Ask the Experts: Marathon Training 101

Whether new to the sport, or a veteran, finishing a marathon is a bucket list item for many runners. Toeing the line for your first marathon is taking a large leap into the unknown. With many running race distances, you may not have the best preparation and can still walk away with a decent run. When it comes to the marathon, you cannot underestimate the race distance and the challenge that lies ahead. 

There are many different marathon training plans out there that will help build your run plan up to race day. The wealth of information available can become overwhelming. Guides range from what to eat, what workouts you need to include, what recovery modalities you should invest in, and how to avoid injuries. Where do you even begin? Even if you are a veteran runner, you can feel like a beginner when it comes to tackling the marathon distance. Let’s dive into the details of the marathon and training. 

Early Planning

Signing up for a marathon can be both exhilarating as well as daunting. Many plans you can find online will outline a 16-week build-up to marathon race day. One of the best pieces of advice would be to take an honest intake of your current run fitness prior to beginning any plans. Many plans will be taking into account that you have already been running with enough frequency previously to be able to handle and withstand the training for a marathon. A good piece of advice if you are brand new to running is to start with shorter distances first and work your way up. These distances include 5k, 10k, 15k, 10 mile, and half marathons. The importance of having a solid foundation is that you can load your bones and tendons safely while avoiding injury. Jumping immediately into 30+ mile weeks can wreak havoc on your lower limbs and ultimately can delay your ability to train for race day. Does this mean you need years and years of running before deciding to complete a marathon? No, not at all. Consider doing at least 4-6 weeks of starting mileage to build yourself up to a 16-week plan. 

The next step will be to decide what your goal for the marathon is. Are you trying to set a PR, or setting out to complete your first race. These types of goals will have a large impact on your preparation. Training for a certain time will require you to tailor your workout days to your goal time pacing. 

Commitment – In it for the Long Haul

Training for a marathon is going to take a large majority of not only your physical but mental energy as well. This is another time to pause and reflect on an honest assessment of your current commitment levels. Is your schedule already packed with family, work, and personal commitments? Are you able to run at least 3-4 days per week? Do you have a vacation planned and are you prepared that you will need to prioritize your weekend long run during this time? If your answer to the above questions all signal that you are ready to dive headfirst into marathon training, then go for it. If you are hesitant about your commitment levels or are obligated to family matters, discussing your goals and training expectations with those closest around you can help you figure out these answers. 

Commitment can also look like committing to your own health. Are you able to be objective in doing your own body intakes? What do we mean by this? Are you dealing with an injury niggle (small injury), sleep-deprived, stressed, etc? While many people will not have an issue sticking to the program plan, they may struggle with knowing when to back off and the times it is necessary to not perform the day’s prescribed training. Backing off when it is needed, is an overlooked skill set for an athlete to have. It is important to be flexible and responsive when issues arise, not reactive. As the saying goes, it is better to show up on race day a bit undercooked than to be overcooked and injured. 

Training Basics

The most important piece of training for the marathon will be building your aerobic capacity. You need endurance stamina in order to complete all 26.2 miles come race day. Therefore, this means that a large majority of your training will include a lot of “base pace” work. 

For example: if your goal is to run the marathon in 3 and a half hours, you’ll need to be able to run long distances comfortably at an 8:00 mile pace. That being said, not all runs will be performed at 8:00 pace. Some runs will be slower than this pace, while others will require pieces of the run to be better to work on leg speed and turnover. 

Staples to any Marathon Build Workout:

  1. The Long Run 
  2. Tempo Efforts
  3. Speedwork

1. The Long Run

The long-run is the keystone piece to any training plan. This is the workout that will build your muscular and aerobic endurance. Towards the end of your build, most long runs will be upwards of 160-180 minutes. This type of run will be mainly performed at a very easy pace, one where you are able to comfortably converse with others while running. Don’t be afraid to mix it up a little, increasing the pace slightly in the closing miles, or adding in pick-ups from 20-30 seconds along the way. 

When performing a long run, it is beneficial to track your heart rate if trying to stay within a specific heart rate zone. The RIVAL watch can track your heart rate throughout, while simultaneously keeping these metrics on your main workout screen so that you can ensure you do not rift too far away from base heart rate pace. 

