The marathon — a race of 26.2 miles — has been around for centuries. In fact, it was an event in the first "modern" Olympic Games (as we know them today) in 1896. Fast forward to today, and there are now over 800 marathons held every year in the United States.
You're probably here because you want to run one of those marathons. While the marathon isn't usually someone's first race, Matt Thull, a former USA National Half-Marathon team member and founder of Thunderdome Running, says that it's possible to make the marathon your first race if you train properly. Still, Thull says that a marathon training schedule for beginners usually involves starting with a 5K before runners build up their weekly mileage and eventually progress to a marathon.
Whatever the case, you need to do your due diligence before you begin training for a marathon, starting with this guide.
How to Choose Your First Marathon
There are a few things to consider before registering for a race, the most important factor being how long you have to train before race day.
While how long you should give yourself depends on your current fitness level, Joan Scrivanich, an exercise physiologist and coach at Rise Endurance, says you should train for 12 weeks to six months. Twelve weeks is usually the absolute minimum, reserved for runners who already have a solid base.
"Time is the one thing you can't get back, and the marathon is not a test you can cram for," Elizabeth Corkum, a personal trainer and running coach at Precision Running. "When in doubt, choose the race you feel gives you ample time to prepare. If your dream race is 12 weeks away, plan on it for next year and focus on another goal this time around."
Corkum says if you're currently running less than 10 miles per week, 20 weeks should be the bare minimum you spend training (with 24 to 36 weeks being the ideal). If you're running 15 to 25 miles per week, train for 16 to 18 weeks.
Other factors you should consider include the time of year and location of the race. While traveling for a marathon can be fun, you want to train in similar conditions. For example, if you live in a relatively flat town, running the hilly San Francisco Marathon may not be for you. Or, if you live in a cool climate, then the Miami Marathon might be a shock to your system.
"Pick a race that excites you and will make you happy at Mile 22," says Corkum. "Marathons offer all kinds of experiences — with different courses, sizes and locations — so pause and assess before committing."
How Far Is a Marathon?
A marathon is 26.2 miles long, which makes for a pretty intense race. Consider hiring a coach or finding a running group at a local running store or gym to help guide you through the training process. A coach will not only help you decide how much time you need to train for a race but will adjust your training plan should you get injured or sick.
To be honest, you will miss a training run or two — things happen! — so you need to know when to make up a run and when to move on (and how).
How Many Days Should You Run vs. Rest?
"Some runners thrive on six days of running, no cross-training and one full rest day," shares Corkum. "Others need three run days, one cross-training day and three full rest days. On average, I'd recommend four run days, two full rest days and one cross-training day."
Before you can decide how many days your plan will consist of, you need to have an understanding of what workouts make up a solid marathon training schedule for beginners.
Scrivanich says the three most important workouts are the long run, speed work and hill running; you will do easy running to support these runs but those easy days shouldn't interfere with these important workouts.
- Long runs: "The long run improves your endurance. Physiologically, you adapt and strengthen the cardiovascular, muscular and metabolic systems so that you're better able to handle the marathon," says Scrivanich. "Long runs also help to build confidence and mental toughness."
- Speed work: "If you always train at the same pace, you can't expect to race at a faster pace," says Scrivanich. "Even though the marathon is a long race, incorporating speed work in your training helps increase your overall speed."
- Hill running: "Hill running builds sport-specific strength," says Scrivanich. "Even if you're training for a flat race, building strength helps you increase your running strength and efficiency."
What's the Best Cross-Training for Marathon Training?
Both cross-training and rest will help prevent injury and make you a stronger runner. If you're looking for specific cross-training ideas, Thull recommends yoga, Pilates and barre to build strength and flexibility specific to runners. If you are in search of more cardio, he suggests swimming laps to limit the pounding on your joints.
How Fast Should You Run?
For your first marathon, setting a goal to finish in a specific time isn't necessary, though you can use your pace during training to predict your finishing time for your friends and family to meet you.
While most of your runs should be done at a conversational pace — meaning you can talk to someone next to you without breathing heavily — you can use your speed workouts to push the pace a bit so your conversational pace becomes faster and more comfortable over time. Everyone's conversational pace is different, so at the beginning of your training, there is no magic number for how fast you should run.
