Arguably, marathon training should contain almost as much mental preparation as physical preparation. But this article focuses almost exclusively on the physical running portion, and specifically on those first-time marathoners who are in good shape, run a mile or two a day three or five days a week, and may have even regularly participated in 5K or 10K fun runs.
No matter how ready you think you are, a complete physical training regimen is absolutely critical for beginners, because as a rule of thumb, most runners complete about a third of the race mostly on adrenaline. So, in a 5k, runners only have about two miles to go after the adrenaline wears off, but in a marathon, there will be about fifteen miles to go.
Why We Train
Many people view running as almost exclusively a cardiovascular exercise, and to a large extent, that is true in short or medium-distance runs. But marathons and longer-distance runs place so much stress on our musculoskeletal systems that the entire body, and not just the heart and lungs, needs to be ready.
When to Start
Reasonable minds differ on the best time to start pre-marathon training. Many people are firm proponents of longer pre-race training programs that last four or even six months. The theory, which is a sound one, is that such programs ease the runner into marathon mode, both mentally and physically.
One argument against such schedules is that marathon training usually does not occur in a vacuum, as most of us have vocational, family, and other commitments that we do not want to put on hold, and probably could not suspend even if we wanted to do so. In short, an extra five or six weeks of training means an extra five or six weeks of sacrifice.
On the other end of the scale, almost everyone agrees that compressed training schedules are a bad idea, unless the first-timer already runs about four miles a day at least four days a week. However, these individuals probably do not qualify as “beginners,” at least as we defined the term earlier.
For the 12-week plan outlined below, plan to start about four months before the race, because you need to account for adversity. If you develop shin splints, which is a common injury for marathon beginners, put on a shin splints brace, take a couple or three weeks off, and then get back in the game.
There are no shortage of training plans available on the Internet, and most of them are perfectly valid. However, the best marathon training plans for beginners combine short, medium, and long runs, because these regimens provide both cardiovascular and musculoskeletal preparation.
Short Runs: At three miles or less, most of us feel almost no post-run soreness, so this level develops the heart and lungs. It’s best to do the short runs on a treadmill, so you can gradually increase the incline during the course of the run.
Middle Distance Runs: Treadmills are optional here, mostly because many gyms don’t allow runners to stay on for more than an hour and longer treadmill runs are quite mentally fatiguing for most people. While these runs combine musculoskeletal and cardiovascular fitness, their purpose is largely mental, to bridge the long and short runs as well as increase runner confidence.
Long Runs: Hydrate heavily before, during, and after a long run. Not to be blunt, but if you don’t have to go to the bathroom, you’re probably dehydrated.
Because of the scheduling concerns mentioned above, most people do their short run on Tuesday, medium on Thursday, and long on Saturday.
3, 4, 9
3, 6, 10
3, 6, 12
3, 6, 14
4, 8, 16
4, 8, 18
4, 8, 8
3, 10, 16
3, 10, 18
3, 4, 7
3, 4, 8
3, 4, 8
If you have to skip a run for any reason, make sure it is a short or medium one. Cross-training, such as biking or swimming, is a good idea except on the days before and after long runs, because your body needs rest during these times.
Remember, your goal is probably to finish the race with a good time and not to win it, so train accordingly.