How to Train for a Marathon

Whether this is your first marathon or training plans for marathon – we look at everything you might want or need to get the very best from your long run.

I’ve always dreamed of training to run a marathon.

Those 26.2 miles seem daunting and exciting to me simultaneously. 

In a lot of ways, it’s the ultimate challenge from my perspective.

As the story goes, an ancient Greek messenger ran from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 26 miles to announce an important war victory. Upon entering the city and making the announcement, the messenger collapsed then died from the distance.

Ultimately — I’d love to race in Athens and get back to the roots of it all!

Training for a marathon and running it is a physical fitness and mental feat that I am compelled to prove myself for.

To be transparent, I am not really a runner.

It’s out of my natural gifts wheelhouse. 

I am shorter and heavier than you would typically envision runners to be — 5’2” and 142 pounds to be exact. 

My History with Running

For the longest time, I held a personal narrative that I couldn’t run and I wasn’t an athlete. 

Odd because I grew up in ballet.

Not so odd because I was encouraged NOT to do sports — I guess it created the narrative that I wasn’t already doing one. 

Nonetheless, I didn’t run because it would have “messed with my body’s aptitude for ballet technique and flexibility.” There’s probably a whole article there in the myth of THAT… but that is not THIS article. 

For me, the purpose of running a marathon is challenging myself beyond my current limits (physical and mental) and proving that I can accomplish hard things! I can run and overcome things that I think are extreme and my own fears. 

My Running So Far

Most recently, I am celebrating finishing my third half marathon and looking to start my first marathon training for a race some time next year (barring COVID-19 regulations, yikes!). 

You might be wondering how to train for a marathon.

While I do run regularly, I like to give myself at least a few months to really build physical and mental endurance to take on the long run.

To train for a marathon, even a half, takes: 

  1. Time and energy for training runs,
  2. Next level focus on nutrition for running, and
  3. Preparation of gear like running shoes, race snacks (I like gummy fruit snacks for quick energy), and a good sports bra. 

NOTE

Runners, if you’re into training for a first marathon, make sure that you give yourself time to plan and get ready.
Starting next week, I will run off into my training plan for my first marathon.

Come along on the journey with me to see what the weeks and miles leading up to the run will be.
Here’s a sneak peek into my training for a marathon.

My training program, as most programs make sure, has long runs, short(er) runs, cross training, rest, nutrition, and more built in.
You know what they say, it’s gonna be a marathon and not a sprint. But I can’t wait to get to the start line! 

Training Plan for a Marathon

As far as training plans for a marathon go, there really is no “best” plan — no “one way” to do things

 It’s all about what is best for you and your running experience and goals. 

Marathon training programs will vary based on different runners’ strengths, weaknesses, training time available, and more.
Runners might want to work with a coach, if you are competitive or even just wanting to make it a lifestyle. 

Training Coach

Myself, I work with a training coach and nutritionist because I am mitigating keeping muscle on for competing in bikini bodybuilding.

Also, like I mentioned, I am not an innate runner.

I like to have a coach for tips on running, diet for running long distance, questions that arise about muscles, and coaching to prepare for race day and on that day. 

While I don’t anticipate being a competitive marathoner, I do want to be my best. 

TIP

If this is your first marathon or a half, it is worth doing some research into training plans available, different training program styles, coaches, for running and/ or nutrition, and even some wearable technology like a Garmin watch to support your training and runs. 

Start Small

If you’ve not run much before, it’s good to start smaller — try a 5k run and start to increase your long runs from there.

Even as you start prep for a marathon, you may want to tap into some shorter races to gauge where you are at and practice your pacing. 

Pacing is basically keeping the same cadence over the whole length of the run.

Most races have pacers spread out through the course and they run with the competitors. 

Find Your Pace

However, you will want to know if a 12 minutes mile is your pace or if you are more elite and can keep up with the 6 minutes milers. 

You’ll find that in shorter races you may be able to push your pace faster. On long runs, you might want to start at a slower pace and pick it up as the run goes on.

Based on this data that you collect for yourself, you can determine how fast you should run over the course of the miles and to cross the finish line with a time you are proud of.
An average marathon time is 4 to 5 hours long, which means each mile is completed in an average of 9 to 11 minutes. 

