Preparing for a marathon requires true dedication, strength, and endurance to safely reach the finish line. But with consistent training and the right tools under your belt, you can make it happen, and make it your best race yet! This guide provides essential tips on how to train for a marathon, from understanding nutrition needs and knowing your limits to building up progressively and staying motivated.
1. Put In the Initial Prep Work
Running a marathon takes a lot of intentional time and effort. One of the best things you can do to begin the marathon process is to take inventory of your body in its current state. You might be starting from scratch, or you might be a seasoned athlete already running a good number of base miles. Wherever you may be, we recommend taking a look at your current training and getting some basic metrics figured out.
The most important things you can do here are check on your body internally and externally, by setting up appointments with a sports dietitian and a physical therapist.
The dietitian can go over with you the current state of your nutrition, and give you a customized guide on what you need as your training increases. They can also “take a look under the hood” by ordering appropriate lab work to check everything from your hormones, to your iron levels, to other micro/macronutrient levels. A doctor or nurse practitioner can also work with you on obtaining and reviewing these panels.
These labs are so important - more times than we can count, athletes go through a training cycle that is suboptimal, only to find out later that they were deficient in something like Vitamin D, or Iron, or Vitamin B12, or that their thyroid was out of whack. It is so important to start the season with a full picture of your body’s current internal state. If your levels are normal, great! You can start the season with full confidence that you are able to train optimally. And if your levels are not normal, then you have the knowledge you need to appropriately adjust your nutrition and even possibly your overall training.
Regardless of whether your panels come back normal or not, we do recommend checking your bloodwork at least twice a year, to confirm that everything is still good. Marathon training, or any sort of heavy training, can impact otherwise-normal levels, so it might also be good to re-check your blood work mid training cycle if you start to feel overly fatigued or otherwise abnormal.
You can find the right sports dietitian for you directly on Training Block! See our tips for finding the right person for you, in our blog post.
Thank goodness for physical therapists who understand runners! You might know this by now, but we actually started Training Block so that athletes would have better access specifically to great sport physical therapists. These PTs understand what your body goes through during the course of training, and can make sure you are doing everything you can to fortify your body through strength, mobility, and other modalities such as cupping, dry needling, and ASTYM.
We recommend going in to see a physical therapist at the beginning of your training block, to get a full body analysis. The PT can go over with you your full injury history, any aches and pains you have recently experienced, and your goals for the upcoming marathon race. They will then work with you on assessing any weaknesses that could turn into injury if left untreated. Many can also do a full gait analysis by watching you run and assessing any imbalances that show up in your stride! After that session, the PT can give you a custom strength and/or mobility plan you can incorporate into your training, to ensure your body can remain injury-free.
2. Work With a Running Coach, and Get Involved With The Local Run Community
By no means do you need to work with a running coach in order to have a successful marathon race. However, working with a coach means you are getting an expert training plan that is customized to your running background and unique needs, and also means you will have regular accountability, encouragement, and overall support.
When choosing a running coach, we do recommend you look for the following:
In addition to a coach, we do think marathon training is greatly enhanced when you train with a local running community. This community can be a huge source of support, motivation, and strength as the training goes on and the running gets longer. While running is a solo sport, the running community - in most shapes and forms - is a truly magical thing. As any runner knows, the miles fly by with good company.
You can find local group runs here - this is a great place to start if you are looking to get connected in your local area.
3. Start Slow and Increase Distance Gradually
As they say: “How do you train for a marathon? One step at a time.” (Is that right? Or is it something about elephants?) Marathon training is a gradual process, which means you should be mindful of increasing your distance and overall weekly mileage slowly and gradually as your training progresses. If you choose to work with a running coach for your marathon training, they should directly program this into your training plan!
There is a popular “10% rule” for increasing your distance, which states that you should not increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% week over week. This is a good rule of thumb to keep in your back pocket, but also - listen to your body. Every athlete is unique, and has a different set of needs. It is possible that a 10% increase might be too aggressive for you at this point, or, you might be able to increase your distance by more without any issues. Again, if you are working with a running coach during your marathon training, you can ask their thoughts on this based on your running history, current mileage, and goals.
4. Include Long Runs, Faster Running, and Easy Days
Your marathon training plan should include the right ratio of long runs, speed workouts, and easy days. Long runs are usually completed once per week on the weekend, when you have more time - these runs can either be at an easy, conversational pace, or with specific marathon-paced workouts thrown in. Your running coach may program one or two speed workout days during the week, where you either complete shorter intervals, like repeat 400s or Yasso 800s, or longer tempo or fartlek runs. Usually, if you are incorporating two speed workout days into your weekly training schedule, one will consist of shorter and faster repeats, and the other will be a longer “grinding” workout. These workouts tax your body differently, and are both important to regularly incorporate into marathon training.
