It's no secret that training for a marathon takes a lot of miles, strength, mental fortitude—and, yep, time. One writer shares her tips for making it happen.

By Maria Maddox
May 21, 2020
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Vladimir Vladimirov/Getty Images

Running came into my life three years ago—and it's here to stay. Through all the changes and challenges, it has become my source of energy, inspiration, health, and optimism.

Last year alone, I finished two marathons, three half marathons, and many other shorter-distance races. Whenever I share my running adventures with my colleagues or friends, the first question I'm asked is "Where do you find the time?" Although marathon training can be intense, the biggest challenge many runners face, including myself, is finding the time to train.

As a publicist who's normally juggling demanding work, weekend and evening events, teaching at college as a side gig, a daily commute from the suburbs, and constant desire to be in the know (hi, FOMO), I know what lack of time means. Since running has become such an important part of my life and I know that it gives me countless benefits—both physical and emotional—I don't let external circumstances get in the way.

I'll be honest: Finding time to squeeze in months-long marathon training takes conscious effort. The good news: It's absolutely doable. Doubtful? Here, a few tips that helped me carve out time to train for my longest races that you may find helpful as well.

Start your training on the slowest week.

For me, the hardest part of the marathon training is starting. When I don't train for a while (whether recovering from a big race or just slacking off), I get lazy, my schedule fills up, and it's really challenging to dive back into the routine.

To make it easier, I usually pick a week that has a long weekend or when my schedule isn't too intense. That gives me an opportunity to jump-start my training and work out three or four days in a row without struggling to squeeze these training sessions in or sacrificing anything else.

Once I do it for a few consecutive days and remind my body how amazing it feels to run, it's easier to continue with the plan. (After all, that runner's high is pretty addicting.) Then, I just follow my regular schedule of four or five workouts a week.

Leave yourself enough time before race day.

When I started training for the New York City Marathon last year, I knew I had to think ahead and give my body and my schedule a heads up that we're getting into a training mode. I thought about the upcoming spikes in workload, business trips, vacations, and other projects that could potentially derail or delay my training, and took them all into account.

If you're not sure how much training time you may need (as a person who's relatively new to running, I hear you!), start by working backward from your race date. Beginners, give yourself a minimum of 18 to 20 weeks to let your body to adjust to the workload. Attempt to build your mileage a tad too fast, and you risk overuse injuries that can put you on the sidelines. Go steady and slow, increasing your distance by 5 to 10 percent week-by-week, and listen to your body carefully along the way; you may need to take it easy from time to time to avoid overtraining. If you already have a few long-distance races under your belt, still give yourself an opportunity to put your best foot forward with at least 12 weeks of training (but the more, the better!). (For more details, peep this guide on everything you need to know about training for a marathon and this marathon training plan for intermediate runners.)

Set a few milestones you'd like to accomplish before the race: For example, schedule a 10K, a half marathon, or an 18-miler as part of your training, and don't forget to leave yourself two solid weeks prior to the big day to taper. To keep yourself on the right track, you may want to sign up for a virtual marathon training program or even tap into a running coach for a more personalized plan. While getting a coach may sound expensive or time-consuming, I found someone who was willing to work with my modest budget and busy schedule (I was taking my weekly check-in calls while on my way to the office) and offered me a wealth of knowledge and support.

Turn travel challenges into opportunities.

While travel gives you energy, helps clear your thoughts, and hit the reset button, it can also wreak havoc on your training schedule. You may find yourself in different time zones, locations with no running trails or gyms, limited time to work out, or just don't feel like running or working out.

When I've traveled while marathon training, it's been challenging to stick to my regular training routine—so I tried to approach these trips as opportunities and adjusted my training when necessary. I woke up an hour or two earlier to run through the streets and bridges of Chicago, hilly parks in Los Angeles, countryside of Quebec, and the desert of Palm Springs. Honestly, these runs were magical; there's something incredible about exploring a new place on your own two feet. If not for running, I never would've experienced these beautiful places in the unique way I saw them. Plus, morning runs spiked my energy levels, helping me power through a busy day (and time zone changes) with confidence. (More here: What I Learned from Marathon Training In a Foreign Country)

Sometimes I had to conserve energy during my business trips, especially when I needed to spend an entire day on my feet. I moved my longest runs of the week to the time when I was back home and enjoyed shorter, less intense workouts while on the road. It also helped to be strategic and research running routes in advance so I knew exactly where to go and what to expect, without spending any extra time day of the run. I always consult a running app (Map My Run has become my trusted go-to) to check out a few popular routes in the area and pick the one that works best for me based on distance, terrain, and elevation.

