Training to finish a marathon can be done in a (relatively) short amount of time. But if you respect the distance and take the appropriate training time to prepare, the finish line will feel more victorious and less torturous.
The length of time it will take to train will vary widely between runners. Some runners can tack onto an existing base and be ready in just 12 weeks. Others may take over a year to comfortably tackle 26.2 miles.
Runners should consider how long they have been running, their longest run to date, and their typical weekly mileage. Remember that everyone is different so there is no magical amount of time or training plan that works for everyone.
Consider Overall Experience
A runner with less than a year of running under their belt will typically need to first build up a reasonable running base to even begin a marathon training program. However, a runner who has completed a few half marathons and consistently runs may need less time to prepare.
What’s Your Longest Long Run?
Completing 26.2 miles is tough even for those who have done finished multiple half marathons. A runner who has recently completed a couch to 5K program will need longer to build up to the distances required for the long run in a training plan.
What’s Your Weekly Mileage?
If you have not been consistent as a regular runner, you will need more time to build up your base. For runners with 25 or more miles per week, completing your first marathon may be possible in a short amount of time.
- Beginning runners with less than a year of running, a long run of 3 miles or less, and/or weekly mileage of 10 miles or less should give themselves a year to comfortably finish a marathon. Many cutoff times are generous and plenty of people train in less time, but a year will allow time to build a stronger base and help avoid injury.
- Intermediate runners with 1-2 years of running, a long run of at least a half marathon, and/or weekly mileage of at least 25 miles should give themselves 6 months to train for a half-marathon. This amount of time will allow for runners to have few weeks to ease into the plan and build their long run mileage in a generous amount of time.
- Advanced runners with more than 2 years of running, multiple half marathons, and/or weekly mileage of more than 30 miles should give themselves 4 months to race a marathon. These runners will be executing key workouts to make themselves faster and able to hit a time goal.
With a time frame in mind, how do runners choose which training plan will work best for them? Again, everyone is different and there is no one size fits all when it comes to training plans.
All runners should be able to complete the first week of their plan fairly easily–beginning runners may need to build up their base for the first couple of months to be prepared to start a training plan. When choosing a training plan, ask yourself a few questions.
How many days a week can you devote to training?
The goal is to execute the training plan in its entirety. If you are unable to train 6 days a week, don’t attempt a training plan that requires a huge time commitment. Consider plans that you know you are capable of achieving on any normal week.
How many miles per week can you handle?
If you are running 15 miles a week now, don’t consider plans that have 60 mile weeks. The goal is to get to the finish line healthy, strong, and not burnt out. Especially if you are training for your first marathon, it is important to make sure you don’t overdo it.
How much structure do you want?
Basic plans contain mileage goals and nothing else. For runners who are a bit more experienced or those who are looking to race rather than finish, consider a training plan that has structured workouts. These plans will contain specific pace goals for each training day and challenge runners to work on their speed as well as distance.
Consider the following three runners looking to train for a marathon:
Runner A: A few 5K’s
Runner A has completed a few 5Ks. He runs about 10 miles a week, but isn’t always consistent. He often has to work late and his family has a very busy schedule. Runner A should consider building up his mileage to begin and complete a half marathon plan.
After reaching the half marathon distance within 6 months, he should consider a plan such as F.I.R.S.T. Marathon Plan in which he can slowly build up his long run and still do key workouts. The plan only requires 4 days of running which will make it possible for Runner A to take care of his other commitments.
Runner B: Already completed a half marathon
Runner B has recently completed his first half marathon. He is pretty consistent in adhering to a training schedule despite a busy schedule. For the past year, he normally logs 25 miles per week. Runner B should consider a plan such as McMillan’s Level 2 or 3 Marathon Plan.
He can opt to add the base training plan that allows for 8 weeks of buildup before executing the 16 week plan. This plan requires 3-5 days of running commitment and tops out at 5-7 hours of running per week.
Runner C: Completed a few half marathons
Runner C has been running for 5 years and has completed a few half marathons. She regularly runs 35 miles per week and is ready to challenge herself with a full marathon. Her fastest half marathon is 1:40. Runner C should consider a plan like Pfitzinger 18/55 Marathon Plan.
This 5 day a week commitment is for runners who are not apt to skip a workout. For those runners with a solid base of running, this plan will also allow runners to not just finish, but achieve a time goal.
After determining the length of time it will take to be prepared and choosing a training plan, what else can runners expect while actually training?
Though it might seem obvious that sore muscles are expected, runners should be keen on listening to their body. A bit of tightness and twinges here and there are normal. Acute pain or pain that changes range of motion/gait should be signs to seek professional advice.
Part of the reason in choosing a plan that is achievable is to stave off injury which happens all too often when runners try to do too long, too hard, and too soon.
Expect to feel nervous. Sometimes because you are having a rough patch and running seems incredibly difficult. Sometimes because the mileage seems too much.
Sometimes because you find yourself a few weeks from the starting line and it seems impossible that you will actually be running 26.2 miles. Know that this is incredibly normal and expected–even for experienced runners.
Some days the workouts and the monotony of running really takes its toll. Especially if you are running at the same time on the same route, it can start to feel really old. Stay ahead of the boredom by planning new routes, meeting up with friends, or running at a different time of day.
Most runners experience this mid-cycle when the excitement of starting the program has worn off and it seems so long before you will be standing on the starting line.
There will be days that getting to and through a workout will be tough. Marathon training leaves even the most prepared runners exhausted at times. Be careful to make sure that you are eating a balanced, nutritious diet and getting plenty of sleep.
Watch for signs of over-training such as an elevated resting heart rate, insomnia, and persistent fatigue. A couple of bad workouts is not cause for worry, but 2 weeks of feeling bad may indicate the need to take an extra rest day or 2.
Hopefully people will tire of you talking about training for your marathon. If you are excited, you will be happy to tell the world about it. Even when you have a miserable training run or your hamstrings are tight from the extra miles, it is something that you will be proud of.
See you at the finish line!