Marathon Training/ Recent/ Running

How To Train For A Marathon

Training for a marathon is an entirely new world if you’ve never ventured to that distance before. Even after running dozens of half marathons, training for a full marathon changed my entire lifestyle. It takes a lot of dedication and sacrifice. When I’m in intense marathon training mode, I change the way I eat, drink, my social habits (gotta wake up early on the weekends to fit those long runs in!), and even my work-life balance changes since I can’t work as much when I’m running that much!

In short, there’s no such thing as waking up one day and running a marathon without training for months in advance (that is, at least, if you are hoping to stay healthy, run injury free and not hate race day).

Best Womens Running Shorts For Marathon

However, while I’m very comfortable helping people train for a 5K, 10K or half marathon, I’m not comfortable advising people on training for a marathon, even though I’ve covered 26.2 miles multiple times (including the 2018 and 2019 Boston Marathons). So instead, I asked a friend of mine, who is, in fact, a marathon training expert, to write on this topic. Meet Ryan Warrenburg, a running coach at On ZAP Endurance, a professional training group.

Ryan Warrenburg Marathon training expert

A little bit about Ryan:

Ryan Warrenburg has been a coach at On ZAP Endurance, a professional training group, since 2010. In his time on the coaching staff, ZAP has had over 20 athletes qualify for US Olympic Trials, make 3 World Championship appearances on Team USA, set 11 Club Record performances, win the 2010 and 2014 National Club Cross Country Team Championship, and helped train over two dozen Top Ten finishes at USATF Track and Road Championships.

Additionally, through ZAP Coaching, Ryan has coached dozens of athletes to Boston Marathon Qualifying times, multiple athletes to top 10 national age group finishes, guided a number of people to their first marathon and half marathon finishes and countless runners to personal bests at distances from the mile to ultra marathons. You can follow him on Instagram here.

On top of his serious credentials, he’s just a really nice guy. Now that you know how qualified he really is, let’s turn him loose!

Over to you, Ryan.

How To Train For A Marathon

The term marathon comes from the ancient Greek battle between the Greeks and the Persians. As the battle neared its end, the Greek messenger Pheidippides raced on foot 25 miles from Marathon to Athens to alert the Athenian assembly of the Greek victory. And then he abruptly died. At least that’s the legend. And while I know that might not be the most confidence inspiring story to begin a post about marathon training, the goal is to equip you with the tools necessary so that you don’t end up like Pheidippides.

The marathon distance now is standardized at 26 miles and 385 yards (26.2 miles). There is a good reason behind the unusual distance: at the 1908 London Olympics the Queen wanted the race to begin at Windsor Castle and finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium, 26 miles 385 yards away.

As evidenced by the fate of Pheidippides, the marathon has always appealed to people’s sense of challenge. Whether that challenge is finishing the distance or pushing to a new personal best, the marathon is perhaps the most universal standard in distance running. And whatever your motivation, what follows below is your blueprint to marathon success.

Step 1: Commit

Training to run a marathon is a commitment. I’m not saying the marathon is better than shorter events like a 5k or 10k (it most certainly is not). But I am saying that being prepared to finish a marathon takes a lot more time and energy than being prepared to finish a 5k or 10k. There isn’t room for procrastination or half-hearted commitments when it comes to marathon training. Time to commit to the process.

Step 2: Begin where you are

Start where you are. I’ll expand on this more later, but understand that the best training plan for you is one that begins where your fitness begins. For some people that may mean 2 months of preparation, for others it may mean a year. And that’s ok. You need to begin where you are and know that’s the perfect place to be.

Step 3: Get the right gear

Get your gear. Having a quality pair of running shoes (perhaps a sweet pair of On’s) will go a long way in keeping you healthy. I’d recommend visiting a local running specialty store. Not only is it a great place to get hooked up with your local running community, but they’ll help you find the right shoe for your foot.

