How Far Is a Marathon?

The endurance 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 marathons differ in their terrain 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 the 5K (3.1 miles), 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 Distance

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. He arrived to declare, "Nikomen," which is "We win" in Greek. The word is derived from the name of the goddess Nike (Victory). Today, you might run a marathon wearing Nikes on your feet.

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.  Other marathons ensure their courses are certified so runners can use their times to qualify for the Boston Marathon. 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. With a well-designed plan you will steadily increase the distance of your long run of the week, then taper your mileage in the last couple of weeks.

This training period also allows you to practice good race hydration and snacking to keep your energy up during the race. You will learn how to avoid blisters, chafing, and other common marathon injuries during your long training days.

Marathon Training Plans

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

  • Advanced Marathon Training Plan: This 18-week marathon training schedule is designed for advanced runners with marathon experience who can run up to 8 miles comfortably and are running at least five days a week.