How to Train for Your First Marathon

Thousands of runners worldwide have succumbed to the allure of the marathon. Are you next? This article will help you get started with tips on training, hydrating, fueling and more.

Looking for running shoes? Shop REI's selection for men and women or read the REI Expert Advice article, How to Choose Running Shoes.

Getting Started

Why run a marathon? Since its modern-era origins in Greece in 1896, the marathon has been considered the quintessential endurance race for runners. The first Olympic marathon was a 40-kilometer race mirroring the distance from the town of Marathon to Athens. The 1908 Olympics in London saw bonus mileage added to create the 26.2-mile distance that is standard today.

For many runners, the desire to do a marathon is about personal challenge. You might want to test your limits or prove that you can go the distance. Perhaps a friend has talked you into it. Maybe you'd like to lose weight, get healthier or raise awareness for a charity.

Whatever your reason, hold on to it and remind yourself of it often during the months that lie ahead. When your legs are tired or the weather is nasty, maintaining your motivation will help you get out the door.

Before You Commit

Be aware of your limits. The marathon distance puts you at a significantly higher risk for injury than your daily neighborhood jogs. According to exercise physiologist Jake Emmett, PhD., the marathon can inflict high levels of stress on your cardiorespiratory, endocrine and neuromuscular systems. Extreme weather conditions on race day can also put you at risk for hypothermia, hyperthermia or hyponatremia. Consult with your physician before embarking on any training program.

Conventional wisdom recommends that aspiring marathoners run consistent base mileage for at least a year before embarking on a marathon training program. One of the most common causes of injury is building weekly mileage too soon, too fast—so don't underestimate the importance of consistently running at least 20-30 miles a week regularly before committing to training for a marathon.

Running a few shorter races—5Ks, 10Ks, or even a half marathon—is an excellent way to prepare physically and mentally for a first marathon. These distances are a great boon to your training program by giving you a feel for pacing, familiarizing you with race day environment and incorporating speedwork into your regimen.

For an overview on how to get started in the sport—including shoe selection, stretching techniques and proper mechanics—see the REI Expert Advice article, Running Basics.

Choosing a First Marathon

Marathons range from quiet, low-key races on backcountry roads to spectator-lined urban races with tens of thousands of runners. If you're not sure which kind of racing environment will suit you better, run a few shorter races to help determine your preference. Cheering on a friend or volunteering at marathons is also a great way to get exposed to the vibe of different kinds of races, and decide which one to make your first.

Choosing one close to home may offer a "home field advantage" with the opportunity to run on familiar roads; on the other hand, choosing a "destination" race can really stoke your motivation fire in the months leading up to race day.

The 4 Building Blocks of Marathon Training

The primary elements of marathon training are base mileage, long runs, speedwork (if desired) and rest.

1. Base Mileage

Most marathon training plans range from 12 to 20 weeks. During this time, you will gradually build your running economy and endurance, while incorporating ample recovery time for your body to handle the new training load.

Beginning marathoners should aim to build their weekly mileage up to 50 miles over the 4 months leading up to race day. While it's not unheard of for first-timers to run marathons on as little training as 25 or 30 weekly miles, keep in mind that the more you run in training, the more able and confident your body will be on race day.

Many elite athletes train up to twice a day, but for most of us mortals, 3-5 runs per week is sufficient. The vast majority of these runs should be done at a relaxed pace. Whether you run with a friend or not, you should run at an easy enough pace to be able to carry on a conversation.

When building base mileage, never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% from week to week. Some great online resources with marathon training plans are http://halhigdon.com and http://runnersworld.com.

2. The Long Run

Your next step is to build up to a weekly long run. This should be done once every 7-10 days, extending the long run by a mile or two each week. Every 3 weeks, scale it back by a few miles so as not to overtax your body and risk injury. For example, you might run 12 miles one weekend, 13 miles the next, then 14 miles, and then 12 again before moving on to 15 on the fifth weekend.

This run has been coined "LSD" in the running community, standing for "Long, Slow Distance." Doing these runs at a substantially slower pace than usual builds confidence, lets your body adjust to longer distances, and teaches you to burn fat for fuel – a skill that will come in handy after your body burns through its carbohydrate stores over the first 20 miles of your marathon.

Most marathon training plans usually peak at a long run of 20 miles. Although some recommend a 21- or 22-mile run in training, conventional wisdom maintains that 20 in training is all your body needs to be capable of completing the marathon distance. Beyond that, the likelihood of injury increases significantly.

So where do those last 6 miles come from on race day? With proper training, your body will take advantage of what's commonly called "race day magic" – the peak shape your body will be in, the rest you offer it during a tapering period, the adrenaline and crowd support of race day – to carry you across the finish line.

3. Speedwork

Speedwork is an optional element to incorporate into your training program, as your only goal for a first marathon should be to finish. If you've never covered 26.2 miles on foot before, the distance alone will provide sufficient challenge.

However, a little speedwork during your training can go a long way by increasing your aerobic capacity, nudging you toward that time goal you're keeping secret and, perhaps best of all, making your easy runs feel…well, easy!

Intervals and tempo runs are the most popular forms of speedwork. Intervals are a set of repetitions of a specific, short distance, run at a substantially faster pace than usual, with recovery jogs in-between. For example, you might run 4 X 1-mile repeats at a hard pace, with 5 minutes of slow jogging or even walking between the mile repeats. Many schools have tracks that are available to the public when not in use for their track and field practices.

Tempo runs are longer than an interval – generally in the range of 4-10 miles, depending on where you are in your training – run at a challenging, but sustainable, pace. This kind of workout teaches your body, as well as your brain, to sustain challenging work over a longer period of time.

