So you want to run a marathon? Completing 42 kilometres is an awe-inspiring accomplishment that requires commitment and dedication and provides many rewards, not least of which is joining the percentage of the population that have completed marathons.
Most training plans call for 16 to 20 weeks of training. You’ll typically run three to five times per week (sometimes more), and your weekly mileage total will gradually increase as you get closer to the big race day.
But how do you know if you’re ready for 42K? Here at Runner’s World, we recommend that you have a base of a minimum of three to six months’ worth of running four times per week. (It’s even better if you’ve been running for a year or more.) You should be able to comfortably complete a run of 10 kilometres. And you should run a few 5K races at the very minimum.
Diving into the marathon before you have checked off those items isn’t advisable because it exponentially increases your chance of injury and an unhappy experience. We want you to have fun and come back for more.
What to expect when training for a marathon
The key to successful marathon training is consistently putting in enough weekly mileage to get your body accustomed to running for long periods of time. Newer runners may start with 24 to 32 kilometres per week total and gradually build to a peak week of 56 to 64 kilometres.
More experienced runners may start at 56 or more kilometres per week and peak at 80 or more kilometres. When you select a training plan, avoid those that would increase your volume by more than about 10 per cent in the first week. For example, if you usually run 32-mile weeks, avoid plans that have you running much more than 35 kilometre in week 1.
The most important part of your training is a weekly long run at an easy “conversational” pace that gradually increases in distance, week over week, to build your strength and endurance. Spending the extra time on your feet helps prepare your muscles, joints, bones, heart, lungs, and brain for going 42 kilometres on race day. Most training plans build to at least one 28- to 32-kilometre long run. Most coaches do not recommend completing the full marathon distance in training because they believe the risk of injury outweighs any potential benefits.
Your training plan may also feature weekly or biweekly speedwork, tempo runs, or miles [1600m] at marathon pace. Common speed workouts for marathoners include 1600m repeats (usually at about 10K pace) and Yasso 800s (repeats at somewhere between 5K and 10K pace). “Tempo run” most often refers to a sustained effort at a comfortably hard pace (about half-marathon pace), meant to build speed and endurance. And segments at marathon pace – which may be done as part of a long run or as an independent workout – help ingrain that pace in your mind and body before race day.
Select a couple of long runs in the month or two before the race to use as “dress rehearsals”. Get up and start running the same time you will on race day. Eat and drink what you’ll eat on the day before, the morning of, and during your race at those times during the dress rehearsal run. Wear the same shoes and clothing you plan to wear in the marathon. This gives you the opportunity to troubleshoot any problems, and to respect the cardinal rule of marathoning: never try anything new on race day.
What to eat and drink
What you eat before, during, and after you run can make or break your training. Eat too little and you’ll run out of energy to finish your run. Eat too much and you’ll find yourself running to the bathroom. Mid-run fuel – sports drinks, gels, gummy bears, etc. – helps you sustain energy to finish the effort.
Before your run:
For energy, you need to eat something before any run lasting more than 60 minutes. Ideally, you should have a high-carb, low-fibre meal three to four hours before you plan to run. That time frame gives your body a chance to fully digest, and it reduces risk of mid-run stomach issues. However, if you’re running in the morning, it’s not always possible to leave that much time between your meal and your run. If you have at least an hour before your workout, eat about 50 grams of carbs (that’s equal to two pancakes or waffles with syrup or a bagel with jam or honey). If you’re doing a really long run, consider adding in a little protein, which will help sustain your energy levels. A peanut butter and jam sandwich or two eggs are both good choices.
During your run:
Taking in fuel – in the form of mostly carbohydrates – during training runs that exceed 60 minutes will help keep your blood sugar even and your energy levels high. Runners should consume about 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour of exercise, and it’s best to spread that out over time intervals that work for you, such as every 20 minutes. You can get the right amount of carbs from a sports drinks (470ml of Gatorade provides 28 grams of carbs, for example), one to two energy gels (GU Energy Gels provide about 22 grams in one packet), or energy chews, like Clif Shot Bloks, which provide about 24 grams of carbs in a three-block serving. Real foods, like a quarter cup of raisins or two tablespoons of honey, also provide the right amount of easily digested carbs that will energise your run. Everyone’s tolerance for fuel is different, however, so the key is to find out what works for you during your training so you know what to take in on race day.
After your run:
Eating a mix of carbs and protein within 30 to 60 minutes post-run is crucial because it helps speed your body’s recovery. Carbs help restock spent glycogen (or energy) stores, while protein helps repair microscopic damage to muscle tissue. If you ran easy for less than 60 minutes, plan to have a small snack (like 250ml of low-fat chocolate milk) or whatever your next meal is, such as eating a breakfast of oatmeal with raisins, nuts, and a splash of milk after a morning run. If you ran hard or for longer than 60 minutes, you need something more substantial. Aim to consume a recovery meal with 15 to 25 grams of protein and 50 to 75 grams of carbs. A good post-run recovery breakfast is an omelet with veggies and feta cheese, plus two slices whole-wheat toast and a fruit smoothie. For lunch, a turkey sandwich topped with extra veggies on a hearty whole-grain roll along with a bowl of lentil soup will fit the bill. Or for dinner, try grilled salmon or flank steak along with a sweet potato, sautéed spinach, and fresh berries for dessert.
