Here’s my guide to preparation and training for your first-ever marathon – including marathon training plans, pace advice and gear info . . .
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
Running a marathon is a serious personal challenge, and your success depends a lot on how much marathon training time you have invested in the months leading up to the big day.
But how long does it actually take to train for a marathon?
It all depends on your base running fitness level, as we’ll explore. However, there are other factors – such as injury avoidance and the rate at which you ramp up your mileage.
Most marathon training plans are 12 to 20 weeks. These timings assume that you are starting with a decent base of running fitness, from which to build on. An example of a base of running fitness would be running around 20 miles per week for 9 to 12 months, before committing to the marathon training plan. If you begin a marathon training plan with little or no recent running experience, you are inviting the risk of injury early on.
The longer you give yourself to train for your marathon, the better your chances of success.
By success, I mean:
- avoiding injury due to ramping up your training mileage too quickly;
- avoiding burn-out and running fatigue;
- scaling up your training in a manageable, controlled fashion;
- completing the marathon relatively comfortably.
Many people commit to a marathon without giving themselves sufficient time to train. What happens to them? If they make it through training without getting injured or de-motivated and make it to the marathon start line, they’ll probably get off to a good start. But at some point, they’ll get too tired to continue running – and have to walk. Or they’ll get injured, or completely fatigued – and have to pull out. So the key to marathon success is giving yourself enough time to scale up your training incrementally.
Going from zero to 26.2 miles is ambitious. If you are serious about your marathon attempt, you might want to view it as a final goal with a few steps in-between. This means you should seek out 5k and 10k runs initially. A half marathon is a great event to build into your actual marathon training schedule and gives you a yardstick into how you’re doing.
But – the leap from half to full marathon isn’t an easy one. Many people with a good baseline of fitness can complete a half marathon in a few weeks of training. A full marathon, on the other hand, requires a lot of dedication to increasing your baseline stamina.
How Do I Assess my Base Running Fitness?
It all comes down to your running fitness level when you begin your marathon training. Ideally, you should already be running 20-30km/week over 3-5 runs, before embarking on a 3-5 month marathon training plan. If you’re not at this level yet, you should invest a few extra months in building up your base to this level.
Here are four ‘readiness’ categories to give you an idea of how long you should budget for marathon training.
Starting with the most-prepared:
1. Already running 25-30km+ per week. Someone at this level can go straight into a 3-5 month marathon training plan.
2. Running once or twice a week; can run 10km without stopping. Someone at this level should spend 2-3 months building up their base running level before embarking on a 3-5 month marathon training plan. This means spending 5 – 8 months in total in training. Remember to incorporate some half marathons and local races into your training.
3. Not an active runner, but fit and healthy through other sports. Someone who is not typically a runner, but has a good base cardio fitness through other activities will want to spend 4-7 months building up their running base fitness before embarking on the 3-5 month marathon training plan. This means spending 7-12 months in total in training. They should look to start with local 5k and 10k events and get a half marathon onto their training schedule a few months before the actual marathon.
4. An inactive person. If you’re someone who has done minimal running and doesn’t exercise regularly at the moment, then an excellent goal is to give yourself at least a full year to train for a marathon. You may wish to also consider other goals for the time being – like a half marathon within 9-12 months. These can all contribute to your marathon training journey.
To reiterate, the key to marathon success is to give yourself plenty of training time. The idea is you want to build up that solid running foundation, which allows you to run 20-30km/week over three or four runs. It can help to incorporate shorter running events (5k’s, 10k’s and half marathons) into this period. Now you have the foundation to use as your base to start a 3-5 month marathon training plan.
Check out some of our downloadable, free marathon training plans here.
In this post, I’ve distilled down all the discussion and advice into seven key points.
Without further ado, here we go:
1. Design a Training Plan
Draw up (or download) a decent training plan that increases your weekly mileage in manageable increments. Remember to include your long runs on the weekends. Ideally, your training should peak with a 19 to 21-mile run.
2. Get the Right Gear
Your old gym shoes might be fine for the occasional run, but you’re running a marathon. Get a suitable pair of shoes – they need to be comfortable after running for hours in them. Not sure how to choose good running shoes? Here’s our guide. Same goes for the rest of your gear – you should invest in decent stuff.
