How to Train for Your First Marathon

How to Train for Your First Marathon - Ultimate Guide

In this guide, you’ll learn how to train for a marathon. I’m going to share the best marathon training tips and insights that I’ve picked-up along over the last ten-plus years of training distance runners.

Training for your first marathon can seem very daunting. Trust me, I’ve been there!

Once you know many of the common mistakes made by first-time marathon runners, you’ll be able to avoid them and focus your marathon training efforts in the right places to achieve success on marathon day.

This video featuring five marathon training tips for beginners would be a great place for you to begin…

I’ve created this “ultimate guide” to accompany you on your marathon training journey.

In this article, I’ll be exploring the following topics in more detail:

  1. How to Choose a Marathon Training Plan
  2. Staying Injury Free During Your Training
  3. Advice to Help You Through Long Training Runs
  4. How to Stick to Your Marathon Training Plan
  5. What Training Gear You Will Need

You might want to grab a coffee, as I’m going to break this down into quite some detail…

How to Select Your Marathon Training Plan

Picking the right marathon training plan to guide you through the process of training for your upcoming marathon is a crucial step in ensuring your success.

While you may not end-up following your chosen plan to the letter, setting off on this journey with a marathon training programme that doesn’t suit your needs, could potentially set you up for disappointment further down the line.

Let’s take a moment to look at what we need to take into account:

Beginners Marathon Plan: What Should You Look for?

There are a huge variety of free marathon training plans available online, many of which are specifically written for first-time marathoners. In deciding which might best suit you, a good place to start would be to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What has your average weekly running mileage been for the last two months?
  • How many times per week have you been running on average in the last two months?
  • What’s the longest run you’ve completed in the last two months?
  • What’s your ultimate goal for this first marathon? More on goal setting in a moment!

Having answered these questions, you’ll be more able to be realistic about your current level of training.

Many of the injuries sustained by first-time marathon runners, like shin splints, come as a consequence of increasing weekly mileage, long run duration or running frequency often a combination of the three too quickly. This is why it’s so important to choose a training plan that starts you off at a training load that your body is able to manage, then builds your training gradually across the duration of the programme.

Here’s an example of a free beginners marathon training programme [PDF] that I have created for you to download and follow.

How Long Does it Take to Train for a Marathon?

Most regular runners can successfully train for a marathon in twelve to eighteen weeks. You may well have noticed that there are marathon training plans available that span different time-frames. The training plan I linked to above is a sixteen-week plan, while some other plans are twelve or eighteen weeks long. The answer to how long it will take you to train for your first marathon really depends on your starting levels of running fitness.

This is why you’ll notice that in my beginner’s marathon training plan, there are a set of pre-requisites which should be met before embarking on the sixteen weeks of focused marathon training.

If you meet the pre-requisite levels of running fitness, then you will certainly be ready for your first marathon after sixteen weeks of following the running schedule. However, if you need 3-4 weeks to build up your running, to be ready to start the marathon training plan, then sixteen weeks could easily turn into twenty weeks.

Goal Setting for Your First Marathon

On a cold winter’s evening, it’s the motivation that comes from having set an inspiring goal that gets us out of the door and running. When it comes to marathon training so it is very important to set yourself meaningful goals.

These goals don’t always have to be time-related; in fact, for your first marathon, I’d rather you were more process orientated in your goals than outcome orientated. If you focus on successfully ticking off each of the long runs week-by-week during training, and on executing your pacing and nutrition plans on race day, the finish time will look after itself.

The only outcome based goal I really want a first-time marathoner to focus on is the goal of finishing strong and being able to look back a few days later and say “yeah, I’d do another”!

How Much Running Should You Do Before You Start Marathon Training?

It’s important that you have achieved a pre-requisite level of running fitness ahead of getting started with a given marathon training plan. As mentioned above, you don’t want to fall into the “too much too soon” trap by having to ramp your training load up too quickly at the start of the programme.

As a good rule of thumb, in the six weeks prior to the start of marathon training, your weekly running volume (miles per week) should be at least 90% of the weekly mileage stated in the first week of your marathon plan.

Similarly, your long runs in the weeks ahead of the start of your programme should have reached the distance/duration of the first long run stated in your marathon programme.

Time or Distance Based Marathon Plans?

