A runner training for a marathon

How To Train For A Marathon

The marathon is an intriguing event because the uncertainty of how the body and mind will do over 42.2K of running is always a factor. The marathon is an iconic event that is steeped in history. Events are held globally but perhaps the most celebrated even is the Boston Marathon.

The largest and most renowned marathons in the world are Tokyo, Boston, Berlin, London, Chicago and New York City Marathons. They are all apart of the World Marathon Majors.  Many racers have it on their bucket lists to complete one or all of these races. There really is nothing like racing with 40,000 other athletes! Not to be outdone, there are countless other great marathon events that offer a spectacular experience with less finishers.      

There are many reasons to run a marathon and it is important to keep that in mind as you prepare for your race. Some runners have the goal of simply finishing the distance of 42.2 kilometres or 26 miles. Others want to run faster than they have ever run before.  Many are excited about a weekend away with family and/or friends. Others want to run the qualifying standard for the Boston Marathon. 

As you begin your journey to the finish line of the marathon, keep your reason for racing in your forethought as you decide what marathon to tackle, how you are going to train and what you want to get out of it.  This is your journey and no one else’s so own that process as you work towards the race.

Pick an Event – Know your Timeline

Athletes running on a road during a marathon event

If you are still trying to decide on a race, there are a couple of things to take into account. It is important to decide on a race so your training is focused, has a purpose and will keep you motivated.

If you are new to the marathon distance and/or running races in general, you might want to consider a race closer to home as your first event. Depending on where you live, there can be many great races ranging from 500 to 5000 participants. The larger events and/or a race with extensive travel, have extra logistics involved. Getting to the start line at a World Marathon Major is a significant undertaking when you consider navigating a metropolitan city that you are probably not familiar with together with 40,000 others all trying to get to the same spot at the same time. So, if you can do a smaller race closer to home, that is something to consider. If you want to jump into a bigger event right away it can be a great first experience at the marathon distance with the proper planning in place. As you become more experienced with racing, then taking on a larger destination race becomes a manageable task because you understand what is involved in running a marathon. 

Another consideration when picking a race is the time of year.  Most marathons are either in the spring or the fall in North America. Depending on where you live, training for a marathon will probably be impacted by the weather. Snow/cold in the winter and hot/humidity in the summer. The timing of the marathon is one thing but it’s also very important to consider the conditions you will be training in leading up to the marathon. There are options to get out of the elements if needed by hitting up a treadmill if it is cold/snowy or changing the time of day that you train when it is hot/humid. 

Take into account your work/personal schedule. If there is a quieter time of year you might want to plan a marathon then as the training for it requires a significant time commitment every week. The miles really add up in the last 2 to 3 months going into the marathon. Don’t underestimate the mental toll that marathon training can have as well. It is important to have time and energy to recover from the training.

The race course itself is important to consider. Some runners run well on a flat course, others enjoy a rolling course and some want to check out the view. Knowing what you prefer and enjoy, will help with this. If you want to get that Boston Qualifier, certain races are better than others to accomplish this. 

If your schedule allows, it can be beneficial to run a couple of shorter races leading into your marathon (5K, 10K or half-marathon event). Running shorter races gives you a chance to get a racing experience in without the demands of the marathon distance and test your training to get a concrete idea of how it is going. 

Depending on the race you are considering, you will need to sign up in sufficient time if it is a popular event that sells out. Some races require qualifying times or use draws to determine which runners get in. It is a good idea to think ahead when deciding on a marathon so that you are not disappointed when you cannot do your choice race or have to wait another year to get in.

Equipment

This picture shows some of the different types of shoes runners wear when taking part in a marathon

The joy of running is the simplicity of it! A pair of running shoes, some clothes and off you go. Make sure you get shoes that are suggested by a knowledgeable running store that takes into account your running gait and your feet. Every runner is unique and needs a shoe that works well for them. The complexity gets layered on especially when tackling a marathon. Keep that simplicity in mind as you go through the process of the training and racing. 

The complexity comes as you buy various items of clothing depending on the weather, another pair of shoes for specific training, tools, such as GPS watches, that aid in training and fuelling/hydration products that are needed during training and for the actual marathon. To get rolling on your marathon training, especially during the base training phase, all you need is a pair of shoes and a set or two of clothes, it is as easy as that. Other items can be added as training progresses.

What Type of Training is Required?

Man jogging

The training phases for a marathon are BASE, SPEED, RACE SPECIFIC and SHARPENING. The amount of time you spend at each phase will be dependent on where you are at with your training, how much time until your race and your training/racing background. Don’t underestimate the amount of time it takes to get ready to run 42.2K. The 16-week training programs are not sufficient unless you are at a certain fitness level going into the training. A minimum of 6+ months is suggested to get ready especially if you are coming into the marathon training without a sufficient base.

The gradual increase in both mileage and intensity with adequate recovery allows the body to adapt to the training stimulus to avoid injury and burnout. Many athletes want to go from 0 to 100% when they start training, which can lead to injury without giving the body time to adapt. As with the actual race, training for the marathon is a gradual process to get to that finish line, not a sprint.

