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How To Train for Your First Marathon So You Cross the Finish Line Without a Hitch

Person wearing purple sports bra and black leggings running outside to train for first marathon

Photo: Getty Images/ MoMo Productions

The idea of training for your first marathon can feel just as overwhelming as the thought of running the 26.2-mile race itself. The process can take up months of your life, and if you’re a runner used to 5Ks, you may be unsure of how to safely get your body ready for such a long distance.

Take a deep breath. To make this lofty undertaking feel manageable, follow this all-inclusive beginner’s guide on how to train for your first marathon.

Here, you’ll find run coach-approved tips on how to structure your marathon training program—including runs and other fitness modalities—how to properly fuel and hydrate, how to prep and recover on race day, and other essential marathon training advice.

We promise, you’ll cross the finish line without a hitch.

Marathon training structure

Your marathon training schedule should be customized to fit your lifestyle and goals. Generally, though, you’ll want to run three to five days a week—for 16 to 20 weeks or more—to prepare for your race. Here’s the full breakdown of marathon prep for first-timers.

Short, easy runs

Regardless of your running experience, about 80 percent of your runs each week should be at easy efforts, says Victoria Sekely, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and USATF Level 1 Coach.


Experts In This Article

That means two to four days a week, you’re running at a pace or intensity at which you can hold a conversation with a friend, says Sol Rivera, an RRCA-certified run coach and the co-founder of Race the Bronx. FYI, what’s “easy” for your running buddy may feel exhausting for you, so remember to use this talk test to determine if you’re training too hard or too easy.

Long runs

One day a week, you’ll do a long run to build your endurance and get your muscles used to working for an hour or more. This run is typically half of your total weekly mileage. So if you’re running 20 miles throughout the week, your long run should be about 10 miles, Sekely says. Each week, your long run might increase by two to three miles, depending on how many weeks you’re dedicating to your training, Rivera adds.

By the peak of your marathon training, your long run might be 18 to 20 miles long. While that distance builds up your physical endurance, it also mentally prepares you for the seemingly endless marathon, Rivera says. Mental strength plays just as big of a role in getting you to cross the finish line as your practice runs, cross-training, and fueling strategy, she adds.

For newer runners, it can be beneficial to focus on the time you spend on your feet rather than the distance you complete, says Rivera. Doing so makes longer runs feel more achievable, particularly if you jog at a slower pace or take walking breaks. If your goal is to finish a marathon in, say, five and a half hours, your peak long run might be moving your body for three to four hours rather than hitting a certain mileage, she explains.

Speed work

As a first-time marathoner, most of your training runs are going to be easy runs, and you’ll be focused on building up your mileage, according to the experts. Once you’ve made progress on that front, you might sprinkle some harder-effort intervals into your easy runs—short or long—to keep you mentally engaged, Rivera says.

A bit of speed work can also improve your performance come race day.

“I think of it as strength training in running form—you’re building your muscles to [be able to] pick up speed,” Rivera says. “You might really feel good on race day and you might want to pick up speed a little bit, but [without speed work] you don’t know what that feels like. Incorporating it throughout your training helps your body remember, ‘Oh, this is what it feels like to go this fast.’”

When the finish line is in sight, you’ll be able to call on that muscle memory and sprint to the end.

Rather than a track workout with 30-second intervals, which you might use in training for a 5K, your marathon speed work is going to involve longer intervals. Specifically, you might do a tempo run, during which you pick up the pace for 20 or 30 minutes, dial it back down to your “easy” pace for another 20 to 30 minutes, then repeat, Sekely says.

How to progress

Generally, your weekly mileage should increase by 10 percent each week. A couple weeks out from race day, you should hit your peak weekly mileage of about 40 miles, Sekely says. Use the length of your marathon training program and do a little math wizardry to figure out just how many miles you should be adding to your training each week.

Importantly, this additional mileage should be spread out throughout all of your runs—not just tacked onto your long run. Making this mistake “actually puts you at a much higher risk of injury,” according to Sekely.

“Ultimately, you’re not best preparing your body for the race because you’re shocking your body with one long run a week and you’re not getting good at really running on tired legs throughout the week, either,” she says.

How to pick the right training plan

When starting marathon training, it’s important to have a plan. A running coach can help you develop a personalized marathon training program that meshes with your lifestyle, goals, exercise history, and injuries. But if that’s not in the cards for you, look for an online training program that’s simple to follow and can fit into your life, Rivera says.

If you can dedicate only three days to training, seek out a marathon training plan designed for those time constraints, she says. Make sure the plan aligns with your goals (e.g., to finish a marathon vs. hit a specific finish time) and base level of fitness (e.g., a relatively new runner vs. an athlete who has done a few half marathons)

Importantly, remember that no online training plan is perfect, and many don’t offer room for flexibility if you need to skip workouts due to work, family, or personal issues. So give yourself grace and modify your program as you need—it doesn’t have to be perfectly followed to get you to the finish line, Sekely says.

“You want your race to be just like all of your other runs. That will take all of the guesswork out of it and make you feel a lot more calm and in control for that day,” —Victoria Sekely, DPT, CSCS

How to add cross-training to your routine

To curb your risk of injury and enhance performance, strength training should be a priority in the year leading up to the race, Sekely says.

