The 12 Rules of Marathon Training

Marathon training can be approached in thousands of different ways – but by following these tried-and-tested rules, you can optimise your training journey and maximise your chances of marathon success!

Having now worked with thousands of marathon runners (and crossed a few finish lines myself), I’ve spent a lot of time guiding people through the marathon training process, figuring out what’s important and what can be discarded, and finding cues that set people on the right path.

Too often, marathon runners-in-training commit fundamental (but easy to change) errors in their training which compromise their final 26.2 mile effort.

Likewise, most runners could train more effectively. It’s what I preach with my clients and in my Marathon Training Masterclass.

To set you off on the right path, here are some fundamental truths about marathon training – treat them as ‘rules’ in your training process, and they’ll lead to better results.

marathon training rules runner

Rule #1: Every Run Should Have a Purpose

To train for a marathon effectively, every single run should have a clear purpose attached to it.

Be it . . .

  • A long, slow run to improve your endurance
  • A regular run to add to your overall mileage
  • A speedwork session to train towards your PR pace
  • An easy recovery run to get some miles in without stressing the system.

As you can see, each run contributes to some specific area of your training.

One of the biggest mistake rookie runners make when training for a marathon is simply “going for runs”. Runners who haphazardly accumulate mileage without structure or planning often get injured, or simply don’t train optimally – and suffer on marathon day.

Want to train right to give yourself the best chances of marathon success?

Ensure each run has a purpose.

Rule #2: Define Your Marathon Goals

As early as you can in your marathon training journey, define your marathon goals.

Your marathon goal can be as simple as “I want to finish” – which is a great goal for your first marathon.

Or maybe your goal is time-based; for example, you want to break the 4-hr marathon mark.

Whatever your marathon goal is, the earlier you define it, the better.

Once defined, you can structure your entire training around your marathon goal.

Got a speed-based goal? Then in training, you can include intervals and speed sessions designed to improve your base running speed.

Rule #3: Stick To A Plan

There’s a strong correlation between runners who follow a marathon training plan, and their actual marathon performance.

Following a properly structured marathon training plan means you’re training in a sustainable way that is designed to reach your marathon goals.

A training plan is also an awesome accountability tool – I always recommend that runners print them off, stick them somewhere visible, and mark off each day’s progress as they go!

ultra marathon training plan snapshot
Image by Jeph Stahl – thanks Jeph!

Rule #4: The 10% Rule

The 10% rule is a well-known ‘rule of thumb’ amongst runners. It states that your weekly mileage shouldn’t increase by more than 10% week-to-week.

The idea behind the 10% rule is to prevent runners from making big leaps in mileage – which can lead to injury and other problems pretty quickly.

If you increase your weekly mileage by around 7-10% each week, you’re more likely to find this to be a sustainable practice – you’re adding load to your body at a gradual rate which it’s better equipped to cope with, instead of throwing in giant runs when it’s not ready.

Gradual gains lead to a solid running base.

Rule #5: Learn to Fuel On The Run

When running for anything up to 60 minutes, you can usually get by with stored fuel reserves.

However, once you get into longer training runs, you’ll find you burn through all that reserved energy, and can be left with a lack of energy.

That’s why distance runners have to learn how to fuel on the run – you need to keep your fuel tanks topped up while running, usually for anything over an hour.

Whether it’s energy gels, a snack bar, or a sports drink, it’s important that you choose something you like, and that works for you. Many runners struggle to stomach the sticky energy gels, so learning what your body likes is half the battle.

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Fitness sportswoman running on sunrise trail

Rule #6: Cross Train for Performance Improvements and Injury Avoidance

Cross training is probably the biggest secret weapon a marathon runner-in-training has.

Doing some cross training – even just once or twice per week – helps strengthen muscles that are neglected by running, and also address some of the tightness and mobility issues that continuous running invites.

I recommend cross training to every single runner I work with – whether it’s a simple bodyweight workout, yoga or pilates session, or a weights session in the gym.

Cross training makes you a more economical runner – by strengthening muscles in the upper legs, hips, and core, you get more ‘miles per gallon’ out of your body, meaning you can run faster with less effort.

It also allows you to address weak hips, glutes, and other areas which are usually the root cause of most runner’s injuries such as IT Band Syndrome.

Rule #7: Follow The Taper

Tapering is an essential part of marathon training. It is the final 2-4 weeks before your big race, during which you decrease the volume of your training gradually.

Why do this?

Tapering allows your body to recover from the stress and strain of marathon training; it allows muscle microtears to heal, signals to your body to go into ‘rest and recovery’ mode, and allows you to top up your energy reserves.

Tapering means that come race day, you are in optimal shape to kill those 26.2 miles!

Rule #8: The 20-mile Rule

Regardless of your running ability, during your marathon training you want to perform at least one 20 mile run.

This distance is just the right length to tune your body and ensure it’s race ready, without pushing yourself too hard and risking injury or exhaustion.

Try and fit in your 20 miler just before you begin your taper; 4 weeks prior to your marathon day is a good time to do it.

Rule #9: Do a Dress Rehearsal

A dress rehearsal is essentially a long run in which you mimic your actual marathon conditions as closely as possible.

This means you want to go for a long run wearing the same gear as you plan to wear on race day, carrying the same stuff, following the same fuelling and hydration strategies.

A dress rehearsal allows you to identify any snags in your approach prior to race day.

It’s also worth doing your dress rehearsal in race day conditions as closely as possible; this means same time of day, weather conditions, and underfoot conditions.

Rule #10: Don’t Do Anything New on Race Day

Hopefully your dress rehearsal will take care of this one – it’s important not to do anything new or different on race day.

This means don’t wear your brand new shoes on race day without breaking them in first.

Don’t eat a banana from an aid station unless it’s something you’ve trialled in training first (a rookie error I’ve made myself!).

Basically, avoid surprises on race day. Test and refine everything, so when it comes time to run your 26.2 miles you can just focus on your performance.

Rule #11: Know When To Rest

Training for a marathon is physically and mentally demanding, and often leaves little time for RnR.

It’s essential that you know how to listen to your body, and know when it’s time to take a step back and rest up a little.

Repeatedly forcing yourself to train when you’re not feeling it is eventually going to lead to either exhaustion, injury, overtraining syndrome, or simply a loss of your desire to train.

Learn how to listen to your body and know when to train hard, and when you need to ignore the training plan and put your feet up.

Rule #12: Run An Even Pace

Perhaps the most important – and simple – piece of advice I give to marathon runners in training is to plan to run your 26.2 miles at an even pace throughout.

Adopting an even pace strategy prevents you from going out too fast, and often means you have a conservative first half followed by a strong second half.

There are mounds of studies done on optimal marathon pacing – the problem is that unless you’re already running several marathons per season, it’s hard to know what your performance baseline is.

That’s why I recommend picking a manageable finishing time, figuring out the pace required to achieve it, and then sticking to that pace.

You’ll thank me for it in the latter stages of your marathon!

Bonus Rule: Take Your Training Further

We’ve scratched the surface here, and hopefully whet your appetite for optimising your marathon training.

If you really want to get deep into the topic, then I offer a completely free 5-Day Marathon Training Bootcamp, just fire in your details below and we’ll get started!

And for those of you who really like getting into the details, check out my Marathon Training Masterclass – it’s got everything I have to offer on the topic of marathon training, including over 6 hours of video tutorials and oodles of downloadable training plans, guides, and extras!

Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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