What to drink:
You need to drink enough before, during, and after your run to perform your best. Indeed, just two per cent dehydration can slow you down. It’s especially important to stay on top of hydration during warm summer months, when you sweat more. While some experts recommend you stay hydrated by simply drinking when thirsty, others suggest you develop a customised plan by performing a sweat test – that is, weighing yourself before and after exercise. Any weight loss corresponds with fluid loss, so try to drink enough to replenish that weight. Before you run, you should have 180 to 240ml of water, sports drink, or even coffee. While you are running, you should aim to take in 88 to 170ml every 15 to 20 minutes. Water is usually fine for runs in the 30- to 60-minute range. After runs longer than that, and you should consider a sports drink with carbs and electrolytes to replenish sodium.
How to stay healthy
To prevent injuries and stay healthy while marathon training, increase your mileage gradually and incorporate rest and recovery into your program. Rotate hard workout days with easy days (short, slow runs) and consider reserving at least one day a week for a complete break from running and replace it with rest or cross-training.
Using a foam roller – before and after your runs – loosens up muscles and improves range of motion. Strength training – particularly your core, hips, and glutes – corrects muscle imbalances and improves running form, which can result in fewer injuries. Stretching also helps – dynamic stretching is best before a run, but static stretching and yoga can help you recover post-run. Above all, listen to your body. Scale back mileage and take an extra rest day or two if you feel pain that’s beyond typical training soreness.
How to stay motivated
Running a marathon is an exciting prospect, but the day-to-day training can get to be a grind, particularly in the middle of a program, when you’re experiencing cumulative fatigue, and race day still seems far away. Mental training strategies – like developing a mantra, practicing visualisation, and reframing negative thoughts – can help you stay calm, focused, and positive throughout your training and on race day.
It’s also critical to get plenty of sleep and reserve time for recovery so you don’t risk overtraining, which can leave you feeling cranky and burned out. Also, consider running with a partner or group. Training with others helps keep you accountable so you stay on track to reach your goals.
What to wear
You don’t have to break the bank to gear up for marathon training. However, don’t skimp on your first investment: the right pair of running shoes for your foot and form. During months of training, your running shoes are all there will be between you and the road – literally. And invest not only your money but also your time by visiting a specialty running store for at least the first pair. After learning something about you and your training plans, the staff can advise you on your specific needs in running shoes (e.g., fit, cushioning, support).
Some stores have treadmills so the staff can analyse your gait, and most stores have information about local routes, group runs, and upcoming races that can both encourage and improve your training.
Never buy shoes first thing in the morning because during the day – or during a run – your feet will swell a little bit, and you want to make sure you get the right pair. Instead, purchase them after either a long day at work or after a run.
Next, outfit yourself with the essentials: shirts, shorts, socks, and for women, a good sports bra. None of these items should be made of cotton. Instead, look for synthetic materials or merino wool, which breathe, wick moisture, and fight odour better than cotton. This will keep you more comfortable on long training runs while decreasing the risk of chafing (more on that later).
Of course, you’ll need to stay hydrated on those longer runs. There are several options for carrying fluids. Handheld bottles, waist belts, and vests can carry water or endurance fuel of choice, smartphone, ID, keys, and anything else you may need.
Training in warmer months? Consider a hat or visor of synthetic material as well as sunglasses with UV protection. Training in cooler months? Consider a jacket with some level of weather protection but also breathability to keep your core dry.
You might wish to track your time and distance over the course of your months of training. Less expensive running watches track your time. For other relevant data such as distance and pace, you’ll want a watch (or smartphone) with GPS.
Lastly, be wary of chafing. Blisters on your feet and friction on your nipples will complicate your training. Socks and shirts of synthetic material can fight the friction between moist material and your skin, but certain products can, too. A jelly like Vaseline or a balm like BodyGlide counters chafing on feet, nipples, and anywhere in-between.
How to choose your marathon
Timing: Many marathons are held in early spring or autumn, when race-day conditions are most likely to be cool and pleasant, but early autumn events require training through the heat of the summer. Consider the weather you’re likely to face on race day and in training when making your selection.
Location: Some runners enjoy travelling to races, while others find it stressful. If you’re in the latter camp, you may be most comfortable racing in or near your hometown. Hoping to get away? Seek out races in locations you love to visit (or have always wanted to see) and make a trip of it.
Size: Big-city marathons with lots of spectators draw crowds for a reason: Many runners thrive on the energy and support of other people, and those events are more likely to have amenities like on-course entertainment, fancy medals, and huge expos. If that sounds overwhelming – or you’d rather not drop a ton of money on a bib – an affordable, low-key marathon would be a better bet.
The course: Visit the race’s website to find a course description, map, and elevation profile. If you don’t like seeing the same things twice, avoid double-looped or out-and-back races. If you struggle in wind, avoid races that run along large bodies of water. If you train exclusively on flat terrain, try to find a flat race. (The same goes for runners who train on rolling or hilly routes – flat routes may beat up your legs more than ones with elevation change because your body is accustomed to ups and downs.)