Do not avoid a marathon because it seems too hard, long, or painful. With the right attitude and a good training plan, it is just 26.2 miles away.
All marathon finishers are winners. The goal for first timers should be to reach that finish line.
If you complete a marathon, you will have overcome a great athletic challenge. If you decide you like marathons, you can always do it again. You'll also likely do it faster because you will have more experience. So, focus on finishing as best you can. That will mean following a training program that gets your body ready without causing injury.
Ask 10 different coaches and you will get 10 different answers about the best way to train for your first marathon. However, most training programs have a few things in common. Most programs last 15 to 20 weeks. Your miles will increase slowly during that time. A few weeks before the race, you will start to lower your mileage. Most programs include a long run every week.
A sample program for first timers may include:
A Long Run
Your body is not used to running for hours at a time, so you need to get it ready. One program starts with a 4-mile long run in week 1, builds to a 20-mile long run in week 17. At this point, the longest runs in the next 2 weeks will taper to less than 12 miles. In the last week, there will be light runs of 2 miles or 20 minutes. Some programs advise not running more than 20 miles in a day until race day. If you train well, your body will be able to make up the last 6.2 miles because of your conditioning, adrenaline, and support from the crowd.
You do not need to run the full 26.2 miles in training, but you can do at least one run that is longer than 20 miles. You should know what it feels like to pass that 20-mile barrier. Do not go too far past 20, do not do it too often, and do not do it too close to the race. Most people do long runs on the weekends when they have more time to train and recover.
Two days a week, just go out and run. One of these runs should be about 5 miles (less right before the race). The other should happen the day after your long run. It should be about 4 miles.
You should try to add in speed work two days a week (not right before or after the long run). You can do this by running intervals on a track. You could also do tempo runs by changing your pace during the middle of an easy run, then picking up the pace to your 10 kilometer or 5 kilometer pace for a stretch of several minutes. You could also do fartlek runs by picking up the pace more, for shorter stretches. Do not do the same kind of speed work each time. Mix it up from day to day and week to week.
Consider entering 5K or 10K races to get tempo work and become familiar with the routine. This may keep you focused on your marathon goal. It is also a good way to meet other runners and get some tips.
Running takes a big toll on the body. Cross training helps you stay in shape and lower the risk of injury. Try biking, swimming, or low-impact machines at your gym. It may take different amounts of time to get the same benefit from these activities.
Take off at least 1 day per week. If you feel tired, take another day. This helps your muscles recover and leaves you feeling fresh for your next training session.
Most running injuries are overuse injuries. Rest is key to staying healthy during training. One day per week off and some cross training will help.
Another key is to build up slowly. Be very careful about your long runs. Do not run 8 miles one week then 16 the next. Increase your distance in small increments.
Most programs involve increasing long runs by no more than a few miles each week. There will not be an increase in mileage every week. Total weekly mileage never increases by more than 5 miles from one week to the next. You need to give your body time to adjust to the new distances it is running.
As with any sport, you also need to be careful to warm up first. Begin with a 5 to 10 minute cardiovascular warm-up, such as movement-based stretching. A fitness trainer can teach you how to stretch your muscles. You should also make sure you take time to cool down after your run.
Food and Water
You will need emotional and physical support to finish. It is great to have a training partner or group to run with, especially on long runs. You should also get used to running with physical support, such as water, sports drinks, and foods.
Because your body adapts to training, you do not want to do anything different on race day than you do during your training. So get used to taking in water and fluids with electrolytes, especially during your long training runs. On race day, make sure you drink early and drink often. You need to replace electrolytes to hydrate your cells and lower the risk of dehydration.
Your First Race
Not all marathons are the same. The first time you attempt one, you do not want to run 10 miles straight uphill along the course or battle sub-freezing temperatures. Choose a marathon that is mostly flat, friendly, and in mild weather for the season. It will not be easy, but you can help yourself by choosing a race that does not require running in a parka or climbing 10,000-foot peaks.
Community Running Association of Boston
Road Runners Club of America
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Beginner marathon training schedule. VeryWell website. Available at: https://www.verywellfit.com/beginner-marathon-training-schedule-2911396. Accessed October 14, 2021.
How to train for a marathon. REI website. Available at: https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/training-for-your-first-marathon.html. Accessed October 14, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 10/14/2021