Goal

I know that for me… I will be at the high end of that. 

That’s okay because my goals are really just completion.

I have no need to qualify for the Boston Marathon (yes, you have to do WELL in order to do that marathon). 

I want it though and If it happened, I wouldn’t be mad – It’s not my top goal though. 

Regardless of the final race length, speed, and time, you’ll have to run a mile, 3 miles, 10 miles, 20 miles, through training.
Might as well test yourself, pace, and training as you go! 

Weekly Mileage

Unlike bodybuilding, my primary sport of choice at this point in my life… training for a marathon is less “task” oriented. 

In bodybuilding, we make sure we get a number of fat-burning cardio sessions in, specific to each individual’s needs, and train each body part one to two times a week.

It’s a checklist. You do the things. You see the muscle growth. You see yourself get leaner.

Marathon Training

Woman Running while Listening To Music
Woman Running while Listening To Music

With marathon training, the biggest mental switch was understanding the strategy of weekly mileage.

Completing a marathon isn’t an aesthetic goal, it’s a performative one. You HAVE to be physically capable of running that far. 

In order to build up strength, stamina, and endurance for a marathon, training requires you to slowly rack up mileage and time pounding pavement (or trails, depending where you live and what your race is like) over the course of the weeks. 

Starting to Run 

When I started running, like at all, I focused on running a mile a day for a total of 6 miles a week.

I took one day off to rest.

That worked well for me because I was already in a routine with workouts and cardio.

If you’re just getting your running journey going, you may notice that your startup cadence is not that frequent.

You might choose to run one day and take two days off. 

Track Your Progress

It’s good to take note of how your body is feeling as you train and note how you are improving each run and week to week.

A training journal to track your progress is super helpful for this! 

As you log, you will want to set new goals and re-evaluate.

Your training and alertness to your body will make marathon training so unique for you if you can stay self-aware and challenge yourself as you go. 

Additional Training

Leg Press
Leg Press

I also did my usual weight lifting routines which really serve as cross training.

Power from the muscles will help increase speed in running and also support the joints and strength through the run. 

This is basically the gist of cross training for my marathon training plan.

First, start with shorter training runs and make my way up to more mileage to push my progress.

You’ll need to include some strength and stretching to really optimize your running. 

The paired down components you will want to do over the weeks leading up to the main long run (marathon day!) are:

  • Weekly mileage.
  • Cross train for power, strength, and overall health. 
  • Rest to recover and prepare for a new week of mileage. Likely, a new week with more mileage. 

Couch To 5k

On this plan, I was able to go from couch to 5k in about 6 weeks.

Most people would recommend taking about 8 weeks if you are truly starting from scratch with your fitness and running. 

I wasn’t exactly going from the couch totally because I was working out prior and doing other cardio.

But if you are — there is no shame in that and there are training programs online that can help you go from couch to 5k!
My half-marathon training programs were just like this too. 

RECOMMENDATION

For the first half-marathon, it’s recommended to start building mileage over about 20 weeks or 5 months.

This recommendation is for most new long distance runners or those who have taken a substantial amount of time off running long distance. 

Obviously, and for good reasons — like muscle fatigue and injury — it’s not recommended to jump into running with a marathon (or longer yet, an ultramarathon). 

Weekly Training Plans 

Since you likely won’t be starting from the couch for marathon training, the average, a full marathon training program takes about 16 to 20 weeks depending on how seasoned a runner you are and your goals for the race. 

Goals might range from completing it, running a personal record, or qualifying for a more prestigious race like the Boston Marathon. 

That said, training plans typically scale the weekly mileage up to 50 miles per week.

That’s correct y’all two times the mileage of the actual marathon per week. 

Training Runs

Running on a Park
Running on a Park

Never fear! The training runs are broken up.

Most training plans suggest running 3 to 5 times each week with a long run every 7 to 10 days.

Long runs also build over time, with the longest being about 20 miles at a time, at least 10 days out from the race. 

It is worth following a training plan that plots your mileage for the week because training plans take recovery into consideration. 

Often, the long runs won’t simply increase weekly for the whole training period up to that 20 mile run.

Recovery

The lengths bop around so that the body can recover and get used to a variety of distances and times out running. 

You might be wondering why the longest run you will try is still short on mileage.

