One distance, 26.2 miles and thousands of stories. The marathon is not just a race it’s also a myth. It’s that distance that transcends running into a mind-body experience that once accomplished will never be forgotten.
For most amateur runners finishing a marathon once in their life is a dream worth working hard for. It wasn’t for me though. At least not in my first two years of regular running. I thought it was crazy and wears the body down too much.
But I changed my mind!
After running four half marathons and reading one or the other book that opened my mind to distances beyond the half marathon, I decided to give it a try.
And it was so worth it! I finished my first marathon in 3:47 and never went back to shorter distances. It not only changed how I look at running but changed my entire life for good.
If running a marathon is your dream, then keep on reading. I hope to give you some bits and bites to help you achieve and live your marathon dream as well.
Every plan starts with a decision to want to achieve a certain goal. It may sound easy to decide to run a marathon. But I recommend you to take some minutes to think about what it means and what impact this decision has on your life.
It’s no surprise that I strongly recommend you to try to run a marathon and I’ve written a lot about the whys and what your motivation should be. But for now let’s focus on how your life looks like when preparing for a marathon so you have a solid basis for your decision.
Doesn’t sound very motivating, does it? But believe me, it’s very well worth it. If you keep working and follow the advice in this article, it will change your life.
Before you can think about laying out a training plan and start building a marathon body and mind, take some time to assess where you are. Don’t just look at your running abilities but also your life style.
It’s crucial to know from where you start as far as your performance level but also how much training you can do on a regular week. Take a piece of paper (or wherever you take notes with) and write down these things:
Give yourself some time to think on these topics or test it if needed. Keep your notes at hand as you’ll need them throughout the planning of your training and when you actually prepare for your first marathon.
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that running to me is much more than just putting one foot in front of the other. In my opinion running is a full body sport.
That’s even more the case when you switch from shorter distances to the half or the full marathon. If your body isn’t trained in its entirety, you will pay for it in your marathon training or on race day. Injuries occur, you get slower and slump or you might get used to a bad running posture.
A marathon body is not only one with strong and enduring legs and a strong heart. Your “suspension chain” starting from your feet over your calves up to your upper legs will damp the impact of each stride. Your hips and core muscles will give you stability and foster a healthy and efficient running form. And your shoulders and arms will propel you forward if the rest of your body starts to get tired.
Only if your entire body is balanced and well prepared and all components work with one another, you will run efficiently and have the chance to avoid most of the common running injuries. So I strongly recommend you add some strength training into your marathon preparation that addresses your entire body.
Injury prevention will be a topic that occurs several times throughout this guide. The reason for that focus is quite simple: Avoiding injuries is probably the most important thing in your training!
Think about it: Injuries not only wear parts of your body down which can lead to long-term damage, but they will also keep you away from training. And without training, there won’t be marathon success!
Apart from strength training a regular stretching routine after your training runs is the best you can do. Stretch your calves, quads, inner thighs, IT band, hamstrings and hip muscles for at least a minute each after every long or intense training run.
We will dig deeper into recovery in one of the next chapters. But keep in the back of your head that a full body strength training and a regular stretching routine should complement your running.
Some might say that finishing a marathon is 50% done in your head. As I wouldn‘t fully agree with the number, I certainly think that running the full 26.2 miles is a challenge that heavily involves your mental abilities.
So instead of focusing only on your body and the physical part of training, building a marathon mindset is at least as important and will be dealt with in this article.
I‘ll go into some techniques you can use to mentally prepare for the marathon in the next chapter. For now let‘s just have a look at the mental challenges you‘ll go through from the idea of running a marathon, through training and racing, right up to what‘s going on in your head after you crossed that finish line.
As described above, the decision to go for it, sign up for a marathon and start training and preparation is not easy and should be well thought-out. But when you can finally say „Yes“ to do it, this can end you up in a ton of motivation.
That motivation can also further increase after you see early progress when you start your training. But there can also be doubts. Doubts if you have what it takes to run a marathon. Doubts if your body can handle the strain of hundreds of training miles. Doubts if you can make it in the time limit.
Being able to anticipate these doubts is key. You‘ll most certainly face them the day after your first 20 mile training run. Or if you decide to skip a workout because the weather doesn‘t feel like running or you had a busy day at work.
