Essential Guide To Training For Your First Marathon (+ Training Plans)

Here’s my guide to preparation and training for your first-ever marathon – including marathon training plans, pace advice and gear info . . .

Your First Marathon

Running your first marathon is life changing.

In order to get to that fabled finish line, you first have to commit to a huge amount of training and preparation.

The good news is that millions of people have successfully trained for and run marathons in the past, so we can learn from those that have gone before.  Marathon training is now less of an art and is an objective science.  With the correct inputs and avoidance of certain pitfalls, success is easier to achieve than ever – the trick is to train smart.

In this post I’ve compiled what I consider to be the most important aspects of marathon preparation.  By having the correct marathon preparation strategy, you can make the most effective use of your training time, minimise the pain and discomfort you might suffer during your event, and maximise your chances of successfully cross the finish line – preferably with a smile on your face!

Here are my tips for marathon success:


Design a realistic marathon training plan (and stick to it)

The well-designed training plan is the main tool you’ll need when preparing for your marathon.

It is your constant reference during training.   A proper training plan will get you from your current state to ‘Race Ready’ in the most manageable and least physically taxing way possible.

A marathon training plan is also a means of outsourcing your decision-making when it comes to training.

A runner with no training plan has no guidance.  On any given day leading up to their marathon, they might decide to run a new route, go to the gym instead, or – if you catch them on a bad day – find a reason to justify not training at all.

The runner with a training plan doesn’t do this.  She will approach each day’s training with purpose – knowing in advance what she has to do.

A training plan is your roadmap to success.   We have a selection of free, downloadable Excel-based training plans that are totally customisable to suit your needs – Marathon Handbook Training Plans.


Determine your goals early on

Want to break the four hour mark?

Trying to beat your buddy’s PB?

Just happy to get to the finish line?

Great!  Whatever your marathon goals, whether they are time-based, experience-based, or simply ‘to finish’, it is best to identify these as early as possible.

The truth is, most first-time marathoners have vague goals – partly because they don’t know exactly what to expect, and wonder if just maybe in the day of the marathon their body will kick into gear and deliver a good result.  I don’t like to leave performance down to luck, and feel success is all in the preparation – and your preparation should be based around your intended goal.

Knowing your goals means you can manage your expectations and be smart about your training.

if you have a time-based goal, you can calculate your required pace to run and plan your training from there.

If you’re not concerned about your time and just want to finish, you can focus your training on getting your body used to long hours on your feet.

Either way, the earlier you know your race goal, the sooner you can start to plan smart.

Related: Slow-pace Marathon Training: How The Maffetone Method Of Moderate Running Works


Pace is King

The key to any great marathon performance is in the pace.

The vast majority of first-time marathon runners will slow down significantly in the second half of their race, and often end up walking for long sections.  This might be because they went out too fast, or their legs get tired, or they become injured.

You can avoid all three of these outcomes by having a good pace strategy and training towards it.

Any good marathon performance is run either on an even, constant pace (called ‘even splits’) or run with a gradually increasing pace (called ‘negative splits’).  While it might seem crazy to plan to speed up gradually throughout the event, this ‘tortoise and the hare’ style strategy is the easiest on your body and yields the best performances.  Google ‘winning marathon splits’ and you’ll see that any record-breaking performance has run on negative splits.

You’re not looking to break any records however, you’re just looking to finish your first marathon. For this we would recommend running even splits – this means running the same pace throughout the marathon.

You can determine your marathon pace by working backwards from your desired finish time and consulting the table below:

Target Time (hh:mm)min / kmmin / mile

A GPS device is essential in order to accurately measure your pace.  You might think you can estimate pace by how you feel, but during a marathon your brain can do funny things and you can start off a full minute / kilometre faster than you think just feeding off the adrenaline of the event.  The problem with this is that when the adrenaline fades, your body starts to feel the effects of having pushed so hard – and you slow down.

So don’t worry if your friends go out fast or you feel yourself getting swept along with the crowd, – stick to the pace you’ve trained for.


Get the right gear

Getting the right gear, and training with it, is an essential part of marathon training.

Unless you are already running long distances with no problems in your current shoes, you should look to change them out.

Go to a specialist running shoe store and explain to them that you are training for a marathon.

Given the step-up in mileage you’re about to undertake, consider getting a shoe with a little more cushioning than what you regularly run in.  And if you haven’t been running very long, consider getting a shoe ½ size bigger than your regular size – your feet can grow a little.

Check out our comprehensive guide to choosing running shoes here.

Of course, marathon gear doesn’t stop at shoes.

We consider socks to be the second-most important piece of clothing you’ll need.  Look for a pair that fits well and are moisture-wicking to discourage sweat. Toe socks are popular, and double-layered socks can prevent friction that can lead to blisters.

You need to get the right running shorts and shirt too – since you’re committing to a marathon, it’s worth investing in at least one set of proper running attire.  A polyester shirt helps draw away sweat and keep you cool.  Shorts shouldn’t be too long as these get hot, and consider chafing – there’s plenty of anti-chafing products (and Vaseline) on the market these days.

A hat and sunglasses are important pieces of a runner’s attire, but you don’t necessarily need to break the bank for these items.  If you have a decent baseball cap and an old pair of reliable sunglasses sitting around the house, these are often sufficient.

If you’re training in colder climates, you may need extra layers and gloves too, so factor these in.

