What You Need to Know to Run a Marathon
Photo: Shutterstock.com

A primer on how to train for and race a marathon

So you want to run a marathon? It’s a big deal, but it’s no small task. We’ve got you covered with everything you need to know to train for several months and run 26.2 miles to the finish line.

Running a marathon isn’t just covering twice as many miles as the wildly popular half-marathon distance. Everything else is magnified: your long runs will be longer, weekly mileage higher, workouts tougher, fueling needs greater, the list goes on.

But don’t let this scare you! Running is a simple sport and doesn’t require a lot to get started. Do your due diligence before you commit to going the distance. In this article, I’ll share some key insights along with a few great resources from other experts and coaches to help you tackle 26.2 miles with confidence.

Before You Begin

Train to be ready for the training. If you’re not running regularly, i.e., at least three times a week with a long run of 6 miles, spend a month or more building up to this frequency and mileage. It’s important to have a solid aerobic base before committing to a three- to six-month training program that will be necessary to finish a marathon.

Start thinking of food as fuel. Would you embark on a long car trip on an empty gas tank? Of course not! The same principle applies to marathon training. Keep your tank full, refill it soon after you empty it and use high-quality food that will sustain you over time.

Get a good pair of shoes. Or better yet, pick up a couple pairs once you find ones that work well for you. There is no “perfect” pair of running shoes, but there are plenty of bad ones. Check out these tips, then visit your local running specialty shop and let them help you select a pair of quality, comfortable kicks that will handle the demands of your training. Shoes are the most important tool a marathoner can own: Use your running shoes just for training and racing, and replace them every 400–500 miles. They’ll last longer that way and will put you in the right mindset when you slip your feet into them.

I recommend two different types of shoes: a more cushioned or supportive shoe for most of your daily runs, and a sleeker, lighter shoe for faster workouts. Why? Your feet will behave differently in each shoe, which engages and strengthens different muscles, helping make you more resilient to injury. Plus, your shoes will last longer when you’re rotating through a couple different ones.

 Commit to the process. Decide what the marathon means to you and write down your goals for the race, but also identify what you want to get out of the process of training for the event. The marathon itself will amount to a few hours of your time—the training, however, will occupy a few months of your life, and it can often change your life in meaningful ways. Figure out how training will fit into your day-to-day schedule, establish a routine that is consistent, sustainable and enjoyable, and set daily and weekly process goals—eating well, doing core work a few times a week, getting seven or more hours of sleep at night, etc.—that will help you adopt the lifestyle of a committed runner.

Figure out how and when your training can fit into your lifestyle and then commit to the process. Photo: Shutterstock.com


Basic Training

— Run three times a week, ideally (and eventually) more. Why? The body craves consistency. Increasing your running frequency—start by inserting a short 2- to 4-mile “shakeout” run into your schedule on a day you’d normally cross-train or rest—is a safe way to build weekly mileage, improve your aerobic fitness and enhance recovery. It will also send a signal to your body that it needs to adapt to the stresses being placed upon it, thus making you more resistant to injury. Finally, running more frequently will help you stick to a more consistent schedule, making it less likely that you’ll skip a workout.

— Build a better body. Marathoners don’t need to be body builders, but possessing a solid base of physical strength will help you better handle the increased demands of marathon training, making you a more well-rounded, injury-resistant athlete. No need to get too fancy here: A basic 15- to 20-minute bodyweight routine done two to three times a week will go a long way.

Go long. It seems obvious, but for marathon training, the long run is your most important workout. It will make up the highest percentage of your total weekly volume, increase your aerobic capacity, build mental toughness and give you the confidence you need to hit your goal on race day. Long runs for marathoners are typically 16–20 miles (sometimes longer), which is a huge stress on the body and can present problems if you’re not ready for that kind of distance. Accept where you are right now, add a mile a week to your longest run, and gradually build up the amount of time you spend on your feet. These runs also present a great opportunity to test shoes and gear, tinker with fueling and hydration strategies, and practice pacing.

Fueling

Keep the tank full. Unlike shorter race distances, the marathon requires drinking fluids and taking in calories at regular intervals to help you reach the finish line. The dreaded “bonk” in a marathon is usually a result of glycogen depletion. Fortunately, this is something you can train to avoid. Dialing in a fueling and drinking strategy can be a fickle process, but it also shouldn’t be a complicated one. Use your long runs to experiment with various types of gels, blocks, bars, sports drinks and the myriad other products that are available to runners today. There is no one right way to fuel during a marathon—through trial and error, discover the strategy that works best for you—and then stick to it.

READ MORE: What You Need to Know to Run a 5K Race

Next-Level Training

— Long slow distance isn’t all there is to it. The marathon is an aerobic event, meaning your muscles have plenty of oxygen to perform their intended function and you’re never really (or shouldn’t be) running at a pace that leaves you breathless. As such, most of your training—like 80 percent of it—should be performed at an easy aerobic effort. But, it’s also important to include some faster aerobic—and even anaerobic—running, commonly referred to as speed work, into your training schedule. A weekly fartlek session, track workout or tempo run will help you improve your speed, thus making you more efficient and also quickening your aerobic paces. Plus, it breaks up the monotony of long, slow mileage and adds an element of “fast fun” into your training schedule.