If you are looking for more pacing guidance a few weeks into training, you may also want to add some time trial runs to help gauge your progress. Scrivanich says that during these runs you should not only track your distance and pace, but also your heart rate, perceived exertion and cadence. "When you analyze your results, you'll be able to compare them to previous results to see how you've improved, what your weaknesses are, what your strengths are and when you're fatiguing," she notes.
Thull adds that because you likely won't run 26.2 miles before race day (it isn't required for training), you won't be able to have definitive pacing numbers. This is the reason for the time trial. You can then use the data from your time trial and plug it into a marathon pace calculator to get your goal pace. With this free calculator online, you simply enter your pace for a specific distance (say, a 5K) and choose which distance you're training for. From there, the calculator will give you an idea of how fast you should be running each mile and your finishing time.
"If you have a goal marathon pace in mind, do a test where you do a one-mile warmup, then stop and stretch and see if you can run your goal marathon pace for 10 to 12 miles," says Thull. "Then, five or six weeks out from the marathon, run a half-marathon and see if you can do it five to 20 seconds faster than your goal marathon pace. If you can do that, you're looking good."
What to Eat While Training
Focusing on fueling before, during and after a run will help you recover more quickly and make you a stronger runner. Plus, you need to practice your race-day nutrition during training, so you don't find yourself with an upset stomach during your race or running low on fuel halfway through.
Before a run, eat something with carbohydrates that's easy to digest. Corkum suggests trying bananas, oatmeal, toast, bagels, pasta, pancakes, rice or potatoes. Test a few different foods before your training runs in order to find what's easiest on your stomach. From there, eat 60 to 120 minutes before your run.
When it comes to eating during your run, many runners choose gels or chews that are easy to carry. You can buy these at any running store, and the one you choose really comes down to preference. Try each option to see which you like texture-wise and which is easiest for you to carry. You don't want to be fumbling with packaging or drop your fuel during the race.
"You generally need mid-run fuel when runs hit or exceed 90 minutes," says Corkum. "Take your fuel of choice around 35 to 40 minutes into the workout and wash it down with a sip or two of water."
After your run, eat a balanced meal. Corkum says this meal should consist of carbs (which will refuel lost glycogen) and protein and fat to rebuild muscle and tissue. And don't forget electrolytes to replace what you lost from sweat. If that information seems overwhelming, the simplest thing to do is make a smoothie or go with what you're craving.
"Personally, I'll sometimes make a big omelet with sautéed veggies and cheese, with a side of toast and an avocado," she says.
What to Look for in a Marathon-Training Plan
Now that you know the building blocks of a marathon training schedule for beginners, how should you actually find the best plan for you?
For starters, every marathon training plan should have a taper period. The taper takes place in the two weeks before your marathon, and while it can be a bit jarring to pull back on your mileage (especially if you haven't run the full distance of a marathon), it's a vital part of training.
In fact, Thull suggests having a few mini-taper sessions during your marathon training in order to help you recharge both physically and mentally. "Many times, runners are either burnt out mentally or injured before a marathon," he notes. "Within a marathon training plan, tapering — or 'sharpening,' as I call it — is necessary."
Most marathon plans won't have you hit the full 26.2 miles during training. The idea is to be fresh and injury-free when you step up to the start line. You'll usually have a long run on either Saturday or Sunday (23 miles is often the max), followed by rest or active recovery the next day.
From there, make sure a certified trainer or run coach developed your marathon-training plan: Don't just sign up for the first one you see online.
How to Train Mentally
As you may have guessed, training for a marathon is a mental challenge. Just getting up and going out for a run when you don't want to is a form of mental training. Testing and overcoming these mental roadblocks will make you that much stronger, so you can face any challenges on race day.
"Mental training is just as important as physical training, especially for your first marathon," says Scrivanich. "Your long runs will help build your confidence in knowing you can cover the distance, but using visualization, positive self talk, managing anxiety and staying positive are all ways you can help yourself manage the mental aspect of the sport."
Some Sample Marathon Training Plans for Beginners
Here are a few sample marathon-training plans to choose from:
- 12-Week Marathon Training Schedule from LIVESTRONG.com
- 14-Week Marathon Training Plan from Coach
- 16-Week Beginner-Friendly Marathon Training Schedule from Snacking in Sneakers
- 18-Week Novice Marathon Training Plan by Hal Higdon
- 20-Week Marathon Training Schedule for Beginners from Running After Lukas