“Before you enter that marathon training cycle, that’s the time to focus on strength,” she explains. “There can be a lot of benefits to challenging your muscular system—building that actual strength that is needed for runners specifically—but we want to do that before a strenuous marathon training cycle.”

That way, your body has time to make adaptations without the added physical stress of near-daily runs.

As your training picks up and becomes more intensive, you might spend just 15 minutes twice a week on strengthening exercises—so long as you put in the work beforehand and you’re not injured, Sekely says.

Because running is a unilateral activity (you never have two legs on the ground at once), you might do single-leg exercises like lunges, step-ups, and single-leg deadlifts, Rivera says. You’ll also want to try plyometrics, such as jump squats and jumping lunges, that build power—and help you pick up the pace those last few hundred meters. Don’t forget to challenge your body laterally with skaters, side lunges, and lateral shuffles to prevent muscle imbalances that may develop from constantly running forward.

Consistency, Sekely says, is what’s most important.

“If you feel like you’re not doing strength because a 30-minute strength routine is way too overwhelming, you’re running a lot and you have a lot else going on, you don’t have to stress out during your marathon training cycle,” she adds. “But that means you’re thinking ahead and you’re doing that beforehand, and that requires a lot of planning.”

Strength workouts in the gym aren’t your only option for resistance work. As you move through your marathon training cycle, you can also challenge your muscles with yoga, Pilates, or bodyweight movements—anything that gets your body in different positions and feels enjoyable, Sekely says.

You’ll also want to regularly treat your body to mobility exercises, moves in which you actively control and access a joint’s full range of motion. A limited range of motion during hip abduction (read: moving your leg away from the midline of your body) is linked with a greater likelihood of future lower-body injuries, an October 2013 article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy suggests.

And, a limited range of motion during ankle dorsiflexion (think: drawing your toes toward your shins) can also increase your risk of injury, according to a May 2017 review in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

Consider movements like the 90-90 hip stretch, controlled articular rotations (CARs), and ankle rockers.

How to fuel and hydrate

During marathon training, there’s no such thing as eating too much.

“The marathon is an eating contest,” Sekely says. “The more you are able to train your stomach to tolerate more food, the better you will do on race day.”

Two macronutrients are particularly important: carbohydrates and protein. Carbs are broken down rapidly to provide your body energy during high-intensity exercise and replenish muscle glycogen stores afterward, which helps to improve performance, according to a January 2018 article in the journal Nutrition Today. Protein, on the other hand, repairs muscle tissue broken down via exercise and may reduce feelings of muscle soreness.

During your marathon training, try to consume 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight on moderate-intensity days. On high-intensity days, bump up your carb consumption up to 8 to 12 grams per kilogram of body weight, per Nutrition Today. You’ll also want to eat 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day to build and maintain muscle mass, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition’s recommendations.

Before your run

Before a run, give yourself enough time to eat a carb-rich meal to fuel your muscles; hit the pavement while fasted, and you’re sure to hit a wall quickly, Sekely says.

Generally, you’ll want to consume 30 grams of carbs if you have less than an hour before your workout. At this point, you’ll want to go easy on the protein, as eating too much can lead to gut distress during your workout.

Don’t forget to hydrate, drinking 0.07 to 0.14 ounces of fluid per pound of body weight in the two to four hours ahead of your run, according to information published by Utah State University.

During your run

As you tackle your workout, refuel before you think you need it.

“A lot of people wait too long to take in like another gel or take in some food,” Rivera says. “I tend to tell my athletes to [eat] every 30 to 40 minutes so that when your body needs the fuel, you’ve already taken it in and your body can start grabbing it before it runs out. When you’re depleted, there’s not much you can do.”

Try energy gels and chews for quick, easily digestible carbs—just know that some may upset your stomach, so experiment with different products to find one that works best for you, according to the experts. Homemade energy balls, apple sauce, and sweet potato puree packets can also do the trick, Rivera says. In general, you’ll want to eat about 30 grams of carbs per hour of endurance exercise.

You’ll also want to stay on top of your water and electrolyte (minerals that help contract muscles, among other functions) intake, as you lose both through sweat as you run. Even a 2 to 4 percent level of dehydration can hinder endurance exercise performance, a March 2021 review in Nutrients shows. Try to sip four to six ounces of fluid every 15 minutes, with one big gulp equating to 1 ounce.

After your run

Once you wrap up your run, eat a meal featuring both carbs and protein within 30 minutes to kick off the muscle repair process and begin replenishing your glycogen stores, Sekely says. To properly rehydrate, weigh yourself, then drink 16 to 24 ounces of fluid for every pound of weight you lost since before your run.

How to taper

After you hit your peak mileage, you’ll typically taper for two to three weeks before the marathon, Sekely says. It’s a gradual decrease in mileage and intensity.

During your peak week, you may have completed three eight-mile easy runs, one of which you incorporated some tempo work into, and a 20-mile long run. On your first taper week, you might do three six-mile runs without any speed surges and one 16-mile long run, Rivera adds. Then you’ll chip away even more the following week or two.