As you start looking around at different marathon training programmes, and I suggest you compare a few before committing, you may notice that some stipulate specific distances you need to run each day, while others are time-based in their approach.

Both types of programme work, and have their own benefits. However, if you consider yourself to be a slower runner, you might want to take more of a time-based approach, particularly on your long runs.

There’s a point of diminishing return when it comes to the duration of your long run. For different runners, that point comes at different times. For some, it’ll be around the 3:00-hour mark, while others will be able to tolerate and recover well from a 3:30-hour long run.

Running beyond that point, you’re increasing the risk of injury, and placing more stress on your body than you need to; stress that you will take longer to recover from!

Unfortunately, nothing but experience will tell you what your body is able to cope with. My own cumulative experience of working with thousands of runners over the last decade tells me that it’s sensible for a beginner marathon runner to cap their long run at 18 miles or 3:30 hours, whatever comes first!

As such, for a runner pacing their long runs at roughly 11:45 minutes per mile or slower, time on your feet should be the main consideration, rather than focusing on distance. Building up to a 3:30 hour long run across the programme will work well.

The legendary running coach, Jack Daniels describes this concept well in the video below. Although I do feel a lot of slower runners struggle mentally with capping their long runs at 2:30 hours as he suggests, knowing that they will possibly be looking at a finish time of double that on race day.

The mental side can’t be overlooked. It’s a fine balance!

An effective way to both limit the long run duration, and build the resilience in your legs and time on your feet is to run “big training weekends” where you run 10-12 miles on the Saturday and 18 miles on the Sunday. This long run on tired legs mimics the demands of a longer training run well, while potentially reducing injury risk.

Do You Need to Run a Marathon in Training?

This is one of the most common questions I hear first-time marathoners asking. It’s always been a misconception that you have to run the full marathon distance in training.

Hopefully, the points made above paint a clear picture of the increased injury risk of running beyond 3:00-3:30 hours in a given long run. Faster runners will be able to cover a lot of distance in that time, but for many first-time marathon runners, this will cap the long runs around the 18-mile mark.

As I discussed in this post on Facebook, you’ll get more benefit from increasing your weekly mileage, than by dragging out the long run duration.

Is it OK to Walk?… and What is “Jeffing”?

It’s completely understandable to want to run every step of your first marathon, and a great achievement for those who do. However, it’s absolutely fine to walk at times. It makes you no less of a runner!

In fact, there have been some very fast marathons run using variations of Jeff Galloway’s Run-Walk-Run Method. The fastest I have found cited is 2:33 hours by a male runner who interspersed 15-second walk breaks into each of the first 20 miles of his race!

That said, I often suggest a more achievable approach of using a 9 minute : 1 minute ratio of run-walk for first-time marathon runners.

The principles of run-walk-run include:

  • Continuous use of a muscle will result in quicker fatigue
  • Run-walk-run enables better control of effort and fatigue

As a quick and important side-note: If you’re thinking of using run-walk-run for your marathon, be sure to practice the strategy on your long training runs, rather than saving it for marathon day itself.

A run-walk-run strategy isn’t something you should revert to when you get tired, instead it’s a strategy you should employ from the start as a means of reducing fatigue.

In the same way that they say “when you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated”, when you feel like you can no longer run non-stop, the damage is done!

On that note, it’s important to appreciate how much of a mental game distance running is! Here are some mindset tips and strategies you can use to help you keep running with you get tired: How to run without stopping.

It’s also easier to take-on race nutrition and hydration during a walk break, than it is when you’re running… which is a clear bonus!

What Type of Fitness Do You Need to Run a Marathon?

When it comes to marathon training, there are all kinds of training sessions and running workouts you’ll find in different training schedules. These can vary from the long slow distance (LSD) runs to lactate threshold workouts, with lots of others in between!

Each of these different types of running workout has its own purpose, and target specific energy systems to develop different types of running fitness.

Whether you’re a first-time marathoner, or more experienced runner with many marathons under the belt, the aspect of your fitness that will most affect your marathon performance is your level of aerobic endurance.

