How to Prepare for a Marathon

Shoshana Hebshi-Holt
Runners

You've jumped off the deep end and signed up for your first marathon. Don't panic! With the right training plan, you will be crossing that finish line at 26.2 miles and racing to sign up for your next one.

Preparation

Especially if you are new to running or have only competed in short road races like 5ks, a marathon at 26.2 miles may seem like a huge leap. But there is a good chance that people more out of shape than you have done it and lived to tell about it.

All you need is a good training plan, the right nutrition, patience and a good pair (or two) of running shoes.

Training

There are loads of marathon training plans out there. Finding one to suit your individual needs might be tricky. Sometimes it helps to talk to a seasoned marathoner or coach for advice or just go by trial and error. You can find many training plans for free online or pay a relatively small fee for a customizable plan. You are ultimately the best judge of what works for your body.

Plans

Finding the right training plan is the key to having a successful race. Look for a plan that takes into account your running experience. If you already run three or four days a week, your plan will look different from someone who rarely runs. Be realistic in setting your goals to avoid injury and burnout.

Most training plans will stretch at least 18 weeks before your race. If you are a new runner, you might go for a longer training plan over the course of 20 or 24 weeks to get your body accustomed to the increase in mileage. The training plan will end at your race day so plan accordingly.

Some popular online training plans that are free include:

  • Hal Hingdon's Novice 1: Aimed at the beginning runner, though Hingdon says experienced runners continue to use this plan as well. The free plan incorporates a gentle buildup of weekly mileage starting from 15 miles, building up to a peak of 40 miles at week 15, then a slow, three-week taper to race day at week 18. There is no speed work, and there are two rest days per week.
  • Jenny Hadfield: This running coach has a bevy of free online training plans you can download from her website. She has a nice array of plans to accommodate those who want to walk all the way to advanced runners looking to improve their times. Her beginning marathon plan is a 20-week plan that includes four running days, two cross-training days and one rest day each week. The plan peaks at week 17 with a 20-mile long run.

Start off Slow

A good training plan will have you gradually increasing your mileage over the course of several months so you will peak on race day. The general rule is not to increase your mileage by more than 10 percent a week. So if you're running 10 miles a week when you start your training plan, the second week you will increase your total week's mileage to no more than 11 miles.

Add Speed Work

Within your weekly cycle of training runs, you should have one or two days of short speed workouts. These are intervals or tempo runs that train your legs to turn over faster and your running efficiency. Speed work will make you a faster and more durable runner.

Cross Train

Even though you are training for a marathon, don't expect a training plan to have you running every day. Your body will need days off to recover. On those non-running days, it is important to cross train by lifting weights, doing yoga or Pilates, circuit training or another cardiovascular activity, such as swimming or bike riding.

Cross training will help bring balance to your body, help you to avoid injury, and add some variation into your workouts so you don't get sick of running.

Incorporate Rest

It might seem counterintuitive to take a day off when you're used to being active, but rest is very important for allowing the body to recover and rejuvenate from all the pounding it takes from running. Without adequate recovery time, you might be heading toward injury or strain.

Plan one rest day a week during your marathon training, and you can use it to get some therapeutic treatment, such as massage, or just kick your feet up (literally) and take care of other important aspects of your day-to-day life.

Practice Racing

During your training calendar, add some shorter distance races or simulated races onto your schedule. Sign up for at least one local 5k, 10k or half marathon or create your own simulated race and test your stamina. Run at race pace and see how you feel. The more racing experience you get before the big day, the more calm and confident you will feel when your feet cross the start line.

Get a Buddy

Everything goes better with a friend. Running buddies can help motivate you when you don't feel like running that day. They can hold you accountable and make sure you stay with the program. Plus, running 20 miles is a lot easier when you can chat with a friend.

While you might not race together, having a friend on the course can build camaraderie and make the event even more special. To find runners who share your goals and running pace, gather with a local running group or inquire at your local gym.

Eating Right

Proper nutrition during marathon training is just as important as getting those miles in. When you increase your mileage, you will find a need to ingest more calories. Make sure you get a healthy balance of protein, carbs and fats. According to dietitian Allegra Burton, marathon runners should get about 60 to 70 percent of their calories from carbohydrates and 15 percent from protein, and the rest from fat.

Hydration

Staying hydrated is one of the most important and difficult things to stay on top of during marathon training and especially on race day. Dietitian Janice Dada says "fluid intake during exercise should match losses." She suggests weighing yourself before and after a run. For every pound of weight lost, drink an extra two to three cups of water over the course of the day. For long runs, many runners take a water bottle with them, either strapped to a belt, held in the hand or as a backpack.

On race day, most courses have water stops at nearly every mile of the course where water and/or energy drinks will be available. If you aren't running with your own hydration, take a moment at the water stops to rehydrate.

Fueling Before, During and After

What and when you eat before your run will vary depending on how your stomach handles food. However, a common rule is to wait at least two hours after a heavy meal to go on a run. If you are an early-morning runner, a banana or energy bar might be a good carbohydrate source a half hour before your run.

During your run, if it's more than one hour, you will want to eat something easily digestible, such as an energy gel or drink or a banana. Eating around the 45-minute mark is a good rule, and if your run is very long, eat every 20 to 30 minutes thereafter.

Post-race nutrition is important for replenishing nutrients lost during your run. Get some lean protein, some carbohydrates and some fat. Quick and easy foods for after a run include 12 ounces of low fat chocolate milk, protein shake, an apple with peanut butter or six ounces of Greek yogurt.

Putting It All Together

Training for a marathon is no small feat. Once you have it in your head to tackle that 26.2 miles course, find that good training plan and stick to it as best as you can. There is always room for a little deviation to fit your schedule, so don't panic if you can't follow a plan exactly.

Eat right, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep. Be sure to listen to your body and to rest when you feel the need to rest. And most important, have fun and enjoy the ride!

How to Prepare for a Marathon