How to Train for a Marathon

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, by Nick Bester

A Marathon Training Plan for All Abilities. Photography by: Daxiao Productions

Welcome to the marathon training plan. Let me start by saying congratulations on your choice to conquer 26.2 miles. Running a marathon is one of the most satisfying physical goals you can pursue. That’s because, no matter what your motivation — whether it’s a personal challenge, supporting a charity, or convincing from a friend — it’s about more than just the race. The entire journey of training for a marathon will make you stronger mentally and physically,  feeling ready to take on more challenges of all kinds.

So, whether this is your first time tackling a marathon or your comeback to improve your next performance, this training plan is designed to help you progress confidently and feel your best on race day. Let’s get started.

How Long Do You Need To Train for a Marathon?

For someone who runs a few miles at a time at least once per week, 16 weeks should be enough time to train for a marathon. If you are totally new to running, however, or if you’ve been out of it for a while, then you will need more time to build up your base mileage before training seriously for a marathon.

STRAVA TRAINING PLANS: Strava has training plans for the key race distances

Base mileage is the average number of miles that you run in a typical week. If your base mileage is less than 10 miles per week and you have only four months to go before your race, I suggest training for a shorter distance instead. Your body will thank you for it, and you’ll still get all the excitement of a big race day.

The experience of training for any of these races will help you when it comes time to train for a marathon, and the excitement of race day will leave you charged up and motivated to register for the next one!

About the Marathon Training Plan

This 16-week training plan is suitable for first-time marathon runners, but it’s not designed for those brand new to running. You should already be able to run a few miles at a time, and you should have some familiarity with training principles like heart rate zones, speed sessions, strength and conditioning, and dynamic warm-ups and cool downs.

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You’ll notice that this training schedule does not include time splits or much talk about pacing, however. That’s because the plan is not specific to any finishing time, it’s simply for preparing your body to go 26.2 at whatever speed is reasonable and safe for you. The pace of your sessions should depend on your own effort level and your individual goals.

Table showing the types of sessions, heart rate zones, and training responses to expect in this 16-week marathon training plan.

The above table gives an overview of the workout sessions in this marathon plan and the training zones that you should target for each one. Read more about heart rate zones if you need a refresher on this training principle, because next we’ll move on to discuss each type of session in more detail.

Easy Runs

An easy run is just that – covering some miles but making sure it’s easy for you. Keep your heart rate in Zone 1, even if that means walking part of the time. The point of an easy run is to let your body recover aerobically while keeping your muscles active, and saving energy for harder sessions later in the week.

Strength and Conditioning (S&C)

Strength and conditioning are important for marathon training by improving your all-around fitness and reducing your chance of injury. These sessions are not running, but weighted strength sessions and body-weight or resistance workouts. 

Here is a YouTube video with my basic morning exercise routine that you can follow. I recommend doing a version of this every single day, even on rest days, but adding tougher workouts to your baseline on the strength and conditioning days specified in this plan. Get to the gym on those days if you can, or devise some good resistance workouts at home.

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Track/Interval Sessions

The latter stages of your training program will include track sessions — focused sets of workouts that are all about trying really hard and snapping out of your comfort zone. These dynamic workouts should push you into Zone 4 and even 5 to increase your body’s capacity for anaerobic performance. Here is an overview of the track sessions that you will see referenced in the plan.

Table showing track session exercises for a marathon race training plan.

Track sessions are meant to be tough, but they are there for building your body’s ability to dig deep when it counts, like in the final miles before your marathon finish line! Here are some tips for getting the most out of your track sessions:

  • Always perform these sessions with a dynamic warm-up and cold-down of 10-15 minutes each. These stages are just as important as the actual session.

  • These sessions don’t have to be done on a track. You can measure out the distances on a stretch of path or a flat expanse of grass.

  • Grass is actually beneficial because it’s softer underfoot and creates stability training for your muscles.

  • Always start with the intention of progressing throughout and finishing stronger, with the last rep being your fastest.

  • Track sessions are a lot easier, and you can push harder, when doing them in a group!

RELATED: Embracing an Holistic Approach to Training

Tempo Runs

A tempo run, also known as a threshold run, is a sustained effort designed to improve your anaerobic threshold and your body’s overall running economy. Tempos should feel like a comfortably hard pace – about a 6/10 of your maximal effort and a Zone 4 training response. The goal is to hold this effort for the duration of the run, but obviously there is nothing wrong with slowing down or taking walk breaks if needed. 

Table showing tempo session exercises for a marathon race training plan

Hill Sessions

Even when training for a flat race, hills are a crucial part of training. They help with running form, muscle power, and stability that will reduce your chance of injury. The simplest form of hill sessions are hill repeats, where you only need one incline to run up and jog back down. Here is a key to the hill repeat sessions that you’ll see in the marathon plan.

Table showing hill running workouts for a marathon race training plan.