Step 4: Build your base

More on this in the Training Plan section below, but for now just know the goal of base building is to get into a consistent routine and gradually increase your running. Your training runs are what get you ready for the real thing.

Step 5: Add in your workouts and marathon long runs

These aren’t necessary if your goal is to complete the distance. By simply sticking with your base building and increasing the length of your long run you can be well prepared to complete the distance. However, if your goal is performance driven, then workouts and marathon long runs will elevate your marathon performance to the next level.

Step 6: Race day

At this point you’ve put in all the hard work now it’s time for your 26.2 mile celebration!

Marathon Training Program

Base Building

This is often the least exciting part of training, but it is absolutely the most crucial, especially for marathon training. I would recommend at a minimum that you get comfortable running 30-35 miles per week before you decide to take on the marathon distance. And for those with big performance goals being able to get into the 40-50 mile per week range is going to make a world of a difference.

Base building is all about getting your body used to the miles. These miles don’t need to be hard or fast. In fact, these runs should be done at a comfortable pace. If you’re a heart rate runner, these runs should be done at roughly 60-75% of your maximum heart rate. This effort is fast enough to improve your body’s ability to transport oxygen to your working muscles, giving you the aerobic endurance needed for the marathon. And it’s easy enough to minimize the risk of injury and overtraining.

In addition to reaching a minimum weekly mileage of 30-35 miles you want to make sure to get in 3 runs of 17-21 miles within the last 8-10 weeks of your training plan. These components together will prepare you effectively for the 26.2 mile distance. In addition to improving your oxygen transport ability, the base building helps build the strength in your muscles and tendons necessary to handle longer and more intense runs.

Marathon Workouts

As mentioned above, if all you did was focus on base building – getting in your long runs and easy miles you would be prepared to cover 26.2 miles. In fact, I would suggest for first time marathoners that is exactly what you should do. After the first marathon you can open the door to coming back with more performance driven goals.

To achieve those performance goals we are going to begin adding speed work into our weekly routine. In much the same way our base building was done at a submaximal intensity, so too should our speed workouts. One of the biggest mistakes people make with speed work is thinking they should run as hard as possible. This could not be further from the truth.

Our workout days should target roughly 80-85% effort and no more. Once you start getting up to 95-100% effort you can begin to reverse, instead of enhance, the aerobic benefits you’ve built up in your base phase. When it comes to the marathon, endurance is everything. And if we focus too much on maximum effort and top speed in training we sacrifice some of that endurance.

Types of Workouts

Tempo Run

A tempo run is typically a 20-40 minute effort run at the pace you could hold for a 1 hour race. You’ll notice I didn’t say the pace you could hold for a 20-40 minute race. Tempo runs should be done at an 80-85% effort. You always want to finish these workouts feeling like you could have run faster or farther.

Progression Run

This is similar to a tempo run, but we’re going to progress forward throughout. In order to do this effectively you want to start about 15-20sec/mile slower than your marathon pace. Then throughout the run pick up the pace gradually to where you’re finishing at or a little quicker than your 1 hour race pace. For example, a 5 mile progression run should begin with the first mile 15-20sec/mile slower than marathon pace. Then the pace should increase roughly 10sec/mile each mile until you finish the final mile at or slightly quicker than 1hr race pace.

Tempo Intervals

This one can get a bit tricky, but it’s such a powerful tool – especially during the summer that we need to dig into it a bit. A tempo interval is very similar to a tempo run. The effort is the same. We’re just going to break that effort up a bit with some recovery periods to make sure we are targeting the right effort. In the heat of the summer this is crucial because often running a steady tempo run is nearly impossible without turning it into a 100% effort. This also allows us to run a bit quicker without running harder, allowing us to train the correct effort at a variety of paces.

In general, tempo intervals are 2-12 minute intervals run at an 80-85% effort with short recovery (50% or less of interval time). You should aim for 20-45min of total time in your workouts.

