How to Train for a Marathon
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.
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.
Be aware of your limits. The 26.2 miles in a marathon put you at a significantly higher risk for injury than your daily neighborhood jogs. Consult with your physician before embarking on any training program.
Start early: 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.
Start small: 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. For more information, see our Expert Advice article, 10K and Half Marathon: Training Tips and Exercises.
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. To help you get used to the race vibe and identify your preference, run a few shorter races, cheer on a friend or volunteer at marathons.
Choosing a marathon 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 Four Building Blocks of Marathon Training
The primary elements of marathon training are:
- Base mileage. Build your weekly mileage over time, running three-to-five times per week.
- The long run. Do a long run every 7–10 days so your body can adjust gradually to long distances.
- Speed work. Practice intervals and tempo runs to increase your cardio capacity.
- Rest and recovery. Adequate rest helps prevent injuries and mental burnout.
Most marathon training plans range from 12 to 20 weeks. Beginning marathoners should aim to build their weekly mileage up to 50 miles over the four months leading up to race day.
Three-to-five runs per week is sufficient. The vast majority of these runs should be done at a relaxed pace. 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 percent from week to week.
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.
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.
Max distance: Most marathon training plans usually peak at a long run of 20 miles. So where do those last 6 miles come from on race day? With proper training, your body will take advantage of the peak shape your body will be in, the rest you offer it during a tapering period, and the adrenaline and crowd support of race day.
Speed work is an optional element to incorporate into your training program. It can increase your aerobic capacity and make your easy runs feel… well, easy! Intervals and tempo runs are the most popular forms of speed work.
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.
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.
Always allow your body to warm up and cool down with a few easy miles at the beginning and end of any speed workout.
Rest and Recovery
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.
Tapering: In the two or three 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.
Hydrating and Fueling on the Run
Nearly all marathons include water and aid stations along the way.
If you 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.
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.
Race Day Tips
Don't try anything new on race day—no 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. Running with headphones can be dangerous if you can't hear what's happening around you, particularly if you're not on a closed course. Finally, 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 chocolate-glazed donuts at mile 18 are not a good idea.
Race Recovery and Beyond
Race day: 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.
After race day: 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.