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How To Train For A Marathon: Everything You Need To Know

We answer the key FAQs & explain the ins and outs of training, nutrition, & gear.

First of all, congratulations on taking on the incredible goal of running a marathon! You have come to the right place for all the guidance and support you need.

Marathon training can be an extremely rewarding experience as you prepare to reach the starting (and finishing) lines.

However, training for a marathon is also a huge commitment, which is why it’s so important to prepare for those 26.2 miles correctly and with proper guidance.

In this complete guide, we provide everything you need to know to help you through the marathon training process, including expert running coach advice, endless resources, and our database of free marathon training plans for all ability levels.

I’ve squeezed all the essentials into this one guide, from getting started to crossing the finish line. So grab a cup of coffee, settle in, and prepare for a world of information.

People running a marathon.

Getting Starting – Marathon Training Essentials

Here are some of the tried-and-true facts of marathon training:

What Is The Best Marathon Training Program?

Choosing a marathon training plan that aligns with your abilities, goals, and time frame is key to race day success.

Our team of running coaches has developed a library of tried-and-tested free marathon training plans. They’re free to download and available in Google Sheets and Excel formats, so you can edit them to suit your schedule.

Here are our most popular marathon training plans:

(check out our library of free training plans here)

How Fit Should I Be Before Beginning Marathon Training?

Ideally, you should have some recent running fitness under your belt before considering training for a marathon.

If you’ve run a half marathon in the past year or two and are still consistently running, you should be in good shape to take on a full training cycle and progress to 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers).

The less active you are, the more time you should spend easing yourself into running. If in doubt, we recommend aiming for a 5K, 10K, or running a half marathon first.

The more you prepare for and run shorter races before taking on marathon training, the faster you will become at these distances, building a strong base to get started and avoid injury.

Skipping over these important stepping stones will hinder your advancement.

As a running coach, I always tell my athletes to trust the process. Honestly, they always thank me in the end that they didn’t jump into a distance they weren’t quite ready to take on just yet.

a silhouette of two people running over a bridge

How Long Does It Take To Train For a Marathon?

The length of your marathon plan will depend on a few factors, including your current fitness level, running experience, and running goal. 

Training for a marathon typically takes 4-6 months, depending on your initial ability level and marathon goals, but it could take up to a year and a half if you are starting from the very beginning.

Non-Runners

For non-runners, we are looking at a year to a year and a half to train for a marathon safely. First, you would want to start with a Couch to 5K training plan, then 5K to 10K training plan, then 10K to a half marathon.

After running a couple of half marathons is a good time to begin training for a marathon.

Beginner Runners

If you run 5Ks and 10Ks consistently, 5-6 months of training is the recommended amount of time to prepare them for a first-time marathon in the safest way possible.

Intermediate and Advanced Runners

16-20 weeks of training is a reasonable amount of time to dedicate to training for a marathon as an intermediate or advanced runner. 

Check out our full guide here for a complete breakdown of how long it takes to train for a marathon.

How Much Time Do I Need To Dedicate To Marathon Training?

Most marathon training schedules include four to six weekly running and/or cross-training days. The type of training plan you choose according to your fitness level and goal will also affect the number of days you run a week.

The more advanced a runner you are and the more aggressive your time goal is, the more time you will need to dedicate to running.

As a running coach, I strongly suggest including two strength training sessions in your weekly training plan.

No matter your training load and weekly mileage, you must schedule at least one complete day of rest to allow your body to recuperate, adapt, and recover for the following session.

You must also focus on getting good sleep, eating right, and staying well-hydrated throughout the day.

How Many Miles Do I Need To Run Each Week?

Your weekly mileage will gradually build up throughout your marathon training. The starting mileage will be dictated by your ability level and the training plan you choose to follow.

By the time your marathon training peaks, you’ll likely be running around 40 – 50 miles weekly.

Setting Marathon Goals

We recommend that you choose a marathon goal early on in your training program. Your goal can influence your training strategy.

Example marathon goals include ‘just finishing‘, or finishing within a certain time i.e. running a sub 4-hr marathon.

Curious as to the average running mile pace required to achieve certain marathon finishing times? Check out our Marathon Pace Charts.

Marathon Pace Chart Miles

What Are The Key Components Of A Successful Marathon Training Schedule?

