Marathon Training for Beginners: A Complete Guide
Completing a marathon is an incredible accomplishment, but before you can break the tape and cross the finish line, you need to adequately prepare and train for the race. As you can imagine, completing a 26.2-mile run requires dedication, commitment, and a lot of training. This guide takes you through everything you need to know about marathon training for beginners.
History of the Race
Running a marathon isn’t just a race—it’s a part of history. In fact, the name marathon is rooted in ancient Greek lore. According to legend, in 490 BC, Pheidippides, a Greek messenger, ran from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to inform the Greeks of their victory in battle.
Centuries later, in 1896, the first modern Olympics held a “marathon” race in honor of that ancient run, spanning just under 25 miles, from Marathon Bridge to Olympic Stadium in Athens. The following year, Boston held its first ever marathon race. In 2017, over 518,000 runners completed a marathon.
When you choose to run a marathon, you’re doing more than just running a race. You’re actually taking part in an ancient, historical event.
Choosing Your Race
The location, time, and size of the marathon you choose are all important considerations. As you can imagine, these factors change the environment, atmosphere, and difficulty of the race. A key aspect of marathon training for beginners is choosing an appropriate race to compete in for your skill level and running preference.
Time of Year: The time of year is very important. If you choose a marathon that takes place in the spring, the weather should be cool and mild on race day. But that also means you’ll be training for your race throughout the winter. Likewise, if you choose a race that takes place in the fall, you’ll be training throughout the summer.
Location: With so many locations available to run a marathon, you’re not limited to what’s close by. You can run a marathon just about anywhere in the world. Many marathon runners enjoy making a trip out of their race. Have you always wanted to visit Paris, New York, or Los Angeles? What better way to see a city than running down its streets!
Of course, travel can be stressful and hard on your body. Many first-time marathon runners choose a location a little closer to home. If you live close enough to the race site, it can be advantageous to train on the same course as the race. Regardless of where it is, find a location that is comfortable and gets you excited about the race.
Size: The location of your marathon will determine the size of the race. Big city races come with mass media presence, large crowds, and lots of runners. While smaller races don’t have the same high energy as large races, they tend to be more intimate and can be less stressful.
Course: Each marathon features a different course with its own terrain, elevation, and running surfaces. When choosing your marathon, research the course on the race’s website. This will help you get an idea of the race conditions and will influence your training regimen.
If you like running on flat terrain, you won’t want to choose a race that features a lot of hills. Some races cover the same ground more than once. Find a race course that suits your running style and desired race atmosphere.
Now that you’ve chosen your race location, it’s time to start training for race day. Marathon training for beginners requires time, dedication, and perseverance. What’s more, training isn’t just about running—it’s also about endurance training, diet, rest, and routine.
Before you hop on the treadmill or take to the streets, you’ll need to have the proper gear to maximize your progress and minimize your risk of injury:
Shoes: The most important piece of equipment for running a marathon is a quality pair of shoes. Your shoes should be properly fitting, provide the right level of support for your foot, and have ample room in the toe box. Replace worn-out shoes in a timely fashion to ensure that you don’t put your foot at risk of injury.
Wraps and Sleeves: Training can be hard on your body. You should be running up to 50 miles a week at the peak of your training, and that can wreak havoc on your feet, ankles, and knees. Sleeves, straps, tape, and braces can help promote proper running mechanics, reduce swelling and inflammation, and help your body recover more quickly.
Sleeves and braces don’t just help you treat injuries—they can actually help you prevent them.
When Should You Start Training
Even if you have a regular running routine, you’ll need to create and stick to a dedicated marathon training program. Many marathon training guides recommend about five months of preparation before race day. However, according to the University of Minnesota, it takes 358 days to properly prepare for a marathon from a medical standpoint.
That’s because “running a marathon isn’t really a fitness activity. It’s beyond fitness. Forethought and training are essential to getting prepared. Experts recommended that aspiring marathoners run a consistent base mileage for at least a year prior to the race. For runners with a regular base practice, you’ll still need four to five months to gear up for the race.
Slow and Steady Training
According to the University of Colorado, the most common mistake runners make during marathon training is increasing mileage or intensity too quickly. Runners should increase their mileage or time by no more than “10 to 20%” per week. For example, if you currently run 10 miles per week, you should increase your mileage by no more than one to two miles per week.
This gradual increase allows you to improve your stamina while minimizing your risk of injury.
Warm Up, Cool Down
One of the most important aspects of marathon training for beginners is preparing your body for activity and properly cooling down when you’re finished. According to the University of California San Francisco, “warming up and cooling down are essential parts of every run and should not be skipped.”
Before you begin a run, you should stretch your muscles, loosen your tendons and ligaments, and prepare your body for exertion. Likewise, after you finish a run or workout, you should let your body cool down. A few minutes of easy jogging and gentle stretching will help you cool down and recover.
Base mileage is the foundation of your training. Base training helps you build endurance, gain confidence, and condition your body. You should complete three to five base runs per week; these are distance runs completed at a nice, easy pace. As stated above, you shouldn’t increase the distance of this run too quickly. Increase your base run about 10% each week to maximize results.
