How to Train for a Marathon
Signing up for a marathon is an exciting decision and a big commitment. To accomplish your goals and protect your well-being, you should know what to expect and create a plan before you begin training for a marathon. In this article, we'll answer some common marathon training questions to help you develop an effective training strategy to prepare you for race day.
How Far in Advance Should I Start Training?
Most marathon training plans begin about 16 to 20 weeks before the targeted race day. If you're a running novice, try a couch-to-marathon plan that spans 24 weeks. Although you will run only a few times per week at first, your mileage will gradually ramp up as time goes on. Starting this far in advance will give you enough time to prepare yourself both physically and mentally for the marathon.
Is There a Right Way to Train for a Marathon?
What your marathon training will look like will vary for everyone depending on past running experience, schedule flexibility and goals. If you're no stranger to endurance running, you might want to choose a specific goal time and structure your training accordingly. But if this is your first marathon, you'll most likely want to pick a training plan focused on completing the course, rather than hitting a certain time.
Regardless of what your end goal is, the most important part of training for a marathon is starting slow and strategically building up so you minimize the risk of injury. To avoid common overuse injuries like shin splints or stress fractures, begin your marathon training at around 15 miles per week and slowly increase your mileage as your body adjusts. As your training progresses, you can start pushing the pace if you feel comfortable.
Although there's no one set formula for success, every good marathon training plan should include these five fundamentals:
- Base mileage: Each plan should begin by building a strong base of weekly mileage, working up to running five days per week for a total of 50 miles. Be careful to contain your excitement as your fitness grows — never increase your week's mileage by more than 10% of the previous week's total, or you'll risk injury.
- Long runs: Once you've established a firm base mileage, you can start incorporating a weekly long run into your training to stretch your endurance. These runs should be a bit slower than other runs and steadily increase by about a mile each week.
- Speed work: For those with a goal time in mind, adding an element of speed to your marathon training will give you the boost you need to hit your mark. The most popular speed techniques among distance runners are intervals — repeated shorter distances at a fast pace — and tempo runs, which are longer distances held at a pace quicker than regular runs.
- Recovery: Your plan should contain enough rest and recovery days to keep you healthy enough to continue training. Proper recovery includes complete days off, as well as some days designated for low-impact cross-training, such as swimming, cycling or yoga.
- Peak weeks: Within the final two to three weeks before your marathon, you should be tapering. Tapering means considerably scaling back your training so your body is well-rested and ready to perform at its best on race day.
Should I Get a Personal Trainer?
Enlisting a certified personal trainer or running coach to help you prepare for your marathon can enhance your training methods, but it's not necessary for completing 26.2 miles successfully. Strength training is a key component of developing enough tendon strength and joint mobility to protect yourself from injury, but you can easily develop your own simple bodyweight routine to keep your muscles strong.
Try doing some dynamic stretches like lunges or squats before and after each run, along with some core exercises to increase your strength and speed.
How Should I Rest and Refuel?
If you're going to seriously train for a marathon, rest is essential. Make sure you take enough days off from running and get your eight hours of sleep each night. On runs that are not dedicated to developing speed or mileage, keep a comfortable pace, so you have the energy you need for more challenging workouts.
Proper recovery also includes stretching, getting adequate nutrition and hydrating after runs. Try to work a combination of static stretching, dynamic stretching and foam rolling into your regular exercise routine. These practices are essential for maintaining flexibility, which will keep your body healthy and able to do everything that training for a marathon demands.
Refilling your body's empty energy supplies with proper nutrition after a workout is also key to marathon training. Running far distances can deplete your body of its glycogen stores, so be sure to refuel with a mix of protein and carbs to rebuild muscle after each run. If you skip out on a post-run meal or snack, you will probably feel lightheaded or fatigued later on.
Whether you're running or resting, be sure to stay hydrated throughout the day. On long runs, either plan a route around plenty of public water fountains or bring a hand-held water bottle or hydration pack along for the ride. Whenever you feel symptoms of severe dehydration, such as dizziness or disorientation, be sure to stop running and get some fluids as soon as you can.
What Else Do I Need to Know Before Race Day?
In addition to getting proper nutrition after your workouts, you will need to practice taking in calories during longer training runs. A marathon is a long time to be running, and your body will need fuel along the way. Many runners choose to replenish their energy through gels or chews made specifically for endurance sports, but feel free to experiment with what works for you on different runs.
Another often overlooked component of marathon training is the mental game. By following a race plan, you will be physically preparing yourself for race day throughout your strategy, but make sure you prepare yourself psychologically as well. Like any other muscle, your mind can be conditioned to stay focused and perform well on race day.
Within the time it takes to run 26.2 miles, there will be plenty of opportunity for thoughts — make sure yours are positive! Repeat positive mantras and words of encouragement to yourself on practice runs and carry that strategy with you to race day. Master your mindset, and you'll be sure to cross the finish line with a smile on your face.
Where Can I Find Marathon Training Resources?
If you're thinking of training for a marathon, make sure you get in on the perks of membership at the Gateway Region YMCA. From treadmills for indoor training on snowy days to personal trainer services for building strength, the Y has all your marathon training needs covered. Keep an eye on our calendar of events — a shorter road race could be a great tune-up before tackling a full 26.2 miles.
Find the Gateway Region YMCA nearest to you to kick-start your marathon training today.