For most people, running for yards, let alone miles, is a dreaded activity. Maybe you were among them too, but after experiencing the runner’s high a few times, you got hooked, and now you want to learn how to train for a marathon and put yourself to the ultimate running test.
After all, marathons are a personal challenge; testing your limits, both mentally and physically, is an essential part of this (rather extreme) way to become healthier.
No matter your reasons, preparing for such a run is no joke. Luckily, this guide will help you get ready for the event.
Preparing from Scratch
If you’re an absolute beginner, you won’t do well on your first run without proper preparation. To get started, we’ll discuss the most popular race lengths and look into training methods that might come in handy months before the big event.
Distances and Time
As hinted above, preparing for a marathon will take time, and sometimes it makes sense to start off easier and look into all the race options you have before opting for the ultimate challenge.
The 3.1-mile (5 km) Race
This is the go-to option for entry-level runners that’s short enough to prepare for within only a month or two. By marathoners’ standards, this is a relatively fast-paced race, with most runners finishing it under 25 minutes, while walkers complete it after 45 to 60 minutes.
The 6.2-mile (10 km) Race
While it doesn’t qualify as marathon running just yet, this race will require some running experience or significantly longer preparation. While getting ready for this race is harder than the first one, it’s not that difficult if you’re dedicated.
Completing this distance will take you around 60 to 70 minutes, or a bit longer if you’re just a casual jogger testing their limits on a longer run.
The Half Marathon (13.1 miles or 21 km)
Experts usually state that training for a half marathon shouldn’t take newbies more than three or four months but can take as long as 16 weeks, depending on your experience and overall performance on the track.
Generally speaking, professional runners will conquer this distance in a little over an hour, while slower runners will usually take around three hours to complete it.
Full Marathon (26.2 miles or 42km)
This is the “real deal.” Experts say a solid marathon training plan will stretch across 16 to 20 weeks for most runners. However, it can take longer than that, with some beginners taking over 24 weeks to prepare.
It might take you even longer than that! Some people prepare for an entire year by setting up a long-term training schedule.
Running an entire marathon might take as little as two hours for elite athletes, but for most runners, it will take around six hours (or more) to complete the distance.
How to Train for a Marathon
First things first: Before preparing for your run, it’s essential that you consult with your healthcare provider, and only after they deem you fit enough should you start your training plan.
You should know that exercise alone isn’t enough to perform your best on race day. Maintaining a proper diet throughout your regimen is just as important, as you’ll want to fuel your body with the right nutrients.
Look at any solid “beginner” marathon training plan, and you’ll see that they can be pretty demanding. Most of them aim to get you started at least six months before the actual race.
You can train just to get healthier and burn fat. About 40% of young US adults between 20 and 39 years old are obese, so running is one of the ways to address this issue.
Some plans recommend running around 12 to 15 miles a week. Starting in time is crucial, as your body needs time to adapt to the stress it’ll have to endure during the long race.
Ideally, you should aim to:
- Run at least three times a week.
- Your training schedule for a marathon should consist of short/fast runs, a medium run, and a long run on a weekly basis.
- Implement two cross-training days with hiking, swimming, or biking.
- Incorporate two rest days.
- Train on the days you prefer, but make sure to take a day off before and after your long run.
You’ll aim to build up your running distances gradually with both short, medium, and long runs, with the long runs maxing out between 16 and 20 miles. Some experts also advise incorporating other non-impact exercises (e.g., yoga) to balance out all the cardio.
Lastly, the best marathon training plan will also include a period before the race, where you will “taper” your regime a bit, meaning you will reduce the amount of running to get quality rest and perform better on race day.
Specialized plans that take a full year of preparation take a more subtle and gradual approach, dissecting the entire training process into four different phases:
- Acclimatizing Phase: If you’re a total beginner, aim for 20 to 30 minute walks at a faster pace at least twice to three times a week. Slowly, start jogging for one or two minutes, then walk for two minutes during each session. Increase the intervals gradually to increase your endurance. This beginner marathon training plan should enable you to jog for 30 to 40 minutes straight at slower paces.
- Building-up Phase: Gradually build your mileage with three to four jogs a week, alternating between easy and more demanding runs in terms of mileage. For example, your longest run should be around ten minutes longer than your previous longest run. Aim to do this for two to three weeks, then take a recovery week and run less to consolidate your endurance gains and recuperate for your next training block.
