How to train for a marathon

how to train for a marathon
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The marathon is arguably the most prestigious road race of all. Finishing 26.2 miles is a monumental achievement, and it puts you in rare company: According to Running USA, only about 500,000 Americans complete a marathon every year.

Make no mistake: Marathon training is not easy. It takes dedication, determination, and a good dose of time management. And while running is obviously a central part to marathon training, you also need to think about your gear, your fuel, and your recovery.

This guide covers the basics for how to train for a marathon, from finding the right training program to preparing to fitting workouts into your schedule to planning the days leading up to your race. While this guide isn’t a substitute for a program developed by a certified coach, it will help you know what you expect as you take on your marathon goal.

How to train for a marathon: Getting Started

There’s a lot of preparation that goes into properly training for a marathon. Here’s what you need to do before you hit the pavement.

Set a goal: Is this your first marathon, and your goal is just to cross the line? Or are you looking to finish in under a certain time? Setting a goal will help determine the best training program for you. However, it’s important that you choose a goal that’s realistic. Using a time predictor that takes into account your time in a previous half marathon, as well as your estimated weekly mileage, is a good starting point for setting a time goal that’s achievable given your level of fitness and anticipated training load. If you haven’t run anything longer than a 5K, you may want to start with a half marathon first. Be sure to check out our guide on how to train for a half marathon.

Find the right training program. While the programs for training for a half marathon are fairly similar, there’s a lot of variation in marathon training programs. The Run Less Run Faster program (available for iOS) is designed to help you set a PR with just three days of running per week, with the caveat (as the name implies) that each workout is hard and fast. On the other hand, the program from noted coach Hal Hingdon (available for iOS and Android) schedules as many as six runs per week, with more of a focus on building strength as opposed to speed. Apps such as Asics Runkeeper and Under Armour MayMyRun (available for iOS and Android) offer marathon training plans, and a lot of races also post basic training programs through their websites.

Many marathon runners opt to work with a personal coach, whether it’s through a local running club or on a 1:1 basis. This additional level of personalization can be valuable for anyone who’s running their first marathon, has a specific time goal in mind — such as running a time that qualifies for the Boston Marathon — or is recovering from an injury. In addition, a coach can serve as a valuable sounding board when workouts don’t go as planned or lingering soreness won’t go away, helping you know when you should be concerned or when you can keep going.

Plan your schedule. Among its many other challenges, marathon training takes a lot of time. Training will last at least 16 weeks, plus some time to build up a base if necessary. Depending on length and pace, your long runs could take up to five hours, not including recovery time. You can also expect some midweek runs to last 90 to 120 minutes. Take the time to figure out when you can complete these workouts without too much of an adverse impact on your work, family, social, and sleep schedule. It may seem daunting, but it’s critical to maintaining balance when you’re in the thick of marathon training.

how to train for a marathon

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Build up a running base. Most marathon training programs assume that you’ve already completed a half marathon, though beginner programs may start at a base of 10 miles for a long run. In addition, most programs include four or five runs per week. If you haven’t hit either than distance or that frequency of workouts, it’s important to build up a base before you officially kick off a marathon training program.

Check your gear. If you’ve decided to run a marathon, there are good odds that you already have the best running shoes, socks, shorts, shirts, and sports bras in your closet. Before you plunge into training, do an inventory of your gear to see if anything needs to be upgraded, or if anything’s missing. The rule of thumb is that running shoes start to wear out at about 500 miles, so plan to purchase another pair fairly early in your training cycle so they’re well broken in by race day. However, if you’re running on hard pavement or concrete, they may wear out sooner than that; if the tread on the bottom of your shoes shows signs of wear, it may be time to replace them.

If you’re running through the winter, stock up on hats, gloves, wool socks. If your schedule will force you to run at night, get a headlamp, reflective vest, and a set of blinking lights. And don’t forget the Glide — no one likes chafing.

Consider buying a running watch. While not necessary, picking up one of the best sports watches will let you track your distance, heart rate, and more from your wrist. Most watches, such as those made by Garmin and Polar, also have built-in training programs; Apple Watch owners can find training programs through third-party apps. What’s more, some of these watches also have built-in music storage, so you can listen to tunes as you run.