This type of fitness is developed through mile-after-mile of easy (think: ‘conversational’) paced running, which is one of the big reasons why the weekly long run is so very important. Another reason being that those long runs help build time on your feet and resilience in the legs.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you’ll soon be training for your first ever marathon. Whether you’re stepping up in distance from regular 5-10km events, or perhaps you’re run a few half marathons, the demands on your aerobic endurance are going to be significant in weeks and months to come. The good news is that your body can and will adapt, and develop the required endurance base!

More experienced marathon runners may well already have a significant base of aerobic endurance built-up, carried over from training for previous events. For these runners, more emphasis can be placed on “speed work” like interval sessions and tempo workouts each week. Think of these sessions as “fine tuning”.

For you as a first-time marathon runner, I’d rather see you focus your efforts on building aerobic endurance throughout your marathon training programme; lots of easy paced running with a focus on building your weekly mileage and long run duration.

Remember – the biggest pitfall to avoid is the “too much too soon” trap! Ramping-up your weekly mileage and the amount of intense running you’re doing at this same time will have you treading a fine line between training hard and injury. Your focus for this first marathon should be to build mileage safely and develop the endurance required for the 26.2 mile distance.

What Kind of Speedwork Should You Be Doing Before Your Marathon?

Speedwork can be a valuable tool for your marathon training success. However, I’d argue that for your first marathon there’s no need to be hitting the track to do 400m and 800m repeats, or similar interval workouts.

In my experience, the most appropriate types of speed training for first-time marathon runners come in the form of tempo workouts and hill training.

There are many different definitions of what constitutes tempo effort running. The description I feel best describes what you should be looking for when it comes to tempo effort running is:

Running at the hardest effort you can maintain for sixty minutes.

I often describe this as feeling “sustainably uncomfortable”!

An example of a suitable tempo workout would be:

  • 1 mile easy paced warm up
  • 2 miles at tempo effort
  • 1 mile easy paced recovery
  • 2 miles at tempo effort
  • 1 mile easy paced cool down

Simply put, this kind of session teaches your body to run more efficiently at faster paces, both physiologically and psychologically preparing you to make target marathon pace feel more comfortable… relatively!

How to Predict Your Marathon Finish Time

Having just mentioned “target marathon pace”, I should really mention a useful free tool that is available to help you estimate not only your projected marathon finish time but also the training paces at which you should be running your different types of session.

Jack Daniels’ VDOT calculator is worth checking out, as it lets you input a recent time over a known distance, and comes back with training paces and estimated finish times for multiple distances, including the marathon distance.

One word of caution though… when using the VDOT calculator, be sure to input a true recent finish time and NOT your dream marathon finish time. While reverse engineering the process like this is tempting, it’s more likely to result in you over-reaching in your training, trying to hit unrealistic training paces for your current fitness level.

That’s how runners get injured!

Instead, base the training paces on your current level of fitness.

The pace will improve in time, as you get fitter!

How to Train for a Marathon Without Getting Injured

Running injuries like shin splints and ITB syndrome are some of the biggest challenges us marathon runners face, not to mention the source of frustration and pain. Factors such as running biomechanics, strength and stability all come into play when determining how and why a runner has become injured during their training, however, the most common cause of these injuries is training errors.

There are a number of common training errors which many runners become guilty of during marathon training, subsequently increasing injury risk.

Here are a few examples of such marathon training errors:

1. Running Too Much, Too Soon

When training for your first marathon, it can be all too easy to fall into the trap of increasing your training load too quickly, especially when you can see the date of your marathon getting closer and closer in the diary.

For those of us who have perhaps left it a few weeks later than would be ideal to start training properly, the temptation is to ramp the mileage up quickly to “get back on track”. The risk in doing this is that you’ll be increasing the demands on your body, faster than your body has the chance to adapt and grow stronger.

The whole idea of training is to make use of the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand). You place stress on your body, in this case, the various demands of running, and in response, your body will adapt to be able to better cope with these demands next time you stress it similarly.

The SAID principle works, just so long as:

  1. You don’t over-do the “imposed demand” aspect in a given time frame, and instead, look to make incremental increases over a sensible period.
  2. Enough time and the right environment (nutrition, sleep, etc…) is provided for your body to recover between workouts. It’s during these recovery periods that adaptation occurs within your body.

When we break these rules, the stress we’re placing on the body begins to have more of a cumulative effect, while the body’s capacity to recover and adapt fails. That’s when injuries happen and marathon training comes crashing off the rails.