Aside from clothing, you’ll also want to look at certain accessories.  A GPS is essential for any kind of pace monitoring (see the above section), and some sort of hydration system or pockets / backpack might be required to carry your essentials and your food, water bottles or gels.

The most important thing to remember with all your marathon gear is to practice with it.  One month before your marathon, you want to have done at least one ‘dress rehearsal’ where you go for a run and mimic your marathon.  Test out your shoes, socks and all your gear in race-day conditions.  This is how you’ll find that seam that only chafes in certain situations, or that your water bottle has a slow leak that gradually drenches your shirt and starts to rub, or that you get a sore shoulder if you run the whole race with a water bottle in your hand.  Get out and test everything as soon as you can!


Train, Train, Train

This is the key to success in marathons – simply put in the hours of training.

You should be aiming to run 3—5 times per week, depending on your starting condition and your race goals.

Each weekend, you should do a long, slow run.  This is the run where you increase the limits of your mileage each week, building up to around 20 miles.

Through the week, you should be running 2-3 times.  The type of training depends on your goals, but you want to look to do 2 runs per week at your race pace, and then possibly one more as a tempo / speed run, where you vary your speed and occasionally run faster than race pace.


Research Your Race

Every marathon is different – some are in cities, some are in the desert, some have tens of thousands of runners and some just a couple of dozen.  The conditions of your race can affect your preparation and performance – so here’s some areas to consider:

  • Location and logistics. How are you going to get to your marathon?  Where are you going to stay the night before?  How do you get to the start line?  All these tiny steps need planned so you’re not caught out on the days leading up to the marathon.
  • The course. What’s the conditions underfoot – is it a road marathon, and if so what type of road is it?  Tarmac is much more forgiving than concrete.  Is it a trail route?  You want to match your training to the terrain of your marathon.  Also research any gradients in the course – if hills are expected, you need to factor this into your training (both the uphills and the downhills).   Also consider at which stage in the course these gradients appear, and this can affect your strategy – if there’s one big hill towards the end of the marathon route, you want to store some energy in the tank to tackle it.
  • The climate. The climate can have a huge effect on your performance – high temperatures can slow you down a lot, and high humidity levels can stop you completely.  Also do some googling on the weather – if there’s a chance of rain, prepare appropriately and consider taking a waterproof layer.  You’ll also want to make sure you have a dry change of clothes waiting for you at the end.
  • Aid stations. Find out the location and frequency of the aid stations along the way, and what is going to be available.  Some races only provide water, while others provide a vast array of snacks and medical support too.  Find out what’s going to be available so you can plan accordingly. Also think about portapotties – you never know when runner’s diarrhea might hit!

The Taper

Tapering is when you wind down your training in the weeks before a marathon.  This helps to let your body relax and recover from the training, but is short enough that you haven’t lost any of the strength or endurance you have built up in the preceding months.  The length of a taper varies, but for first-time marathoners it is typically 3-4 weeks.

The trick to tapering is to wind down your training gradually, and consider replacing some of your run training with low intensity cross training such as swimming or yoga.

At the same time, you don’t want to introduce anything brand new into your routine – if you’ve never done yoga before, don’t throw yourself into a new class in the weeks leading up to your marathon.

And whatever you do, don’t panic and try to cram in extra mileage in the month before your marathon – you’re already past the point of it having a positive impact on your marathon performance, and all you’re doing is increasing your chances of over-training and developing injury.


Pre – Race tips

In the week leading up to the marathon, try your best to eat and sleep well.

Try and avoid stimulants like alcohol and coffee, especially in the last two or three days before your race.

The most important rest period is not actually the night before the marathon, but two nights before the marathon – so plan your schedule ahead to get plenty of rest.

Here is our guide to what to eat before a marathon – including quantities and timing.

I always try and prepare everything for the marathon as early as I practically can, to avoid last-minute panic.  This means I usually lay out all my race-day gear a day or two before the race, so it’s ready to go.  Here’s a checklist of the essentials – and some optional items – to check for race day:

  • Running shoes
  • Shorts
  • Shirt
  • Socks
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Gloves, if cold
  • Extra clothing layer, if cold
  • Suncream, especially on your face and back of your neck.
  • Lubricant / anti-chafe cream on your feet, thighs and nipples (band-aids also work on nipples).
  • Race bib
  • Safety pins
  • Gels, drinks, snacks
  • Medication, if required.

Just before the race, you want to warm up your legs a little bit with some light jogging, and go to the bathroom – those pre-race jitters gets to us all!

As you line up at the start line, don’t forget to take any last minute fuel (such as a gel) and set your GPS device!

Related: Here’s Why Running a Marathon Without Training Is a Bad Idea


In training for your own marathon?

Not sure quite where to start, or how to train smart?

Join our Marathon Training Masterclass and gain access to hours of expert advice, a goal-specific training plan, and countless runners resources!

Click here to check out the curriculum!

The Marathon Training Masterclass is an online course and resource designed to accompany you through your entire marathon preparation journey;

From setting your goals, determining your training plan, researching your race, how to do your training runs properly . . . plus oodles of advice on gear, injury, nutrition and hydration, how to taper, and more!

Check out over 6+hrs of exclusive video content from UESCA-certified running coach and ultra-runner Thomas Watson, founder of Marathon Handbook.

Click here to check out the curriculum of the Marathon Training Masterclass!

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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