Talk to your doctor. If you have a history of injuries to your lower body — creaky joints, pulled or torn muscles, or broken bones — it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about whether it’s a good idea to run hundreds of miles in a few months. If you don’t get an enthusiastic “Yes” from your doctor, you need to think about whether the achievement of crossing the finishing line is worth the risk of another, potentially more serious injury.

How to train for a marathon: The Basics

As noted, there are many types of marathon training programs. These will vary depending on your experience, race goals, fitness level, and amount of time to devote to training. 

Generally, though, you can expect a marathon training program to last at least 16 weeks and to cover at least 35 miles per week. Plans for beginners may last longer, in order to slowly build up to the half-marathon distance. Plans for more experienced runners typically include 40 to 45 miles per week, with peak weeks exceeding 50 miles. 

Here are some of the most common characteristics of marathon training programs.

  • A weekly long run, which will increase over the course of the training program to anywhere from 16 miles (in the Hal Hingdon program) to 21 miles. In many programs, you run this distance more than once over the course of training (up to five times in advanced programs). The final long run will be three weeks before race day. In most cases, this run should be at an easy pace — the goal is to complete the distance, not hit a speed goal.
  • A speed workout that’s best run on a track or flat stretch of road or trail. One of the most common workouts is the Yasso 800, named after running coach Bart Yasso — 10 intervals of 800 meters with approximately 400 meters of recovery time. Other workouts include repeat 400s or a “ladder” in which intervals start at a short distance, increase to one mile, and then decrease again to finish.
  • A hill workout, which is particularly important if your marathon course is hilly (or has a large hill, especially in the second half). If you live somewhere flat, look for bridges or parking garages where you can safely run up and down an incline.
  • A progression run, which is a workout where you do a portion of the run faster than normal. This could happen during your weekly long run, or it could be part of another run during the week. For example, coach Greg McMillan recommends adding progression runs to your long runs, with six or so miles at target race pace and two miles faster than target race pace.
  • One or two easy runs, which should be completed at a pace comfortable enough to hold a conversation. I sometimes leave my watch at home for these runs to avoid the temptation of constantly checking my pace.

Most training programs encourage incorporating another race into your marathon training. A half-marathon that’s about eight weeks before the marathon, for example, can be a good way to measure how training has progressed and to see if your race-day goals need to be adjusted. Shorter races such as 5Ks can be used as speed workouts, too. Just remember that you’ll need to add a warm-up and cool-down, so don't head straight for the beer tent after you cross the finish line.

The biggest key to marathon training is to take it easy when your program tells you to take it easy. Long runs don’t need to be fast, easy days don’t need to be fast, and your warm-up and cool-down on speed or hill days doesn’t need to be fast. Too many fast miles will only set you up for an injury or burnout, and that could jeopardize your ability to make it to race day.

How to train for a marathon: Beyond Running

As you make your way through your training program, you’ll need to consider a few factors beyond running. 

Burnout. Rest is key to any exercise program, but it’s especially important during marathon training. Physically, you need to let your legs recover, especially after long runs. You also need to get sleep to avoid compromising your immune system and putting yourself on the sidelines. Mentally, you need to prepare for the ups and downs of marathon training. You’ll have good runs, bad runs, postponed runs, hot runs, cold runs, windy runs, and more. It’s important to learn from these experiences without dwelling on them.

Sleep. Running 40+ miles a week will wear anyone out. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself nodding off earlier than usual, or sleeping through your alarm in the morning. Listen to your body and try to get plenty of sleep throughout training, even if it means adjusting your typical sleep schedule. 

Cross-training. Give your legs a break with any number of cross-training exercises, including walking, yoga, static stretching, and core or leg exercises. As your runs get longer, you’ll undoubtedly start to feel soreness in various muscles and joints; for me, and anyone else who sits all day, it’s often in the hips. Find stretches, exercises, or classes that target these specific areas to build additional strength and avoid a more serious injury.

Diet. One obvious side effect of marathon training is your diet. Friends and family members will be impressed at how much you can eat. It’s important to replace the additional calories that you’re burning in a healthy way — lean protein, healthy fats, complex carbs, and electrolytes from either food or beverages. Preparing meals in advance is a good way to have healthy foods on hand when you return from a workout and don’t have the wherewithal to cook.

