At some point, many of us have toyed with the idea of running a marathon. Maybe you already have some 10Ks and half-marathons under your running belt, or maybe you’ve just watched from the sidelines and thought, “Wow, being a part of this would be awesome!”
Either way, most people don’t realize just how long it takes to train for a marathon. “Time is the best gift that you can give yourself when it comes to training,” says Janet Hamilton, an exercise physiologist and certified strength and conditioning specialist with Running Strong in Atlanta. “With time, you don’t have to rush your training, can prevent injury, be better prepared on race day and have an overall better experience.”
How long does it take? About 24 to 26 weeks to train for your first marathon – and that’s if you already have at least a year of running behind you, cover 20 to 24 miles a week and go on long runs of 6 to 8 miles, Hamilton says. Meanwhile, Jason Fitzgerald, head coach of Strength Running online coaching who holds a marathon time of two hours, 39 minutes, says that although most first-timers can properly train in 18 to 22 weeks, you aren’t ready to start training until your long runs are into the double digits.
Don’t let that discourage you. More runners are making their marathon debuts than ever before – and so can you. According to Running USA’s annual marathon report, a record number of runners crossed the finish line in 2013, and an all-time high of 1,200-plus marathon events took place in 2014. No word yet on what records 2015 broke.
Want to break your own personal record and make 2016 the year of your first marathon? Here are six things every first-timer needs to know to make it happen.
1. Recognize That Issues Will Come Up
One big reason to give yourself roughly 25 weeks to train is that, no matter how perfect your training plan is, it never goes perfectly, Hamilton says. That’s just life. Maybe you come down with a stomach bug and have to take a week off. Maybe you want to go on a vacation between now and marathon day, and 15-mile runs aren’t on the travel itinerary. Don’t beat yourself up. A generous training schedule allows you to surmount these detours and still be where you need to be on marathon day, she says.
2. Ramp Up Mileage Slowly
“No one has completely nailed to the wall how fast you should increase your workload, but the general rule is not to increase your mileage by more than 10 percent per week,” Hamilton says. “However, some people can deal better with 5 percent per week or 10 percent every two weeks. That’s OK.” Start with 10 percent mileage increases and tweak from there; and don’t be afraid to reduce mileage if needed. “When you train, it takes a while for your body to respond,” she says. “It involves changes at the cellular level. You are literally building heart muscle, skeletal muscle, bone, aerobic enzymes, mitochondria and other tissues, cells and chemicals. Your training program needs to respect that.”
3. Keep a Slow Pace
“The biggest thing that brand-new marathoners don’t anticipate is that most of their training should be at very slow paces,” she says. While some runs will be performed at your targeted race pace, or even faster during interval training, the bulk of your runs, especially long runs, should be at an “easy” pace that’s actually slower than your projected marathon time, she says. “The marathon is more than 99 percent aerobic,” Fitzgerald adds. So if you push yourself to the max during every training run, you will sacrifice some of your aerobic fitness gains by also training your anaerobic system. However, by keeping things slow and easy, you make sure to strengthen your race-revving aerobic system. To help identify your ideal race and training pace, go to runnersworld.com/pace-calculators or enlist the help of a certified running coach.
4. Strength Train Regularly
Many newbies think that if they want to become a better runner, they simply need to run more. But they also need to strength train, Hamilton says. She recommends that every marathoner-to-be incorporate two to three days of strength training into their weekly routine. Exercises like squats, lunges, planks, bird-dogs and clamshells strengthen muscles that you need to be a successful and injury-free runner. Try performing them after short, easy runs or on your no-run days to prevent overtraining, she says.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Run Your First 26.2 on Race Day
6. Forget Your Time on Race Day
It’s important to calculate your projected race pace for training purposes, but on race day, it’s best for first-timers (especially if you’re relatively new to running) to just focus on finishing, Fitzgerald says. Hamilton agrees. “Go into the race knowing that, no matter what you do, it’s a personal best. This is the first time you’ve ever conquered 26.2 miles, and that’s an incredible accomplishment,” she says. “The goal is to go across finish line thinking, ‘Wow, that was a great experience, and I want to do it again!'”