Everything You Need to Know About Marathon Training for Beginners
Anyone can run a marathon—you just have to know how to train for one.
So you want to run a marathon, huh? You probably didn't make the decision to run 26.2 miles lightly; considering that the average finishing time is 4:39:09, running a marathon is a serious undertaking for which you need to physically and mentally prep. (Related: 4 Unexpected Ways to Train for a Marathon)
Don't let that scare you, though! Anyone can run a marathon; the majority of it is mental, and if you believe you can run 26.2 miles, you will. But you do still need a solid plan since much of marathon training comes down to being as prepared as possible. Here, everything you need to know to make it to (and through) race day.
Are You Ready to Run a Marathon?
Going from zero to 26.2 is possible but probably not a great idea. If you've never really run before, or tend to max out at three miles, that's OK—but you need to do a little more than just downloading a training plan from the internet.
First, you should know where you stand injury-wise, says Melanie Kann, a running coach for New York Road Runners. "If there are any nagging aches and pains heading into the plan, adding more mileage isn't going to help the situation," says Kann. "Definitely get checked out by a sports doc if necessary, or work with a PT to make sure your support team and overall strength and mobility regimen is in place." (Related: 5 Things Physical Therapists Want Runners to Start Doing Now)
Even if everything's in working order, you should have a base level of fitness before starting a marathon training plan for beginners—that means you've spent at least a month running 15-20 miles a week over three to four running days, as well as strength training, cross training, and active recovery work, says John Henwood, a running coach leading New York's Mile High Run Club marathon training program. Also, take a look at the marathon training plan you've decided to use. What's the distance for the first long run? "If your first long run is six miles, you should be able to handle that without much trouble," says Henwood. (Related: The 12-Week Marathon Training Schedule for Intermediate Runners)
A general rule of thumb when to comes to marathon training plans for beginners is to not increase your mileage by more than a mile and a half when you first start, he adds—so if you're starting from a place where three miles is your comfort zone, you need to build in enough pre-training time to build that up before starting your actual training program. "Think of your training plan as a house or even a skyscraper," says Kann. "Start with a foundation and gradually build up to a peak. A structure is only as strong as its foundation, and the same applies to your training."
Training for a Full Marathon Vs. Training for a Half Marathon
Uh, obviously, you're preparing to cover double the miles, which is a pretty big difference. But in terms of training, the main difference is really the long runs. Instead of maxing out at 11 or 12 miles, you'll be logging up to 18 or 20 miles depending on your plan. That's a lot more impact on your body.
This is where doing strength training two times a week can really help you, says Henwood. "All-around conditioning is going to increase your power to weight ratio and help you be a better runner compared to just running." You may be able to get by skipping this in a half marathon training schedule, but not for 26.2. (Related: The 5 Essential Cross-Training Workouts All Runners Need)
Consider this, too: Half marathon training cycles typically last 10 to 12 weeks, while marathon training cycles typically span 16 to 20 weeks, says Kann. "This means a longer overall period of time that your body is enduring the stresses of training, so prioritizing rest and recovery is paramount," she says. Try to mix up your running by doing some runs on dirt or gravel as opposed to the pavement to give your joints a break, and adding in hills to change up the way you use your muscles and prevent overuse injuries.
How to Find the Right Marathon Training Plan for Beginners
Google "marathon training plan" and 911,000,000 results appear. There's no one right marathon training plan for beginners, though. "I always remind my runners that a marathon plan should be considered a guide when it comes to training—but by no means should it be the letter of law!" says Kann. "Life happens when training for a marathon, and work, life, injuries, weather events will always come into play. Because of that, the best plans out there are dynamic and somewhat flexible in order to accommodate these 'speed bumps' in your training."
A marathon training plan isn't written in stone, but you shouldn't go wild adjusting one on your own. "I recommend finding someone who can give you feedback and who can help you change your plan around when you need to," says Henwood. "It's one thing if you miss one run, but what if you miss five days in a row because you're sick? A coach can help you get back on track in the best way for your body."
Make sure to look at things like the base training needed for this plan (or how many weekly miles it starts at), total weekly mileage or running days of the program (do you have the time a higher mileage program might require?), how often the program allows for non-running workouts, and consider how those things might fit into the rest of your life. (Related: 6 Things a Run Coach Can Teach You About Marathon Training)
Non-Running Cardio Workouts In Your Marathon Training Plan
Henwood already mentioned the importance of strength-training workouts, but let's talk about cross-training workouts. Some people can handle running five or six days a week; for others, that's just too much. (Related: The 5 Essential Cross-Training Workouts All Runners Need)
"I like to have people do cardio five days a week," says Henwood. That can mean running, cycling, using the elliptical, or even swimming. "I especially like the elliptical because you're in a similar position to running: hips forward, chest out, pumping the legs," he says. "And swimming can help build strength around the lower abs, hip flexors, and lower back."
