So you want to run a marathon? For most runners, choosing to go after this iconic long-distance race is a pinnacle goal. But you can’t go from 0 to 26.2 overnight—preparing for a marathon takes significant time, dedication, and endurance (both mental and physical). However, it’s absolutely attainable, especially when you go into training with a smart strategy.
Who might you consider a beginner?
For the purposes of this blog, a “beginner” is someone who’s never run a marathon before.
How long will training for your first Marathon take?
16 to 20 week would be typical, but depending where you are starting from and how “well” you wish to run your first marathon then you could double that.
What should your training plan look like?
For beginner marathon runners, the key is to build up slowly and steadily over a minimum 16-week block. As a rule of thumb, a running coach would use the 10% principle; that being that each week you increase one aspect of the plan by 10%.
Rather than focusing on mileage straight away, it can often make more sense for beginners run for a specific amount of time. After all a marathon is going to involve you being active for several hours and most people are not accustomed to anything like that duration of activity. Rather than aiming for three miles, you might choose to plan to run for 30 minutes. Or, opt for an hour-long walk-run. Depending on where you are starting from, you're first few sessions might be walking more. And then the next week, you're running a little bit more (remember 10%?). The primary goal of any plan is to get the runner to the start line, and that means avoiding injury during training. Of course accidents happen, but you can massively avoid the risk of injury by building up gradually.
Once you feel more comfortable and able with consistent running, you can begin to incorporate more specific workouts. Initially you might start off with two to three runs per week, and increasing from there. Your marathon training plan is a long term commitment, which makes variety important. If you get bored, motivation will reduce and the chances of you starting to miss runs will greatly increase. How can you introduce variety into your training week? One slightly faster run, an interval or hill repeat sessions, and one longer endurance (or “long run” per week). Again though, don’t jump straight into this! Remember to increase things slowly. So if you are doing three relatively easy runs a week for 60mins at a time, you might want to consider making one of them a little faster to start with, whilst keeping the other two the same.
While it can be tempting to ramp training up quickly, especially as you start to feel fitter, this really is a quick route to injury.
Another training tip is to think about what you will wear and eat on Marathon Day. A golden rule for any type of race is “nothing new on race day” that means you will have consumed the same types of energy products in training that you will use on your Marathon and you will have run lots of miles in the trainers and socks you will be using on the day. Invest in a comfortable and well fitting pair of trainers. And do this early in the plan so you can make sure they are right for you and comfy! Visiting a running shop where an expert can measure your feet and gait in order to get the best pair of shoes to suit your needs. For more advice on picking the right trainers, you might find this blog helpful.
However, if you do develop any concerning aches or pains mid-training—just take a breather and some additional rest days. It’s better to have three or four days off than try to run with an injury, make it worse, and potentially be out for weeks, or even miss the entire race. And it’s not just muscular injuries, training through a heavy cold is also a waste of time.
One more piece of advice for beginners is to seek out a local running group or club. Training with a group of other like-minded runners can be really motivating. If you do this though, remember to run at your level and don’t be tempted to always be pushing against faster more experienced runners.
Whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced runner it’s important to remember that during training, you will have some “off” days. Maybe you’re not feeling great, the weather is terrible, or you didn’t sleep well the night before. Whatever the reason, know that it happens to every single runner who trains for a marathon. We all had one day, two days, or even several days, like that. And it's just part of the journey. The important thing is to not put too much pressure on yourself, and know that there will always be another run, another race.
And, periodically during training, don’t forget to look back on what you have achieved and the progress so far! It can be so easy to fixate on the next training session, panic you are not doing enough, or that the marathon is now only six weeks away! Again it’s natural to have these concerns and we all do at various times. Just remember how far you've come, feel proud of what you have achieved already and be confident in your training. You are doing GREAT.
Finally when it’s finally Marathon Day and you are walking to that start line, remember to ENJOY EVERY MOMENT! You have done the hard work - that was the weeks of training. You have made it to the start line injury free - that’s because you stuck to the plan. Now is your moment to show the world what your and body can do. This is your lap of honour - ENJOY IT!