Your marathon training will last for 12-26 weeks. And in each of these weeks you will do 3-5 training runs. So you might end up with 40-130 training sessions (depending on your current level). There‘s no way all of these runs are just awesome, fun and you love running all the way through.
Rather you‘ll struggle on some runs. You will learn some things the hard way. Maybe you chose bad equipment for a long run and end up freezing, overheating or chaffing occurs. Or you get bored and mentally exhausted on your first long runs. Or the planned interval training is way tougher than expected.
This is all normal and happens to almost everyone. But mentally dealing with the issues that might occur and have a plan in mind on how to deal with them, helps cut the probability that things like that will stop your ambition and kill your marathon plan.
At some point training is over and race day arrives. You‘ll start your race at full energy, after a while the runner‘s high sets in and you think you can run forever.
But if you‘re not an exceptionally talented runner somewhere around mile 20 you‘ll hit the wall. You’re exhausted wanting to stop and your mind is playing nasty tricks with you talking you into quitting.
This will be the toughest part of the race and you have to be prepared to suffer for around an hour. There are techniques I‘ll describe further below on how to deal with this situation and how you can make sure you keep going and get that awesome finish line buzz.
Say you‘ve done it crossing the finish line. This feeling alone is totally worth going for a marathon and you should enjoy it to the fullest.
But what then?
Is this it now? Weeks of hard work, total focus and determination and now it‘s all over?
You might end up in some kind of post-finishing blues and can‘t see what you should do with your success and what next goals you should set yourself. And maybe you get philosophical and ask yourself what this running is all about in the first place.
In the last chapter of this guide, I‘ll address this and give you some suggestions what you do after your marathon dream came true.
So after outlining how you can arrive at the decision to run a marathon and after you know your situation and the physical and mental challenges, it‘s now time to set up a training plan.
As mentioned, running a marathon is not only a matter of your legs but also your mind. So I divide this chapter into a part for preparing your body and a part on how you can prepare your mind for the challenges described above.
I won‘t go into too much detail and won’t describe step-by-step how to create your own training plan. Rather I‘ll outline the fundamentals of marathon training and link to other posts that describe the different workouts in more detail.
If you wanna get some free marathon training plans as a quick start, click here.
Preparing your body to be able to marathon can be broken down into three different things:
Let‘s start with the locomotive system. Well, what does that mean? And why is it important?
I didn‘t put this first by accident. Often runners just care about the endurance to run 26.2 miles and the pace they can maintain.
But you shouldn‘t even think about that before building a strong base that can favor heavy training volume. The reason is simple: If your locomotive system isn‘t in great shape and you don‘t focus on developing it, chances are pretty high you get injured while training for a marathon. And nobody wants that.
This is one of the things beginning runners often stumble over. Endurance and cardiovascular fitness can increase pretty fast and you see early and decent progression.
But to prepare your bones, joints and ligaments that are used to mostly sitting all day to be able to run dozens of miles each week, is something that takes some time. And that‘s why you shouldn‘t rush into heavy volume from the get go.
There are five topics I quickly want to cover that protect and develop a strong locomotive system.
Yes running of course. There‘s nothing better than to prepare your body for a marathon than to actually go running. But don‘t overdo it and only increase your volume by no more than 10% each week.
2. Strength training:
With strength training you can balance out any weaknesses you might have. Focus on quads to support your knees, foot muscles to protect your ankles, hips to increase stability and of course your core muscles (abs, lower back) to support an upright running form.
If you put heavy load on your body, don‘t forget to recover properly. Only go for another heavy training run when you don‘t have any pains and aches. You can do an easy shakeout run for active recovery but after long and intense workouts focus on stretching, massages/foam rolling, healthy eating and enough sleep.
4. Keep your weight down:
On some joints of your body (for example the patellofemoral joint in your knee) a multiple of your body weight stresses the joint. So every pound you can get rid of is worth it multiple times when running. Luckily running is awesome to lose weight. But don‘t treat yourself to a cake after every workout.
5. Running form:
In order to minimize the strain on your system and keep the stress even throughout your runs, you should work on an upright and efficient running form. Keep your upper body upright and land on your midfoot right below the center of mass.