The point of cardio cross-training is that "these workouts enable a runner to work that aerobic base without any excess impact or pounding on the body," says Kann. And that helps you to be a stronger, more well-rounded athlete—which is what's going to help get you to the finish line.
Any other sort of cross-training exercise that works a runner's overall mobility and core strength also compliments any marathon training program, says Kann. "Gentle yoga, pilates, barre, and general strength work are all great because they strengthen the muscles that support the repetitive motion that the body undergoes in running," she adds.
Why Recovery Is So Important
You absolutely need to build recovery into your marathon training plan for beginners (and for all levels!). Recovery is actually when your gains happen; that's when your muscles finally have time to repair and build themselves back up after the repeated stress of working out. (Related: The Best Workout Recovery Method for Your Schedule)
"Active recovery days are great for helping keep a runner loose and minimize stiffness in between hard workouts. I like to think of easy runs almost as massages for the body—they help with overall circulation and blood flow to the joints and muscles, thereby counteracting inflammation," says Kann.
A super easy run, gentle yoga, easy cycling, elliptical, or even a short walk are all great forms of gentle active recovery. "I like to sandwich an easy effort or a rest day in between two hard efforts on a training plan, and after an extremely hard effort, both in a row (rest, followed by active recovery) before having another hard day," she says.
Gear You Need to Run a Marathon
What you wear to train for and run a marathon is pretty much up to you. But the most important piece of gear (duh) is your sneakers. Chances are, those babies are going to suffer through around 200 miles of training pre-race day, so you want to feel pretty damn comfortable in them.
"When choosing a shoe, I encourage runners to go with a pair that feels like an extension of their foot. They should feel supported by the shoe, and it should be comfortable, but they shouldn't necessarily be overly aware of that shoe's presence," says Kann. (Related: The Best Long-Distance Running Shoes)
Not sure what that means? Head to a running specialty store where you can get fitting for shoes that are right for your gait and goals, says Henwood. "The experts there can help you figure out if you're a pronator or a supinator, if you need a neutral shoe versus one that is stabilizing, and recommend a brand from there."
For distance running, Kann recommends looking for greater shock absorption over shoes that have less cushioning—especially for novice marathoners, that's going to help protect your foot from the impact of upping your mileage.
If you talk to any experience marathoner, they'll likely tell you not to wear anything new on race day. During your training, wear what you think you're going to wear or carry during the race: that means shoes, clothes, an arm band, belt, handheld water bottles, and anything else. "The sooner you can figure out what works for you, the better," says Kann. (See: The Absolute Best Gear for Long-Distance Runs)
WTF Do You Eat Before and During a Marathon?
When you're marathon training, don't underestimate the role nutrition plays in keeping your energy up, your muscles strong, and your body fueled to go the distance—your diet should be changing to accommodate your increased energy needs, says Kelly Jones, R.D., a Philadelphia-based sports dietitian.
"As mileage goes up, so should total energy from carbs," she says. But make sure to increase quality carbs quality carbohydrates, like quinoa, whole grain bread, oats, sweet potatoes, and bananas, versus refined and processed carbs. (More: My Marathon Training Diet)
Endurance runners should also be increasing sodium, calcium, iron, and vitamin C intakes, too, she says. "Sodium is the predominant nutrient lost in sweat that must be replaced for fluid balance, and calcium should support the added stress on bones, but it's also essential for muscle contractions," Jones explains. "Since iron carries oxygen around the blood, and oxygen use increases with higher mileage, iron and red blood cell turnover increases; and, finally, vitamin C is important to protect the lungs from added stress." (Related: 10 Whole Foods That Are Better for Workout Recovery Than Supplements)
On race day, you're definitely going to want to carry fuel with you (your body will burn through its glycogen, or sugar, stores by mile 20, which is commonly known as "the wall" in marathon running). "It's helpful to carry fuel for runs over 60 minutes," says Jones. "It's important when training for a race to also train your gut to take in carbohydrates and digest them while exercising so you don't wind up with GI upset later on."
Try portable, easily digestible carbs like gels and blocks, or even salted dates and honey packets. What works for your friend or coach might not work for you, so just like you train in what you're going to wear, make sure to practice fueling on long runs before race day so there aren't any surprises on the course—i.e. a sudden detour into the closest Port-a-Pottie. And remember: Never trust a fart after mile nine.