- Preparation Phase: Running a marathon is all about building up the necessary speed, endurance, and mental focus. This phase focuses precisely on that with the same methods as the previous phase. It also includes a recovery week after two to three weeks of faster, harder, and longer workouts.
- Special Preparation Phase: This phase is also about continually increasing your weekly distance total. In most cases, you will see that training regimens will have day-by-day training and rest plans, with the main focus being on increasing speed during particular sessions.
As stated already, preparation for a marathon isn’t just about exercise. Proper nutrition also plays a crucial role in performing your best, and most experts advise starting to follow a more focused diet plan at least ten weeks before your race.
Without being utterly specific, here are some basic dietary guidelines to get you started:
- Focus on carbohydrates: As they are your body’s primary fuel source, carbs should make up around 60-70% of the total calories you consume during the day. Try to focus on more complex, slower-digesting carbs for better energy use and rely less on simple sugars. Complex carbs include oatmeal, vegetables, brown rice, whole-grain bread, cereal, and some types of pasta.
- Fats and proteins: A good marathon–prep diet will usually aim to balance out these other two main macronutrients as well. Experts suggest that you should aim to make proteins around 15% of your daily nutrient intake, as they are essential for muscle growth and recovery. You can also opt for whey protein drinks, as they are complete, high-quality protein sources. Around 30% of your calories should come from healthy fats, e.g., avocados, seeds, nuts, and fish.
- Hydration: Focus on water as your primary hydration source and drink around six to eight glasses of water each day. On the other hand, also consider consuming sports drinks to replenish your electrolytes when running longer distances.
Training for a Marathon: The Mental Aspect
As mentioned, preparing for a race isn’t just rigorous training and a healthy diet. To perform at your best, you also need to be ready to face the distance in your mind.
As a matter of fact, a UK study has revealed that mental toughness can be essential in giving you the necessary competitive edge in any kind of sport. Here are a few tips that can help your “head in the game,” as it were:
- Practice mindfulness when training for your first marathon to prepare yourself mentally.
- Run with friends if you can, as it’s more motivating and fun.
- Talk to more experienced marathon runners and ask about their “rituals” for mental preparation.
- Don’t shy away from rewarding yourself every once in a while for the hard work that you do. Indulging in a massage a few times or getting new running gear can do the trick.
- Remind yourself why you wanted to do this in the first place.
Now that we answered: “How long does it take to run a marathon?” and explained how to prep for enduring that stretch of time and effort, it’s time to discuss running gear.
First off, let’s get started with materials. It might seem a bit far-fetched, but wearing suitable fabrics is more important than you might think to finish a race. Here are some of your best options:
- Nylon: Nylon materials prevent your clothes from getting stuck or clinging to your body.
- Lycra and Spandex: Stretchy like nylon, but more comfortable, both materials ventilate nicely so you won’t get sticky while running.
- Wool: As you will be increasing your marathon training weekly mileage even during the colder months, opt for wool as it keeps you insulated and warm.
- Polyester or microfiber: Helps with evaporating sweat, making it great for running on hot days. They also help limit chafing.
Generally speaking, brief bottoms are one of your go-to options, as they prevent rashes and chafing during the race. In hotter months, you can go with shorter shorts but still look for options to protect your skin from chafing and burning.
Lastly, always try out your shorts on a quick run before going on a race in them. The liner and the seams of some shorts can cause irritation during running, and you’d want to avoid that.
If you establish that your full- or half–marathon training plan will stretch into the cold winter months, you should consider your best options regarding pants. For starters, you can look into:
- Leggings with shorts on top.
- Compression shorts with running socks.
Running Tops and Jackets
As mentioned in the fabrics section, your best bet would be active fit types from Spandex, nylon, and wool for the winter.
Look into options with loose textures, so you don’t have to pull your shirt down the whole time. When it gets cold, wear several layers. Consider getting a small and compact running jacket you can take off and easily pack away.
Undoubtedly, properly preparing for a marathon should start with getting the right running shoes. They can help prevent ankle sprains and shin splints, making the entire race that much more comfortable to run.
- Tread shoes
- Lightweight vs. cushioned options
- Reflective surfaces
Experts argue that your foot arch can also determine the type of shoe you will end up buying, along with your running routine. If you’re somebody whose weekly mileage for marathon running is constantly increasing, you might need a pair of cushioned running shoes instead of something lightweight. The heftier shoes simply give your ankles and heels more protection.