The second important thing when preparing your body to marathon running is building endurance. Or in other words: The ability to run for hours straight.
In your running training this is in my opinion the most important part. Speed is secondary in the beginning. But you certainly should prepare to run for hours.
Endurance is best build with long runs at an easy pace. In the three months before your marathon, you should do at least 5-7 long runs ranging from 30-35k (15.5 – 21.5 miles).
You should run those at an even pace at around 70-75% of your maximum heart rate. If you‘re not using a heart rate monitor (as a beginner you should use one) this is the intensity in which you easily can have a conversation with someone while running.
The purpose of these long runs is mostly to train your metabolism to use more fats instead of carbs for energy provision. In your muscles mitochondria get build that can metabolize fat cells efficiently. For that reason you might not want to interrupt this process and eat/drink lots of sugar. When training for my first couple of marathons, I didn‘t take up any energy at all during these long runs. It was tough but worth it. However this is highly controversial and most don‘t recommend it doing it with just water and no energy whatsoever.
Other than the metabolic part, the long run also trains your locomotive system to handle running long distances and be moving for hours. On long runs you‘ll recognize how important a strong locomotive system is. Keep an eye on your posture and proper stride as your long run progresses.
Also your mind gets trained on long runs. You get used to run (alone) for hours, something that is very important on race day.
If you wanna dig deeper in this most important workout for you as a becoming marathoner, check out this post I‘ve written a while ago:
The Long Run And How to Do It Right
Last but not least is increasing your cardiovascular fitness, or your VO2max that will have you running faster.
If you‘re new to the marathon don‘t focus on pace too much. Your goal should be to finish the race in the given finishing time of the event you chose. Finishing your race will give you enough motivation to strive for more ambitious goals. But getting injured or overtrained will probably end your running career for a while.
So while you should take it easy on intense speed sessions, I still recommend you to work on your pace once a week. This is of course done by also increasing your speed in training sessions.
There are several possibilities for workouts that will get your heart pumping. The important part is that you get your heart rate to around 90% of your maximum but not more.
The mostly used workout are interval runs. In these you alternate fast paced sections (90% heart rate) with slow jogging to get your heart rate down to below 70%. The mostly used distance for fast paced sections is 400m or 1k with slow jogging breaks of about a minute. But I often also do 2k intervals with two-minute breaks in between.
You are pretty free in doing intervals. And there are a lot of variations of interval workouts. You can do time based intervals (2min fast, 1min cool down) or pyramid runs (1k – pause, 2k – pause, 3k – pause, 2k – pause, 1k pause).
Important is that you do a warm up and a cool down after the actual interval session. I usually do an easy 2k before and after the session for that purpose.
Start with just 3-4 intervals in your first week and then progress from there. You could add one 1k or 2k interval every week. Just make sure you can run the last interval as fast as the first one. If you can‘t, it was one too much.
There are many more workouts to increase cardiovascular fitness like tempo runs, Fartlek and hill repeats. Too learn all about them, check out these posts:
4 Tried And Tested Workouts to Become a Faster Runner
3 Hill Workouts That Will Boost Your Race Pace
3 Reasons Why You Should Favor Interval Training
What the Hell Is A Fartlek Run?
Let me tell you a secret. How many training runs per week do you think have I done while preparing for my first marathon? Five? Or even more?
Nope, not even close. In fact in most weeks I only did two training runs. Yes only two runs a week to prepare for a marathon.
I certainly don’t recommend you to only run twice a week if you’re training to run 26.2 miles. However in my opinion training quality beats quantity.
So as far as structuring your training, I recommend you to do at least these two workouts once a week:
One long run at low intensity for around 20 miles. And one intense speed session that can be somewhere between 6 up to 18 miles depending on your current level.
If you can do these week after week, chances are that you succeed at finishing your marathon in a decent time.
But of course I recommend to run a bit more if you can. In addition to the two mandatory workouts, you should do two or three more runs at a moderate pace (around 75-85% of your maximum heart rate) of about 5-10 miles.