Base Phase

The BASE phase is the time to build up your mileage and get comfortable with running. This can include increasing how far you are running a day and also the number of days you are running per week. 

Speed Phase

SPEED is an important phase in marathon training. You cannot run faster if you do not run faster, it is as simple as that. It is also fun to play with speed to bring a new training stimulus to regular running routines.   

Race Specific Phase

The RACE SPECIFIC phase keeps the speed in your training and adds the additional miles to get you ready to hit 42.2K. This includes increasing the length of your long run, playing with race pace and using the long runs as a race dress rehearsal for the big day. For the long runs, you want to eat and drink what you plan to before and during the race and what you want to wear during the event including your shoes. With the amount of time it takes to complete a marathon compared to the shorter races, it is important to practice during your long runs to ensure what you are eating, drinking and wearing will work over the distance for you. If you start this early enough, you will have time to make changes to parts of the plan if needed. 

Sharpening Phase

The final phase is the SHAPRENING one. This is the taper going into the race. The point behind this phase is to keep your body moving and feeling light on your feet. By this time, you cannot get any more in shape. Recovery is key to ensure your body and mind is ready to take on what it has trained to do over the 42.2K distance.

How Much Training is Required?

Runner at sunset

Ideally with marathon training, you want to hit 4 to 6 days of training per week as training progresses that includes a long run and 1 to 2 speed workouts.  The number of days you start at will depend on where you are at when you start training for the marathon. Every athlete has different life commitments and not every training plan will look the same. There are creative ways to work training around these commitments if required.

Non-impact activities, such as biking, elliptical, pool running and/or swimming, can be added to complement your running. The impact from running is important to get your body used to for race day, but that doesn’t mean that every body can handle running 4 to 6 days a week.  Cross-training is a way to stress your body without the impact and it can be used to maintain fitness if an injury occurs during training.

Another important component when preparing for a marathon is strength training if you have the time to add 1 to 3 sessions a week to your training program.  Depending on your availability, these can be quick 15 to 20-minute sessions after a run or an hour in a gym at a separate time.  Overall strength is a benefit when things start to get hard in the marathon.  The stronger you are, the longer your body will hold together over the distance.    

Recovery is as important as the training, but not normally thought of that way by runners. To adapt to your training, you have to recover so that you are ready to tackle the next big session and beyond popular belief, you cannot go hard every session, it is not physically or mentally possible. Recovery comes in the form of easy days, days off and easier weeks of training. Other important recovery considerations are: mobility and flexibility work; getting an adequate amount of sleep; eating enough good quality food; and staying hydrated. As mature athletes with numerous life commitments, recovery is even more important to maximize training.

In all your training, consistency is key. It is better to do a little less and do it consistently then try to do some big training sessions and not be able to back it up with another day of training.  A marathon is not made on one or two days of specific training, it is built on a progressive training load that is consistently achieved over an entire training program. 

Other Considerations 

A runner high fives some people who are on the side of the road cheering

Nutrition

Nutrition becomes crucial when events last longer than about 2 hours, which includes the marathon. During the race, it is important to have a constant intake of fluids (water) and fuel (carbohydrates) especially early on so that you have the energy stores to draw on for the last half to quarter of the race. This needs to be practiced during long runs to ensure what you are taking in works with your digestive system while running hard. Nutrition is an important component of training and racing for a marathon that not all runners take seriously, and as with the recovery piece, it has a significant impact on your abilities during training and racing. During training, getting enough high-quality calories and drinking adequate fluids day to day will help your body handle the demands of training.     

Race Specifics

Race specifics is another important consideration during training to get your body and mind ready for race day. This is why it is important to use your long runs as a dry rehearsal for the race. Try to run on similar terrain (flat vs hilly), comparable weather conditions if it is available and use the products that are going to be served on course for fluids and fuel to get your digestive system ready for them. You might end up using a different product that your body prefers, but still practice with what is on course in case you need it.

Group Training

Training with a group or other individuals can be a benefit depending on your personality, the group dynamics and your availability. When you train with others, there is a shared effort that can push the group to new heights. It brings a changed energy to training that does not work for everyone. Group training is something to consider and if you find a situation that works well for you, there is a benefit to that shared workload. You will all improve and likely enjoy the process more as well.

Hiring A Coach

Hiring a coach is a consideration that does have its benefits. A coach will provide support leading into the marathon that will assist in all the areas discussed in the article and beyond. Every racer is an individual and each situation is unique and a coach can assist you in navigating the training and racing to ensure you have the best opportunity to reach your goal(s) for the marathon based on where you are at. Remember it is your journey and no one else’s.

Health Professionals

Health professionals such as physiotherapist, chiropractors, massage therapists and nutritionists are great individuals to have in your circle when deciding to take on a marathon.  Regular appointments can ensure your body will be ready for the demands of training so you toe the line at the marathon ready to compete.

In Closing

Runners head down the beach on a sunny blue day on the West Coast.

When training for and racing a marathon, keep the training simple and do it consistently and you will hit that start line ready to tackle the 42.2K. A marathon is not built on a couple of really big training sessions, but the culmination of 6+ months of consistent training for the event. This is your training and racing journey and no one else’s so stay true to what you want to accomplish on race day and you will be successful.

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