Where do the last 6 miles come from? 

With proper training, nutrition, and rest pre-race, your strength, endurance, and mental fortitude will be chomping at the bit and finely tuned for race day. 

Training programs also integrate speed drills, cross training, and rest days. 

Speed Work

Speed work drills help train your muscles to move with quicker fire patterns.

In health class a long time ago, you may recall your gym teacher speaking about fast twitch and slow twitch muscles. 

If not, here’s a quick recap:
Fast twitch muscle fiber is what helps sprinters — what do you know — move quicker. 

Slow twitch muscle fiber is what helps cross country runners or endurance athletes sustain for the distance. 

It is likely that you have a genetic disposition for one or the other.

Mine is definitely fast twitch — yet another reason running a marathon is out of my wheelhouse 

Just Do Your Best

But no matter what, it’s worth it to train your body in both and just do your best. It will condition you to do the best you can do in the marathon. 

Speed work might look like actual short sprint workouts.

It might also be a tempo run — a shorter distance run at a pace that challenges you. 

In my opinion, doing these types of workouts is more fun with a friend or a group. 

TIP

Check into running clubs in your area! They are bound to have a couple runs you could join each week. 

Cross Training

Person Wearing Pink Running Shoes at a Gym
Person Wearing Pink Running Shoes at a Gym

On non-run days, it’s worth it to incorporate some cross training as part of a training plan for marathon. 

I will say here that it’s important to know your body and/or work with your coach to know what a cross training routine should look like for you.

When I train for running, my coach knocks my weight lifting training down quite a bit so that I don’t slaughter my legs every day. 

It’s good to feel fresh and strong for the running training — since that’s the primary function required for marathons after all. 

My Lower Body Workout

Some weight training can be good for building power and strength.

I tend to have just one day of lower body training instead of my usual two days.

The lower body strength training decreases during marathon training to give my legs a little rest and have them strong enough to check off my runs for the week.

See article about weight lifting for women for more on my usual lifting schedule.

My Upper Body Workout

 I do keep my upper body workouts basically the same – heavier weights, 2 to 3 days a week — to stay powerful and strong with my arms. I notice that my arms help propel me while running. 

The act of running doesn’t really require a lot of work from your arms, so to keep my arm strength, I keep lifting weight for my shoulder, biceps, triceps, back, and chest. 

While my time under tension for leg day decreases, my upper body training consistency and intensity remains the same throughout my marathon training.

Stretch It Out

Taking a Break From Exercise
Taking a Break From Exercise

Recovery is also an essential piece of training.

You will want to make time for rest and stretching because, without proper recovery, your risk of injury increases as does muscle fatigue and training burnout. 

To be real, running is really hard.

Giving your body time to rest and heal is required.

There are a few ways to spend time giving back to your body that carries you through your workouts and life. 

Stretching is the first one.

Cross Training Options

Another cross training activity could look like yoga, foam rolling, or any other variety of active recovery.

Mostly, we are going for lengthening the muscles and softening them for ultimate range of motion, blood flow, and suppleness. 

If you are more apt to do guided stretching practices, finding a yoga studio or an online video could be a good option! 

Try a Going to a Class

Attending a class in person is another good way to up your accountability for stretching and expand your community with like minded individuals. 

Being in person works best for me because it keeps me committed and accountable. Stretching is often the first thing to go when I am running short on time and that’s how I justify skipping that piece of my workout. 

Another thing I tend to skimp on is sleep.

But that is a horrible habit to keep (for more than just running and training too)!! 

Sleep

Sleeping is vital to our functioning and it is the time that our bodies actually regenerate. Literally, sleep IS rest and repair mode. 

While we sleep, our bodies are able to tend to the excess inflammation, any weaknesses in the immune system, heal broken muscle fibers and/ or injuries, repair skin and more. 

Sleep is actually a miracle drug! 

My best recommendation is use your time wisely during the day, set a bedtime and stick to it.

Use your phone to set bedtime reminders or a “sleep schedule” (iPhones are actually amazing and implementing a LOT with Apple Health #notanad).

(It’s possible that Android does this too… but I’m sold out to Apple. It’s an iEnvironment really.) 

