be covering a lot of distance for the first time. If all you want to do is finish however, so it’s better to do it during the race and suffer, than do it before the race and suffer (and potentially get injured).
5. Try gels
If you’re committed to ‘just getting round’ on race day, then some energy gels can be a huge help. These little sugary sachets give you a quick energy boost, which can be enough to fuel you for a few kilometres when you’re pushing your body. However, don’t leave it until race day to see if you like them – try them out in training. Many people can’t stomach gels, and these can lead to tummy issues during the race.
6. The Dry Run
Don’t forget to do a ‘dry run’ before your marathon. This means going for a long run with all the gear you plan to wear on the day, along with equipment, food, drink, etc. If you can, try and find a surface that is similar to that of the race, and run at the same time of day to simulate race conditions.
What Your Marathon Will Be Like
If you have only trained for three months, then my one piece of advice is this – don’t expect it to be pretty.
You’re going to push your under-prepared body to new limits, so a good deal of discomfort is inevitable.
My first marathon
Let me tell you what happened during my first marathon, as a cautionary tale. I had been a regular runner for a few years, doing 5 and 10kms here and there. I signed up for my marathon with three months to prepare, and upped my mileage – I think my longest training run was about 30km.
Back then, I had no experience with gels or energy packs. I thought they were something for elite runners. I would normally go running with a bottle of water and some nuts (or whatever snacks I happened to grab). This fuelling strategy (or lack thereof) worked alright for me up to a point – but it wasn’t until I crossed the 30km mark that I realized what I was missing.
The first half of my marathon was a blur, I flew round in 1hr 40mins thinking ‘this is going very well,’. There’s a saying that a marathon doesn’t really start until after the halfway point, and boy – did I learn that the hard way. From 20km to 35km, I became more fatigued, but was comfortable pushing on. Then, around the 35km mark, I hit the wall.
I’d heard of hitting the wall before, but since it had never happened to me, I thought I was somehow immune to it. Suddenly, every step forward took a focused application of willpower. Not only that, but every step felt small, like it only moved me forward a few centimetres. At times, it felt like I was running on the spot. It was agony. I stopped and walked for a few short stretches, then willed myself to hobble on. If a friend had pulled up and offered to drive me home at that point, I probably would have jumped in their car.
The final two or three kilometres were very painful – but I could feel the end getting closer and pushed through, scraping over the finish line at 3hrs 58mins.
After the race, my legs locked up completely. Standing up or sitting down took a lot of effort, and pain. I could only hobble, not walk. Using stairs was hard work for a few days after the race, too. It wasn’t pretty, but I’d finished my marathon.
What You Should Expect
Assuming you managed to get through the training without major injury and have tapered successfully, you should expect the first half of your marathon to be fairly straightforward – much like mines was.
It’s only when you get to the latter stages that your minimalist training approach will start to show it’s disadvantages.
If you’re lucky, or have a good running base already, perhaps you’ll sail through the whole race. But most people simply won’t. Most of us experience discomfort and downright pain. Expect tired, heavy legs. Expect tired everything. Just the act of moving your body forward will require serious willpower.
If it gets to the stage where a specific part of your body is painful, then as always – stop and walk. If you run through a potential injury, all you’re doing is increasing the chances of it flaring up more. In a marathon, don’t forget that the finish line is never that far away – you can always walk to the end, even if it means finishing a lot later than you anticipated. Even if you walk the last 10km, it’ll take you 2hrs to complete them . . . but after those two hours, you can tell everybody that you completed a marathon!
So there you have it. Unless you’re already a solid runner, three months of training will likely be enough to get you across the finish line. You’ll be uncomfortable, you’ll likely get some injuries, but you can do it – just stick to the training plan and beware of injuries.
How to get race ready in just 12 weeks!
The eBook is based around five key principles of marathon preparation:
– Design A Robust Training Plan (and stick to it from day one) – FREE TRAINING PLAN INCLUDED
– Stay Injury Free (even if it means missing a day of run training)
– Train based on Distance, not Pace (increase the time on your feet)
– Get The Right Gear (Shoes, socks, shirt, shorts and GPS)
– Focus On Your Goals
87 pages of running tips. Click here for more!