Running a marathon is a big undertaking. Whether you’re tackling your very first 26 miles, or you have a few under your belt, you probably have lots of questions about training and running a marathon.
So, let’s start at the very beginning with one of the first questions you’re likely to have: how long does it take to train for a marathon?
How long to train for a marathon
A marathon is a big challenge. The majority of runners take between 16 and 20 weeks to train for a marathon. That gives you enough time to build up stamina and train your heart and muscles (as well as your mind) to run long distances. However, some people take a much shorter time to train for a marathon, and it’s not uncommon for more experienced runners to follow 12-week training plans. On the other hand, some runners might have a much longer build up to their marathon, following a training plan that’s 24 weeks or even longer – some people take a full year to prepare for their first marathon, if they’re going from couch to 26 miles.
So, how long do you need to train for a marathon? It’s a very personal thing, and while 16 to 20 weeks is a good rule of thumb, it depends on lots of different factors that are unique to you. Some of the things you might want to consider when deciding how much training for a marathon you need to do include:
Your running experience
Are you already a regular runner? Most marathon plans assume that you already have a good base of running fitness and are regularly running a few times a week. If you already have some running experience, it’ll be easier for you to shift up the gears as the runs become longer. How much running experience you have, then, is an important factor when deciding how much training for a marathon you need. If you’ve never ran before, or have taken a few years off running, then you run the risk of injury if you jump right into a plan. If that sounds like you, you might prefer to use a longer training plan which includes a period of base building to get you up to speed (pun intended).
Do you work a stressful job? Or do you have a busy home life with children? Or maybe you work shifts? All of these lifestyle factors can have an impact on your ability how long you can train for a marathon. If you find it hard to fit in several runs a week, then you might want to take longer to build up to the marathon, to ensure you have the fitness and stamina you need to get around the course.
Your history of injuries
Do you always roll your ankle? Or have you had trouble with shin splints in the past? If you have a current or previous injury, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor or physiotherapist before starting to train for a marathon. They may advise that you take a little longer to build up, and they’ll almost definitely recommend adding strength, stretching, mobility and rehabilitation work to your plan – something we should all be doing anyway to ward off injuries!
What are you hoping to get from your marathon? Do you want to get around the course and finish with a smile on your face? Or do you want to achieve a particular time? While your goals may not necessarily dictate how long you need to train for, they will have an impact on the types of sessions included in your plan.
How long to train for a half marathon from scratch?
If you’re completely new to running, you might be wondering how long you should train for a marathon from nothing. Well, first up: don’t worry! It’s not impossible, even though it might seem like it at the moment. Lots of people have done it before, and you can too! It just might take a little longer than a standard marathon training plan.
Again, it depends on your individual needs and goals, but it’s realistic to go from couch potato to marathon runner in 6 months. Any beginner marathon training plan should gradually build up your running and fitness, so it’s important to be patient. You’re playing the long game here! You might start with walking, then build up to run/walk before your first run. Then, it’s time to start adding more runs into your plan. It’s important not to do too much too soon as otherwise you’re likely to become injured and burnt out. Remember – running is supposed to be fun! So, a longer plan for beginners will keep you running happy throughout your training. If you’re not new to running, but are new to the marathon distance, then you can stick with a shorter plan. Our 18-week marathon training plan is perfect for those who are already running regularly and are ready to take a step up in distance.
The main element of any good training plan is – of course – running. But how many days you’ll be running a week depends on the plan you’re following. Some will have you running five or six days a week while others will schedule in three runs a week. Our plan starts with three runs in week one, before jumping up to five runs per week, then peaking at six runs a week.
How much mileage?
The total mileage per week also varies by plan. Beginner plans will often start with a weekly mileage of 15 to 25 miles to establish a solid base before increasing the miles as the weeks go on.
Most intermediate plans include 30 to 50 miles per week, with a mixture of long runs, short runs and speed work. Our marathon training plan peaks at 48 miles. Advanced plans can often exceed 50 miles per week, with some experienced runners doing 70 miles each week.
What kind of sessions?