Mid-run fuel. There are dozens of mid-race fuels on the market — gels, candies, gummies, and so on — that can help restore your energy reserves as you deplete them during a long workout. 

Try these out on your weekly long runs to see how your body reacts; this will help you avoid unwelcome surprises on race day and help you prepare to take your fuel at the right moments. Do the same with water: It will take time to strike a balance between the right amount of water and too much water, which will simply slosh around in your stomach and make you uncomfortable. You’ll also be able to determine if you’ll want to carry water with you on race day or can rely on the water stops along the source.

How to train for a marathon: Preparing for a Virtual Race

As most in-person events have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, many races are offering virtual marathon options. These give runners the option of completing 26.2 miles and submitting their GPS-measured time to the race website, and then receiving a medal and T-shirt in the mail later.

If you opt to run a virtual marathon, you have quite a bit of flexibility, as you can map out your own course and start your race on a date and time that’s convenient to your schedule. The downside, of course, is that you won’t benefit from crowds, water stops, mile markers, volunteers telling you where to turn, and a pre-planned post-race party. 

Here are a few tips for making the most of a virtual marathon.

  • Consider a course that’s a series of loops, whether it’s the same loop a few times or different loops that all start and finish in the same place. That way, you can stash your water, fuel, and gear in one spot — or have a friend or family member stay in one spot with it. Make sure the start/finish area is a safe spot where you’re away from traffic and people can gather with enough distance between them.
  • Pick a course in an area you know well. The last thing you want to do is get lost during your race.
  • Ask friends or family to run all or part of a loop with you. That way, you’re not running alone for hours and the race doesn’t feel like just another training run. Bonus: They can hold your stuff.
  • Share your route in advance with friends, family, and social media (if you’re comfortable doing so). Running a marathon during a pandemic is an amazing accomplishment, and you’ll be surprised how many people will come out to safely cheer you on. Encourage them to take photos — while you’re unlikely to forget this unique race, you’ll be glad that people were willing to document it for you.
  • Resist the temptation to postpone your race. Once you set a date and time for starting your race, commit to it — just like you would with any other in-person race. Even if the weather is unpleasant, or you wake up feeling less than 100%, you’re better off running the race than scrapping your plans and scrambling to organize everything for another day.
  • Plan a modest celebration for yourself once you’ve finished. It won’t be the same as they typical post-race bash, but it will be meaningful all the same.

How to train for a marathon: Pulling the Plug

Sometimes, marathon training goes great. Sometimes, though, things go south: You might get sick or injured, you have trouble balancing home life and training, or bad weather makes it impossible to get your runs in. These are all valid reasons for pulling the plug on a marathon. If you decide to stop, but you’re already registered to run 26.2 miles, here’s what you need to know.

  • Most races don’t offer a refund if you cancel. That’s because there are a lot of costs associated with putting on a marathon, from police details to Port-a-Potty rentals to hosting a race expo.
  • Many races offer the chance to defer your entry to the following year. You’ll probably have to pay a fee, but it’s usually not the entire cost of a second entry. (Note: Major marathons such as Boston and New York don’t do this unless race organizers cancel the event.)
  • Some races that have both marathon and half marathon options offer the chance to drop down from 26.2 miles to 13.1 miles.
  • All races have a deadline for deferring or dropping, often a few weeks before race day. If this deadline is approaching but you’re still on the fence, err on the side of caution. You can always keep training and sign up next year.

How to train for a marathon: Taper Time

Once you stop the watch on your final long run, you enter the taper period of marathon training. This time —  the three weeks before race day — is when mileage decreases. The goal is to let your legs recover so they are fresh in time for the start of your marathon. 

You’ll be running less, but your training program will still have speed work and/or hill workouts, just with fewer intervals. Run these workouts hard; the goal in taper is high-quality reps.

Focus on the other key elements of training and racing as well.