Finally - we cannot emphasize enough the importance of incorporating easy days in your training. Running at an easy, conversational pace helps your body recover from the grueling workout days, while also giving additional benefits like cardiovascular development, increased mitochondrial size, and injury prevention. For you to maximize the benefits of running easy during your marathon training, your easy runs should be just that - truly easy - with an emphasis on slowing down enough to not feel like you are pushing at all. We recommend turning your watch around, or not wearing it at all, and if you run with a friend or group, pace yourself alongside someone who is running at that easy pace too. It is so easy to push the pace without realizing it, and moving your easy run into one that wears you down and leaves you unprepared for the next speed workout day.
5. Incorporate a Custom Strength Routine Into Your Marathon Training
Strength training is a vital, yet often overlooked, component of marathon training. All athletes benefit from general strength training, but runners especially can benefit from a custom strength routine. Not only can it build your muscular endurance, speed, and power, but strength training also fortifies your body and reduces your injury risk, especially during peak mileage weeks. Not only that, but correct strength training also corrects imbalances and improves your biomechanics and overall running form!
If you are looking to build a strength routine into your marathon training this training block, we recommend working with someone who has experience creating customized strength training routines for endurance athletes, especially runners. We recommend finding someone on Training Block, to ensure you will find someone who truly can help you perform at your absolute best.
6. Utilize Proper Nutrition and Hydration On Race Day
For longer events like the marathon, it is essential to have a nutrition and hydration plan for race day. This plan should help you get through the marathon with the right amount of energy and fluids, so you won’t bonk during the race or hit the dreaded “wall” at mile 20.
Not only is a nutrition and hydration plan for the actual marathon race day important, but you should be practicing that plan during your longer runs, as well as regularly incorporating proper nutrition and hydration into your daily training. Certain energy gels and fluids don’t sit well with different athletes, so it is very helpful to try out what works best for you during your training sessions. Certain marketplaces like The Feed are great places to find a wide variety of athlete-focused foods to try.
As mentioned above, we always recommend working on a nutrition and hydration plan with a sports dietitian, and you can find a great one on Training Block! A sports dietitian can help you figure out your energy needs, including how many calories you need to consume during training and marathon race day, as well as the amount of hydration you need based on your mileage, sweat levels and deficiencies (if any).
7. Follow a Tapering Plan to Recharge for Race Day
To maximize your marathon training, a tapering plan is key. Tapering is when you lower the intensity and mileage of your training runs as you get closer to the race. This gives your body time to rest and recover, so that it is rested for peak performance on race day. Your tapering timeline can vary, but for marathon training, it generally should start about two weeks before the marathon. At that time, you will reduce your overall training load, including mileage and intense speed workout days, as well as reduce your strength and other accessory work. Be sure to listen to your body and adjust your plan as needed if you’re feeling overly fatigued or any other concerning symptoms.
8. Choose Your Race Day Clothing And Shoes
Figuring out the right race day outfit for your marathon is more important than you would think. Your outfit will stick with you for all 26.2 miles, so it is important to wear something that fits well, doesn’t rub, and is weather appropriate.
We recommend wearing the outfit you plan on wearing on race day, for at least two separate long training runs leading up to the marathon. That way, you can take note of how it feels, and whether you need to make any changes.
We also recommend wearing shoes you know and love on race day! Many times, runners will try out new shoes on race day, thinking that the shoes will feel nice and fresh if they are brand new. However, you need to test drive the shoes prior to race day both to break them in so they can adjust to your feet and gait, and to see how they actually feel prior to the big day. If you wear the shoes for the first time on race day, you run the risk of figuring out during the race that you chose the wrong shoes, which can lead to a suboptimal marathon performance, or blisters, or even injury.
9. Listen to Your Body When Training
Even if you have a coach and a solid training plan to follow, it is still very important to listen to your body and make sure you are not overtraining during marathon training. Be aware of any signs of fatigue, such as feeling weak or overly tired after a long run, and don’t be afraid to work with your coach to adjust your training plan accordingly. Overtraining is often a subtle result of doing too much in little increments over time, which add up and can lead to injury or illness. Make sure to check in with yourself before, during, and after every workout and monitor how the workout makes you feel. Listening to your body will help you reap the gains of great workouts, while avoiding bad consequences that could happen if you complete a workout that is too taxing for you that day.
Additional Tips & Tricks
Lastly, take note of these small tips and tricks that can help this marathon training cycle be your best yet.