Set a Sleep Schedule

Bed with White Metal Frame
Bed with White Metal Frame

Anyhow, set your sleep schedule and determine the amount of sleep that is good for you.

The recommended sleep for the average person is 7 to 9 hours.

Tune into your body and be honest about how much you need.
I used to think I could run well on 6 hours a night.

If I’m honest though, my training suffered — as did my work activities, social life, and ability to #adult (do chores and other responsibilities). 

I am an 8 to 10 hours of sleep person.

I tend to sleep 8 hours on weekdays and 9 to 10 hours on weekends, when I have a more flexible schedule. 

Getting Enough Sleep

You will definitely notice a difference in your performance on your runs as well as in your life tasks and events. 

The energy is unparalleled.

Moods are more regulated.

The body feels ready to get back at it! 

Do not underestimate the power of rest and recovery. 

Stretch and sleep (the S’s of running… it’s a thing, I just made it.) 

Fuel for Your Running

Another aspect to tune into is your nutrition.

It is literally energy so that you don’t just burn through your own body fat and muscle to run.
Good nutrition supports your basic functioning (like breathing, walking, etc.) as well as your athletic performance.

Keep it top notch. 

Like a vehicle runs on gas, you need to fuel well with the foods you put in your body.

Nutrition can make you into a high performing sports car.

Alternatively, it can land you in the shop for repairs for days. 

Nutrition

Protein and carbohydrates are essential for recovery. They replace the glycogen stores in your body for recovery. 

Basically, all your body functions take energy — including and most importantly, repair. Plus, all your activities (even the most basic) take energy. 

In order to keep training and going on, you need to fuel well with your food. 

Food is Fuel

I find it’s helpful to consult my coach on this one.

He is able to give me a good idea for meals in a day of training. 

We talk a lot about macronutrients — proteins, carbohydrates, and fats — as well as whole food sources.

Pretty standardly, my protein consumption is at 1 gram per 1 pound of body weight.

I’m right around 130 pounds in my offseason from bodybuilding, so I eat about 130 grams of protein each day. 

That doesn’t feel like a particularly large, daily allotment of protein to me.

Maintaining Protein Intake

Steak
Steak

However, if you’re not used to eating that much protein it may feel that way at the start. 

In order to reach 130 grams of protein per day, I usually eat five small meals with 30 grams of protein per meal. A few good ways to get 30 grams in each meal are: 

  • mix a protein shake with 30 grams in (whey, egg, vegan blend, etc.), 
  • make 6 egg whites, or
  • grill up 4 to 6 ounces of meat (fish, beef, chicken, turkey, etc.). 

Since I run for distance in my off season from bodybuilding, my carbohydrate and fat content is higher and therefore, my calorie content is higher too. 

Unlike bodybuilding, I’m not trying to get leaner to be competitive.

I’m going for more performance. 

Adjusting Diet Depending on Training

When my carbs and fats would be about 110 grams of carbs and 40 grams of fat to diet down for bodybuilding.

They are much higher to fuel for endurance and optimal recovery for future training. 

On longer run days, my carbohydrates go up and my fats stay the same.
Generally, I eat about 30% protein to maintain muscle mass, 40% carbs to energize and repair, and 30% fats for slow burning energy and brain function. 

Day to day, my calories are right around 2200. 

When I’ve started training for half marathons, it always feels like a lot of food. 

As I keep going, it sometimes doesn’t seem like enough. 

Listen To Your Body

In these moments, it’s super important to listen to your body.

Again, unlike bodybuilding, a few extra carbs won’t kill your progress. In fact, you’ll need more and it will help your progress a lot! 

Be knowledgeable about your training schedule.

Fuel up for that run or workout in a way that supports the training and FEELS good to you while you train. 

Everyone is unique. Some people can run on a lot of food… others need to fuel more frequently and often through the day with lighter meals and snacks. 

This might take some trial and error.

Part of this process is learning more about YOU. 

Prepare for Race Day 

Attaching Race Number
Attaching Race Number

Similarly, your preparation for race day is all about what works best for YOU. 

There are quite a few things you’ll need to consider — snacks, water, shoes, and other gear you might want to be comfortable from start to finish, over the more than 20 miles. 

While running seems like the simplest sport to get involved in — basically, walk out of your house and take off — there is (or can be) more to it. 