For my non-running days, I've found no-equipment online workouts or used resistance bands (packed in my suitcase) for cross-training. Having these in my back pocket made me independent of gyms, machines that they offered, and their hours of operation. Also, it gave me peace of mind that I could work out in the comfort of my hotel room at any time.

Reassess your calendar and make the best use of your time.

Whether you commute to work or work from home, think about the time before you get to your computer or job. Are you using it to sleep in, scroll throw your Instagram feed, or indulge in a long breakfast? I did all of the above, but when I started my training I used that time to do my long runs. As the marathon was approaching and my long runs were getting, well, longer, I needed at least two or three hours for them. I would wake up at dawn and get on the trail with the first rays of sun, allowing myself uninterrupted time without any guilt over missing work-related calls or emails.

If you have an opportunity to go to the gym for a quick treadmill run or a cross-training activity during your lunch break, take advantage of that, too. In the summer, when there are more daylight hours, you may also be able to enjoy evening runs. (You might even consider run commuting, depending on how far you live from your work.)

Check your calendar and identify a couple of windows in your day when you can find time to potentially train. Could you take advantage of your lunch break, the time between you get home from work and dinner, an hour in the morning, or before you go to bed? All these pockets of time are opportunities to log training sessions, whether it's running or building up your muscular strength through cross-training. Before these time slots slip away, block them on your calendar so they feel more like important appointments rather than something that you can forget about or postpone.

Make your training work for you.

What I've learned through my personal experience is that your training is a guideline for you to be in your best shape for the marathon—but it's not set in stone. It shouldn't prevent you from important events in your life or fun things that bring you joy and happiness. (See: How Ditching My Running Training Plan Helped Me Rein In My Type-A Personality)

During my months of marathon training last year, I knew I needed to work out four or five times a week to achieve my running goals. That meant that I still had two or three days each week when I could go out for dinner with friends, attend an event, or just snuggle in front of the TV with my hubby.

You don't have to choose between running and your social life—invite your friends or your significant other to a running date! I've converted a few of my non-runner friends into my jogging buddies and my husband joins me from time to time as well. Run at a slower pace so that you can talk and enjoy your time together while getting stronger. If they're really not into running (or you can't find someone willing to tag along for, say, 18 miles), you can also suggest they hop on a bike and pedal along while you're running or simply join for a portion of your long run. Instead of hitting a bar with your friends after work, consider turning it into an easy and fun group run at a local park. You can even take some of your phone calls, whether with colleagues, family, or friends, while you're logging miles.

For busy moms out there, think about how you can maximize the time when you're on a walk with your little one. Turn it into a jog instead (with the help of a jogging stroller), adding distance to your weekly mileage and getting back that hour of sleep. (See: Busy Moms Share How They Make Time for Fitness)

Don't sacrifice your sleep or health in the name of training.

If you like logging your runs in the morning, you may find yourself chipping away at valuable sleep time in order to get it done before the rest of your day is in full swing—but training shouldn't deprive you of sleep and cut into your necessary downtime. Being well-rested is part of a successful running journey and is crucial for recovering between workouts. Instead of sacrificing an hour of sleep or an hour you may be spending with your family or kids, you may want to consider adjusting your TV or social media habits, especially before bed.

Regardless, it's always a good idea to listen to your body and be flexible, in spite of the demanding training that marathons require. If you need to do a 40-minute run but you're not in the mood and you'd rather not get off the couch, reschedule your run and enjoy some time off. (Ahem—like these women who wake up to work out at 4 a.m.)

For me, it's been important to feel that training is not an obligation or a pesky chore but a source of joy that it gives me a sense of accomplishment. At the end of the day, every workout brings you closer to the marathon finish line and makes you stronger, healthier, and more confident. Isn't that the goal?

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