Every seven to ten days, you should complete a steady, long run. This is the run that trains your body for distance. The initial distance of your long run is determined by your current running ability. By the peak of your training (about three to four weeks out from the marathon) you want to be able to complete a 20 to 22-mile run.
Increase the distance of your long run by one mile every week. Every three weeks, scale back your long run by about 2-3 miles. For example, if you run 10 miles one week, run 11 the following, run 12 after that, and then scale back to about 10 on the third week. After your scale back week, you’ll resume increasing your distance. So, in this example, you would run 13 miles after your scale-back week.
Speed training helps you develop strength and endurance. Speed training should only be done about once a week. There are two primary forms of speed training—intervals and tempo.
Interval training involves repetition of short bursts of fast-paced running or sprinting followed by slow recovery jogs between bursts. This can be accomplished by time or distance. For example, you might run at a fast, hard pace for two minutes followed by five minutes of recovery jogging. Repeat this pattern four times.
Tempo running involves running longer distances at a faster tempo than your base mileage or long runs. These are shorter runs that are meant to improve your stamina and endurance.
An important part of marathon training for beginners is taking time off. You should take a rest/recovery day at least once each week. The day after your long run is a good day to get some rest and let your body recover from all that training. What’s more, as the day of the race approaches, you’ll want to add more rest days to ensure your body is fresh and strong when you take your place at the starting line.
Training for a marathon shouldn’t just be about running. Cross-training can aid in recovery and work areas of your body that don’t get as much attention from just running. Weightlifting and strength training will help you build stamina and strength. Yoga, swimming, cycling, or other low-impact activities that stretch the body can help your body recover and build endurance.
Ease off Training Before the Race
You should begin to taper back your training about two to three weeks before the race. Take a few extra rest days, shorten your long runs, and diminish your speed training. You don’t want to stop training completely, but at this point, your body should be ready for the grueling task of completing a 26.2-mile run. You want to ensure it’s strong and rested and ready for the challenge.
Nutrition is an important part of marathon training for beginners. You should “consume a diet high in complex carbohydrates and low in fat that also meets your body’s protein needs” throughout your training. About a week before the race, you should increase your carbohydrate intake to maximize muscle glycogen levels. According to UCD, four days before the race, your diet should consist of about 70% carbohydrates.
But don’t just focus on carbs. You need to increase your protein intake during training as well. UCD claims you should be eating between “4 and 6 ounces of high-quality protein” every day of your marathon training.
Don’t neglect drinking plenty of water and focusing on proper hydration. All that training means you need to hydrate and replace electrolytes. Low-sugar sports drinks high in electrolytes can help you avoid dehydration and maximize your recovery time. Proper hydration takes time—you should hydrate well for about four days before the race. Drink a few glasses of water before bed on the eve of the race to ensure your body is properly hydrated.
Race Day Tips
You’ve made it! The day of the race is finally here. The first tip is: don’t change your routine. Use the same shoes, running outfits, and diet you’ve been focusing on during your training regimen. All your training has prepared you for race day.
Before the Race
Being ready for the race is an important part of marathon training for beginners. Know how to get to the race site, and have any other preparations completed well before the eve of the race. The last thing you want to do is stress out about some little detail on your way to race.
Try to get a good night’s sleep before the race. You may be energized with anticipation, but a good night’s sleep will help you maintain stamina and endurance throughout the race day.
Check the weather and prepare for the day with appropriate clothing, sunscreen, and other gear. Many marathon runners suffer from chafing. If you experienced chafing during training, you’ll want to apply Vaseline to any problem areas before you get to the race site.
Get to the race site early. That way, if you run into an issue or need to find a restroom, you won’t be pressed for time and mess up your routine. A late arrival can put undue stress on your body and throw you off your routine.
Eat a light, simple, high-carb breakfast a few hours before the race starts. Make sure you have snacks like Gu or PowerGel with you as you’ll need to refuel during the race. You don’t want to rely on what’s available at aid stations.
During the Race
When you finally step up to the starting line, you’ll likely experience a surge of adrenaline. The energy of the day and the realization that all your training is about to pay off may have you a little extra amped. Do your best to relax and remember your training.
You don’t want to start off too fast—it’s easy to get caught up in the energy and excitement of the starting line. Relax. Find your pacing and stay at a speed you trained at and are comfortable with.
Don’t forget to eat and hydrate throughout the race. You need fuel to keep your blood sugar and energy levels elevated. There will be aid stations along the race path with liquids and refreshments.
Don’t forget to enjoy the fact that you’re running a marathon!
After the Race
Once you cross the finish line, you should drink water or a sports drink to replenish your fluids and eat some simple carbs to increase your blood sugar levels. If you’re able, you should stretch and walk a little to allow your muscles to cool down.
Take at least a week off to let your body recover before starting any physical activity or resuming your running routine.
Most importantly, you should celebrate the fact that you just completed a marathon. It’s an incredible accomplishment with a rich history.
If you’re training for your first marathon right now, don’t forget to protect those sensitive tendons and ligaments with protective sleeves and gear.