The marathon is an iconic sporting event. For many it’s a right-of-passage, a once-in-a-lifetime goal that tests physical fitness and mental determination.
For non-runners, or those just starting out, 26.2 miles (or 42.2k) can seem an impossible distance. However, with the right training, nutrition and attitude the marathon is an achievable goal.
Thinking of running a marathon this year? We’ve put together a brief guide to the joy and the struggle of training for the big day. Below you will find answers to some of your most pressing questions, and suggestions on how to prepare for the run of your life.
Q. How long does it take to train for a marathon?
This is a big question – with several answers.
Training schedules vary depending on the runner’s experience and fitness levels. It’s important to remember that even experienced athletes need to train for a marathon – this is not your everyday run in the park!
Newbies to the sport should begin training 4-6 months before the marathon. This allows you to gradually increase your mileage and pace, aiming to avoid injury or ‘overtraining’ in the first weeks. More experience runners can aim to get race-ready in half that time.
There are some training plans that cram all your prep into 8 weeks. This might be good news for anyone with a place for London who hasn’t started their training yet – but bear in mind this generally applies to runners who are already knocking out half marathons comfortably, and want to make the leap to the full distance.
Generally speaking, the training time needed ranges from 12-24 weeks depending on your starting point.
Q. How often should I run?
If you are starting out having never run a 10k before then you don’t want to push yourself too hard too early. This will lead to burn you out both physically and motivationally – and carries the risk of injury.
Start out with an achievable goal of running 3x per week for three weeks, with days off in between. This is important as these ‘rest days’ give your body chance to recover, adapt and come back stronger.
These should be ‘easy’ runs, of around 30 minutes, building up to a 45 minutes to an hour by the end of week 4.
As you get into your stride (pun very much intended) you can add an additional day per week, and start piling on the distance.
Q. How far should I run?
There is no way to escape it - training for a marathon means running a lot of miles. In total, to run the 26.2 on the day you’ll run around 400 miles in training. Sounds tough right? It is, but it doesn’t have to be hell.
The secret to marathon success is to not make the race the entire point. If, along your training path, you can learn to enjoy running for its own sake then it will seriously help your training. Try not to see it as a grind. Go somewhere you’ve never been and take and exploratory run. Find a favourite podcast and binge the lot during your long weekend excursions. Treat yourself to a massive lunch after you’ve done your miles.
As mentioned above, it’s important to start with smaller, manageable goals. Let’s take a standard 16-week training plan.
This starts off with some fairly low mileage. In your first few weeks you’ll split less than the distance of the marathon over several runs. This gradually increases until you’re doing nearly double in weeks 10-14. Don’t think about the overall weekly or monthly aims, though. Just draft your schedule and focus on each run as it comes.
Most marathoners opt for their ‘long run’ on a weekend. You have more time and it’s lighter (especially when training through the winter for a spring marathon). This long run should be the real training focus of your week, and it should increase in distance consistently.
There are two schools of thought about the increase. Some people add a fixed one or two miles per week. An alternative is to increase by ten percent each week. This method keeps the development low in the early weeks but offers bigger leaps as your training peaks.
The main thing is to have a plan and stick to it. That said, don’t worry if life intervenes. Missing a training run won’t mean failure on race day. Don’t give in to demotivation, but do listen if your body is shouting OUCH!.
Q. How fast should I run?
In many ways this is the least important question of all. The old cliché “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” is a cliché for a reason – it’s true.
If this is your first ever marathon then take your focus off speed. Your aim is to complete the distance and to eke as much enjoyment out of the day as possible. Getting over the finish line is an incredible achievement regardless of how long it takes you.
The average marathon time is 4 hours and 37 minutes. For some perspective, that means maintaining an average speed of 10.5 minutes per mile. For many the 4-hour mark is the key threshold. To run a sub 4 hour-er you would need to cover each mile in 9 minutes and 9 seconds. There are plenty of pace calculators online if you want to work out finishing times.
In training, try to balance long leisurely runs with some speed work. ‘Speed’ is entirely relative to the individual’s abilities, but we’re talking about running to about 75% of your max. The trick is to slowly combine speed and distance until you are comfortable taking on your longer runs at a faster pace.
Q. How should I prepare for the day?
3 weeks before
Taper! This means reducing mileage in the final weeks of your training. As the plan above shows, you should still be getting out there with some short intensity training, but take your weekend distance down to around half, and at a slower pace. You’re looking to protect your body from stress and the top level of exertion.
Your last long run should be about 3 weeks before race day.
1 week before
This week is about three main things: nutrition, hydration and relaxation.
Make sure you eat well. Avoid junk food, especially sugary or oily food. Around 70% of your calorie intake should be carbohydrates, but we mean the good kind – whole grain if possible. Also get your protein in – beans, nuts, legumes are all great.
Drink. Lots. Of. Water. You are going to sweat a lot on race day and you want to be at the start line with optimum hydration. Check your urine throughout the week. If it’s anything darker than a pale yellow colour then prescribe yourself a glass of water.
Get a good amount of rest. You’ve spent the last few months putting your body through all sorts of unexpected strife. Now is the time to grab some early nights to let your body replenish itself.
The night before
This is crunch time. By now you’ll be feeling the nerves so keep it simple.
Eat a pre-planned meal that’s high in carbohydrates and low in fat. Your body will be able to digest this kind of food in time for the race and you’ll be pre-loaded with energy.
Try not to eat too late, and avoid low-fibre foods to make sure your stomach is in a good place come the morning.
Get everything you need ready for the morning. Do your kit check; pack your energy gels (or whatever in-race nutrition you have planned) and make sure you have safety pins ready for your race number!
Get to bed at a decent hour, but don’t worry if nerves keep you awake.
On the day.
There isn’t much to say now. Make sure you have been to the loo in plenty of time – a cup of coffee helps with this.
Eat a familiar breakfast. The number one rule on race day is to do nothing new. You’re about to hit your body with the unexpected, so keep everything else as expected as possible.
This applies to energy supplements. If you’ve been training with a certain kind of gel or energy bar, then take one 15-30 minutes before the starting gun.
Lastly, get there early so you have time to settle your nerves. Get to the start line and say hello to someone around you. We guarantee they are as nervous as you.
You’ve done a lot to get here. This is your race now. We could say you’re on your own now, but you’re not. You’re surrounded by thousands of other people heading into the same challenge. You’re all in it together. Go smash it!