These are also highly advised, as they can help ease foot fatigue, support your arches, and even increase your running cadence. Apart from that, insoles can provide relief if you’re still healing from an injury.
As you can see now, the best way to train for a marathon also means assessing every part of your gear as well — socks included. First and foremost, avoid cotton. You’ve heard that right. Cotton options absorb moisture, can become abrasive, and might give you blisters. Look for acrylic and polyester materials instead. Opt for dual-layered socks if you can — as the two layers rub against each other, you won’t experience chafing.
- Earbuds: Let’s be honest here; preparing for a marathon or running one isn’t the same without music. And on that front, wireless solutions are much better than traditional earbuds for avoiding tangled wires that will only slow you down.
- Running Belt: If you go with pocketless shorts, a solid running belt will hold your first aid kit and accessories. Make sure to get one that fits snugly.
How to Prepare for a Marathon — Final Prep Advice
Before we wrap things up, here are a few handy tips for preparing during your last week, days, and night before your first marathon. We will also impart some solid race-day tips to help you bring your best form!
- Try to calibrate your last long run to take place around three weeks before your race. This will give you enough time to recuperate from training-induced muscle damage. Forcing yourself to keep running so close to the race can potentially lead to more serious injuries.
- Reduce your marathon–training weekly mileage by 25% and then 50% two weeks before the race. Cut the mileage further down the week before the marathon.
- Work on your sleep in the weeks before, as quality downtime can aid the muscle recovery process significantly and will help heal any injuries as well.
The Day Before
Properly preparing for a marathon on the day prior to the race should start with laying out the clothes you will wear. Go with something broken-in, as you don’t want to deal with chafing for miles during the race.
The same goes for wearing new shoes. Go with the pair you’ve already managed to get a decent number of miles in, but not a pair you’ve practically demolished.
Also, make sure to pack the following things:
- Extra socks
- Extra shoelaces
- Lubricant in case of chafing
- Dry shirt
- Blister care products
- Safety pins
If you get a beginner marathon training plan from a professional, chances are you’ll get a few pointers on pre-race nutrition as well. While some people can pull off a marathon on literally any kind of sustenance, those who have more sensitive stomachs should be more careful of what they’re eating pre-race.
Generally, there’s nothing wrong with eating the usual meals you would for a long run. Those should be carb-rich foods with just enough water to keep you well-hydrated.
However, stay away from caffeine and alcohol, and avoid gassy, high-fiber options, especially if they’re greasy and spicy. Also, avoid overeating.
The Night Before
Even though a marathon training plan won’t be able to teach you to sleep properly, it’ll surely have a few solid pointers on how to get more rest.
Although one of the benefits of physical activity is improved sleep, pre-race nervousness might impair your rest schedule a bit. Unfortunately, getting enough sleep pre-race night is crucial for optimal performance and energy levels, so try not to let nerves impact your rest too much.
Here’s what you can try:
- Try to get in extra sleep the nights before as you might not be able to sleep normally on the pre-race night.
- Aim to go to bed early the night before the race.
- Practice relaxing techniques and calming routines in the weeks leading up to the race to be able to deal with anxiety the night before.
- The real marathon prep is over, so don’t stress about getting subpar sleep the night before the race. If you’ve given yourself time to rest during the three weeks leading up to the event, you will be fine.
On Race Day
Get up early and arrive on time to avoid rushing and getting nervous.
- Eat something carb-based but not too heavy, and drink plenty of water.
- Make sure to wear the right gear and have something with you to ease potential chafing and blisters.
- Bring sunblock.
- Don’t forget to pin on your number.
- Make sure to get in some extra rest if you have time on the starting line.
- Do some easy stretching.
- Make sure you’ve got the right running schedule, as marathon races might start at different times.
- When on the starting line, make sure you have everything you need.
- Don’t worry about starting slowly. A slower start will enable you to warm up normally.
- Stay focused and enjoy the ride.
As you can see, there are quite a few approaches to marathon training. Different plans cater to various fitness levels and goals. Make sure to choose the one you can stick to realistically, as being overly ambitious will probably end in not running at all.
We hope that you’ve learned not only how to train for a marathon but also about the importance of proper nutrition, hydration, mental preparation, and even wearing the right clothes. Now, all you have to do is blast your favorite tunes and start running!