Marathon Race Training for Every Level: Everything You Need to Know

USA, New York City, runners in New York City Marathon (1997)

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A marathon is a bucket list goal for many runners. A major physical and mental challenge, it is a brave undertaking from the very beginning of training. But that doesn't mean it's too big to handle—in 2019, 427,000 runners, ranging from amateurs to professionals, registered for a marathon in the United States. There are over 800 marathons offered in the United States and between 2,500 and 4,000 marathons run worldwide.

Many people run marathons for health benefits, as well as a sense of personal accomplishment. While it's natural to worry about the toll marathon training takes on your body, with adequate training and proper running techniques, you can confidently run an injury-free marathon.

What Is a Marathon?

A marathon is a long-distance running race that is 26.2 miles (42.195 kilometers) long. Most marathons take place as a road race, while others may be set on trails.

The origin of the marathon dates back to 490 B.C. The Greek legend says that Pheidippides was tasked with the mission to inform the people of Athens that the Greeks defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. He ran the entire way non-stop, the distance ending up as approximately 40.8km. This was the same route used in the first Olympic games in 1896 and since then the marathon has become a part of the Olympics at the standard distance of 26.2 miles.

Marathon Training Plans

Anyone who wants to put in the time and energy to train for a marathon can certainly do so. It is important to choose a training plan that fits your fitness level and schedule to set yourself up for success. You can always adjust your training plan's intensity as you go along—what's most important is taking note of your body's cues to prevent injury as you train.

Beginner Marathon Training Plan

If you have never run a marathon before, a beginner training plan is a good place to start. To begin this training plan, you will want to have at least six months of consistent running under your belt and be able to run at least 3 miles at a time. You should also be in good health and free from injury.

Training plans usually include 4-5 days of running with strength training and rest days. You'll want to dedicate about 20-22 weeks before your marathon to training.

Intermediate Marathon Training Plan

You may be suited for an intermediate training plan if you have run a marathon before and are looking to improve your time. You should already be able to run between 30 and 60 minutes at a time, about 4-5 days a week. Ideally, you should be able to run 6 consecutive miles comfortably.

An intermediate training plan includes running about 5 days a week with strength training and rest days included. It also encourages hill repeats, interval training, and tempo runs. You will need about 18 weeks to complete the entire training plan before your race.

Advanced Marathon Training Plan

An advanced training plan is right for you if you have run one or more marathons and are ready to raise the level of your training. This plan is a good fit for you if you are already running five days a week and can run 8 miles comfortably.

The advanced plan includes 5-6 days of running with hill repeats, interval training, tempo runs, and strength training. You'll want to dedicate about 18 weeks to completing the training plan before your race.

Tips for Training for a Marathon

In addition to following your training plan, the importance of nutrition, hydration, rest, and recovery cannot be underestimated for marathon training. Being mindful of these other elements of training will help you prevent injury and run your marathon even stronger.

Prioritize Nutrition

It is important to pay extra attention to your nutrition during marathon training to fuel your runs, repair and recover muscles, tendons, and bones, and support optimal body function.

According to the ACSM Guidelines, carbohydrates are the primary fuel for the brain and central nervous system. Even during high intensities, carbohydrates offer an advantage over fat as fuel because it produces more energy. Depletion of carbohydrate stores is associated with fatigue, impaired skills, and concentration, and perceived increased efforts. High carbohydrate intake is recommended for long-distance endurance activities such as marathon training.

High protein intake is also recommended and may provide a training benefit. Eating adequate protein helps maintain muscle mass after endurance exercise, prevents muscle breakdown, and promotes repair and recovery of muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Fat is an important fuel source and should not be overlooked when fueling. Eating enough fat is fundamental to cell membranes and nerve function, and is a source of essential fatty acids. If you have concerns about your marathon training fueling or would like specific recommendations, be sure to seek advice from a sports dietitian.

Stay Hydrated

Hydration with water and sports drinks is an important part of your marathon training plan as well. The latest recommendation is to follow your instinctive thirst mechanism and monitor bodily parameters such as weight, urine color, pace, body temperature, and environmental temperature with each workout to find your individual hydration needs. This also decreases the risk of overloading the body with water so that the sodium concentration becomes too low.

Don't Forget to Rest

Allowing your body to rest and recover between hard workouts is essential to a successful training cycle and race. Resting during training allows your body to adapt to the training you are putting it through and makes you less prone to fatigue and injury.

You will want to make you are running your easy runs truly easily—your heart rate should be at 60-75% of your max heart rate and you should be able to hold a conversation. Getting enough sleep, eating enough during your rest days, and incorporating regular stretching and foam rolling can also greatly aid recovery.

A Word From Verywell

Running a marathon is the pinnacle of accomplishments for many runners. With a well-planned training cycle and adequate fuel, hydration, rest, and recovery, you can set yourself up for a successful race.

If you feel you need more guidance and advice, be sure to seek help from a running coach, physical therapist, and sports dietitian. They can give you specific recommendations based on your fitness level, schedule, and goals.

Always make sure to listen to your body and not push through any pain. You don't want to risk injury and sideline your training. Seek medical care when needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long do you need to train for a marathon?

    Most marathon training plans are between 12 and 22 weeks. Training plans aim to build up mileage slowly so you should choose a plan based on your fitness level and schedule.

  • How hard is it to train for a marathon?

    A marathon is certainly a challenging test of physical and mental endurance and training is no exception. Not only is training time consuming, it is also mentally and physically draining. It is important to be on top of nutrition and hydration to fuel your workouts and recover adequately.

  • What is the hardest part of a marathon?

    While this answer varies for runners, many runners say the hardest part of the marathon is between miles 18 and 23. This is often the point at which glycogen stores become depleted and it is harder to maintain a steady pace. Keeping up your fuel plan and hydration can help you push through the last toughest part of the marathon.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rebecca Jaspan, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Rebecca Jaspan is a registered dietitian specializing in anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia, as well as disordered eating and orthorexia.