Completing a marathon puts amateur runners in the company of elite athletes—finishing a 26.2-mile run is an impressive feat. With dedication and training, most runners can complete a marathon—and then have the satisfaction of being able to say, "A marathon? Yeah, I've done that."
Do not avoid a marathon because it seems too hard, long, or painful. With the right attitude and a good training plan, it is just 26.2 miles away.
All marathon finishers are winners. The goal for first timers should be to reach that finish line.
If you complete a marathon, you will have overcome a great athletic challenge. If you decide you like marathons, you can always do it again—and you'll probably do it faster because you will have more experience. So, focus on finishing as comfortably as possible. That will mean following a training program that prepares your body for the task.
Ask ten different coaches and you will get ten different responses about the best way to train for your first marathon. However, most training programs do have a few key methods in common. Generally, programs last anywhere from 15 to 20 weeks. Over that time, your weekly mileage will increase. A few weeks prior to the race, you will begin to reduce your mileage. Most programs include a long run every week.
Kim Liljeblad, MS designed a 16-week program for first time marathoners. It includes the following components:
Your body is not used to running for hours at a time, so you need to get it ready. Liljeblad's program starts with an eight-mile long run in week one, builds to a 22-mile long run in week 13, then tapers back to 13 miles, then 10 miles in weeks 14 and 15. In week 16, there is no long run—you are running a race!
You do not need to run the full 26.2 miles in training, but you should do at least one run that is longer than 20 miles. You should know what it feels like to pass that 20-mile barrier. Do not go too far past 20, do not do it too often (once is enough), and do not do it too close to the race. Most people do long runs on the weekends, when there is more time to train.
Two days a week, just go out and run. One of these runs should be about five to seven miles (less right before the race). The other should happen the day after your long run. It should be about three miles.
Two days per week (not right before or after the long run), you should try to add in speed work. You can do this by running intervals on a track. You could also do tempo runs by changing your pace during the middle of an easy run, then picking up the pace to your ten kilometer or five kilometer pace for a stretch of several minutes. You could also do fartlek runs by picking up the pace more, for shorter stretches. Do not do the same kind of speed work each time: mix it up from day to day and week to week.
Running takes a big toll on the body; cross training helps you ease up without sacrificing training time. Try biking, swimming , or low-impact machines at your gym. Estimate that ten minutes of cross training equals one mile, and include this in your weekly mileage counts.
You do not want to get burned out, so take off at least one day per week—more if you need it. This helps your muscles recover and leaves you feeling refreshed for your next training session.
Most running injuries are overuse injuries; rest is key to staying healthy during marathon training. One day per week off and some cross training will help.
Another key for runners who are not used to doing long distances is to build up slowly. Be especially careful about your long runs. Do not run eight miles one week then sixteen the next. Rather, increase your distance in small increments.
Liljeblad's program involves increasing long runs by no more than a few miles each week—and there is not an increase in mileage every week. Total weekly mileage never increases by more than five miles from one week to the next. You need to give your body time to adjust to the new distances it is running.
As with any sport, you also need to be careful to warm up first. Begin with a five to ten minute cardiovascular warm-up. Some fitness experts do recommend stretching, while others say that the evidence is not there to support the idea that stretching reduces injury. If you are interested in stretching, make sure that you learn the proper form for each stretch. A fitness trainer can teach you how to stretch your muscles. Following your run, make sure to cool down and stretch lightly.
To complete a marathon, you need both emotional and physical support. It is great to have a training partner or group to run with, especially on long runs. You should also get used to running with physical support, including water, sports drinks, and foods.
Because your body adapts to training, you do not want to do anything different on race day than you do during your training. So get used to taking in water and fluids with electrolytes, especially during your long training runs. Come race day, make sure you drink early and drink often—running 26.2 miles uses a lot of fluids. You need to replace electrolytes to properly hydrate your cells and stave off dehydration.
Not all marathons are created equal. The first time you attempt 26.2 miles, you do not want to run ten miles straight uphill or battle sub-freezing temperatures. Choose a marathon that is relatively flat, friendly, and temperate. It will not actually be easy, but you can help yourself by choosing a race that does not require running in a parka or climbing 10,000-foot peaks.
Community Running Association of Boston
Road Runners Club of America
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Public Health Agency of Canada
Marathon training programs. Boston Athletic Association website. Available at: http://www.baa.org/programs/training-programs/marathon-training.aspx . Accessed January 24, 2013.
Running training tips. WaterAid website. Available at: http://www.wateraid.org/uk/get_involved/events/sporting_events/running_events/running_training_tips/default.asp . Accessed January 24, 2013.
Last reviewed January 2013 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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