As a general rule of thumb I recommend to rest the day after your long run and after your speed session. These are pretty hard on your body and you should focus on recovery the day after. So a training week could look like this:
Tue.: 10 miles moderate run
Wed.: 10 miles interval training
Fri.: 6 miles moderate run
Sat.: Cross training / Strength
Sun.: 20 miles long run
If you are a beginner don’t start off with the example 46 miles training week above. It’s just to show you how you can structure your training week. Remember to not increase your mileage by more than 10% week after week.
Now you should have the tools and the knowledge in hand to prepare your body to run a full marathon. But as described above, running a marathon comes with some mental challenges as well. Let’s take a look how you can prepare for those.
First and most important is the mindset you should get yourself into. If running a marathon would be easy, everyone would do it. But it’s also not impossible and well worth it as millions of runners around the world proof every year.
So prepare yourself mentally for tough situations. Or as a great quote states:
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
You have to develop a strong will to achieve your goal. Do what it takes that your motivation to achieve your goal is greater than the suffering you experience along the way. Remind yourself all the time what your goal is. Change your smart phone background with a motivational quote, print your goal on a piece of paper and hang it onto your fridge.
Let this goal of finishing a marathon be a consistent part of your life. Let it define you and how you live your life. Not just only train but get into running all the way. Listen to running podcasts and read websites and blogs around the topic like this one every day.
All of this seems like a big change but it will develop over time. And once you trained and finished your first marathon, keep going with it is very easy and running marathons becomes just a thing you do.
A technique that I often use to mentally prepare myself for the struggles that can come up in races, is visualization.
And it’s pretty simple: Just visualize success in front of your inner eye.
Regarding finishing a marathon that means visualizing crossing that finish line over and over again. Try to imagine this moment as vivid as possible. How you feel, what you might think, the weather, the crowd cheering, visualize your finishing pose and yourself putting on that medal.
But also try to visualize the struggles, that moment when you completely run out of energy, your muscles and joints start to hurt and you have the desire to stop. And try to think of everything that can go wrong and prepare mentally for these situation. Ideally these things don’t happen but it calms you down to know that you are prepared and could handle these issues.
I normally do visualization like this:
You should try to do it a bit different every time. There are many possible outcomes of the hours you spend running. Prepare yourself for any of those outcomes.
In my opinion equipment doesn’t make you a marathon runner. It’s certainly not the most important thing. If you can prepare yourself physically and mentally, choosing the right equipment is just a detail.
And also what equipment works best for you, will come clear as your training progresses. Of course at race day you should know exactly what equipment to use. So the best piece of advice I can give here, is that you test your race equipment several times during your long runs.
I’ll try to give you a few tips on equipment choices in the paragraphs below:
Well it’s no surprise, your shoes are the most important piece of equipment. If you’re not completely new to running, you should already know which type of shoe works for you.
If you don’t know it already, I suggest you get your gait analyzed at a local running store that offers these kind of analysis. This will make sure you choose shoes that can react to biomechanical issues you might have like overpronation.
In training I use several pairs of shoes. Some for trails, some for the road. Some cushioned and stable shoes, and some minimal foot wear to train my foot muscles. By changing the shoes regularly, my feet can’t get overly used to one model and my muscles keep getting challenged.
Decide on a model for the marathon early on and test it on your long runs. Also your shoes shouldn’t be factory new on race day but also not overly used. I usually run at least 100k in my race day shoes before the big day.
Of course what you wear on race day heavily depends on temperature and weather condition. If you train several times a week, chances are that you have trained at least once in any possible condition like cold or hot temperatures, wind, rain and so on.
To get more details about what clothes to wear in which conditions, check out this guide:
The Ultimate Guide to Running Clothes
As a general rule, I like to wear tight-fitting shirts and shorts/pants. Mainly to avoid chafing and to transport sweat away from the skin as good as possible. I’ve written a post about why I switched to tight-fitting clothes here.
This is a piece of equipment I really recommend for beginners. Not only for training so you know if you train in the correct intensity but also for your race.
Having your heart rate data at your wrist helps you during the race to not overdo it and waste energy early on. Your heart rate shouldn’t go over 85% of your maximum heart rate during the race. So keep an eye on this especially on the first few miles until you find your rhythm.