  • Continue to cross-train, get plenty of sleep, and eat a healthy and balanced diet.
  • Make sure the shoes you plan to wear on race day are broken in, as this will help to prevent blisters, bloody toes, and other foot problems.
  • Finalize your fuel strategy. Remember that most products work best with water, so think about whether you want to rely on water stops or bring your own.
  • Study the course map (if you haven’t already) to know where to find water stops, confusing turns, big hills, and good spots for your personal cheering section.

How to train for a marathon

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How to train for a marathon: Preparing for Race Day

The week leading up to your marathon is an important time for ensuring that you have a successful race. This is especially true if you’re traveling.

Seven to three days before the race: Focus on rest and hydration. Plan the outfit you want to wear for the race, including any layers that you may discard at the starting line and any clothes that you want to put on as soon as you finish. If you’re traveling, pack your carry-on luggage with your race-day outfit and any fuel you plan to run with (in a Ziploc bag if necessary), and wear your race-day shoes.

Two days before race day. Start carbo loading at dinner. Between now and race day, don’t eat anything you haven’t had before — this will help prevent gastrointestinal distress. Likewise, don’t overeat; the goal isn’t to shove as much pasta down your throat as possible, but to shift your diet so that a greater percentage is made of carbohydrates.

Consider taking the afternoon off work, if possible, as a way to encourage rest. Plan an early bedtime, as this is the most important night of rest leading up to the race. 

One day before the race. Begin the day with an easy two-mile run and a high-carb breakfast with lean protein. Pick up your race packet and bib at the expo (if possible). Feel free to buy stuff at the expo, but don’t wear or eat anything that’s brand new. Drink water and electrolytes throughout the day, and have similar high-carb, lean protein meals. Make a plan for seeing your friends and family along the course and at the finish. Confirm transportation to the starting line, if necessary. Lay out your race-day outfit before you go to bed (including any bandages or Glide). If you’re too excited to sleep, don’t worry.Even steely veterans get pre-marathon jitters.

How to train for a marathon: Race Day

The day of the race. Set as many alarms as you need in order to wake up with plenty of time. Plan for a light breakfast about two hours before the race starts. If you’ll be waiting for a while at the start, bring layers to stay warm, as well as snacks and water. Put on sunscreen. Don’t be That Guy: Use the bathrooms, not the bushes, and toss your trash in the barrels. If the race is scheduled to take place on a cold day, many runners will wear an old set of sweatpants or clothes they can discard right before the race starts. Many races will have boxes set out where you can deposit those clothes to be donated.

How to train for a marathon

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After the race starts. Stick to your goal. Don’t go out too fast. (Trust me: You’ll regret it later.) In fact, you may even want to start out slower than what you think your normal pace should be. Take small sips of water instead of large gulps. Dump water on your head if you start to overheat. Say “Thank you” to volunteers. Walk if your muscles get tight, and pause if it gets worse. (You can run with a torn calf, but I wouldn’t recommend it.) Wave to the crowd. Don’t get upset if the weather changes - that’s beyond your control - and recognize that you will likely need to slow down if it suddenly becomes hot and sunny.

How to train for a marathon: Recovery and Next Steps

You did it! Celebrate with your favorite meal and beverage (but don’t forget about water and electrolytes). Expect to have sore quadriceps for at least a few hours — walking down stairs will be a challenge — and to fall asleep very early. 

Soreness should improve the next morning and disappear altogether within a couple days. Taking a few days off from running is a good idea, though walking will aid with recovery. Plus, if you traveled for your race, walking gives you a good reason to go sightseeing. If your legs are still sore when you start running again, take another day or two to rest - there’s no need to rush back.

Many runners who say “Never again!” in the hours after finishing a race — especially one that doesn’t go as planned — change their minds days later and decide that they do, in fact, want to run 26.2 miles again. Talk things over with your family, your coach, and friends with previous marathon experience before you make a decision, and make sure you give your body plenty of time to recover before you jump back into training.

Brian Eastwood

Brian Eastwood is a freelance writer for Tom’s Guide, focusing primarily on running watches and other wearable tech. Brian has been a professional writer and editor since 2003. He has covered healthcare tech, enterprise tech, higher education, and corporate leadership for a range of trade publications. Brian is a lifelong Massachusetts native and currently lives outside of Boston. Outside of work, he enjoys running, hiking, cross-country skiing, and curling up with a good history book.