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Marathon Training for All Skill Levels

A marathon is 42.195 km, or about 26.2 miles. It goes without saying that 26.2 miles is a long distance for your body to run. It’s not a distance you can just power through without proper training. Even experienced runners should have a training plan in place before running a marathon. 


Whether you’re a beginner or have a few marathons under your belt, there are a few marathon training tips and guidelines that a runner at any level can follow for optimal performance. 


Marathon training 101

Runners of all skill levels can participate in a marathon; however, your goals might look different. If you’re a total beginner, the goal might be just getting through the course. If you’re more experienced, your goal might be to finish in a certain time. 


Before you begin training, reflect on your goals. Be aware of your limits and give yourself enough time to achieve your end-goal. Some basic things to keep in mind:


  1. Don’t overexert yourself. Running 26.2 miles puts you at a significantly higher risk of injury, so be sure to consult with your doctor before you start training. Always remember to warm up and cool down before and after each run, no matter the distance. 


  1. Once you get your doctor’s approval, start training early. If you’re new to long distance running, you want to aim for a consistent base mileage for around a year before training for a marathon. One of the most common causes of injury is running too far too soon, so try to consistently run 20 miles or so a week before committing to training for a marathon.


  1. Start with shorter races. Try tackling a 5K, 10K or a half marathon before going for the full marathon. It’s a great way to ease your body into running long distances.


  1. Consider the location of your race. If you feel more comfortable running on familiar roads, you might want to choose a marathon close to home. If you have a “dream race” like the Boston Marathon, New York City Marathon or Chicago Marathon, then choosing a destination race might be what you need to ignite your motivation. 



Tempo runs vs marathon pace

Now that you’ve committed yourself to a marathon, you know exactly how far you have to run — but how fast do you run those 26.2 miles?


There’s a difference between tempo runs and running at your designated marathon pace. Tempo running — also known as threshold running — is a speed workout. It is a sustained effort run. The goal is to build up your body’s ability to run faster for longer amounts of time. These runs are relatively difficult. You shouldn’t be out of breath after a few minutes, but this pace should be hard to maintain for hours on end. 


Tempo runs are great to add to your marathon training plan because they help build your lactate threshold — the maximum speed at which you can run while still allowing your body to promote lactate clearance. Lactate is what causes that fatigue during an intense workout due to the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles. The more you practice running at faster paces, the longer you can go before you start feeling that burning sensation while running. 


While tempo runs are great for training, you shouldn’t feel the pressure to maintain that pace during the actual marathon. Again, tempo running requires a pace that you would feel uncomfortable keeping up for hours and hours. Your marathon pace will likely be much slower than your tempo run pace — especially if this is your first time running a marathon. You’ll want to run at an easy pace that allows you to finish the race. 


You can reference calculators to determine your race pace. 


20-Week Marathon Training Plan

If you want to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for your marathon, consider doing a 20-week training plan. That allows you to spend roughly 5 months training your body to run those 26.2 miles.


A basic weekly routine includes 4-5 days of running with 2-3 days of rest. Start your long runs at 6 miles, and peak at 20 miles. For complete beginners, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) recommends running an average of four days per week. This plan targets a mileage progression starting at 25 miles per week and goes up to 40 miles per week during peak mileage weeks. Long runs go up to 16-18 miles. 


If you’re a beginner to intermediate level, the BAA suggests running an average of five days per week. This level 2 plan targets a mileage progression starting at 30 miles per week and goes up to 45 miles per week during peak mileage weeks. Long runs go up to 18-20 miles.


Intermediate to advanced runners can train by running an average of six days per week. The BAA’s level 3 plan targets a mileage progression starting at 35 miles per week and goes up to 55 miles per week during peak mileage weeks. Long runs go up to 20 miles.


The final training option — the BAA’s level 4 plan — is for advanced runners. The level 4 plan is designed around running an average of six to seven days per week. This plan targets a mileage progression starting at 35 miles per week and goes up to 60 miles per week during peak mileage weeks. Long runs go up to 20-22 miles.


For a full breakdown, head to the BAA’s website and choose your fitness level to find the 20-week training plan best suited for you. 


Marathon training plan adjustments for intermediate runners

The step-by-step increase in daily and weekly mileage is designed by the BAA to help challenge you while also minimizing the risk of overtraining. All four BAA plans build a solid base of running fitness and try to maximize your race potential. As with any training plan, what is outlined is merely a guide on how to build and structure your weekly running routine. You can make adjustments as necessary or as you see fit, based on your skill level.


12-Week Marathon Training Schedule

Giving yourself 20 weeks to train for a marathon is ideal, but you can still adequately train in 12 weeks. For a 12-week marathon training schedule, your weekly routine should include 4-5 days of running with 2-3 days of rest. You’ll want to start long runs during your first week of training with a 1-hour long run. You should peak at 18-20 miles around Week 9/10.


Each week should include a mix of speed work, strength training, hill training, cross training, easy runs and rest days. For a day-by-day schedule, Shape magazine put together a full 12-week plan with running coach Michelle Portalatin, C.S.C.S. and Rebeka Stowe, C.S.C.S., which can be referenced here.

Half Marathon Training Plan

Want to run a marathon but are short on time? Consider training for a half marathon instead. Because half marathons are half the distance (13.1 miles as opposed to 26.2), you can train for them in half the time.


Give yourself 10 weeks to train for a half marathon. You should spend the first three weeks getting into the rhythm of training, with weeks 4-7 focused on building up your endurance and weeks 8-10 spent tapering off to allow your body to recover before race day. You’ll want to start by running 3-4 miles four days a week in Week 1. By the end of Week 4 (the beginning of your endurance-building phase), you should be running up to 7 miles per run. End Week 7 with a 10-mile run and Week 8 with a 11-mile run (your mileage peak). Then taper off for the final two weeks. 


The best protein powder for runners

Building up your endurance is important, but remember: Marathon training doesn’t just involve weeks and weeks of running. Nutrition is also an important aspect of marathon training, too. For runners, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends an intake of 1.4-1.8 grams of protein per kg per day.


Using protein powder is an easy way for a marathoner to get the protein he or she needs to build strength and recover sore muscles before or after long runs. The fastest digesting proteins are the proteins that have been separated from their whole food source and turned into powder. Protein powders are usually consumed as a liquid without much fiber or fat, and generally speaking, liquids digest faster than whole foods. So that means protein powder supplements added to your drinks or breakfast shakes will be absorbed quickly, allowing you to get the protein your body needs for running long distances and proper recovery. Protein supplementation can help you make the most of your training days.   


If you’re not sure which protein powder is right for you and your marathon training plan, you can turn to Gainful: Through Gainful, runners can create a customized protein supplement based on their body type, dietary needs, running frequency, activity level and fitness goals. You just take a quiz to find your personalized protein (and a personalized hydration formula!), then Gainful creates the powder and sends it right to your doorstep. There’s a protein powder for every type of runner. 

 

As part of your Gainful subscription, you’ll also have access to a Registered Dietitian, who can answer any questions you may have about marathon training. Gainful is here to help you get to that finish line.