Since we were just discussing nutrition, let’s talk about race day nutrition. 

Hydrate Yo’ Self

Before the race, you will have wanted to make sure your hydration is consistent or up. This shouldn’t be too big of a deal since you made it all the way through the training.

Because you are working out, going for long runs, and dealing with warmer temperatures depending on where you live, you will want to drink somewhere between a gallon to two gallons daily. 

Supplements

Supplementing with electrolytes, like those found in Gatorade, coconut water, or even pill-form supplements, is another tool to use to ensure water transports well into your body, muscles, and cells.
Staying hydrated means keeping the muscles and joints lubricated and any unnecessary inflammation flushed out.

It also means less risk of injury on your run. 

Snacky Snacks

Every runner has their own preferences about race day nutrition. 

Definitely, carb up going into the race.

Spend a day or two carb loading so as to front load energy to use while you run the race — it’s a long one! 

During the race, carbs and fats are most important.

In the weeks leading up to your run, deciding what food sources to use on race day can be determined during training and trial runs, like a practice half (I will go into this in the next section). 

Types Of Snacks

You will see that some runners really enjoy energy gels or “Gu.”

Others prefer more common foods like bananas, honey toast, bacon (an ultramarathoner fave), or candies (I’m big on Skittles). 

About every 40 minutes of the race, you will need to consume about 60 to 80 grams of carbohydrates. 

That’s actually kind of a lot — it’s like two servings of oatmeal or two medium size bananas. 

Energy Gels

For this reason, you might want to try the energy gels.

They are popular for intrarace nutrition to make sure your carb intake and energy stay high without feeling weighed down. 

The gels are a lot of bang for your buck without the food baby. 

Again, I remind you to try different things out prior to race day and to learn your body. 

Race Day Attire

Attaching Race Number
Attaching Race Number

While this might feel nit picky… it’s actually super imperative. 

You want to be comfortable through the race.

There is nothing worse than getting out on the course and being annoyed by your shirt, running tights, or shoes. 

*See my article about the best running tights for recommendations.* 

In my opinion, shoes are the most important part. 

During training, it’s recommended that you rotate two pairs of shoes — so you don’t burn through the support and souls as fast as can be. 

Shoes

On race day, wear the shoes that feel and fit best.

I don’t recommend trying anything new. A new pair of shoes sounds like — blisters. Ouch! 

Go for the broken in, oldie but goodie shoes. 

You will feel more confident in attire and gear that you’ve been using. 

Less important gadgets like fanny packs (for your snacks), running watches, or sunglasses may also be worth a consideration. 

Accessories and Gadgets

No fun to have sunglasses that bounce on your nose too much. 

It’s a bummer to have your headphones (if you are into music on the run) or watch die 2/3s of the way through. 

Also a disaster to get confused with your watch’s GPS tracker. 

The moral of the story is — know your gear, what’s comfortable, and what makes you feel confident as you race your heart out. 

Test Drive with a Half Marathon

If you haven’t already done a long distance race, I highly recommend shooting for a half marathon first so you know how it feels to run for hours at a time.

Mindset is Everything

It’s a great check to see what happens in your mind.

What narratives run through your brain. What blocks you come up to with your mentality. 

Learn to control that fight or flight reaction and push through. 

Your mind will give in before your body does! 

In the first half-marathon I ran — I was SHOCKED that I got to mile 12 and had to WALK. 

My mind just quit on me.

It kept running narratives about how tired I was, that my joints and muscles were too weak, and my small, short body wasn’t meant for distance. 

Experience on Giving Up

Runner Taking a Break
Runner Taking a Break

I’ll say it again — this happened to me at MILE 12. I only had 1.1 miles left to go… and I walked.

Suffice it to say, the next two half-marathons — I refused to walk at all. 

I practice mantras during my training. 

I was also more able to foresee the “wall” (the epic runner’s wall where your mind quits or comes close to it) and mitigate my response to it. I could anticipate it happening and then work past it. 

Push Through

Don’t wimp out due to being uncomfortable mentally or physically. 

It’s important to recognize discomfort versus pain. 

You’ve been training.

Unless you get injured, running the half-marathon course, the “agony” you are experiencing when you are SO close to crossing the finish line is likely discomfort. 

Remember, you got this. You are strong and determined. 

