Training for a Marathon: Everything You Need to Know to Successfully Cross the Finish Line

So you’ve decided to start training for a marathon. First of all, congratulations! Training for and completing a marathon is on many people’s bucket lists and is undoubtedly a massive feat of athletic ability. That finisher’s medal will long hold a special place of pride and honor in your heart—can’t you just feel its weight on your neck now?! 

If you’re getting excited about running your marathon just from reading this introduction, we know you’ve definitely got the enthusiasm and drive to run 26.2 miles. But if you’re a first-time marathon runner, you’re probably asking yourself, “How do I go about training for a marathon, anyway?” 

Not to fear—that’s where we come in! We’ve compiled a comprehensive guide that has everything you need to know to cross the finish line injury-free and with a smile on your face! Are you lacing up your sneakers yet? Are you getting antsy to get out there and pound the pavement already? Well then, let’s get to it.  

Finding the Right Marathon Training Plan

There are a million different ways to train for a marathon. In addition to long runs that increase in distance over time, many coaches and professional long-distance runners recommend adding a variety of different workouts to your plan when training for a marathon. These can include tempo runs, speed workouts, cross-training, yoga, walking, weight lifting, and more. 

But how do you know what will work for YOU and YOUR body if you’ve never trained for more than a half-marathon? The first step is to figure out which training style is best suited for you (and your budget). 

What Type of Training Plan Is Best for You?

Have you ever gone to the grocery store without a shopping list? Sure, you can walk into your local market and grab some random fruits and veggies (and let’s be realistic, probably a snack or two), but what happens when you get home? 

Maybe you were able to grab all the ingredients needed to make a healthy meal without putting much thought into it—and if you’ve been cooking nutritious meals for yourself for a while, this practiced act is likely second nature. But there’s still a good chance you grabbed a pile of random stuff that can’t be made into healthy meals. Just because you were craving pistachios, watermelon, crackers, and pepperoni at the moment does not mean they will magically turn into a nutrient-dense dinner. 

The same goes when training for a marathon. If you just did a workout you felt like doing every day with no structured plan of where you were running, how far, or for how long, you wouldn’t be able to “make a healthy meal” by the end of your training. If you’re a seasoned marathoner, maybe this a la carte training plan works just fine for you. First-time marathoners: keep reading on. 

Hiring a Running Coach

Many runners find it helpful to hire a running coach. If you’re nervous about any aspect of training for a marathon—nutrition, fueling, preventing injury, recovery, etc.—this is a great way to have a professional’s guidance available to you at all times. However, as you can imagine, hiring a personal coach can be pricey. 

Pros:

  • A training plan tailored to your experience level, athletic abilities, and goals
  • A customized nutrition and fueling plan specific to your body’s needs
  • Unlimited one-on-one access to a running professional with years of experience
  • Motivation and support

Cons:

  • The cost of a running coach can get quite high

Joining a Running Group

When training for a marathon, if you’re looking for a structured plan and access to a running coach without the high cost of a personal coach, joining a running group may be more your speed. Although you won’t get a training plan completely catered to you and your needs, you will have an awesome training plan with the added bonus of becoming a part of a running community. Instead of just one person holding you accountable, you will develop relationships with other runners—many of them seasoned—who will be able to answer your questions, provide guidance, and support and motivate you throughout your training. 

Pros:

  • Access to a running coach
  • Scheduled group workouts to keep you accountable
  • A community of supportive runners

Cons:

  • Although this option is cheaper than a personal coach, there is still a relatively high cost
  • Less flexibility in your training schedule

Note that there are also free running groups in many communities! While these programs may not be as structured as a paid running group or offer a full marathon training plan, they often meet once or twice a week to run together and create a sense of community. This is a wonderful free alternative if you’re seeking the support of other runners. 

Purchasing a Training Plan

If you’re training for a marathon right now, I’m sure you’ve done some research and come across online training plans. If you don’t have a budget for a coach or running group, you shouldn’t feel discouraged. The beautiful thing about running is that the overall cost is very minimal—especially if you’re training for a local marathon and don’t need to travel very far for your race. 