Use this guide to determine how fast your paces should be based on your interval distance:

Intervals of 6-12 minutes should be run at a pace you could race at for 45-60 minutes. (Think about this as a sliding scale: a 6min interval run more along the lines of 45 minutes race pace and a 12min interval closer to 60min race pace.)

Run intervals of 2-5 minutes at a pace you could race at for 30-40 minutes. Again, use these ranges as a sliding scale where 2 minute intervals are closer to 30 minute race pace and 5 minute intervals are closer to 40 minute race pace.

Before we move on, let’s look at an example to better understand the concept:

Workout of 5 x 5 minutes with a very easy 2 minute recovery jog or walk between each repeat. The 5 minute pieces should be run at roughly the pace you could race at for 40 minutes. For some people that could be 10k pace, for others it may be closer to 5k pace.

Marathon Long Runs

Even more important than our speed work is our long run on the weekend. Why? The long run is the run each week that is most similar to your race. That level of specificity gives it the most influence on the outcome of your marathon.

Going back to our point earlier, if your goal is to finish the distance, then your long runs should simply be about getting the miles in. And you should aim to run a minimum of 3 long runs in your training plan that are 17 miles or more. If your goal is more performance driven then continue reading below where we’ll break down some different marathon long runs.

And before we get into them, make sure to grab some energy gels and lots of water. You’ll want to be properly fueled and used to training with fuel since there will be aid stations at the race.

Long Run 1:

The Time on Feet Long Run. In the interest of not beating a dead horse, I’ll be brief. This is a run where the goal is just getting in the miles. Speed isn’t the goal here. You want to keep the effort in that 60-75% type of range, meaning you should be able to have a relatively casual conversation with your running partner. If you’re gasping for breath between words you’re running too fast.

Long Run 2:

Long Run with Pickups. The pickups are just what they sound like. Typically we’ll do these pickups in pace over the final hour or so. The structure is limited only by your imagination, but here is a good place to start:

Finish the final 60 minutes of your long run with 10 x (1 minute pickups and 5 minutes easy running between each). The pickups should start at roughly marathon pace and then you can pick them up to finish closer to half marathon pace. For the 5 minutes between them you want to get right back to the pace you were running before you began the pickups, your easy long run pace. If you have to slow way down to for the 5 minute segment to recover, you’re running the pickups too fast.

These pickups do an amazing job of improving endurance late in longer runs (like say, a 26.2 mile run) and building the mental tools necessary to finish strong even when you get tired. They also teach you how to chunk up the run into smaller parts – an invaluable tool to apply to race day.

Long Run 3:

Specific Long Run. In this long run we’ll tackle somewhere between 8 and 13 miles around marathon pace. It’s tempting to do a bunch of these long runs. But you want to use these sparingly, 1-2 times per marathon training cycle is plenty. Too many will leave you run down, overtrained, and at an increased risk of injury. There are many ways to include marathon paced running in your long run, from running 8-12 miles at marathon pace to alternating 1 mile at marathon pace / 1 mile easy. Here is an example we use quite a bit with the ZAP professional team:

The long runs, when coupled with your weekly running mileage, provide the muscular strength and endurance needed to cover 26.2 miles. If you do only one thing each week, make sure it’s getting a long run in. It is the most important day of the week in marathon training.

Marathon Training Schedule

Now that you know more than you ever wanted to know about marathon training, it’s time to bring the pieces together and create some clarity on the big picture.

The table below shows how to structure a week of marathon training. You’ll notice just 1 harder workout and 1 long run. Everything else should be easy mileage, rest, or cross training or even strength training. Most people will be pushing their weekly mileage up a bit during marathon training. Therefore, it’s important not to overdo the intensity. Hence, only 1 hard workout during the week.

If you pick up this schedule from not running at all aim to work up to the 4 runs a week program. If you typically run 4 days, picking up an extra day of running would be a good next step. I do prefer for most people to have 1 day of complete rest each week. Hard work is important, but recovery is ultimately what allows us to improve. A rest day is usually a good idea.