Adding in weekly workouts with some element of speed will help improve your fitness and your efficiency. Photo: iStock.com

Spice up your long runs. While long runs are most specific to the actual demands of the marathon in terms of duration, they also present a great opportunity to practice running your goal marathon pace on tired legs. The catch is you shouldn’t be running at your goal marathon pace all the time! I recommend rotating between three types of weekly long runs for more advanced runners: easy aerobic long runs, the fast-finish long run or long runs with faster surges. There are a number of calculators to help you determine your marathon pace (Jack Daniels’ VDOT Calculator and the McMillan Calculator are two of my favorites), and I recommend using them to dial in the right training intensities for various types of workouts.

Race your way into shape. There is no substitute for racing. A runner will always push harder when chasing (or being chased by) other people and a race can often be a good substitute for a hard workout. Pick your races wisely: a tune-up half marathon 3-4 weeks out from your goal marathon can give you a realistic snapshot of your fitness level and will also push your fitness forward a few more steps. Shorter races such as 5Ks and 10Ks are great ways to work on speed and racing tactics, while allowing you to recover relatively quickly afterward. Finally, running a few races in the buildup to your big marathon can be great practice for going through your race-day routine, thus making sure nothing catches you by surprise the morning of the marathon.

Recovery

Hit the pillow. While there are a number of products being marketed to help you recover faster after races and hard workouts, the most effective solution is free and readily available: your pillow. Getting more quality sleep on a regular basis has been proven to enhance recovery more effectively over the long term than anything you can buy with a credit card. Getting more sleep at night will help you get more out of your workouts, especially as your training load increases.

 Eat well. Right up there with getting good sleep at night is eating quality foods (and eating them at the right time). As mentioned earlier, good fuel goes a long way toward keeping going, and the recovery process starts as soon as you finish a hard workout. Aim to get in a few hundred quality calories consisting of carbohydrates and protein within a half-hour of finishing your runs, and a full meal within one to three hours. Doing so will help you restock depleted glycogen stores and repair broken-down muscle tissue. The better you recover, the faster you can get back to training hard.

Tapering

— Maintain the rhythm. If there’s one main theme to marathon training, it’s consistency. When it comes to the taper, don’t forget this concept! The most important element of a good taper is not straying too far from what’s worked for you throughout the training cycle: Run easy on the days you usually run easy, run fast on the days you usually run fast, rest when you usually rest. Reduce the volume and intensity of these workouts accordingly so that they’re not taking as much out of you, but don’t start taking unnecessary days off (that you wouldn’t normally) in the name of “rest.”

Watch the speed limit. When peaking for a race, many runners think they should be running faster since they’re running less. Be careful here! The intensity of most of your key workouts in the seven to 10 days before your marathon shouldn’t stray too far from your goal marathon pace. Running at this speed will be good reinforcement leading into race day and won’t take a lot out of you. (It shouldn’t anyway, if you’ve trained well.)

Give yourself two weeks. One of the most common tapering mistakes I see runners making is starting their taper three to four weeks out from race day. I recommend starting to scale things back two weeks out. Why? At no point of the training cycle did you taper for three weeks, so why start now? Remember that whole consistency thing. Two weeks out from your race, run your last long run (keep the effort fairly relaxed), which will give your legs plenty of time to freshen up for the big day. Drop your weekly volume by 15–20 percent two weeks out from race day, and another 10 percent the week of the race. Any longer (or more), and you’ll likely start feeling out of sorts—better known as a taper tantrum!

Eat. A lot. Seems obvious, right? The problem is many runners think that since they’re reducing their training load, they need to reduce their calorie intake too. Be careful here. It will take your body a couple weeks to realize it’s running less, so your caloric needs won’t change much in the two weeks before the race. Avoid foods that bother your stomach, especially in the days right before the race, but keep the intake high, as it’s important that your tank is full when you step to the starting line.

Race Day

Get up early. Most marathons start early but you’ll want to be up two to three hours before your race (at least) to ensure that you’ve got enough time to eat, use the bathroom and get to the race start. Race morning is often a flurry of excitement, and the last thing you’ll want to feel is rushed before you get into your corral.

Warm up. Yes, the marathon is long, but you don’t want to be starting cold. Jog easily for five minutes before the race and do a few 15- to 20-second pickups to stretch your legs out a bit. Avoid standing still in your starting corral—active stretching exercises and jogging in place will help keep the blood flowing through your body before you take off toward the finish line.

Relax. This should be the theme of the day—before and during the race. It can be easy to use up too much emotional energy before the race, so find some friends and keep the mood relaxed before you set off. Once the horn sounds, use the first couple miles to get your legs back under you and find your rhythm. Control the things you can control: your effort, your attitude, your fueling strategy. Doing so will set you up for success.

Run negative. Keep a positive attitude, but run negative splits. Translation: run the second half of the race faster than the first. Easier said than done, I know, but it’s the recipe that’s led to the last few marathon world records and almost without fail is how the best marathoners in the world run their own races. And while you might not be a record-setter like Dennis Kimetto or Paula Radcliffe, you can take a page out of their book when it comes to executing on race day. Run the first half of the race at, or slightly slower than, your goal marathon pace. Doing so will help ensure that you don’t burn through your glycogen stores too early and will set you up for a strong second half, which ideally you’ll be able to run faster than the first. Doing so takes discipline and patience, but the payoff—and excitement of finishing strong—is well worth it!

Race day is the time to reap the rewards of all of your training and dedication. Photo: Shutterstock.com
Mario Fraioli
Mario Fraioli is a Bay Area-based running coach who works with a number of Olympic Trials-level marathoners and internationally ranked ultrarunners. He also writes and publishes The Morning Shakeout, a weekly email newsletter that covers running and other topics that interest him. Follow his work at @mariofraioli and themorningshakeout.com