Online marathon training plans, when created by an esteemed running professional, are a great way to get quality training for a fraction of the cost. Purchasing plans from running gurus like Hal Higdon or Greg McMillan can provide you with all the structure you need. Some publications, such as Runner’s World, even offer free marathon training plans

Pros:

  • An already-laid-out training plan cuts down on research time
  • You will know exactly how many weeks you need to train and exactly which workout to do each day

Cons:

  • You will still need to find a running group or train with a friend to get a sense of community
  • You won’t have access to a coach for questions that come up about strength exercises, nutrition, fueling, or recovery

Making a Plan: What Training for a Marathon Looks Like

If you are training for your first marathon, we highly recommend you find a training plan that goes 18–20 weeks. Although you don’t technically need four or five months to train for a marathon, the extra weeks help account for illnesses, injuries, or life events that get in the way and ensure that missing a long run or two won’t completely derail your training. 

That being said, you should not start training for a marathon without establishing your aerobic base first. It’s so important that your body gets used to mileage well before you start your training. You should be running a few times a week and doing core- and leg-focused strength workouts leading up to day one of your training so that your muscles are well-prepared for the stress you’re about to put them through. 

Although each marathon training plan is a little bit different, each is made up of some or all of the following workouts. 

Long Runs

Each weekend, you will be doing a long run that gradually increases in distance every week. These are the bread and butter of marathon training. Many novice marathon training plans start at five or six miles and cap off at 20 miles around week 15, decreasing in distance every three weeks or so to allow your body to recover and improve. Three or four weeks before the marathon, these long runs taper off to allow your body time to prepare for the big race. 

These workouts should not be missed. If you cannot do them on the weekend, try your best to fit them into your schedule during the week. That being said, you should never do a long run when you are sick or injured—for the longevity of your training, recovery and rest trump running every time.

Tempo Runs

Tempo runs require you to run at different paces and effort levels to get your body accustomed to different speeds and put you more in tune with your abilities and limits. These workouts can include lactate-threshold runs, race-pace runs, and progression runs. 

If these workouts sound too complicated for you, don’t be discouraged! There is no shame in training for your first marathon with no time goal in mind and simply set out to cross the finish line. If this is the case, make sure to complete the mileage and focus on that—not how long it takes you to do so. 

Easy/Slow/Recovery Runs

Easy runs are 30 seconds to one minute per mile slower than your goal marathon pace. If you don’t know what your marathon pace should be, just run as slow as you want! Even walk if you have to. The important thing is that you aren’t pushing your body too much during these workouts. 

Cross-Training

Cross training is any form of aerobic exercise that uses slightly different muscles than running. These can include swimming, biking, rowing, and walking. Some people even add yoga or pilates to their training schedule to cross-train. Incorporating these workouts help to strengthen surrounding muscles and prevent injury. They also break up your running workouts and add diversity to your training! 

Strength Training

Although strength training is an essential part of preventing injury while training for a marathon, you may be surprised to learn that long-distance runners often overlook this type of workout. We highly recommend that you incorporate 1–3 days of weight lifting into your weekly training regimen. You can even find strength training programs made specifically for marathon runners online. 

Rest

Rest is arguably your most important “workout.” It’s an absolutely essential part of any complete strategy when you’re training for a marathon. You should be resting twice a week and taking that recovery time seriously. If you are feeling restless and want to do some movement, consider going for a walk, stretching, or adding a yoga or pilates class to your recovery days. These movements are gentle and will help elongate your muscles, preparing them for your next hard workout. 

Races

Many runners who are preparing for a marathon find it helpful to do a couple of races during their training. This is a great way to test out what it feels like to run your goal pace during an organized race and experiment with different fueling methods and pre- and post-race rituals. Consider running a half-marathon about halfway through your training—ideally around the time of your 13-mile long run. You can also add a 5k or 10k, but make sure you aren’t completely replacing your long run weekends with shorter distance runs, or your long-distance training might suffer.

Nutrition and Fueling

Food is fuel when training for a marathon, which means that the nutrients and calories you consume are just as important as the miles you log. Nutrition can be broken down into two categories: training and race day. While these two segments are slightly different, both are equally important to your performance. 

Training Nutrition

One of the most important aspects of training is staying hydrated. To discover how much water you need before, during, and after you run, calculate your sweat rate. This will help you determine how many fluids and electrolytes you need to support your training.

When you begin training for a marathon, you will start to notice how different foods affect your mood, energy, and endurance before, after, and during your workouts. Although nutrition is a science, each runner is different and should honor their bio-individuality. If you read on a blog that eating an entire sweet potato with some almond butter is best before a long run but you find yourself feeling nauseous after eating just that, stop eating it! What works for others will not necessarily work for you. 

