How Far Is a Marathon?

The Standard Foot Race Has Its Roots in an Ancient Legend

Mo Farah of Great Britain starts the Virgin London Marathon on April 13, 2014 in London, England
Stephen Pond/Getty Images

A marathon is 26.2 miles or 42 kilometers. Although some marathons differ in their terrain (some are very flat, some are extremely hilly) and degree of difficulty, the distance is always 26.2 miles. Races that are shorter or longer in distance have different names (such as 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or ultra-marathon).

Before you attempt to run a marathon, it's a good idea to be running for at least six months and run at least three times a week.

If you've never run a race before, you probably want to start with a shorter race, such as a 5K (3.1 miles), a 10K (6.2 miles) or half marathon (13.1 miles).

Once you've completed a shorter race distance, you'll be in a better position to decide if you want to take on the challenge of running or walking 26.2 miles.

History of the Marathon

The legend goes that Pheidippides, a Greek messenger, ran 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, to deliver the news of the Athenians' victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. The modern marathon distance became 26.2 miles at the 1908 Olympics, where the marathon course was designed so that it could start at Windsor Castle and finish at the Olympic stadium.

The oldest marathon in the U.S. is the Boston Marathon, which has been run continually since 1897. The marathon has been an Olympic event since 1896 when it began as a men's medal competition. It took nearly a century for a women's marathon to be added to the Olympics; the women's competition did not begin until 1984.

Preparing for a Marathon

If you want to train for a marathon, it's important to follow a training schedule so you're properly prepared for the race, avoid getting injured, and feel confident when you get to the starting line. Having a training schedule to follow will also keep you motivated during the four to five months that you'll need to prepare for the race.

Marathon Training Plans

Here are some beginner to advanced marathon training plans. Remember to consult your healthcare provider before starting any new exercise regimen. 

  • Run/Walk Marathon Training Plan
    Many first-time marathoners use a run/walk strategy to get them to the finish line. This 20-week marathon training program is designed to help you run/walk to the finish line of your marathon.
  • Beginner Marathon Training Plan
    This schedule is geared toward first-time marathoners. To start this 20-week marathon training plan, you should have a running base mileage of 12-15 miles per week.
  • 22-Week Beginner Marathon Training Plan
    This is another beginner runner marathon training plan that gives you a couple more weeks of training.
  • Advanced Beginner Marathon Training Plan
    This 20-week marathon training schedule is geared toward runners who can run 4 miles comfortably and can run 4 to 5 days per week.
  • Intermediate Marathon Training Plan
    This 18-week marathon training schedule is geared toward intermediate runners who have already run a marathon, currently run five days a week, and can run up to 6 miles at a time.
  • Advanced Marathon Training Plan
    This 18-week marathon training schedule is geared toward advanced runners with marathon experience who can run up to 8 miles comfortably and are running at least five days a week.