Of course, the challenge is that we all have different bodies, athletic histories, and levels of resilience to training load. The best thing you can do is evaluate where you are now in terms of weekly mileage and only increase by ~15% per week at most. Be sure to also schedule an easier “adaptation” week every fourth or fifth week of your training plan. This adaptation week with reduced weekly mileage will allow your body to recover from the previous few week’s training, before pushing yourself again during the subsequent few weeks.

2. Inadequate Recovery Between Runs

As mentioned in the previous point, physiologically speaking it’s not while we run that our fitness levels improve, rather it’s after the workout, while your body gets a chance to rest, recover and adapt.

You could train like a hero, but if you don’t give your body time to recover between bouts of exercise, you won’t see the results you expect. Worse still you’ll probably get hurt.

When it comes to recovery, there’s more to consider than just taking a little more time to rest between runs (although that’s obviously a key part of it!).

If you’ve just finished a long run, perhaps the worst thing you can do later in the day is a high-intensity gym session a few hours later, or perhaps the following morning. You may be up for it mentally, due to the ‘easy’ nature of the long run, but your body will still be in the early stages of recovery. By all means, go to a yoga/pilates class or any non-weight bearing cardio exercise. This kind of active recovery workout may actually promote recovery.

3. Poor Balance of Running Intensity & Volume

Be sure not to fall into the trap of thinking that every run you do has to be hard work, otherwise it “doesn’t count”. The same goes for weekly mileage. It’s important that you’re doing both hard sessions and high mileage weeks, but both at the right time and in the right amounts!

For beginner marathon runners, I’m usually more interested in seeing their weekly mileage increase over the course of a marathon training block, rather than pushing the speed work. At most you should be doing only one-speed session per week.

Injuries often occur when runners attempt to both increase weekly mileage (training volume) and intensity (doing more speed training than they’re used to) at once. Most first-time marathon runners will benefit most from improving their endurance base by increasing weekly easy running mileage, rather than trying to squeeze more speed sessions into each training week.

Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 Running is an interesting read on this specific philosophy.

4. Neglecting Strength & Mobility Training

There’s no getting away from it; running is a high-impact activity, and logging a lot of miles will take its toll on your muscles, joints and bones. It is so important to make time for regular strength and mobility training. Regular strength, stability and mobility workouts will help build resilience as a runner and make you more resistant to injury.

Here is an article on strength workouts for injury-free marathon training

5. Not Performing Regular Maintenance

Rather than waiting for an injury to strike before you get professional treatment, it may be worth you considering soft tissue treatments like a sports massage. Hands-on treatment once every fortnight or so can help you stay injury free by working any imbalances and niggles before they become full-blown injuries.

If regular trips to see a massage therapist aren’t your cup of tea, self-massage techniques such as foam rolling are a fantastic option in helping you stay uninjured. Here’s a selection of foam rolling techniques for runners.

6. Not Listening to Your Body

This is the point that underpins every other piece of advice in this section.

Learning to listen to your body as a runner is so very important. When marathon training, you’re logging the miles in your legs and putting your body under significant stress – we need this stress to create adaptation and improve fitness over time.

At times during your marathon training block, your body will be trying to communicate with you – whether that’s in the form of getting a slight cold or an annoying twinge in your knee. These might be nothing, or might be the first signs of a more significant problem. We’re all different, but the best rule of thumb is to get any slight problems checked-out before they get serious enough to stop you running.

How to Master Your Long Marathon Training Runs

The vast majority or marathon training programmes are built around the weekly long run, helping you build endurance and strength. These long training runs are an essential part of your preparation, but can also be rather intimidating. There are however a number of things you can do to make an 18 mile run (for example) a far more achievable, enjoyable experience, not something you need to become stressed about.

Consider Running with Friends or a Local Running Club

By far one of the best ways to stay motivated to get your long training runs done is to run with friends or a running club! Getting your long runs done with other people is so valuable as it:

  1. Gives you a degree of accountability – if you’ve made plans to run together, you’re more likely not to procrastinate!
  2. Provides the opportunity for conversation during the run, providing a welcome distraction to make the miles pass quicker.