Cutting back on your intensity allows your body to recover and adapt to all the training you’ve put in so that you’re more likely to perform your best on race day, Sekely says. It may be scary, but the fitness you’ve built won’t suddenly disappear.

“At the point of tapering, you’ve done everything you needed to do and could do. And now it’s just a matter of recovering, getting your mental state ready, and tackling your race,” Rivera says.

How to prepare for race day

In the week leading up to race day, make sure you’re staying on top of your hydration levels, electrolyte consumption, and carbohydrate and protein intake so your body is primed and ready for the event ahead, Rivera says. Avoid any foods that may affect your digestive system and throw off your final few days of prep work, she adds.

In the hours ahead of your race, don’t do anything new: Don’t eat a new breakfast, try a different warm-up, or share an unfamiliar energy gel with another runner in your corral, according to Sekely.

“You want your race to be just like all of your other runs,” she says. “And that will take all of the guesswork out of it and make you feel a lot more calm and in control for that day.”

Rivera also encourages her athletes to spend some time meditating, doing some breathwork, or enjoying other stress-relieving practices to ease their nerves. Remember, running is often more of a mental challenge than a physical one, she says.

How to recover after your race

Once you’ve finished celebrating at the finish line, take a few moments to stretch, flowing through your favorite yoga or mobility practice or foam rolling, Rivera suggests.

“It’s important to get your legs moving a little bit,” she says. “Go for a little walk so that you’re not just sitting and then your body’s stiff and sore.”

That said, avoid high-intensity activities for the next few days; a 10-mile walk around the city you’re visiting probably won’t feel too great on your exhausted body, Sekely says.

Following the race, prioritize a carb-heavy, protein-packed meal to kickstart the recovery process and drink enough water to replace what you’ve lost during the race, according to the experts. Just know that you may not have much of an appetite, so plan ahead and prepare a meal that’s easy to get down, Rivera says.

Crucially, get enough shut-eye.

“Try not to go out to a late-night party—celebrating is all fine and good, but the best way you’re going to recover after a hard effort like [a marathon] is going to be eating, hydrating, and sleeping,” Sekely says.

Common training mistakes

In her experience as a coach, Rivera often sees runners not eating enough throughout the marathon training process—a mistake that can cause you to feel fatigued quickly and inhibit your recovery, especially as your mileage climbs. So make sure to stay on top of your carbohydrate and protein intake.

First-time marathoners also make the mistake of adding distance to just their long runs. In reality, you need to be building mileage with all of your runs in order to see true progress, Sekely says. And though you can train for a marathon just two or three days a week, you’re best off running four or five days—if your schedule allows—so you get used to running with muscle fatigue, she adds.

People also tend to underestimate the amount of time that’s required to properly train for a marathon, Sekely says.

“I see a lot of athletes really struggle when they sign up for a marathon but they’re also moving or planning a wedding or changing jobs or they just got a puppy—in big times of their life when they really don’t have a lot of time,” she says. “That’s when we start to see injuries happen.”

To make sure you stay safe and actually have fun during your training, sign up for a marathon during a life season when you have plenty of free time and a support system to take you to the finish line.

Best marathon training plans

Ready to start training for your first marathon? Check out the following marathon training plans and choose one that aligns with your lifestyle and goals. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a certified run coach who can work with you to develop a custom program if you’re struggling to find one that feels right for you.

FAQ

1. How do you start training for a marathon with no running experience?

Once you set a goal to run a marathon, beginners should build up their base level of aerobic fitness before starting a specific training program, Rivera says. Try doing 10 miles a week of easy runs, gradually build up to about 20 miles weekly, and then jump into training, she suggests. This might take you about four to six weeks.

It’s also smart to compete in a few races before signing up for a marathon, Sekely says. The marathon distance is tough for any athlete to complete, but it can feel more manageable by practicing racing shorter distances first, she notes. Plus, with a 10K or half marathon under your belt, you’ll learn if you actually enjoy long-distance running enough to do 26.2 miles in one go.

2. How long should a beginner train for a marathon?

How long first-timers should train for a marathon can vary depending on how much running experience they have. But most often, coaches recommend 16 to 20 weeks of marathon training. The former plan may be a better fit for someone who already has built up their base level of fitness and has a high weekly mileage (think: 20 miles), the experts say.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with dedicating even more time to your marathon training.

“I would honestly say a year in advance [is beneficial],” Sekely says. “You want to be able to build your mileage up slowly, and you might want to get some other races under your belt first. There’s absolutely no rush. I think the more time you give it, the better you feel on race day.”

3. How do you breathe when running?

While running a marathon or any other distance, you might want to practice rhythmic breathing, inhaling for three steps and exhaling for two, according to a May 2023 review in Sports.

But what’s most valuable regarding breathwork is to make sure you don’t stop breathing, Sekely says. You don’t necessarily need to think about the breathing technique, she adds; just find a method that feels best for you.

Still, if you find yourself out of breath on every single run, you’re likely running at too high of an intensity, she says. Remember, you should be able to hold a conversation as you polish off your miles. So if that’s not the case, dial it down.

Citations
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
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