It is your responsibility to figure out the ratio of macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) that work for your training. Remember that as your marathon training ramps up, your caloric intake will increase as well! Fuel your body with the foods it needs at that moment to recover from or prepare for your next workout. 

According to sports dietitian Alexandra Cook, running burns 100–120 calories per mile. Use this formula to calculate how many calories you should be consuming each day—and don’t slow down on rest days! Even if you aren’t training, your body is working hard to recover and needs fuel to operate at an optimal level. Each meal should include protein, carbohydrates, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Produce provides micronutrients and antioxidants, which prevent oxidative stress, an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body stimulated by prolonged exercise. 

Above all else, listen to your body and don’t be afraid to eat when you’re hungry (which will likely be all the time). You’re putting in some serious work—treat yourself to delicious, nutrient-dense meals! 

Race Day Nutrition

On race day, it’s very important to stick to the nutrition plan that you have developed over the past 4–5 months of long runs. Eat the same breakfast approximately 2.5–4 hours before the race starts to give your stomach time to process your meal. 

Five to fifteen minutes before the race starts, start your fueling with a gel and a few sips of water. Plan to consume 30–60 grams of carbohydrates per hour throughout the race. Use your pre-determined combination of energy gels, chews, and bars to achieve this. 

You should know where the fueling and hydration stations are along the course and have a plan for when and where you are intaking fuel and fluids. Don’t be afraid to ask a seasoned runner for advice on fueling weeks, or even months, prior to race day! It’s important to figure out what works best for you and your body so that those 26.2 miles can go as smooth as humanly possible.

Choosing the Right Marathon Training Gear

Finding the right gear for your marathon training can make or break your race day performance (just ask any male runner who has suffered from jogger’s nipple). When you’re running 26.2 miles, there are a lot of opportunities for discomfort. Here are our top tips for finding the proper training gear prior to race day. 

Running Sneakers and Socks

It’s no secret that finding the right running sneaker is crucial to the comfort and ease of your training. Experts say that your running shoes should be replaced every 300 to 500 miles. Make sure that you are keeping a running log to track exactly how far you are running so you have a better idea of that 300–500-mile checkpoint. 

As far as brand and design of sneakers go, many runners live by a certain model, but everyone’s arch, gait, and pronation are different. Your training terrain will also play a part in which sneaker you choose. The best way to find a good running shoe is to visit your local running store and talk to one of the employees. They will evaluate your pronation and gait, ask you about your training, and recommend the running sneaker they believe best suits your needs. 

Choosing the right socks to run in is also an extremely important—and sometimes overlooked—part of training for a marathon. Good running socks provide extra padding and comfort and help prevent blisters. There’s a variety of running socks available on the market that come in different fabrics, thicknesses, and heights. 

Running Outfit

The clothes you choose to run in depend on many different factors, including where you are training, where you are racing, and in which seasons and climates. Training for the Boston Marathon in Maine during the winter is going to require a drastically different attire than training for the Honolulu Marathon on Oahu during the summer. 

Do your research on brands, fabrics, and what is appropriate for different types of weather. Be sure to train in different outfits and choose your most comfortable pieces for race day. It takes a lot of trial and error to know exactly what to wear in any given weather, and you are likely to have some days where you miss the mark. That’s okay! Try your best and make sure to, at the very minimum, dress appropriately for extreme weather and temperatures.  

Accessories

If you are running in the hot sun or cold winter temperatures, make sure you have the proper headwear. Baseball caps and visors are a great way to block the sun while beanies and fleece-lined headbands provide extra protection against the snow. And don’t forget sunscreen on any exposed skin—no matter the season! Sun is sun whether it’s summer or winter. 

When you’re running far distances, the goal is to add as little weight as possible. However, we know that there are essentials that you want to bring with you (keys, money, phone, etc.) for convenience and safety. We highly recommend that you invest in a running belt to carry your belongings, especially if you are often running by yourself. If you find that you need extra water during your long runs, a hydration belt is also a great option—many even come with special pockets for energy gels!

Tips to Enjoy Your First Marathon

You’ve spent months training for a marathon, calculating calories, and logging miles. Now it’s time to put your endurance to the test and complete your first marathon! Don’t stress too much about finishing within a certain amount of time—just take in the adrenaline, cheering, and the pride you feel once you cross that finish line. Above all, you should have fun. After all, that’s why you started marathon training in the first place, right? Learn our top ten tips for a happy 26.2 miles in our blog post, “10 Must-Haves for a Fun First Marathon.”

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