Running a marathon is one of the most challenging and rewarding things you can do for yourself. It’s no wonder it has made its way onto countless bucket lists!
But covering 26.2 miles isn’t something that should be taken lightly — it’s a long way to go and, without proper training, you’re bound to have an unhappy experience. If you prepare well, however, your first marathon has the potential to be an incredible event.
If you are brand-new to running, the most important thing you’ll need to do is give yourself ample time to get ready. When selecting your race, allow at least 6–9 months of mileage buildup and race-specific training.
Even if you’re relatively fit from other athletic endeavors, you’ll need to give your body time to adjust to running regularly. Adding some core and running-specific strength work to your routine will help keep you injury-free as the miles increase.
Below are nine tips to help you get through your first marathon successfully. It’s a lot of hard work, but, with the right mindset, it can also be an amazing adventure in pushing the limits of what you think is possible.
1. Do your homework.
Once you have committed to running a marathon, you’ll need to choose your race. While it’s ideal to start with a race close to home since logistics will be a little less challenging, choosing one that excites and inspires you is even more essential. Some other important things to consider include:
- Time of year: Do you prefer running in warmer or cooler weather?
- Race size: Do you prefer a smaller hometown feel or great crowd support?
- Race route: Are you looking for a scenic route, or do you prefer a big-city atmosphere?
- Elevation/hills: Do you usually train on flat or hilly routes? Do you prefer a route with lots of rolling hills or one that’s pancake-flat?
2. Pick the right training plan.
There are an overwhelming number of training plans online. Some are very simplistic and only provide you with mileage to run, while others are much more detailed. Books by renowned running coaches can also provide you with a plan to follow. For the most personalized plan, a running coach is your best option. While it requires a more significant financial investment, a coach can address your strengths and weaknesses, customize a plan to your schedule and help keep you accountable.
No matter what option you choose, make sure you’re committed to investing the necessary time throughout your months of training.
Marathon training plans typically cover 16–24 weeks, and most assume you can already run at least 5 miles. The mileage will build consistently over your weeks of training, with some cutback weeks built into the plan to allow for recovery. Beginner plans often start at about 15 miles per week and top out at 35–40 miles per week. Long runs will gradually increase in length as well, with at least one run of 20 miles.
This all sounds pretty daunting, but with consistent effort, you’ll get there!
3. Don’t skimp on your long runs.
Long runs are the bread and butter of any marathon training plan. They help strengthen you both mentally and physically for the challenges you’ll face on race day. Mark these on your calendar and treat them like a non-negotiable appointment.
While life can often get in the way of training, try not to let it interfere with your long runs. A little schedule rearranging can usually solve most problems, but if illness or a family obligation keeps you temporarily sidelined, don’t try to “make up” your runs. Trying to cram in too many miles too close together will get you injured much more quickly than missing one long run or a few days of training.
As you get closer to race day and your long runs get longer, think of them as dress rehearsals for the race itself. Try to run routes that are similar to the course, especially if the marathon you chose is a hilly one. Long runs are also an important time to practice your fueling and hydration strategies. Test out different options to see what works best to fuel you before, during and after your runs, especially if you have a sensitive stomach.
4. Balance mileage and recovery.
Consistent mileage is undoubtedly the most important part of your marathon training. But it’s also important not to get overzealous and push yourself too hard, since overtraining or running injuries are real possibilities.
No matter what training plan you use, there should be some weeks built into your schedule where your overall mileage and long run decreases to allow time for recovery. Often you’ll have three weeks of increasing mileage followed by an easier week.
It’s important to know in advance that you may have days where your motivation is less than stellar. That’s not unusual, and you should push through those times, knowing that you’ll likely feel better in a day or two. But if you’re sick or struggling with the early stages of an injury, know that it’s also OK to take an extra day off. Some achiness or muscle soreness is to be expected during marathon training, but any sharp pain should be cause for concern. Better to take a couple extra days off than be sidelined with illness or injury for a week or more.
5. Make sure your training includes consistency and variety.
Consistency and variety — aren’t these contradictory? No, not when used appropriately in your training. Essential in your daily, weekly and monthly runs, consistency means you run regularly, build up mileage properly and stick to your training plan as closely as possible. It means not missing days or weeks of training and assuming you can “make them up” later.
Variety should also come into play in your training program but in a different way. A quality training program will have you run at different paces — not the same effort day in and day out. Rotating between two pairs of shoes is also a great way to give the muscles in your feet and legs some variation. Try to run on different surfaces like grass, dirt, crushed gravel and the road.
Different strength and core routines can also help introduce more variety — with the added benefit of helping you get stronger. Start with these tried-and-true routines:
This level of variety in your routine will help prevent injuries and enable you to withstand the repetitive nature of running.
6. Practice makes perfect when it comes to fueling and hydration.
While a half-marathon requires some attention to midrace fueling, this becomes even more essential during a marathon. Since most first-time runners will be out there for more than four hours, taking in enough nutrition will be critical to avoid the dreaded bonk late in the race. As a general rule, you’ll want to take in an energy gel or another source of carbs every 30–45 minutes during your race. If this is more than your stomach can handle, try alternating gels with sports drinks, as this combination may be easier to digest.
As your runs get progressively longer, practice your fueling strategy regularly and experiment to see what type of nutrition works best. For some, energy gels or chews will work perfectly, while other may prefer “real-food” sources of calories like dates or raisins. While you may not always require as much fuel during your long runs as you will on race day, you should practice your race-day fueling strategy precisely on at least two of your long runs.
7. Endure the taper crazies.
If you have previously run a half-marathon, you may have some experience with prerace tapering. This is the time when you begin to reduce your mileage, usually 2–3 weeks prior to your race. For some, this is a welcome break, but others get restless and start to question their training and worry that every little ache is about to turn into something catastrophic (don’t worry … they won’t!).
Though tapering involves a gradual reduction in mileage, you should still maintain some intensity, typically in the form of tempo or marathon-pace runs. But it’s essential not to overdo it during this time. As the saying goes, “the hay is in the barn,” and you can do far more harm than good by pushing yourself too hard at this point.
8. Plan your race logistics.
Marathons are often large events, with thousands of runners. Knowing the details of packet pickup and race-day scheduling will make your marathon less stressful.
Plan ahead and allow more time than you think you need for everything that day. If the race is taking place during cold or inclement weather, bring clothes that you don’t mind losing to keep you warm and dry while waiting for the start. If you don’t have anyone you can hand your extra clothes to near the start, you’ll have to leave your clothes behind, but don’t fret: Most races donate these items.
9. Execute your plan.
As a first-time marathoner, finishing strong should be your primary goal, rather than aiming to finish in a particular time. It’s essential you don’t start too fast; 26.2 is a long way to go. Your first several miles should be run slower than your expected pace. This will help keep you from pushing too hard too early. Settle in, run your pace and enjoy the experience.
Just as it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and start too quickly, it’s also easy to get off track with your nutrition on race day. Stick with your planned fueling strategy, using time increments or mile markers to remind you to drink and take gels (or your preferred source of nutrition).
Crossing the finish line of a marathon is exhilarating, whether it’s your first or 50th. But you only get one chance to run your first marathon, so do everything you can to make it an amazing experience.