The secret sauce for any marathon training plan is the long run. If you need to skip a run at any point while training for your marathon (and it’s inevitable that you will – don’t sweat it!), make sure it’s not the long run. Long runs help train your body to run for longer distances. Which is kind of the point of marathon training…
You’ll also see other types of sessions on your plan, including speedwork and tempo sessions. Although we’re training for distance, speed is still important – especially if you have a time goal in mind.
How many rest days?
Rest is as important as any other session on your plan! You should plan for at least one rest day per week. Some plans, especially beginner ones, will have more rest days. You don’t need to lie on the couch all day when you’re resting (unless you really want to, of course!), but avoid strenuous activity. Instead, you could try going out for a walk or joining a yoga class.
What about cross training?
Cross training is great for marathon runners! It can help to reduce the amount of impact on your body – especially important if you’re a beginner. Cycling, swimming, spin classes and hiking are all great choices when it comes to cross training.
Do you need to do strength training?
Lots of runners hate strength training. If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone! But it is important for marathon runners. Strength work supports your muscles and joints, which can help to reduce the risk of injury. It can also improve your power, which can lead to faster times. So, consider adding a couple of short, running-specific strength sessions to your training plan. If you’ve already run a couple of marathons and want to smash your PB, strength work could be a game changer for you.
Do you need to follow a training plan?
You can also put together your own plan, which should include all of the following elements:
A gradual build up where you increase the number of running days and mileage
One long run a week, building up incrementally over the weeks to your longest run of 15 to 20 miles
A rest day (or rest days)
Speed work, hill sprints or tempo runs
Cross training such as swimming or cycling
Strength and mobility work, like weightlifting and yoga
A taper in the final weeks, where you reduce the amount of running in your plan to let your body rest before the big day
Consider including shorter races in your plan
Another top tip for marathon training is to work some shorter races into your training plan. If you’re a beginner, you might want to train for a 5k, 10k or half marathon before going for the marathon, to give you an idea of what it’s like to race, and what your body is capable of. For everyone else, including races within your plan has multiple benefits:
It can be motivating to run with other people
You can feel what a race environment is like
It gives you the chance to push your speed and test your limits
You can try out your race day kit and fuelling strategies
They’re loads of fun!
What to do if marathon training is hard
Marathon training is hard. Everyone struggles with it at some point, even the elites. But it’s important to be able to tell the difference between good pain and bad pain. Sometimes, you might feel exhausted because you’ve done a long run or a hard speed session. That’s okay – you’ll also feel tired during the marathon, so pushing through the fatigue can help to train your body and your mind for the big day. But if you feel burnt out, or if you can feel an injury coming on, you don’t want to push through the pain and risk making it worse. Speak to a doctor or physiotherapist about any injuries, and if you truly feel like you need to rest – listen to your body and take a break!
Don’t worry about missing a few training runs here and there. Whether it’s through fatigue or life stuff, it happens to us all. Very few get to the end of a marathon training cycle having completed every run – if you do, we take our hats off to you! As long as you can keep it fairly consistent, it’s all good.
Choosing the right running gear when training for a marathon
So, now you know how long to train for a marathon, you should also know the one golden rule of race day: don’t run in anything you haven’t tested! So, it’s important to practise running in what you plan to wear on race day beforehand. A marathon is a long way. So, it’s important that you wear comfortable shoes. Cushioned running shoes are a great option to see you through all your training miles and on race day itself. We recommend the Ghost for pillowy soft comfort and distraction-free miles, or the Adrenaline GTS for the ultimate combination of comfort and support. Alternatively, if you want to put a little extra spring in your step, try shoes built for fast paces like the Hyperion Max, with nitrogen-infused DNA FLASH for quicker transitions.
When it comes to marathon clothing, it’s up to you but comfort is king. If you’re running a spring or summer marathon, the temperatures might be hot so you may want to opt for shorts and a vest. Or if you’re running in autumn or winter, you might want to consider whether you need longer layers. Think about the practicalities of your running clothes too. You’ll need to fuel your marathon, so it’s likely that you’ll want to take a few gels with you on the run. Look out for shorts and leggings with pockets to stash your snacks or think about whether you’d prefer to run with a waist belt or running pack. And remember – whatever you choose, train in it! There’s nothing like showing up on race day and realising that your shoes are uncomfortable, or your running bra is chafing. Ouch.