A solid training plan is your key to marathon or half marathon success, plain and simple.
By first setting your goals and then designing a training plan to suit those goals, you are laying out a roadmap to success – then all you have to do is follow the roadmap.
In this blog, I’ll walk you through the various elements of a marathon training plan, suggest how you put it all together and then give you a couple of examples.
Assessing Your Training Plan Goals
In order to put together an effective training plan, the first things you need to consider are:
- What’s your current level of running fitness?
- What do you want to achieve on race day?
- How long do you have to train?
By establishing your current condition and race goals, you are setting out the amount of work that you need to put in during the coming weeks and months.
Your Current Level of Fitness
This is the first piece of information that needs to be established. Where are you right now, in terms of physical preparation? Wherever you are, this becomes your ‘base line’ to build from, and to design your training plan around.
Some questions to get you thinking about your current level of readiness:
- How far can you continuously run right now at a conversational pace (holding a conversation while running)?
- How regularly do you currently do cardiovascular activity, and for how long?
- When you go for a run, what is your default pace – the speed you naturally run at when not pushing too hard? (if you don’t care about running pace or finishing time, then this part is less important).
This information will inform the first week of your training plan. You want to plan the first week to have 3 or 4 runs in it, at a distance and pace that you find achievable – but not too easy. For example, if you can currently run for 30 minutes without stopping, you might want to have 3 x 30min runs through the week, and at the weekend attempt a 45min run – more on that later.
The next step is to consider what you want to achieve in the marathon or half marathon. This means considering whether you just want to finish, or whether you have a specific finishing time in mind.
In any case, the most important thing is to be realistic.
If this is your first marathon / half marathon, then a great goal is simply to finish. It may be tempting to aim to beat a certain time, but if you haven’t been running for very long, then consider just aiming to finish. If this is your goal, then your training should be focussed on clocking in the miles and hours on your feet, without worrying too much about pace.
If, however, you are feeling confident and want to beat a specific time (say, a 2hr half marathon) then you should set this goal early on so you can train towards it.
Consistent Pace = Key to Success
If you are working towards a specific finishing time, then the key to achieving this is a consistent pace throughout, meaning you run at the same speed throughout the entire race.
This is a lesson that has been learned by experienced marathoners countless times – the key to successfully and comfortably completing a marathon is choosing a consistent pace and sticking to it. Advanced marathon runners even intentionally start slightly slower and gradually build speed throughout the race – but for most of us running a consistent pace is a great strategy.
If, towards the end of your race, you find that you’ve got plenty of energy left in the tank then you can speed up – but it’s much wiser to do this at the end of a race, rather than at the start.
If you intend to run with a certain pace in mind, you’ll need some kind of GPS device for your training and to track your speed during the race.
The following tables are show Marathon and Half Marathon finishing times and the running speeds required to achieve them:
Half Marathon Speed Table
|Target Time (hh:mm)
|min / mile
Marathon Speed Table
|Target Time (hh:mm)
|min / km
|min / mile
To summarize so far:
- Take stock of your current physical condition
- Consider what your race goals are
- If aiming for a specific time, get a GPS and train accordingly.
Types of Training
Let’s look at the different exercises, routines and workouts that will be the building blocks of your training plan.
Simply ‘Going for a run’ is a great way to train for a marathon – however, in order to optimise your training and make best use of your time, each run should have a purpose that in some way contributes to your goals. Here are the different broad categories your runs can fall into:
This is your regular, typical run, done at a comfortable, conversational pace which would be a little slower than your target pace. Depending on your goals, these should be 20-30 mins (half marathon) or 45-60 mins (marathon) in length and you should be doing 2 – 3 of these per week – as many as you can fit in and still comfortably recover after each one. If you have no pace goal, try and complete these at a comfortable, conversational pace without stopping.
These are a staple of marathon and half marathon training and are typically done once a week, at weekends. These long runs are your opportunity to increase your mileage as the event draws near, and are done at a slow, comfortable pace. The goal with long runs is to get your body used to the long hours and miles on your feet – so they are ready to tackle the distance on race day.