Dressing Appropriately for the Long Run

Even if it feels cold when you step outside, as a rule of thumb, it is always best to dress for the middle of your long run because your body will soon increase in temperature 2-3 miles into your run.

If you do need to dress for cold weather, it’s always better to layer-up with multiple garments, rather than wearing a light top and a heavy jacket over the top. That way you can remove layers stage-by-stage, rather than being left in an all-or-nothing situation.

Long Run Nutrition & Hydration

Getting your long run nutrition and hydration strategy right is something that will require a little trial and error! It will take a few attempts to see what sources of nutrition work best for you on your long runs. and if you are using gels for your source of energy, finding what brand works best for you.

Here’s a great interview with elite runner Tina Muir with practical tips for long run nutrition and hydration:

How to Pace Your Long Marathon Training Runs

I’m often asked how the long training run should feel. The pace of your weekly long run should feel “easy”. I know that’s a very subjective measure, so a better way of describing the effort level is that is should feel like you’re able to maintain a flowing conversation throughout every stage of your run. At no point should you feel out of breath.

There are ways of estimating what pace this easy pace should equate to; using a recent 10k, 10 mile, or half marathon race result can be useful when parsed through training pace calculators such as Jack Daniel’s VDOT.

Another good rule of thumb is to think of your long run as being a session where, by the end, you’ll feel the fatigue in your legs (and perhaps core region), rather than you feeling your lungs working hard!

Target Marathon Pace Blocks & Fast Finish Long Runs

This may not be something you want to incorporate into training for your first marathon, but adding sections of target marathon pace running into your long runs will help you get comfortable with the required race pace. Given that the majority of your long runs should be slower than target marathon pace, adding blocks of 2-3 miles running at target marathon pace in the middle of your long run will help you get used to running at the faster pace on tired legs.

The same principle applies for “fast finish” long runs; if you can pick up the pace to target marathon pace for the last 6 miles of an 18 mile long run, your confidence will certainly be boosted come race day.

Sticking to Your Marathon Training Plan

It’s completely normal for us runners to have to deal with not only the threat of injury and illness but also the pressures of everyday life. Not being professional athletes, we all have work demands, family commitments, and other factors that add complexity to your schedule are all to be navigated from week to week.

Here are a few tips you can use to successfully find a balance between your running and things that life throws in your way!

Don’t Play Catch-up

If “life” does get in the way, you get injured or are sick for a couple of days, don’t try and keep up with the training you were doing previously. Even though you may feel like you can still run the same mileage and/or pace, your body may say otherwise.

Here is an in-depth post on how to avoid panic training!

Respect the “Neck Rule”

Especially if you’re training through the winter for a spring marathon, you may find yourself picking up a cold at some point. Symptoms can vary to include nasal congestion, a sore throat, a cough and/or respiratory problems. It’s hard as a runner to know what you can train through, and when you should rest.

There’s a simple rule you can apply: as soon as symptoms move below the neckline, you should stop running until the symptoms have passed. Reason being is that you could potentially make yourself much worse due to putting a strain on your respiratory system.

Anything above the neckline, stick to easier mileage, for now, there is no point risking worsening your illness by worrying about performing more intense workouts. Keep the legs ticking-over until your symptoms pass. Of course, hydration, nutrition, sleep, etc are all more important than ever at this point!

Hierarchy of Sessions

When it comes to the order of priority sessions in your marathon training week, the long run is king. It’s a runner’s bread and butter and builds the aerobic endurance needed to run 26.2 miles. Looking back at the point above about not playing catch-up; if you need to miss a session in the middle of the week, let it go. Just know that the most important session, the one not to be missed, is the long run. If you have to reschedule a long run, this is the only type of session I usually encourage runners to “find a way to” to get done!

Adjusting Your Expectations

Sometimes training doesn’t go to plan, missed days turn into missed weeks, and that marathon finish time that you wanted when you started training is now an unrealistic target. Knowing when to adjust these expectations is important to avoid disappointment, and to make sure you get your pacing right on the day.

This is where training events can become really handy. If you plan a half marathon for about six weeks before your marathon, you’ll get an objective indication of your level of fitness at that point, and will be able to see how well you’re on track (or otherwise) for your marathon goal.

What Marathon Training Gear Will You Need?