There are plenty of things you should/could think of for your first marathon. I usually like to run as light as possible but there are a few things worth considering.
And then finally, race day is just around the corner. If everything worked out fine the last couple of months, your body and mind should now be able to endure the challenges of running 26.2 miles.
But should you keep training until the day before the big race?
No, not quite. In the last two weeks you should focus on recovery and give your body and mind time to rest and gain energy so you’re in peak shape at race day.
The second to last week before the marathon I usually cut training to about 50% of my maximum training week volume. And in the week before the marathon I do just two 6-8 mile runs, one at the anticipated marathon race pace.
In the last five days you should also fill your carbohydrate stores with carboloading. Focus in your nutrition on lots of carbohydrates like in pasta, potatoes or bread.
Sure you might be nervous as the big day comes closer. And that‘s a good thing as long as you don‘t go completely crazy.
And there are things you can do to calm you down. First and foremost you should prepare everything you can as early as you can. Study the course and all information from the race organizers. And most important: Pack your bag with everything you need a couple of days before the race.
And finally just calm down and remember how far you‘ve already come. You‘re going to toe the starting line of a marathon, prepared and ready to go. Try to enjoy these moments and remember that it‘s all about having fun!
So it‘s finally here, the day you dreamed about and worked hard for in the course of months if not years. You stand at the starting line ready to go. But how should you approach running 26.2 miles?
Well for a first ever marathon you shouldn‘t have any other goal than to just finish it. Don‘t start out running like crazy and hit the wall after 5 miles.
At the beginning you should start very easy and find a rhythm that works for you and isn‘t to hard. Ideally you run the entire marathon at the same pace or try to speed up a bit in the seconds half.
A good thing is also to NEVER think about the distance in its entirety. Divide it into chunks that you can handle mentally. Naturally these chunks are from one aid station to another. Always tell yourself you‘re just running to the next aid station, regain some energy there and see how to go on.
At around mile 18-20 (30-32km) things start to get tricky. It‘s around that distance where most runners start to hit the wall. Your energy levels start to drop suddenly and your mind is trying to trick you into stopping. It‘s now when you have to be tough!
If you running a marathon with a couple of hundreds other runners, chances are that you‘re not completely alone. Try to pick a runner in front of you and use him/her as a pace maker. Try to follow that runner and think about nothing else. At around mile 24 (38km) try to surpass that runner and get the bit of motivation you need now to finish.
In these last couple of miles remember that you are so close. Just a bit more suffering and you will feel awesome. Think about the good things that come. The cheering of the crowed, the food you‘re allowed to take in, a massage, the congratulations. And also think about the finishing pose you‘re going to make.
The last mile is just to enjoy. Sure you hurt and are suffering but try to suck everything in that is happening. Soon you‘ll see the finish line and just a bit later you cross it. Enjoy that very moment!
I don‘t have to write too much about how it feels to finish your first marathon, you‘ll see for yourself. It‘s gonna be awesome.
But what now? Is that is, all over and no more goals?
What you might feel the evening after your marathon finish can be very different. Some are in a state of excitement for days, some have a post-marathon blues. You might say that you‘re never gonna do this again and soon after sign up for your next marathon.
To anticipate all those feelings and the emptiness that can occur, try to think about what your next steps in running can be. Think about what to do if you fail (I‘ll suggest to try again) and what if you succeed.
Years ago my saxophone teacher told me, if I can play something without a mistake three times in a row, I can go on with playing something more advanced. I did just that with my running. After running three (actually it was four) half marathons, I started training for a full marathon. After running three marathons I signed up for a mountain marathon. After three 45-65k mountain races I signed up for 100k races. This scheme works pretty well for me.
Whatever it might be, don‘t stop at just one marathon. Keep up your running and see where it will bring you. If you have issues finding new goals, check out this post:
How to Set Your Next Running Goal
So that‘s it from my side and now it‘s your turn to start training, sign up for a marathon and finish that thing.
Below you find some links to other posts that might help you on your marathon journey.
As always your feedback is appreciated. Just write a comment below or drop me a mail. If you like this article, it would mean the world to me if you‘d share it on social media. You should find the buttons somewhere below.