Many running rookies wrongly believe that training for a full marathon simply means booking dozens of miles – but this isn’t the full picture.

Successful marathon runners mix up their training with different types of training runs.

Training Methods

Most of our training plans include a mix of rate of perceived exercise training and pace training.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a method of training based on perception or how you feel. The scale ranges from 1 to 10, with 1 being extremely comfortable and 10 being an all-out sprint.

Here is our complete guide to RPE.

On the other hand, pace training involves maintaining a specific pace, measured in minutes per kilometer or mile, for specific intervals during your run. It’s like setting a rhythm for your body to follow, ensuring you stay on track towards your time goal.

Your workouts will vary depending on which training plan you choose according to your experience level, fitness level, and goal, but here are some of the main sessions you will find in our expert coach training plans: 

Training Runs or Distance Runs

Training runs, also known as base-building or distance runs, are fundamental to your training. These runs, most performed at a comfortable, conversational pace, help you gradually increase your volume and improve your aerobic base. 

The rate of perceived exertion should be between a 3-4 on a scale of 1-10.

In some plans, marathon pace is worked into these runs.

For our complete guide on base training, click here.

A person running along a city skyline.

Long Runs

Long runs gradually increase your volume, vital in preparing you for race day. Most long runs will be run at an RPE of 3-4 unless otherwise indicated in your plan.

They must be used as dress rehearsals for your race, where you can practice race fueling and hydration strategies.

Your longest long run will be somewhere between a 16 and 20-mile run.

How Long Should My Longest Long Run Be?

Long runs are performed weekly to increase your endurance and maximum distance – we advise a longest long run of 18 – 22 miles, depending on your training schedule.

Rookie runners should peak at no more than a 20-mile run.

Anything more than this risks burnout and injury more than it contributes to your fitness.

For a complete guide on your longest marathon long run, click here.

Easy Runs or Recovery Runs

Recovery runs are slightly easier than distance runs, with a rate of perceived exertion of 2-3. These runs aim to recover from a harder session and add easy volume to your week.

Be sure you truly run your easy runs at an easy pace—they are crucial to your improvement. For more information on why running slower makes you faster, click here.

Race Pace Run 

Race-pace runs are just that: runs where you practice your estimated race pace for specific intervals or the duration of the workout. You warm up and cool down before and after each of these workouts.

Click here to calculate your race pace.

Speed Work

Speed work takes many forms (intervals, threshold runs, tempos, fartleks, and hills) and helps improve your base running speed.

Note that speed work is not necessary for beginner runners training for their first marathon; only more experienced runners are trying to aim for a specific marathon time.

A person running on a track.

Intervals

Intervals are a type of speed work, and the intensity will vary depending on the interval workout you have been assigned and the length of the intervals.

Intervals can be run at a specific intensity level or pace, depending on your training goal. Each training plan clearly indicates which to use.

Some examples of intervals are 4 x 800 meters hard (RPE 8) with an 800-meter recovery jog between each one. Warm up and cool down before and after each of these workouts.

For a complete guide on interval training, click here.

Tempo Runs

Tempo Runs are long blocks of threshold training.

You will run for the indicated km, miles, or time at a sustainable, hard effort (RPE of 6-7). This is a hard pace, but one you could hold for 60 minutes.

These runs improve your ability to run faster and harder for longer. Warm up and cool down before and after each workout.

For a complete guide on tempo runs, click here.

Hill Repeats 

Hill repeats are a type of interval workout.

Run uphill, hard, between a 9-10 RPE, for the time indicated in each specific workout. Then, jog back down to your starting point and repeat for the indicated number of repetitions. Warm up and cool down before and after each of these workouts.

For a complete guide on hill repeats, click here.

Strides

Strides are short accelerations in which you begin easy, increase your effort level to almost top speed, RPE 8-9, and then gradually return to your initial pace.

Each workout will indicate the number of strides and their duration. The rest of the run should be run at an easy, conversation pace.

For a complete guide on strides, click here.

A person stepping on a track.

Shake Out Run

A shake-out run is a very easy jog. It is usually run the day before a race to “shake out” your legs. It should be a 1-2 on the RPE scale.

For a complete guide on shake-out runs, click here.

Warm-up 

Warm up before any workout involving pace or effort level changes, such as intervals, race-pace runs, tempo runs, threshold runs, hill work, track work, etc.