3. Know your Race
When you pick your first marathon, make sure you pick one that gives you plenty of time to train – ideally more than four months. Also, find out what the course is like – are there hills? If so, you’ll have to include hill running in your training. What’re the chances of poor weather? What do the aid stations provide? All of this has an effect on your day.
4. Know your Pace
Most first-timers just turn to a marathon and run however fast they feel. This is a mistake. Its been shown that at the start of marathons, people run much faster than they think they are running. Nerves and anxiety get released as energy, and it can be easy to be swept along in a big crowd of runners. Furthermore, runners who run a consistent pace throughout the entire marathon have a much better race than those who go out too fast, then hit the wall later. Based on your training runs, use a GPS to figure out a what a comfortable pace is for you, and do your best to stick to it throughout the marathon.
Tapering is giving your body a chance to get a little break and recover in the weeks leading up to the marathon, so on the big day, you are stronger than ever. For novice runners, you should taper for the three to four weeks prior to your marathon by scaling back your training mileage every week.
6. What to Eat
In the days leading up to the marathon, carb loading can be useful. This gives you a few extra calories in the tank prior to starting. During the race, you need something that is easily digestible and gives you energy quickly. Energy gels are very popular – but not everyone can stomach more than a couple of these sickly-sweet packets before they start to feel their stomach jumping around. Do yourself a favor and train with the snacks or gels you intend to eat during your marathon, to make sure your body can handle them.
7. The Mental Prep
Visualise and plan everything for your marathon day. Know exactly what you’re going to eat when you wake up, how you’re going to get to the start line, what you’ll take with you, and what you’ll do when you finish. Remember that a marathon is a long run – I sometimes find it helpful to mentally break it into 4 x 10km runs (and a little bit at the end).
This week I’ve launched my latest Marathon related book – Marathon in 3 Months. It’s a 95-page guide focused on getting you race ready in just twelve weeks. The book includes training plans, training advice, expert tips on nutrition, preparation and injury prevention. You can pick it up now in paperback or on Kindle.
Marathon In 3 Months
As the title suggests, it covers marathon preparation for people on an accelerated schedule.
Click Here to Pick-up ‘Marathon In 3 Months’ eBook at the Amazon Store!
Inside the Book
The eBook is based on four key principles of marathon preparation:
– Design A Robust Training Plan (and stick to it from day one)
– Stay Injury Free (even if it means missing a day of run training)
– Train based on Distance, not Pace (increase the time on your feet)
– Get The Right Gear (Shoes, socks, shirt, shorts and GPS)
I expand on these principles and go into more detail, including sections on:
- Getting started. We look at the mental and physical commitment you’ve made, what to expect and how best to prepare yourself in the coming three months.
- We dive into detail on how to get from your current state to race-ready in twelve weeks. This includes assessing your current level of running fitness, and how feasible a marathon in three months is. Marathon training these days is a science, not an art – and the lessons learned from countless other runners can be de-constructed and applied to your own training. Example training plans are included here.
- Shoes and gear. Have the correct shoes and running gear is fundamental for success. We break down every piece of gear you need to run a marathon, and all the optional extras too. We discuss what to look for when you’re buying shoes, shorts and everything else.
- Nutrition and Hydration. Fuel is what gets you round the race, but it comes in many different forms – and everyone’s stomach is different. We look at the various fuelling options to have before and during a race, as well as discussing your fuelling strategy and how to road-test it before the race.
- Before The Marathon. We explain where your focus should be at various milestones – 4 weeks before the race, 1 week before the race, the night before the race and the morning of the race. Here we discuss tapering and cross-training, diet and mental preparation so you get to the start-line in optimal condition.
- The Marathon. The actual marathon is the culmination of all your training in one event. Here we go through what to expect on the day itself – this section contains a lot of advice and tips from experienced marathon runners.
- Post-Marathon. What to expect, how to minimise recovery time – and how to retain your new level of distance running ability.
Click Here to Pick-up ‘Marathon In 3 Months’ eBook at the Amazon Store!
So far, the book has helped over 1000 runners work towards their marathon goal. Here’s a sample of reviews from the book’s Amazon page:
Head over to Amazon and get your digital copy – and if you love it, add a review!