2. Tempo

The second type of effort that will be included in a build, will be slightly faster and more challenging pace work, also known as tempo efforts. These efforts will be performed at paces faster than your goal marathon pace. The aim of these sessions is to build your aerobic capacity. These types of sessions can even be included in the long run some weeks. For example: if your long run is 18-20 miles, a sample session would be including 10 miles at long run base pace, and then closing the last 8-10 miles in alternating paces mirroring on/off efforts of 1 mile “on” (slightly faster than marathon pace) and 1 mile off (slightly slower than marathon pace.) This type of session will not only look to build muscular and aerobic endurance but then also to challenge yourself at the end of a long session with enough stamina to build your aerobic capacity by pressing slightly on the pace. 

3. Speedwork

Wait a second, this is a marathon, not an all-out mile; so why are we doing speed work? Neuromuscular coordination is important in any athletic endeavor. Getting your body accustomed to increased leg speed turnover, will not only help with your running economy and biomechanics but will also help make your race pace “feel” easier. Speedwork efforts will include shorter repeat efforts at faster paces with recovery in between. This can look like 10×800 meter repeats at paces faster than goal marathon pace with 60 seconds rest between each interval. Speedwork can include hill sprints, where the focus can be developing power and turnover with excellent form. 

Using GPS watches such as the RIVAL can help you maintain target paces for workouts like tempos or speedwork. The RIVAL includes features to allow you to program workouts directly into the watch interface to allow you to focus on the workout at hand, and not the time and distance. 

Bonus Round

Many different plans for the marathon will have runners including shorter race distances in the build-up. These races will include 5k’s, 10k’s, and especially a half-marathon. Why? Especially for new runners, it is important to experience running with others around you. It can get easy to get caught up in the rush of adrenaline when the gun goes off and set out on a pace that is way too hot for you, and not what you have been training for. Race simulations can help you feel comfortable in race environments and to work on dialing in your race-day nutrition. 

Rest

While it is easy to get carried away with training, it is easier to overlook the rest that will be required. Rest days should be welcomed in all training programs. While rest has been given a bad rap in the endurance sport world in the past, it is beginning to receive the limelight it deserves. Rest is also a workout, it is not a weakness.

 As is the case in any training program, the principle of overload applies here as well. We must stress our system in order to enact change, but then the most important piece of this is: we must recover from the stress in order to build our bodies back stronger. When we continue to load our systems without recovery, this is when injuries and overtraining fatigue begin to creep into the picture. As a general rule of thumb, it is best to increase mileage each week by 10%. This also means that if you are beginning a training plan that starts the weekly mileage off at 40 miles/week and you have only been running 20, then you will need to adjust the training plan in order to ensure that you do not overwork your lower limbs’ tissues beyond what it can handle at that given time. 

Think of structuring your training (in the simplest view) as hard/easy. If you are performing a big speedwork session on Tuesday, then Wednesday should be a lighter day including an easier run or cross-training to ensure your body is well-rested for the next piece of hard training. In fact, some workouts will require multiple days of recovery in between. Long run with a tempo session included on Saturday? You may need to move your speed work session from Tuesday to Wednesday in order to fully recover from the accumulated fatigue that you built up on Saturday. 

Nutrition

Nutrition can make or break marathon race day. It is important to find foods that work well with you and your body. Testing race-day nutrition is an important tool to implement into your training. This can be included on your long run days, or during your races that are included in the build-up. 

Race day nutrition is not the only piece to play with. It is important to find foods that work well with you in the lead-up (days prior and morning of) to race day. Fluids and carbohydrate ingestion will play a pivotal role in how your body performs on race day. Having a plan and executing that plan can help ensure that there are no hiccups come race day. 

There is a lot that can happen in a 26.2-mile running race. It tests not only your physical but mental strength as well. One minute you can feel fantastic and the next your hamstrings are screaming for you to stop. Challenges aside, the marathon is a race distance that many runners novice to veterans alike are drawn towards. The build-up for a marathon can feel daunting, but nailing the basics, focusing on the details, and taking each day one step at a time (no pun intended) can help make an overwhelming task manageable. 

Dr. Jinger S. Gottschall, earned her doctoral degree in integrative physiology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and continued her academic career as a postdoctoral fellow in neurophysiology at the Emory School of Medicine. She was an associate professor at The Pennsylvania State University studying the effectiveness of various exercise regimens for 12 years. For the last 25 years she coached running and triathlon endurance athletes from the recreational to the professional. Most importantly, Jinger has a passion for physical activity and appreciates the paramount importance of promoting balanced, quality training programs.
Scroll to top