Marathon Training TipsThe weekly workout can be any of the workouts described previously (tempo, progression, tempo interval) and the total mileage for that day, including a 1.5-3 mile warm-up and short cool down, should comprise about 15-20% of your total weekly mileage.

Now let’s look in more detail at the long run distance each week.

The table below outlines the distance of the long run each week for the final 12 weeks leading into a marathon. You’ll notice a wide range of distances in the week’s labeled 11 weeks out to 3 weeks out. (Two weeks out and 1 weeks out are labeled in hours and minutes.)

To understand where you fall in the range, refer back to the principle of starting where you’re at. If you’ve never run these distances, or a marathon, you should aim to run the distances on the top of each column. Those distances are for the runner whose goal is to complete a marathon. The distances at the bottom of each column are for veteran marathon runners with big performance goals and experience running 50 + miles a week.

Training Schedule for Marathons

As we mentioned before, if your goal is to finish, don’t worry about doing all the different marathon runs I described earlier. Just focus on covering the distance. If you are going to incorporate those varying types of long runs into your schedule the outline below is a general outline for how to do so.

Training Tips for Marathons

By this point I’m sure many of you are thinking, “just tell me what to do already.” I have provided a sample 16 week training plan below. But my hope is that by combing through the details you now better understand the process and the purpose behind what’s in a training plan. And in the long run (pun intended) that is going to provide much more value than a cookie-cutter training program could ever hope to.

For the program below please reference the guidelines in the previous sections to understand how the ranges on each day should apply to you.

In general, most people can afford to run 10-20% more than they typically do when marathon training because the schedule calls for less intensity than most other training plans.

If you’re a beginner start on the lower end of the range, and be sure you’re not doing too much too soon in your running journey. The same rule we applied to determine your long run distance should be applied to the weekly mileage ranges (the sliding scale based on experience and background). Remember, start where you’re at.

If you want a PDF copy of this marathon training plan emailed to you so you can print it off and use it to train, click here.

Week Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday Weekly Mileage
1
Rest Day 3-5 mile easy run 4-8 miles easy running Cross Train 

or Rest

4-7 mile easy run 3-5 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

8 – 12 miles easy running  19 – 37 miles
2
Rest Day 4-6 mile easy run 5-9 miles easy running Cross 

Train 

or Rest

4-8 mile easy run 3-5 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

10 – 14 miles easy running 23 – 42 miles
3
Rest Day 4-6 mile easy run 6-10 miles easy running 3-5 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

5-8 mile easy run 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

11 – 15 miles easy running 26 – 50 miles
4
Rest Day 4-7 mile easy run 7-11 miles easy running 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

6-9 mile easy run 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

13 – 17 miles easy running 30 – 55 miles
5
Rest Day 4-6 mile easy run 6-10 miles total with 4-6 mile Progression Run  3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

5-8 mile easy run 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

11 – 15 miles easy running finishing the final 60min with 1 minute pickups at marathon pace with 5min easy between each  30 – 45 miles
6
Rest Day 4-6 mile easy run 7 – 11 miles total with 4-8 miles at marathon pace 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

6-9 mile easy run 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

15 – 18 miles easy running finishing the final 60min with 1 minute pickups at marathon pace with 5min easy between each 35 – 55 miles
7
Rest Day 4-7 mile easy run 7 – 11 miles total with 3 miles 5-10sec/mile slower than 1 hour race pace, 3min rest, 2-3 miles at 1 hour race pace 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

6-9 mile easy run 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

16 – 20 miles easy running finishing the final 60min with 1 minute pickups at marathon pace with 5min easy between each 35 – 58 miles
8
Rest Day 3-5 mile easy run 6 – 10 miles total with 20-35min tempo at 1hr race pace  3-5 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

5-8 mile easy run 3-5 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

11 – 15 miles easy running 30 – 48 miles
9
Rest Day 4-7 mile easy run 7 – 11 miles total with 4 – 6 x 1 mile from 1hr race pace down to 40 minute race pace (aiming to get a touch quicker on each mile) 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