You never want to jump into speedwork without properly preparing your muscles and body by gradually warming up. A warm-up should be easy; run at a 1-3 on the RPE scale.

For a complete guide on how to warm up for runners, click here.

Cool down

Cool down after any workout involving pace or effort level changes, such as intervals, tempo runs, threshold runs, hill work, track work, etc.

A cool-down should be very easy, run at a 1-2 on the RPE scale, and help bring your body back to baseline regarding breathing and heart rate.

For a complete guide on how to cool down for runners, click here.

two people running in front of a sunset

Cross Training

Some training plans include cross-training days, especially if you are a beginner runner adapting to running or an injury-prone runner who needs to substitute some running days with low-impact or no-impact cross-training workouts.

What kind of cross-training exercises are beneficial for marathon preparation? 

Cross-training workouts are any type of cardio that has little or no impact. Some examples that can benefit your half marathon process include swimming, biking, elliptical, ski erg, and rowing.

For a complete guide on cross-training, click here.

Strength Training

Strength training is not just a beneficial addition or compliment to your running training plan; it’s a necessity. It plays a crucial role in correcting muscle imbalances, making you a fitter, stronger, and faster runner, and, most importantly, helping you stay injury-free. 

Aim for two sessions of strength training per week and incorporate compound exercises such as squats, lunges, glute bridges, calf raises, planks, push-ups, rows, and pull-ups.

For a complete guide on strength training, click here.

Rest 

Rest days are not just a suggestion but imperative to your performance.

These days are for you to rest, hydrate, refuel, and relax without strenuous activity or exercise. Your body needs this time to adapt and recuperate from your workouts and prevent injuries. So, please respect and prioritize these recovery days for better running performance.

For a complete guide on the importance of rest for runners, click here.

A person opening an energy gel.

What Are The Essential Nutrition Tips For Marathon Training?

Getting your nutrition and hydration right as you step up to marathons is an essential part of your training progress.

As you increase the distance you’re running, it’s important to not just fuel before and after your run but fuel as you run – in other words, replenish those carbohydrate stores that you’re depleting. Otherwise, you could quite easily hit the wall or bonk.

Let’s break it down into before, during, and after a run.

What Should I Eat Before A Run?

What you eat before running will depend on the type, length, and intensity of your workout or race.

The longer distances and more intense runs will require more energy and, therefore, more fuel. But whatever type of run or workout you have planned for the day, it is essential that you eat something before starting.

It is ideal to consume a small snack about one hour before heading out the door for a training session during the week. Some people can get away with 30 minutes, but personally, I need a bit more time to process food, like an hour or so.

Before a long run or your marathon race day, eat a light breakfast at least 2-3 hours before running so you don’t feel full and uncomfortable during your race. 

All pre-run snacks and meals should be high in simple carbs as your body can break down and use this energy source efficiently. 

Some examples of simple carbohydrates are white rice, pasta, bread, bagels, pancakes, waffles, couscous, table sugar, juice, honey, maple syrup, jelly, fruit, and dairy (for those who can tolerate lactose well). 

For a complete guide on what to eat before a run, click here.

a man running on a road with rocky mountains behind

What Should I Eat During My Long Runs Or Marathon Race?

Focus on simple carbohydrates for race training fueling. Running gels, energy chews, sports drinks, and sports beans work well.

When it comes to eating, the rule of thumb is to stay ahead of your body’s carbohydrate needs, which means starting fueling at the race’s 30-45 minute mark.

As a general rule, consume your weight in kilos in grams of carbohydrates per hour of your long run or race for optimal energy.

The most important thing you can do in terms of your marathon fueling plan is practice, practice, and practice during your long runs to see what works best for you.

For a complete guide on fueling during a marathon, click here.

What Should I Eat After My Runs?

Post-run and post-race fueling plays a big part in your recovery.

It is ideal to drink a recovery shake of protein and carbohydrates within 20 minutes to half an hour of finishing your run. 

Research suggests1 that after a run, the body needs between 0.5 and 0.7 grams of carbohydrates and between 0.14 and 0.23 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

Of course, if you can eat a protein-packed breakfast or meal after your run instead of a shake, that would be even better. The shake is a quick fix in case you can’t stomach eating right after, or it makes the logistics easier.

Also, rehydrate with electrolytes, especially if you have sweat during your run. 