Sprints, Intervals and Tempo Runs
There are other forms of run training, such as sprints, intervals and tempo runs – these all involve running at speed for a certain time period. Interval training, and tempo runs, means running at varying degrees of intensity, and is a much more dynamic way of working out than plodding along at a constant rate. These help your dynamic running and speed rather than your distance running capacity.
Cross training is any kind of non-running workout that compliments your marathon or half marathon training.
The truth is that cross training is not mandatory – many successful marathon runners do well with absolutely zero cross training. The benefits of cross training however – injury prevention, retaining flexibility, giving your body recovery time – are enough that it comes highly recommended if you can find the time.
Popular forms of cross-training are low-impact activities such as swimming, cycling, yoga and going to the gym.
Building Your Training Plan
Now we’ve established our goals and know the building blocks of the training plan, it’s time to put it all together. The easiest way to build your training plan is to use a spreadsheet (start your own, or download an example such as the ones on my website).
Create a table with one column for each day of the week, and a row for each week.
Here’s how it should look to start:
Now you can begin to populate your training plan with the various types of training you’re going to do. The priority should always be to ensure you are getting enough running miles in, then you can plot your cross training and rest days in-between them.
Here’s some points to consider:
- You really want to be running a minimum of three times per week, preferably four if your body is up to it.
- The long, slow run is the most important one as it gets your body used to the long miles, so don’t skip this one! Most people do them at the weekends.
- The amount of rest days you take is really up to you. I’d always recommend taking at least one rest day, but not more than two – unless your body is telling you it needs a break.
- Cross-training is also a personal preference. I normally recommend one session a week, but if you are an avid sportsperson (say you’re already a good swimmer) then you might want to go more regularly.
- If you have other commitments such as family and work, factor these in to your training plan early on.
Your detailed training plan will include the pace and mileage of every training run – so how do you determine this?
Note that your training should peak around 2-4 weeks prior to your event, and after that peak you simply taper back – so you have to build this taper into your training plan.
Your initial training regime should be challenging yet achievable. At this point you should already have a fair idea of how comfortable you are when running, and how many runs per week your body can handle. The last thing you want is to set an overly-ambitious training regime and then never even get started.
You may want to start with three runs per week (two ‘typical’ runs and a long run) then introduce a fourth run as your body adjusts.
As your training progresses, you’ll gradually build up your mileage every week. For example, for a first-time marathoner, at the start of your training you might be running 25-30km week. By the time your training peaks, you will likely be running at least 60km / week. Like everything else in your training plan, this increase should be a linear, gradual approach.
There’s a rule of thumb called the ‘10% Rule’ – this dictates that you shouldn’t increase your mileage by more than 10% each week, in order to avoid injuries, fatigue and strain.
Like all ‘rules of thumb’, this one is rather flexible – but holds as a pretty good quick-check.
First off, why taper?
U.S. mountain-running champion Nicole Hunt sums it up as follows:
Tapering helps “bolster muscle power, increase muscle glycogen, muscle repair, freshen the mind, fine-tune the neural network so that it’s working the most efficiently, and most importantly, eliminate the risk of overtraining where it could slow the athlete down the most . . .studies have indicated that a taper can help runners improve by 6 to 20%”
The length of your taper depends on your underlying athletic ability, and the amount of training you typically do. If you have been running half-marathons every weekend for years, then there’s little need to taper for more than a few days prior to the race. If, however, this is your first big event and you’ve really stretched the limits of your body during tapering, 2-4 weeks is recommended to get your body into peak race-day condition.
- Mileage. Each week of your taper you should decrease your weekly mileage by 20-35%.
- Pace. Your fastest training run is now behind you. During your taper, you can do one ‘typical’ run per week at your planned race pace. The rest of your runs should be at gradually decreasing intensity and pace.
- Long Run. These should decrease in length significantly – roughly 40% week-on-week.
- Speed workouts. No need for tempo training or interval runs if you are tapering for your first marathon or half marathon. In these final few weeks, your race day potential is already locked in – anything you do now to try and increase your athletic abilities will likely work against you on race day.
- Conditions. Avoid steep hills, rough terrain or anything unnecessarily challenging that could lead to injury.
Example Training Plans
I’ve shared all my example training plans on this site – they’re free to download and edit (Excel format).