Here’s my guide to preparation and training for your first-ever marathon – including marathon training plans, pace advice and gear info . . .
marathon training plan
Marathon training can be an extremely rewarding experience as you prepare to get yourself to the starting line.
However, it is also a huge commitment – which is why it’s so important to prepare for those 26.2 miles correctly.
Let us guide you through the process with our training tips, free marathon training plans, and expert advice.
If you’re wondering how to train for a marathon, we’ve squeezed all the essentials into this article – from getting started to when you cross the finish line!
Ready? Let’s jump in!
Getting Starting – Marathon Training Essentials
Here are some of the tried-and-true facts of marathon training:
How Long Does It Take To Train For a Marathon?
It typically takes between 4-6 months to train for a marathon, depending on your initial ability level and marathon goals.
The shortest marathon training program we recommend is 3 months, or 12 weeks.
How Fit Should I Be Before Beginning Marathon Training?
Ideally, you should have some recent running fitness – if you’ve run a half marathon in the past year or two you’re in good shape to progress to the full 26.2 miles (or 42.2 kilometers).
The less active you currently are, the more time you should spend easing yourself into running – if in doubt, we recommend aiming for a 10k or run a half marathon first!
How Long Should I Run Each Week?
Your weekly mileage will gradually build up throughout your marathon training – the starting mileage will be dictated by your ability level.
By the time your marathon training peaks, you’ll likely be running around 40 – 50 miles per week.
How Many Times Per Week Should I Run?
Most marathon training schedules have 4 or 5 running days per week, and one day for cross training. Some plans include only 3 running days per week.
Note that having a training partner or running with a group can really help your motivation!
Is Cross Training a Necessary Part of Marathon Training?
Yes – keeping the body strong and flexible helps counteract some of the negative effects of running, helps you avoid injury, and become a stronger and more economical runner.
Each of our marathon training programs features one day for cross training.
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.
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 20 – 22 miles, depending on your training schedule.
Rookie runners should peak at 20 miles.
Anything more than this risks burnout and injury more than it contributes to your fitness.
Is a Marathon Training Plan Necessary?
Having a solid marathon training program to follow guides you through your training – it gradually increases your mileage, balances intensity with rest, and gets you race-ready as economically as possible!
(check out our library of free training plans here, or below)
Marathon Training Run Types Explained
Many running rookies wrongly believe that training for a 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:
Classic Training Runs
Regular training runs are those runs typically done 2-3 times per week of training, usually after work or early in the morning. They’re the most common form of training on a marathon training plan.
They’re medium-length runs of 3 – 8 miles, done at a regular pace (marathon pace or slower).
Long runs are done once per week, in order to build endurance and cover long distances.
Their mileage should very gradually increase until it peaks at 20 – 22 miles. They should normally be done at a slow, comfortable pace.
Speed work comes in many forms – interval training, hill repeats, fartleks, tempo runs – and help improve your base running speed.
Note that speed work is not necessary for beginner runners, only those trying to aim for a specific marathon time.
Cross-training is not essential, but is always recommended – it’s an awesome tool for improving running economy and power and avoiding injury.
Resistance training, stretching, foam rolling, yoga, and swimming are recommended forms of cross-training.
Marathon Nutrition and Hydration
Getting your nutrition and hydration right as you make the step up to marathons is an essential part of your training progress.
As you increase the distance you’re running, it’s important to fuel as you run – in other words, replenish those carbohydrate stores which you’re depleting. Otherwise, you could quite easily hit the wall, or bonk.
Remember to fuel 45-60 minutes before you go running, and continue to fuel for any run that is over an hour. Whether it’s a sports drink, energy gel, or trail mix – it’s better to consume small but regular portions.
The same goes for hydration – for any run of over 45 minutes, consider rehydrating during the run.
Take care not to overhydrate, however – simply drink enough to quench your thirst. Small and regular sips is the easiest way to go.
Get Good Marathon Running Shoes
Getting the right pair of shoes for your marathon training – and your marathon event – is a crucial element of marathon success.
Check out my guide on How To Choose Running Shoes (note: comfort is the most important variable).
Also browse our Best Marathon Running Shoes Recommendations (updated regularly) for some ideas.
Marathon Training Plans
We’ve developed UESCA coach-approved marathon training plans to suit every level of ability, and target marathon time.
Each of our plans is free to download, and are 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!
Beginner and Novice Marathon Training Plans
Intermediate Marathon Training Plans
Advanced Marathon Training Plans
Check out the full library of marathon training plans here!
Free Marathon Training Bootcamp
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 training plan, suggest how you put it all together and then give you a couple of examples.
Note: I originally wrote this piece for a guest post over at the excellent UKRunChat – a great resource for UK-based runners (and everyone, really).
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 /km||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).