6-9 mile easy run 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

16 – 20 miles easy running finishing the final 60min with alternating 1 minute and 2 minute pickups from marathon pace down to half marathon pace with 5min easy between each 35 – 58 miles
10
Rest Day 4-7 mile easy run 7 – 11 miles total with 5 – 8 x 1k (.62 miles) at from 45 minute race pace down to 35 minute race pace (aiming to get a touch quicker on each mile) 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

6-9 mile easy run 3-7 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

18 – 21 miles total finishing the run with 4 – 8 miles at marathon pace followed by 1 mile very easy to finish 35 – 60 miles
11
Rest Day 3-5 mile easy run 6-10 miles total with 3-4 x 10 minutes at 50min – 1hr race pace with 2min30sec recovery between each  3-5 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

5-8 mile easy run 3-5 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

11 – 15 miles easy running 30-48 miles
12
Rest Day 4-7 mile easy run 7-11 miles total with 5-8 mile Progression Run  3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

6-9 mile easy run 3-7 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

16 – 20 miles easy running finishing the final 65min with pickups of 1min – 2 – 1 – 3 – 1 – 2 – 1 – 4 – 1 – 2 from marathon pace down to half marathon pace with 5min easy between each 35 – 60 miles
13
Rest Day 4-7 mile easy run 7 – 11 miles total with 4 – 6 x 1 mile from 1hr race pace down to 40 minute race pace (aiming to get a touch quicker on each mile, and to run this workout a few sec/mile quicker than 4 weeks ago) 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

6-9 mile easy run 3-7 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

18-22 miles total: 3-5 miles easy; 4-5 miles starting 10-15sec/mile slower than MP; 1 mile easy; 4 miles at MP; 1 mile easy; 2-3 miles starting at MP and finishing 10-15sec/mile quicker; 1 mile easy; 1-2 miles 10-15sec/mile quicker than MP; easy to finish 35 – 62 miles
14
Rest Day 3-5 mile easy run 6-10 miles total with 6-10 x 1 minute at 30-40 minute race pace with an easy 2 minute recovery jog between each (very light coming off big long run) 3-5 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

5-8 mile easy run 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

1hr50min to 2hrs easy running finishing the final 65min with pickups of 1min – 2 – 1 – 4 – 1 – 3 – 1 – 5 – 1 – 2 from marathon pace down to half marathon pace with 5min easy between each 30-52 miles
15
Rest Day 3-6 mile easy run 7-11 miles total: 20-25 minute tempo at 1hr race pace; 5 minutes rest; 4-6 x 90 seconds at 20-25 minute race pace with 90sec rest between each 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

5-8 mile easy run 3-6 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

75 – 85 minutes easy running 28-43 miles
16
Rest Day 5-8 miles total with 2 miles at marathon pace, 3min rest, 1-2 miles at marathon pace 3-5 miles easy running 3-4 mile easy run 

or Cross 

Train 

or Rest

2-4 mile easy run 

or Rest (rest either today or tomorrow)

2-4 mile easy run 

or Rest

Race Day! Get to that starting line.

 

As you now understand, there is a dizzying amount to know about marathon training. But at the end of the day it really is simple: get out the door and run. If you get in the miles and long runs you’re going to have success. Running is a beautifully simple sport that way. Put on your shoes and head out the door.

People have a tendency to over complicate it, allowing smaller details to paralyze them into not getting out the door and striving for big goals. Hopefully after reading this you’ve picked up some tools that brush aside the fear you’ll end up like Pheidippides and allow you to get out the door with confidence and get to work!

If you are interested in more guidance on those small details please visit zapendurance.com for more information on our personal coaching service and running vacations.

Thank you so much, Ryan, for your expertise!

For information about what your nutrition should look like while training for a marathon, read this post. The fueling aspect of marathon training is almost as important as the running aspect.

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