Try Out Race Day Thangs

It’s also a great opportunity to try out your pre-race day and race day nutrition and wardrobe.

From there, you can make adjustments and improvements to your training, nutrition, pacing, attire, and more. 

Doing a half-marathon (or two or three) prior to completing your full marathon is 

Do the Dang Thing 

The last and final step — run a marathon. 

I cannot wait to be at the start line on race day.

I imagine that it will be invigorating — standing there with the other runners, awaiting the air horn to take off, and feeling the energy from my friends and family who are there supporting me (seriously, I love them and appreciate them so much). 

On race day, I am sure I will feel trials and tribulations in the process. 

I appreciate the physical challenge, but more than anything, I really enjoy the mental fortitude it takes to complete endurance sports. 

It’s just you and the road or trail with your thoughts. 

Mental Toughness

Group of Women at a Finish Line
Group of Women at a Finish Line

Overcoming your own subconscious thoughts is a strength unlike any other.

The mind is powerful! 

I feel like, if you can complete the marathon physically and mentally intact, you are an elite athlete. 

If you can complete a marathon, what other challenges can you rise to the occasion and prevail? 

As my feet cross that finish line, after 26.2 miles, I cannot fathom the tiredness and simultaneous energy. 

Success

I am certain that the joy, pride, and confidence I will feel from achieving this goal will be worth the process.

There will be a flood of memories and emotions that come from persevering through all the miles of training and the twenty – freakin’ – six – point – two that I JUST completed in succession. 

For real. 

I cannot wait to feel what that is like. 

I cannot wait to see if I want to do another or if one will be enough. 

My friends that do ultramarathons love it and they’ve almost convinced me to try it because — who doesn’t want to consume as much bacon as you want? 

We shall see where this long distance racing takes me. 

After the Race

First and foremost — bask in the glory!

Be stoked about what you just completed!

Feel the rush of pride and accomplishment race over you (ha! No race pun intended… but kind of!). 

Keep It Movin’ 

More tangibly and immediately, get a blanket to keep your muscles warm — they just did a LOT of work carrying you all those miles.

Don’t let them freeze up and the sweat to dry. 

Keep movin’ — take a little walk and stretch a bit. 

Keep warm until your adrenaline has come down a few notches, you can change your clothes, and put your feet up. 

Get Some Noms

Grab some food!

Replenish your body with some carbs — a lot of runners go for that after race beer.

It’s a simple carb. It’s easy for the body to process and restore glycogen stores.
I’m not usually a beer drinker, but for some reason it does taste AMAZING and refreshing post long run (by long run, I mean a minimum of a 10k or 6+ miles). 

I also LOVE to go out for a meal with my friends and family who came out to support me. It’s a chance to connect and celebrate. 

Of course, I do this after a hot shower — review the “Keepin’ It Movin’” section from before. 

Take Some Time Off

Reading a Book While Laying in a Hammock

After the race, it’s kind to your bod to take a week or two off running. 

Remember: the first man that ran a marathon actually died after it was completed. 

Consider the fact that the mileage you just ran is an act of the Greek gods.

Since you are not a god… it’s best to let your human body recover from that supreme being act! 

Between the weeks of long runs, short runs, weight lifting, speed drills, and the actual run on race day, you get to take some time off. 

Reduce Physical Activities

When you are a mover, athlete, and exercise enthusiast, I know it can be hard to just STOP all movement. 

During this time, a nice way to get some movement in is to start practicing more yoga and Pilates to make sure your core is strong for the next run.

Stick to some low-impact, recovery movement. 

Let the muscles and joints come back to life and prepare to get back at it! 

Hit Me Up with Tips or Questions

Ladies, I am excited to race! I would love to hear from you about your experiences running long distance! 

Share your tips and marathon stories with me at Instagram. 

If you are new to running, and particularly long distance running, let me know what you are nervous about and what questions you have! 

This is a community after all. I am all about us helping each other out on the way to our fitness goals!
In the meantime, check out these articles about inspiring lady runners and motivation: 

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Steph Boll
Steph Boll
Founder of Spikes & Heels. I'm on a mission to show the reality of women's fitness. Red faces, blotchy skin and sweaty hair is my everyday look and I'm proud of it! 😅