If you’ve ever thought about running a marathon, you’re in good company. Recent statistics revealed that over a million people ran marathons across the world in 2018, with almost half a million of those runners hailing from the United States.
Marathons are a great way to complement your fitness, challenge yourself to complete a goal, raise funds for charities, or simply have fun with people who have similar interests. Some of the biggest marathons in the U.S. are the TCS New York City Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, and the Boston Marathon.
There are even themed events, such as the Color Run and the Mud Run, that offer a fun twist and attract thousands of participants annually (they’re also typically on the shorter side).
While they vary in difficulty, all marathons are 26.2 miles. Marathons that have different lengths go by different names, such as 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or ultramarathon. A standard-length marathon typically takes about four to 4.5 hours to complete.
Your fitness level, as well as the type of marathon you are training for, will dictate the length of your training period. There are also a number of other variables, which we will cover below.
Timeline for Marathon Training
The most important part of determining a marathon training timeline is being honest with yourself about your level of fitness. If you’re not sure, it’s best to give yourself a longer period of time to train. After all, no harm can come from training more gradually. On the other hand, trying to cram in too much training in a short amount of time can result in injuries.
As a general rule, most beginners should aim for around 20 weeks of training before their marathon. Moderate to advanced runners should set a goal for about 12 to 16 weeks of training. If you’re not a regular runner, you may want to budget an even longer time frame than 20 weeks of training.
In addition to scheduling days for running and strength training, you will want to schedule rest days, especially at the beginning of your training or if you’re new to running. These recovery days allow your muscles to heal and grow stronger, paving the way for successful future workouts.
This may seem like a long time frame – you may feel tempted to shorten it or skimp on rest days – but trying to find a shortcut will only end up costing you when it’s time to run the actual marathon.
Marathon Training for All Levels
No matter your fitness level, it’s important to remember that cross-training and strength training can vary your workouts and increase your run times and efficiency. While focusing on your legs and lower body seems natural when it comes to strength training, you shouldn’t neglect your core or upper body either. After all, your body is essentially a machine: The more efficiently each part works, the better it works as a whole.
If you have limited experience with running, you’ll want to start out slow. It’s important not to overdo it, as overexertion can limit your progress. If you need to intersperse walking with your running, especially in the beginning, there’s no shame in that! On days when you go on a longer run, it can also be helpful to walk or jog at a slower pace to ensure that you are able to go the entire distance.
You will want to have a schedule similar to this one for about 20 weeks:
Saturday: Run for increased miles
During the three continuous running days, you will want to run the same number of miles every day for the first two weeks. Then, you should run a little over 10% of what your marathon distance will be, so the distance you run will depend on the type of marathon you are training for. For example, if you are running a full marathon (26.2 miles), you should run about 3 miles as your lowest starting point.
Aim to add one mile to your distance every other week. Weeks one and two would be three miles, weeks three and four would be four miles, weeks five and six would be five miles, and so on.
You should aim to be able to run half of your marathon distance between weeks eight and 10 to ensure that you’re on schedule to complete the full marathon by the end of your 20-week training.
If you’ve already completed a marathon in the past, an intermediate-level training program is probably right for you. Aim to run at a slower pace on your longer-distance days so you can focus on completing your goal for that day. Even if you’ve completed a marathon, you can still take walking breaks, especially if you’re not accustomed to running every day anymore.
You will want to have a schedule similar to this for about 18 weeks:
Sunday: Run for increased miles
On Wednesday and Saturday in the example schedule, try to increase your baseline mileage by two: If you’re running three miles as a baseline, run five miles on Wednesday and Saturday. Increase those miles gradually from week to week. If you’re having an off day, it’s OK to go a shorter distance as long as you’re not dipping below your baseline.
Training for advanced runners will be similar to the intermediate schedule, but with added challenges on your running days, such as incorporating hill or tempo running once a week.
You will want to have a schedule similar to this for about 16 to 18 weeks:
Thursday: Run, plus a challenge
Sunday: Run for increased miles
Whether you’re an older runner or are just looking for a running schedule with less distance, you can use this schedule to work up to shorter marathons or as a general guide.
You will want to have a schedule similar to this:
Tuesday: Run (alternate weeks between moderate and easy)
Wednesday: Strength training and stretching
Thursday: Easy run
Friday: Strength training and stretching
Sunday: Easy run for increased miles
Equipment for Running a Marathon
The first step is to invest in quality long-distance running shoes. You will want to look for something that provides cushioning to reduce the impact on your joints, which will help prevent injury. The shoe should also be light so you aren’t carrying around any unnecessary weight.
The weather and terrain that you’ll be running in will determine the appropriate clothing. Generally speaking, however, dress as though it is 15 to 20 degrees hotter than what is forecasted to avoid overheating while you run. It also helps to dress in breathable, sweat-wicking materials.
Some runners enjoy using compression socks, and they’re worth trying out during your training to see if they’re right for you.
No matter what, don’t try anything new on the day of your marathon. Whatever you end up running in should already be broken in to avoid chafing or any other unpleasant surprises.
Fueling Your Marathon
Make sure that you are eating a well-balanced diet during your training. Giving your body the vitamins and nutrients it needs will help you stay energized during workouts and can promote faster recovery afterward.
Approximately three to four hours before your run, eat a high-carb, low-fiber meal. This will ensure that you have enough energy to burn during your run.
During the actual marathon, sports drinks, gels, and anything else that can hydrate you while providing a quick dose of energy without weighing you down are all helpful.
After your run, you should eat a mix of carbs and proteins within 30 to 60 minutes to help aid your body’s recovery.
In addition to eating well and staying hydrated during training, remember the reasons you are competing in the race you’ve chosen. Those reasons will help fuel your training on days when you feel like you’ve reached your limit and will see you across the finish line. Happy running!