How To Train For A Marathon: The Building Blocks For First-Timers

Using marathon training plans is generally the smartest approach to training for a marathon as long as you choose a plan that is appropriate for your level, is the correct duration based on when your scheduled race is, and otherwise meets your needs and preferences for marathon training.

But, how do you pick out the best marathon training plan? How do you train for a marathon? How long does it take to train for a marathon? What are the most important elements of the best marathon training plans?

In this guide, we will focus on tips for how to train for a marathon, how to find the best marathon training plans, how to follow a marathon training plan, and how long it takes to train for a marathon.

We will look at: 

  • Do I Have to Do All of the Workouts On My Marathon Training Plan?
  • Tips for How To Train For A Marathon
  • How to Choose a Good Marathon Training Plan
  • How Long Does it Take to Train for a Marathon?

Let’s get started!

A blurred picture of a marathon.

Do I Have to Do All of the Workouts On My Marathon Training Plan?

Before we get into the specifics about how long it takes to train for a marathon or how to find the best marathon training plans, it is helpful to cover a few basics about following a marathon training plan.

First-time marathoners, as well as experienced marathon runners, often ask: “Do I have to follow a marathon training plan exactly as it is written?”

Interestingly, the answer here is perhaps surprising: no, you do not, and probably should not, follow your marathon training program precisely as it is written.

In most cases, marathon training plans are designed to be followed as closely as possible. 

This means that if the workout says to run 5 miles, you run 5 miles. 

If you are supposed to be doing an interval workout on the track, you should try to replicate the paces or effort levels and all of the prescribed intervals as closely as possible.

A person doing a lunge.

There are also supplementary workouts that may or may not be included in the best marathon training plans, such as cross-training and strength training.

On some marathon training plans, these workouts are optional, but they should be performed if at all possible.

Strength training is incredibly important for helping to prevent injuries and muscle imbalances so that you can stay healthy. This allows you to be consistent with your training and not be forced to take time off due to an injury.

Cross-training reduces the impact stresses on your body while still allowing you to get a great cardiovascular workout and to use different muscles and movement patterns than running to provide more well-balanced strength.

With all of this said, there is one extremely important caveat:

If and when you are not feeling well, particularly if you believe he might be coming down with an illness or you have a little niggle or pain that you do not want to turn into a full-blown injury, you should absolutely skip a prescribed workout that you find on your training plan.

A person running on a track.

Essentially, it is sometimes more effective to swap an easy recovery run for low-impact cross-training or a complete rest day when you are particularly tired a day or two after your long runs or speed workouts.

Depending on your circumstances, you might be able to swap the running workout for a low-impact or non-impact cross-training workout.

For example, if you are supposed to do a 30-minute tempo run, you could head into the pool for an aqua jogging session and replicate the same intensity level in the water for 30 minutes, bookended by a warm-up and cool down.

If you are supposed to cross-train but have a niggle or pain and can’t find a form of cross-training that will not aggravate whatever sort of musculoskeletal pain you are feeling, you should skip a workout altogether and focus on rest and recovery. 

You might even want to consider seeing a physical therapist, depending on the nature of the pain that you are experiencing.

People running.

Beginners, in particular, worry that they have to follow their marathon training plan to a T, but the chances that this will be possible, given the length of most marathon training plans as well as the high risk of injuries and physical discomfort that can arise, is relatively low. 

Almost every marathon runner has to make some amount of modifications and adjustments to their training plan, even if swapping workouts in the same week based on their availability. 

For instance, you might have a family trip scheduled for the weekend, so you will not be able to fit in your long run. Therefore, you might switch your long run day with a shorter workout during the week. 

Then, you would still do both workouts, but they would occur on different days than they were scheduled. 

This is fine in most cases as long as you are still able to have a recovery or easier workout after a hard workout rather than scheduling hard workouts back to back.

A person tying their shoe.

Tips for How To Train For A Marathon

After you have checked out a bunch of marathon training plans and chosen one that you think suits your needs, consider some of these other marathon training tips to incorporate throughout your journey of marathon training:

#1: Do All of the Little Things

Runners tend to spend a lot of time thinking about or planning their actual running workouts on their marathon training plan.

However, cross-training workouts and strength training workouts are equally important, as cross-training allows you to build your aerobic fitness while reducing impact and working different muscle groups. 

Strength training helps prevent injuries by making your musculoskeletal system stronger and correcting muscle imbalances.

Plus, studies show that strength training workouts for runners can improve aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and submaximal endurance performance due to the neuromuscular adaptations that result.

