Marathon Training Plan
Marathon Training 101:
If you are reading this post, then you are probably planning to run your first marathon. Congratulations!
Running a marathon is hard work but it is incredibly rewarding. Before you ever reach the start line, you will put in hundreds of miles and countless hours of preparation.
Training is a huge time commitment, so be prepared to be a little more tired for the next few months and trade in your Friday evening happy hours for long run prep. You may be worried about what you have gotten yourself into, but don’t worry! We have you covered with this post.
There are a lot of components that go into marathon training – running an increasing number of miles, cross training, fueling both during and after runs, and proper rest. Let’s break down all of these aspects so you will be ready to take on your first marathon.
Marathon Training Plans
Running is obviously the biggest part of marathon training. There are a lot of training plans out there. You will need to decide what works best for you based on your athletic ability and schedule.
Training plans can last anywhere from 16-24 weeks. If you are new to running, we suggest that you take some time building up mileage and getting used to running several days a week.
You want to have a strong aerobic base so that your body won’t give out once training begins in earnest. So, if you are not comfortable with running 20-30 miles per week, then you may struggle when you get deep into training. Plus, slowly building up your mileage is key to avoiding injuries. (I am an injury prone runner, so I cannot stress this enough!)
If you have been running for a while, then you can prepare for a marathon in less time, but we still recommend giving yourself 16 weeks to train.
So, what does all that running look like in real life? The bare minimum of running for marathon training is 3 days per week. You will do at least 2 short runs during the week and then one long run on the weekends.
Most people prefer to run 4-5 days per week so they can increase their miles. However, if you are injury prone or prefer to do other forms of aerobic activity, like cycling or swimming, then three days per week is fine.
If you find that you love running all the time, then consider using Hanson’s marathon training method. On this plan, you run 50 plus miles per week, but your long run never exceeds 16 miles. No matter what plan you choose, make sure it calls for a high volume of miles per week. This will give you the strength to run 26.2 miles in a row.
Can I Take Walk Breaks?
If you are injury prone or new to running, then consider doing a run/walk plan like Jeff Galloway. Galloway promotes running and walking in set intervals to save your body and help you cross the finish line “upright.” I have used this method for all of my marathons.
It helps save some of the wear and tear off of your body, plus you can push yourself a little more when running if you know you have a walk break coming up.
Hal Higdon also offers a wide variety of training plans, including 2 novice programs. Higdon suggests walking through all water stops so you can better fuel yourself and give your body a small break.
Remember that there is no shame in taking walking breaks during your runs, especially on your long runs. You are still moving and that is what counts!
So now that you have an idea of how you will run and how long that will take, what does a marathon training plan look like during the week?
Your weekday runs will be fairly short. (These can range from 3-10 miles, so take the word “short” with a grain of salt.) They do not need to be all out, breath taking runs. In the beginning, they will all be easy runs so you can build the all-important aerobic base. Easy is different for everyone. Just make sure you can talk while you run. If not, then you are going too fast.
After the first four weeks, you will incorporate different types of runs to increase your speed. These include mile repeats, hills and track work. Mile repeats are what they sound like. You run a mile at a faster than normal pace, take a 4-5 minute break, and then run another mile at that fast pace. You will repeat that for as many times as your training plan calls for.
Your track plans may include Yasso 800 meter sprints or something similar. You will not be doing super short sprints since you have such a long distance goal in mind. Hill training is also key to preparing for a marathon. Most courses are not flat, so do hill repeats to make your life easier come race day.
This is the big kahuna. Long runs should be done slowly. You do not want to run these at race pace. Instead, the goal is to finish the long run comfortably, no matter how long it may take you.
This is where you will get a better idea of how your body reacts to running many miles in a row. It is also your chance to test out different fueling options, hydration carriers and gear.
Your long run should be your top priority. Always try to get this in, no matter what. Do not panic if you miss one, but if your choice is between a weekday workout or a long run, always choose the long run. If you find yourself in a tight schedule, you can break up your long run.
Your 20 miler can be 10 in the morning and 10 in the evening. You can also stretch your long run across two days. For example, I needed to get 18 miles in one weekend, but I had a race planned for Saturday. So, I ran 9.3 at the race and did another 9 on Sunday.
Finding time to cross train might seem impossible when you are training for a marathon, but it really is helpful if you want to cross the finish line.
