How to start thinking about your first marathon training plan
November 2, 2021|By Amanda Loudin
You've got a few races under your belt now, maybe even a half-marathon or two. It's only natural that your thoughts are beginning to turn to the big one: running a marathon. But thinking about running a marathon and actually following a marathon training plan are two different things. Here are your best tips for success as you plan for your first marathon.
If you've signed up for your first marathon, congratulations! It will be one of the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have. But before you cross that finish line, you've got work to do, and a marathon training plan will help spell things out for you.
A training plan will identify all the runs and workouts you need, how intense or easy they should be, and when to cross-train and rest. Before you start following the plan, however, it's important to consider all the "extras" that go into marathon training. Things like nutrition, recovery, mindset, and what to do if you miss a few runs. While a marathon training plan is the "meat and potatoes" of completing 26.2 miles, the little things count, too.
Make the commitment
Before you even run your first mile off a training plan, map out the next few months to make sure you have the time and energy to complete it. Marathon training is not a small commitment, and you should consider your current lifestyle before undertaking it. Is this a particularly busy time at work, requiring extra hours of your time? Are your kids involved in heavy travel sports schedules? Look at your calendar, map out your training program, and make sure it doesn't tip your life balance because that will only lead to burnout and/or injury.
Once you're sure you've got the bandwidth for marathon training, make a mental commitment. These next few months might require earlier bedtimes, less socializing, and the ability to hit the roads in pre-dawn hours. It's only temporary, of course, but you should want to complete a marathon badly enough to make the small sacrifices it requires.
Practice your nutrition
Even if you follow your marathon training plan to perfection, if you don't practice good nutrition and fueling during your long runs, your race day may go off the rails. Start by ensuring you are filling up every day with lots of whole, nutrient-dense foods. You don't need to count out how many calories come from what food group, but do a well-rounded job of including fruits and vegetables, proteins, and yes, carbohydrates, to allow your body to keep up with the demands you're placing on it.
During your long runs, try a variety of different race-ready supplements to rapidly replace the precious glycogen you'll be using during your marathon. Try gels, drinks, chews, and other products every week during your long runs. Eventually, you will land on the right formula for your personal needs and tastes. A good, rough guideline is to aim for taking in some calories around the 45-minute mark of each hour, averaging around 30 to 90 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Once you've got your fueling strategy dialed in, stick with it on race day.
Recover and respect your body
Marathon training is a long grind and will take its toll on your muscles and energy. That's why it's so important to pay attention to the little aches and pains that pop up, rest on rest days, and prioritize recovery. The old adage of "listen to your body" rings very true during marathon training. Most injuries don't come out of nowhere, so if you feel a small pain creeping up, take a couple of days of rest right away to try to settle it down. Often that's all it takes and you can be back to the plan right away. If not, however, seek out a physical therapist or doctor for an evaluation.
When it comes to rest days, most runners aren't big fans, but rest is every bit as important as the actual miles you log. Don't neglect rest or try to squeeze in extra miles — this will only lead to trouble. Think of rest as the reward for all your hard work. Treat your body kindly, and it will do the same in return.
It won't always be perfect
Every runner goes into marathon training with the idea that they'll hit each and every run, and there's nothing wrong with that goal. But the reality is, you will miss some runs, and that's OK. Life will get in the way, and as long as you hit about 90% of the training, you should be fine.
The best approach may just be focusing on consistency. A missed run here or there will not make a bit of difference to your ability to finish a marathon, but a lack of consistency can derail your training plan. What does consistency look like? Regularly hitting your long runs, the cornerstone of marathon training. Doing the interval or marathon race pace training most weeks. Showing up and getting in the majority of your runs, week after week. That's where the training magic happens.
Following a marathon training plan can be a map to race success, but it will only get you so far. Make sure you take care of all the back-end items, too, for the best race-day experience. Rest, nutrition, commitment, and consistency will carry the day.
Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.
Health and science writer
I've been a runner for more than two decades and a journalist for just as long. I'm also a certified running coach and nothing makes me happier than marrying up writing and running. Find me on the trails with two- and four-legged friends.