For a complete guide on post-run fueling, click here.

The way to go when trying to figure out your best fueling is trial and error and practicing every chance you get to perfect your strategies for race day.

A person hading a marathoner a bottle of water.

How Should I Hydrate When Training And Racing A Marathon?

Proper hydration is important in our daily lives and sports performance. Dehydration can lead to dizziness, fatigue, and poor running performance.

Our hydration needs will vary, but as a general rule, you should consume at least 8-10 glasses of water daily.

Staying well-hydrated consistently should keep you prepared before your runs. However, increase your electrolyte intake before a race to ensure you get to the start line fully hydrated.

Slowly consume 5-7 ml (0.17-0.23 oz) of fluid per 1 kg (2.2 lb) body weight for pre-hydration.

As for during your training runs, if your run is an hour or shorter, you should be okay not bringing water along but just replenishing afterward unless you are running in the heat.

In general, for runs over an hour, it’s recommended that athletes aim to drink 0.4-0.8 liters per hour (L/h) or 8-16 ounces per hour (oz/h). 

To get even more precise, you can calculate your sweat rate by performing a sweat test, and trying to replenish as close to the 100% mark as possible.

Sip your fluids during your runs instead of chugging them down. You want a constant flow of hydration instead of consuming it in large quantities all at once.

Once you start sweating more during your runs due to higher temperatures and more intense and longer workouts, you’ll want to switch from plain water to a sports drink that includes electrolytes to replace minerals lost during heavy sweating.

After your runs, ensure you replenish fluid loss by hydrating with electrolytes.

For our complete guide on hydration for runners, click here.

A runner looking at a GPS watch.

What Equipment Do I Need To Train For A Marathon?

The most important piece of equipment you’ll need for your marathon training is a good pair of comfortable running shoes, maybe two if you would like to alternate shoes every other day in a shoe rotation. 

We have the perfect shoe-fitting guide here.

Other important gear for training for a marathon includes moisture-wicking running clothing, a good GPS sports watch, and possibly a hydration belt or vest for longer runs.

Training Tips For A Successful Marathon Race Day

#1: Take Your Taper Seriously 

Even though you’ll feel like every last run counts, you don’t want to overdo it before your big day. 

Follow the training plan taper, which is most often two weeks before race day, and don’t do anything extra. You’ve already put in all the work and are ready to go! So rest up and get ready to become a marathon finisher.

#2: Consult Our Race Day Checklist 

We have a complete marathon race day checklist, so you are sure you don’t forget a thing! 

Check it out here.

#3: Don’t Start Out Too Fast

Good pacing is vital in completing your race successfully. It’s so easy to get swept away with the crowd among all of the excitement and bustling atmosphere. 

Stick to your plan; stick to your pace. 

#4: Familiarize Yourself With Your Race

Research all of the details about your race before arriving. You’ll want to know the course details, climate, and logistics.

You’ll want to know important details such as where packet pick-up is, how you will get to and from the start/finish, and how often the aid stations will pop up along the route. 

For some guides on choosing a race, check out:

#5: Don’t Try Anything New On Race Day

This is the golden rule in running. Never, ever try anything new on race day. Not a new shirt, new fuel, hydration, and especially, no new running shoes.

Everything should be well-practiced in your long runs.

There you have it, our complete marathon training guide. Now, get laced up and ready to go, and have a great marathon journey.

Don’t forget to check out our marathon training plan database to pick out yours today!

A person tying their show.

Choose The Marathon Training Plan That’s Right For You

We’ve developed UESCA coach-approved marathon training plans to suit every level of ability, and target marathon time – using periodization training to optimize your race preparation.

Our plans are free to download and available in PDF and Google Sheets / MS Excel formats.

Whether you’re training for the New York City Marathon, Boston Marathon, or something smaller – each training plan is designed to get you race day-ready.

Visit our marathon training plan library here for full descriptions of each plan, or browse the plans below.

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

Free Marathon Training Bootcamp

a lady in running gear on a beach
Photo of author
Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community, she is known for her ear-to-ear smile, even under the toughest racing conditions. She is a UESCA-certified running coach and loves sharing her knowledge and experience to help people reach their goals and become the best runners they can be. Her biggest passion is to motivate others to hit the trails or road alongside her, have a blast, and run for fun!

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