Getting enough sleep, following a nutritious diet that supports marathon training, taking rest days, foam rolling, stretching, and all other aspects of recovery are just as important as your actual runs.

A person running.

#2: Slow Down Your Long Runs

One of the biggest mistakes that first-time marathon runners make when trying to train for a marathon is running the long runs too fast.

It’s unnecessary to run your long runs at race pace, or anywhere right around race pace, to induce these goals. 

In fact, doing so can increase the risk of injury and overtraining, and it significantly increases your recovery time.

Instead, running your long runs at a slow, easy pace effectively accomplishes the intended goals of the long run while also protecting your body from overtraining and burnout by reducing the stress imposed on the body.

Most coaches say you should do your marathon long runs at an easy pace that is at least 1-2 minutes per mile or about 50-90 seconds slower per kilometer than your marathon pace.

For example, if you want to run a marathon at 9:30 min/mile pace, you would want to do your long runs at 10:30-11:30 pace. 

A person looking at their GPS watch.

#3: Consider Using a Watch

One of the most valuable training tools that has helped facilitate a more scientific and specific approach to training is the GPS running watch.

Using a GPS running watch allows you to upload or keep track of all of your running and cross-training workouts in one place so that you can set a training goal and make adjustments to your beginner training plan as your fitness improves or obstacles arise.

There are tons of GPS-running watches to choose from, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to trial quite a number of different models from all the top brands. 

My current favorite and recommendation for most recreational and competitive runners is the Garmin Forerunner 265.

As a woman with a smaller wrist, I love that the Garmin Forerunner 265 GPS watch comes in a lightweight 42 mm size (or lever 46mm size), and the bright AMOLED touch-screen display also has traditional button controls.

The battery life is excellent, even in GPS running mode, and as soon as I wake up in the morning, I get a morning report with an overview of my sleep quality, recovery score, training outlook, heart rate variability, readiness to train, and even the weather.

There is also running power, VO2 max estimates, along with tons of other workout metrics that could be used to help you reach your race goals. 

Plus, you can track your cross-training workouts and store and play music or podcasts right from the Garmin GPS running watch.

A person resting.

#4: Focus On Recovery

Although you are likely to be feeling exhausted and ready to take a load off right after your marathon training long runs, the most crucial period in the post-long run recovery is right after you hit your stop button on your GPS running watch through the next 24 hours.

As soon as possible, start refueling and rehydrating with carbohydrates and plenty of electrolytes and fluids. 

Try to get at least 20 to 25 grams of protein in your post-run snack and 60-80 grams of carbohydrates.

Most importantly, do your best to walk around for at least 10-15 minutes after a long run to help prevent stiffness and set yourself up for optimal recovery.

#5: Consider Running for Charity

By running a race for a cause, you might find a deeper level of motivation and commitment to stick with your training even when you might otherwise not feel like running.

A calendar with the 30th circled.

How to Choose a Good Marathon Training Plan

Many runners ask, “What is the best marathon training plan?”

Truthfully, if there were a single “best“ marathon training plan, there would be very little need for coaches, and we would see almost all runners having a similar marathon finish time.

Instead, there are marathon training plans for beginners, intermediate marathon training plans, and marathon training plans that are geared toward advanced runners who have time-based marathon goals.

There are also marathon training plans with a wide range of lengths, from just a couple of weeks to several months.

When you are choosing your marathon training plan, make sure that the duration works with the goal race you have in mind, or find a race that will end around when you plan to finish the training plan.

We offer tons of free marathon training plans for different fitness levels and goals, all of which you can tailor to your needs. 

You can find our marathon training plans free here.

A person running in a park.

How long does it take to train for a marathon?

This leads us to another common question: “How long does it take to train for a marathon?“

Most marathon training plans require about 16 weeks of uninterrupted training to get you in a race-ready shape for the big 26.2-mile event.

Of course, you will find couch-to-marathon training plans and marathon training plans for beginners that are upwards of 20 weeks or even six months, and there are more advanced marathon training plans for runners with a solid base that are more like 8 to 12 weeks or even less.

Therefore, the significant investment of time alone makes it quite likely that somewhere during the course of your training plan, you will have to take time off. 

Add in the element of the high-impact nature of running and the physical toll that high-mileage weeks can put on your body, and you have a recipe for a high probability of needing to take some amount of unplanned time off during your marathon training build.

We have an entire article dedicated to answering the question—how long does it take to train for a marathon?—that takes a deep dive into this topic. 

You can read all about how many weeks it takes to train for a marathon and factors to consider when determining how long you will need to prepare for a marathon here.

A person stretching.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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