How to Train for a Marathon: Your Essential Guide to Get You to the Finish Line

Running a marathon is no mean feat. For many people it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. For others, once they’ve got their first marathon under their belts, they get bitten by the bug and complete at least one or two every year. 

A marathon will test you over 26.2 miles. It will push you to the limit physically and mentally, which makes training absolutely fundamental to marathon success. In this article, we’re aiming to help runners of every level get ready for the run of a lifetime. 

Setting Goals and Creating a Training Plan

Before you start training, consider your goals for the marathon. How quickly do you want to do it? You need to set a realistic time based on your marathon experience and physical fitness. Then it’s all about creating a personalised training plan that works for you and your goals. Most people can train in 16-20 weeks but it’s up to you how long you give it. We would recommend a minimum of 16 weeks, however. 

You can base your training plan on how far you want to run each week or on building up to your desired marathon running pace. It’s up to you. The following will help you create your tailored marathon training plan. 

Building Cardiovascular Endurance 

Building cardiovascular endurance is fundamental for marathon training. So, what is it? 

Cardiovascular endurance or cardiorespiratory endurance is the ability of your heart, lungs and blood vessels to deliver oxygen to body tissues. As a result, this body function enables the production of energy through aerobic metabolism. Put simply, it improves oxygen uptake in the lungs and heart and can help you sustain physical activity for longer. 

With a marathon, you’re trying to maintain physical activity over 26 miles. To say that cardiovascular endurance is essential is an understatement. 

It’s important for your training to build up to longer distances and more runs. If you’re a complete beginner, you should work on the side of caution, giving yourself more time to build up to be marathon ready. 

Your weekly training goals 

You should gradually increase your weekly mileage to hit around 50 miles per week, and you should aim to do this across 3 to 5 runs each week. 

It’s all about mixing things up. You’ll want to throw some easy training runs in there to keep you motivated, so that it’s not too hard every time you go out. Alongside this, you should look to do one or two workout runs each week that include speed intervals – try and increase your speed intervals to longer distances with shorter rests as you get more confident. 

You should also do one big run every week. This long-distance run is crucial to your success as a marathon runner as it will train your body and mind to run for multiple hours at a time. Your long runs won’t cover the full marathon distance, but are your vital practice for race day. Again, it’s key to build up the distance and speed of your longer runs. 

Try to aim for a distance of 20 miles for your biggest long-distance run at around 4 weeks before your marathon date. This will get you prepared for race day. You’ll also want to do your long runs at about a minute to two minutes slower than marathon pace. 

Running Workouts for Marathon Training 

You can do specific running workouts to improve your endurance and stamina for marathon running. They include: 

  • Yasso 800s – named after Bart Yasso, this workout sees you running 10 x 800m repeats on a track in the same minutes/seconds as your hours/minutes goal time for a marathon. So, say your goal time is 4 hours 30 minutes, you’ll run each of your 800m repeats in 4 minutes 30 seconds. It’s a simple workout, but many marathon runners credit its success. 
  • Finke-based program – this is focused on easy paced running to build endurance without getting hurt. For this program, you should do most of your runs at 80% of the speed you could race the same distance in. If you race 10 miles at a 9:00 pace per mile (the speed you need to run a marathon in four hours), you should do your 10-mile training runs at 11:25. To convert a race pace to an 80% training pace, simply multiply the race pace by 1.25. 

Tapering your Marathon Training 

Tapering is the process of reducing the volume and intensity of exercise in the last few weeks before you run your marathon. Most runners taper from 21 days before the event with less running and more recovery time to keep their legs fresh for the big day. 

In the week before the marathon, make sure your longest run is 8-10 miles at most and bring your other training down to 30-60 minute walks or gentle runs. Try and avoid hills too. 

Developing Strength and Flexibility

You can improve your marathon potential by working in the gym before the race as well. Strength training can reduce your injury risk by correcting muscle imbalances and improving muscle activation. It can also increase the efficiency of your running by strengthening your muscles and joints. With the right strength training you can improve your potential marathon time. 

Flexibility on the other hand can help improve your range of motion and maximise your performance. 

Strength exercises include: 

  • Press ups 
  • Dips 
  • Step ups 
  • Walking lunges 
  • Squats 
  • Glute bridge 
  • Leg raises 
  • Single-leg deadlift 

Bringing some yoga into your marathon training regime is also ideal to boost your strength and flexibility. It’s a great way to stretch your muscles out the day after a long-distance run when your legs really don’t have the capacity for another road run. 

Just remember to make sure you’re doing everything with proper form and technique, as well as not pushing yourself too hard. You don’t want to do yourself an injury in the gym before the big day! 

Nutrition and Hydration 

During training and especially when you’re tapering, it’s key to monitor what you put into your body. Protein is essential to aid in the repair and recovery of muscle tissue damaged during your high-mileage training. Aim to have a minimum of 20g of protein with every meal – chicken, turkey and tuna are all great source of protein. If you don’t eat meat then opt for eggs, beans, dairy, pulses, lentils and soy products. Nuts are perfect for snacking on too. 

Also, try and load up on vitamin C to try and prevent a cold or flu right before the race. Orange juice, broccoli, strawberries and kiwis are all great. As are vitamin C supplements. 

Proper hydration also plays a crucial role in your training and performance. If you’re not properly hydrated, this can lead to dehydration resulting in dizziness, fatigue and poor running performance. You should aim to consume around 750ml of water every hour you’re running when training. For a short run, you can refuel on water when you get home. For long-distance runs, take some with you. Energy gels and energy chews are also useful for keeping your energy levels up on those longer runs. 

Race Day Preparation 

When the big day comes, you’ll want to be in peak physical and mental condition. And you don’t want anything to come in the way of your focus on the race. 

You need the right kit to build the foundation for a successful race. This includes long-distance running trainers that suit the terrain of your marathon – remember to break them in for at least four weeks before the race. You’ll also want moisture-wicking technical running shorts and a t-shirt with no seams or taped seams to reduce chafing. Compression gear – whether socks or shorts – can help aid your performance, whilst technical running socks keep your feet fresh and protected from blisters. 

You also need to keep calm. Make sure you understand the logistics of the day. Where do you need to be at what time? When do you start? Where can you leave your bag? You want to be clear on all of these things so you don’t have anything else playing on your mind. 

And when it comes to the race itself, remember your composure. Visualise that finishing line and remember your training. Don’t go too hard too soon and rush the first few miles. Even if people are running past you, stick to your pace and don’t be tempted to go all out early on. And if you’ve got something left in the tank for the final few miles, give it everything you’ve got! 

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to train for a marathon? 

This will of course depend on you and your personal goals, but most people will train for a marathon for around 16 to 20 weeks. 

What gear do I need for marathon training? 

You’ll need a decent pair of long-distance running shoes. It makes sense to buy two pairs – one for training and one for the day. Look for trainers that are comfortable and lightweight with plenty of cushioning, breathability and flexibility. You should also invest in some good technical running gear for your training as well as the race itself. 

How do I find and join a running club or group? 

Run Together has been developed by England Athletics and has local running clubs up and down the country. You can find one near you on their website. You can also find local groups and clubs on websites like the Good Run Guide and Runners World. 

Alternatively, you can look on Facebook for local running clubs in your area. 

Time to Start your Training? 

You’ve heard the saying ‘it’s a marathon, not a sprint’. Training takes time to build up your strength, speed and stamina to enable your body to go the distance over 26.2 miles. You need to create the right training plan, set your goals and work on your cardio and strength training. 

But you can do it! If you’re ready and raring to go on your marathon journey, check out our article on how to fundraise for a marathon.