One of the most appealing aspects of running as an activity is how lightweight it is in terms of equipment needed to not just get started, but get good! This is particularly true in comparison to cycling or skiing for example. As long as I have my running shoes, I’m good to go!

That said, there are a few pieces of kit you will either definitely need (like shoes) or want to consider when embarking on a marathon training programme…

Picking Your Running Shoes

The world of running shoes can be an absolute minefield. It can be very easy to get sucked into the hype of in-store gait analysis, but at the end of the day, you have to choose a running shoe that is comfortable for you. After all, you are going to be logging hundreds of miles in them in the coming weeks and months.

Running shoe selection is best described as “an art guided by science”, as a good sports podiatrist friend of mine puts it. Frustratingly, the flimsy science that most running stores base their gait analysis service on, in an effort to select the right shoe for your foot, provides very hit and miss results.

This video presentation on running shoe selection will hopefully help you in making a more educated decision when it comes to buying your next pair of running shoes:

Running Shoe Rotation Strategies

Having two or more pairs of running shoes on rotation can make a real difference in terms of the stresses and strains placed on your body during marathon training. In my coaching experience, particularly if you’re prone to overuse injuries from the knee downwards, varying the shoes you run in may create a more varied workout for your feet and legs. This is better than reinforcing the same loading pattern run-after-run in the same shoes.

The variety found from shoe rotation may help you avoid some of the common overuse injuries we see in runners.

I recorded a podcast episode on Shoe Rotation to Prevent Running Injuries that you may find interesting.

Do You Need a GPS Watch or Heart Rate Monitor?

Wearable fitness technology is constantly evolving, and now we have devices that can provide us with all manner of metrics about our training, and even running form. The depth of data available is all really interesting to a geek like me, but in no way essential.

At the time of writing this article, I run with a Garmin 235, a mid-range running watch with GPS and heart rate monitor.

If you’re looking to run your first marathon, I would recommend investing in a running watch to track your mileage and pace. Although that said, you can get exactly the same basic data from smartphone apps like the Strava app, without the need for an additional device purchase.

That brings me on to my favourite use for the data you create when running. For me, it’s less about knowing my “ground contact time”, or “vertical oscillation”, and more about being able to track my fitness and objectively see progress. Integrating the data with Garmin Connect, or Strava is a fantastic way to visualise your training and create a dynamic training log. This is a HUGE motivation tool for me.

As far as heart rate monitors go; most running watches will have a heart rate monitor built-in. Whether you choose to use the data or not is up to you, and is in no way a pre-requisite to successful marathon preparation. If you’d like to learn more about heart rate training, here’s a great resource from Jason Fitzgerald.

Personally, I’ve found heart rate monitoring most useful for making sure that I don’t run too fast on my long slow runs. Keeping the pace/effort appropriately easy is key to getting the aerobic benefit from these runs. Objectively setting an upper limit that you allow your heart rate to reach on the run is a great way of doing this!

Ladies: Invest in a Sports Bra

A long time ago, I worked in a specialist running retailer and went on various staff training courses: shoes fitting, running watches, etc… The most alien course to me as a male employee was sports bra fitting. Male and female employees were split into separate groups and had very different training days. The female group had a day of practical learning, where we were very much on a theory course!

Key points I took from the day were:

  • How very important sports bras are for many female runners
  • The huge difference a good sports bra can make in terms of running comfort
  • That many ladies seem unaware that running shouldn’t be uncomfortable, and that a good bra can make all the difference

If you’d like to learn more, check out this video on how to get the right fit for your sports bra. Here is a video on the importance of a sports bra, and here is an in-depth article on sports bras vs normal bras.

Final Thoughts on Running Gear

There are so many bits of kit you *could* go out and buy, and why not! The most important piece of advice on running kit when it comes to running your first marathon is to make sure that you test everything you intend to use on marathon day, well in advice. Practice with your shoes, clothes, nutrition, hydration, everything!

As a good example that there’s no single right way to do it, my good friend Paul Addicott ran his first marathon dressed as a rhino!

Check out Paul’s post on running a marathon.

What Questions Do You Have?

If you’re training for your first marathon, good luck! I’m sure there are lots of unanswered questions about your training and marathon day itself.

I’d love to be able to answer your marathon training questions…

Leave your questions in the comments below.

 

Last updated on September 28th, 2019.
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