You want your legs and core to be as strong as possible on race day, so make time for lunges, squats, glute bridges, and crunches.
You can do strength training on your non-running days or squeeze in some reps after your short weekday runs. Try not to go hard the day before your long run. (We’ll talk more about rest later.)
If you pay for a training plan, make sure they specify cross training days, otherwise it is not a plan you should pay for!
One way I get cross training in, is to incorporate it into my warm up and cool down. These include lunges, leg swings, single leg deadlifts, clamshells, donkey kicks and more.
Taking the time to strengthen these muscles is like putting money into a savings account. You will want to draw on that when the time comes!
Fueling Your Body
There are a wide variety of options for fueling your marathon. You will need to experiment with what works best for you since everybody reacts differently to each type of fuel.
For some people, gels make them want to throw up. For other people, gels are the only thing that work! Runners will eat everything on the road from pretzels to sandwiches. It all depends on what works for you and what you can carry.
I have used GU gels, Shot Bloks, and powders that go in my water for fuel. UCan and Tailwind are both great options if you want something in your drink.
Shot Bloks and Honey Stingers are gummy type options that you can chew while running. Some fuel contains caffeine which helps give you a burst of energy but can also make you have to hit the bathroom. Caffeine never bothered my stomach, so I can use caffeinated fuel.
Gatorade on the other hand? I learned the hard way during my first marathon that Gatorade is simply not a fueling option for me.
Whatever you choose, make sure you it has plenty of sodium and other electrolytes to replace all of the electrolytes you lose while sweating!
When you are not on the road, it’s important to make healthy food choices. Believe it or not, it is possible to gain weight when you train for a marathon.
All of your running will make you hungry and it will be tempting to treat yourself with burgers, fries, wings and pizza. Unfortunately, you do not burn that many calories while running!
If you only eat junk, you will gain weight, making running more difficult. You do not need to just eat salads and protein shakes, though. Eat a good mix of lean protein and complex carbs like oatmeal, quinoa and rice to fuel your run.
Sweet potatoes are a great option for carb loading and will not make you feel grossly full like pasta will. While carbs will give you fuel for your runs, you probably do not need as many as you think.
Rest and Recovery
While you will run and cross train a lot during your training, you will also need to focus on resting and recovery. One of the most underrated aspects of marathon training is sleep. Yes, sleep!
Your body needs that time to fully heal and recover from all of the miles you are logging. If not, you will be tired and much more prone to injury, aches, and pains. If you want to perform at your best, then you will need to sleep as much as possible. So, go ahead and take that nap! You have my permission.
In addition to resting, you will need to do active recovery like walking, yoga, stretching and foam rolling. These will all make you a happy runner. Taking regular walks on your rest days will keep you limber and loose. Yoga and stretching will keep you strong and pain free.
Foam rolling is a must. Myofascial release will help you target those stubborn knots in sore muscles. It might hurt quite a bit at the beginning, but it is worth it. You do not need to spend so much time foam rolling that you bruise yourself and if it is the bad kind of hurt, back off and try again. Foam rolling is safe enough to do every day, so add that in after each run and cross training session.
Once you get 2-3 weeks before race day, you will see that your training will actually decrease. This is called tapering and it is every runner’s nightmare.
You have reached the crescendo of your training and now all you have to do is wait. Since you are running less and cross training less, it gives you more time to think and stress out. Do not do it! You have worked hard and you are prepared. Instead, focus on eating healthy meals and making sure you have all of your fuel and gear in place for race day.
Take advantage of the extra time to rest and hang out with the friends and family you have you been blowing off to train. Above all, remain calm and relax. You got this!
Training for a marathon is a lot of hard work but the effort is worth it. Once you cross the finish line and get that shiny medal around your neck, you will be so proud of yourself.
It does not matter how the race goes. You may kill it or you may feel like the race killed you. What matters is that you put in 26.2 miles of effort and earned that medal. Go out, enjoy a celebratory meal and start planning Marathon #2.
One of the best ways to track your marathon training plan is with a fitness tracker. The Smart Fit Band is a great smart band that I highly recommend. It's records your distance traveled, heart rate and monitors your sleep as well. There are many other useful features within this technology that will benefit you throughout your training. I'll provide you with a link here to the Smart Fit Band to learn more.