Shorter distance races also make for great speedwork. Throughout your training program, running a few "tune-up" races, anywhere from the 5K to half marathon distance, can work wonders for those fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Always allow your body to warm up and cool down with a few easy miles at the beginning and end of any speed workout.

4. Rest and Recovery

The final part of any smart marathon training plan is rest. Don't underestimate the importance of this element. Most runners are happier and less injury-prone with a few rest days built in to each week.

Rest days mean no running. They let your muscles recover from taxing workouts and help prevent mental burnout. The greatest enemy of any aspiring marathoners is injury, and the best protection against injury is rest.

If you are itching to do something active on your rest days, doing some cross-training is a great option. Cross-training can include walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, yoga, lifting weights, or any other active pursuit that isn't as high-impact as running.

In the last couple of weeks leading up to your marathon, scale back significantly on overall mileage and difficulty of your runs to let your body rest up for race day. This is called tapering, and it's absolutely crucial to preparing your body to be in tip-top shape to cover the distance.

Hydrating and Fueling on the Run

Hydration

Nearly all marathons include water and aid stations along the way. The best advice for race day—especially if you don't plan to carry any of your own water—is to stop at every one of the tables for a few seconds and gulp down some water and, when available, sport drinks that replace sodium and electrolytes.

If you do plan to carry some of your own water on race day, buy a hydration pack or belt long in advance and get accustomed to running with it. Never try something new on race day.

While training, of course, you will be doing plenty of long runs without the benefit of aid stations. Several tried-and-true techniques to consider:

  • Carry your own water, using a hydration pack or belt, or with handheld bottles
  • Do long runs on a short loop course, so you can stash water in one spot along the way.
  • Plot your long run route to pass water fountains (but during colder months, make sure that they're turned on).
  • Stash water bottles along your route the night or morning before your run.

Fueling

You've probably heard about the phenomenon many marathoners experience right around the 20-mile mark, commonly called "hitting the wall" or "bonking." Your body can only store so much glycogen – its primary source of energy during the marathon. As this level gets depleted over the course of your marathon, your muscles will begin to tire and feel heavy. While no amount of fuel consumption during the race can entirely replace your depleted glycogen, consuming small amounts of carbohydrates can help prevent you from hitting the dreaded wall.

Energy gels or chews are the easiest to carry and often easiest to digest – but a few pieces of fruit or an energy bar can also do the trick. For any run over 2 hours, aim to take in about 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour.

As with everything, make sure to test out various types of fuel on your training runs to see what your stomach tolerates best, so you can fuel confidently on race day.

Shop REI's selection of energy food.

Race Day Tips

Don't try anything new on race day—not new shoes, new shorts or a new shirt. Don't guzzle 3 cups of coffee if you usually have one. Your long training runs are when you should be fine-tuning your clothing, gear and fueling strategies.

Before the race:

  • Hydrate well for several days leading up to your marathon. Drink a big glass of water before you go to bed the night before race day. Drink another one first thing in the morning.
  • Eat a simple, high-carbohydrate breakfast several hours before the start of the race. Bagels, oatmeal, bars and fruit all work well.
  • Lather up with a little Vaseline or BodyGlide in any areas vulnerable to chafing (you probably learned where during training runs).
  • Get to the starting line early, and if needed, get in the port-a-potty line 30-40 minutes before the official start time. The lines may be long.
  • The temperature is apt to rise over the course of the race, so don't overdress. If you're really cold at the start, wear an oversize trash bag over your clothing to keep warm until the starting gun goes off.
  • If you plan to run with music, check ahead of time whether headphones are allowed on the course; not all marathons permit them. Also, there's something to be said for not tuning out the sounds of the spectator crowds and your fellow runners.

During the race:

  • Start slowly. It's easy to get caught up in race day adrenaline, but starting too fast is a big rookie mistake. There will be plenty of miles over which to pick up your pace if you're feeling great.
  • Don't blaze by every aid station or try to drink from a cup while running full blast. Either practice drinking while running before race day or just pull over for a few seconds to drink.
  • Bathroom lines are longest at the first few aid stations. If you can wait another couple miles without discomfort, it may save you time.
  • If you have a friend coming to cheer you on, plan ahead at which spots along the course he or she will meet you. A friend along the way can be a huge boost.
  • Enjoy the energy of the spectators. However, ignore the guy with the box of chocolate donuts. He's trying to be nice, but trust me, chocolate-glazed donuts at mile 18 are not a good idea.
  • Have fun!

Race Recovery and Beyond

You did it! You crossed the finish line, you earned a medal, you handed over your timing chip, and you hobbled over to the food tents. In the immediate moments after your finish, drink several cups of water or sports drink to nourish your tired muscles. Walk a little, if you can, to let those muscles cool down. Do gentle stretching. Eat some simple carbohydrates, whether you feel like it or not – your body will thank you later.

After race day itself is over, your biggest priority should be rest and recovery. Take at least a week off before resuming any kind of regular running schedule, and even then take your time easing back into distance and frequency. Get plenty of sleep. Eat well-balanced meals. Take care of any injuries or ailments you may have developed during the race. Nourish your immune system which will be more vulnerable immediately after the marathon.

What Next?

Most runners, after a first-time marathon, fall into 1 of 2 camps: those who are fully satisfied with their achievement and harbor no desire to put themselves through a marathon again, and those who are hooked for life and can't wait to schedule their next one.

If you're in the latter camp, set your sights on another race in the future to help battle the "post-marathon blues" that some runners experience after months of working toward a first marathon. Just be sure to set your next target race far enough in the future that you won't risk hindering proper recovery.

In the meantime, relax, enjoy a little time off from training, and find a good spot to display that medal.