If you've just started marathon or half-marathon training, your mission is to gradually ramp up the intensity of your runs until a few weeks before the race, then taper off and mostly rest in the week before.
Before You Get Started
Always check with your doctor before undertaking a serious physical challenge like running a marathon. Your healthcare team can help you spot any conditions that might affect your training regimen, and treat them before they become a problem.
Also, give yourself a little extra training time if you can. If you're just starting out, the more time your body has to adapt to this new level of exertion, the easier the race will go. However, if you only have three months, you can still do a lot to help your body prepare for this new adventure.
Three Types of Training Runs
Any distance-running training plan will center around three types of runs, each of which helps your body prepare to meet one aspect of the challenge you'll encounter on race day.
Your distance runs are exactly what the name implies. Because the focus is on distance, your pace for these runs should be 30 seconds to a full minute less than your desired race pace.
Speed runs are self-explanatory too. These short runs are done at or near your top speed, and usually involve repeats (basically, intervals) of 200, 400, 800 or even 1,600 meters (1 mile). It's easiest to do these on a track, but you can do them on a treadmill too, or anywhere you're certain of the distance you're running.
The third type of run is a tempo run. These split the difference between distance and speed runs, covering a moderate distance at a pace that is about 30 seconds faster than your goal race-day pace. This helps your body get used to sustaining a faster pace.
Create Your Training Plan
Take a tip from the American Council on Exercise: If you're a beginner, focus more on gradually increasing your mileage with the help of those distance runs than on speed and tempo runs. After all, your first goal should be building up the endurance to cross the finish line.
As your endurance develops, you can add in speed and tempo runs to improve your overall speed, but limit those to once a week to begin — and never more than twice a week, or you won't have enough recovery time between runs.
Rest is an important part of your training plan too. Plan to include at least one rest day after especially intense workouts like your long runs and speed work. That gives your body the chance to refuel, recover and rebuild before the next workout, increasing your running performance and decreasing your risk of energy.
A weekly plan should look like this:
- Monday: Rest
- Tuesday: Speed run
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Tempo run or hill training
- Friday: Rest
- Saturday: Distance run
- Sunday: Rest, or do an easy recovery run
Don't have time for three runs during the week while still allowing yourself adequate recovery time? No problem — cut it down to one deliberate distance run and one speed or tempo workout, then add in more relaxed runs as you're able to at least get more mileage under your feet.
The length of your distance and tempo runs, and your total weekly mileage, should all build slowly until around week nine of a 12-week training plan, then gradually taper back off until week 12 (race week). Skip the distance run during race week and instead rest — although some runners like to include a short, interval-based "race prep" run the night before the competition.
Make sure you stay as consistent as possible in your training, and increase speed or distance gradually to avoid injury. In an interview with UC Davis Health, physician and sports medicine expert Brandee Waite suggests increasing your mileage by no more than 10 to 15 percent per week.
Your long runs shouldn't peak at marathon length; a 20- to 21-mile-long run is a typical maximum. Paired with your other runs during the week, this will get your body ready to do the full marathon distance on race day.
Find Your Race Pace
Your overall fitness level now dictates what training distance and speeds you'll start at. The Wentworth Institute of Technology provides a useful tip for finding your long-distance running pace: Aim for a running pace that lets you speak in full sentences or hold a conversation.
This keeps you around your first ventilatory threshold, which you may see abbreviated as VT1, which should enable you to keep going for a long distance. As you run consistently, you'll find that your ventilatory threshold gets higher — which means you can run faster without getting out of breath.
You can also use an online training pace calculator to help calculate your goal pace; you input a recent running pace, and the calculator breaks down the ideal speeds for each type of training run.
Read more: How to Run Faster for Long Distances
Training for a Marathon: Diet
When you're training for a marathon, diet can make the difference between having a transcendental marathon experience or enduring 26 miles of pure misery.
Whatever nutrition plan you select, you'll need to tweak it to suit your body's needs and the specifics of your training program. The Mayo Clinic Health System offers an excellent place to start during any intense training program for distance runners. Its daily recommendations include:
- Eat 2.7 to 4.5 grams of carbohydrates per pound of your body weight, so that your muscles have lots of readily available fuel.
- Consume 0.6 to 0.8 g of protein per pound of body weight; this helps your body build and maintain the lean muscle that powers your runs.
- The health system doesn't offer a specific recommendation for fats, but does encourage consuming healthy unsaturated fats.
Meal timing can make a difference too. Start with the Mayo Clinic Health System's recommendations for eating a low-fat meal with 200 to 300 g of carbs and about 30 g of lean protein, three or four hours before your competition or long runs.
On race day or during long training runs, the Mayo Clinic also recommends 30 to 60 g of carbohydrates every hour, which you can easily get from sports drinks, gels or chews.
And finally, hydration matters — a lot. The Hospital for Special Surgery recommends staying hydrated on a regular basis, sipping water throughout the day. Then on race day, drink 16 ounces of water one to two hours before the race starts, and take a few gulps of water every 15 to 20 minutes as you run. (In organized races, aid stations make this easy.) Keep drinking another 16 to 24 ounces of water after the race.
Those distance training runs give you a chance to practice timing your meals and hydration so that you don't have to run desperately for the bushes in the middle of your race-day efforts.
Strategies to Succeed
Running a marathon is as much a mental endeavor as a physical effort, and a few key strategies will help you set yourself up for success on both fronts. These include:
Always start your intense runs with 10 to 15 minutes of warm-up time, and follow them with another 10 to 15 minutes of cool-down time.
Stretch after your runs to increase flexibility and decrease your risk of injury.
Set intermediate goals —
like running a 5K, 10K or half-marathon —
so you can enjoy the fruits of your success along the way.
Join a running club or recruit an "accountabili-buddy" — someone you can run with, or at least check in with to hold each other accountable for your training goals.
- Mayo Clinic Health System: "Fueling Strategies for Distance Runners"
- Mayo Clinic Health System: "Tips to Keep Runners Hydrated"
- American Council on Exercise: "How to Train for a Marathon"
- UC Davis Health: "Is It Safe to Go the Distance?"
- Wentworth Institute of Technology: "Long Distance: So You Want to Run a ____?"
- Hospital for Special Surgery: "A Guide to Staying Hydrated While Running"