Just as you do with track sessions, be sure to also lead and follow these hill sessions with dynamic warm up and cool down that’s sufficient to match your training volume for the day.

Long Runs

In this training plan, Sundays are for your longest run of the week. A longer run should be a controlled and steady effort, with an eye on your pace but with no reason to hit max heart rate. These runs are for getting your mind and body prepared for what your race performance will feel like. I even suggest practicing in the same clothes and shoes that you’ll wear on race day!

RELATED: Five Ways to Improve Your Marathon Time

16-Week Marathon Training Plan

This marathon training plan is divided into four phases of one month each: Prep, build, peak, and taper. Each phase is designed for a specific purpose in preparing your body to to 26.2 miles confidently and safely. Ramping up too fast or skipping weeks of training will increase your odds of injury, so a steady progression and consistency are keys to success.

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Of course, life happens, and you might have to skip some days or move things around sometimes. That is fine, just be careful of overtraining to make up for lost time. Listen to what your body is telling you, and go easy on your legs if they really need it. Taking an extra rest day or doing cross training instead of running is always okay.

Weeks 1-4: Prep

The first four weeks of your marathon training are the prep phase, when you’ll strengthen the foundation in your muscles and joints by slowly increasing distance each week. Prep is important for minimizing common problems like shin splints and knee pains as you up the mileage in later weeks. If these weekly miles are well within your range, then I recommend focusing on getting faster each week instead of upping the distance.

Table showing the exercise schedule for weeks 1 through 4 of a 16-week marathon race training plan.

Weeks 5-8: Build

In the build phase, you will add to the first month’s foundation and feel your body becoming noticeably stronger each week. This comes with some wear and tear, so the long runs are likely to feel tough. Many people start to feel discomfort like shin splints during this phase, so don’t feel bad about swapping a run for cross training if your body needs it.

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Another tip is to reexamine your shoes, as these are commonly the problem when raising your weekly mileage. Try switching to a newer pair or trying a different design, and consult your local running shop or a pro trainer for personalized advice.

Table showing the exercise schedule for weeks 5 through 8 of a 16-week marathon race training plan.

Weeks 9-12: Peak

The peak phase is the toughest, with high-mileage weeks and the start of your track sessions. These high-intensity workouts are essential for building speed in your muscles, boosting your aerobic recovery rate, and making your heart work more efficiently. See the chart near the beginning of the article for more details about what these track sessions should look like. Remember that the goal of this phase is to really push your limits, but not to overdo it because your race is just a month away.

Table showing the workout schedule for weeks 9 through 12 of a 16-week marathon race training plan.

Weeks 13-16: Taper

The final phase is for practicing your target pace while tapering your mileage each week. Hopefully you’ll be feeling strong and tempted to keep pushing hard, but you should try to avoid that urge. These weeks of lesser mileage are crucial for maintaining your fitness without wearing the body further. Adequate rest and good nutrition are extra important as well. All of this will prepare you to feel your best and perform on race day.

Table showing the fitness plan for weeks 13 through 16 of a 16-week marathon race training schedule.

Marathon Training Tips and Tricks

Sometimes it’s the details that make all the difference. Even in a four-month training program and a race 26.2 miles long, there can be a small snafu that seems to derail everything. Maybe it’s a busy day at work during peak training. Maybe it’s a blister on your long run. Maybe it’s whatever you ate the day before your race.

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There will always be little surprises that pop up, but the key to minimizing them is to practice consistency and to dial in your systems long before race day. Here are some extra tips to explain what I mean.

Stick To Your Schedule

It’s not always easy, but holding fastly to your schedule is one of the most important keys to success — even when you’re busy, when the weather is bad, or when things keep getting in the way. The more consistent you can be, the better. Just make training a part of your daily routine and try not to compromise if you don’t have to.

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Of course life happens, and sometimes you’ll need to shuffle your workouts to accommodate unexpected events or changes in your routine. It’s okay to move things around, but try to make these adjustments without sacrificing the overall structure of your training plan. If you miss a workout, don't dwell on it—simply move on and focus on the next one, but don’t forget that rest days are important, too!

Run With Friends

One of the best ways to keep accountability and stick to your schedule is to train with other people. Try to plan at least one of your weekly sessions with a running friend. Additionally, you could join a local run club that hosts group runs or training sessions. Build these events into your training schedule so that you’ll always have a crew to help you push harder.

Keep the Easy Days Easy

You might have heard you have to run slower to run faster, and this is the mantra that applies for easy days. Enjoy taking it slow on these days so that you can really push it on hard days. An easy pace means that you should be able to hold a conversation the whole time, so going with a friend makes it even better!

Runners at the London Marathon. Photography by: Sampajano_Anizza

Embrace Cross Training

Cross-training works the body in different ways and emphasizes muscle groups besides what you use most for running. It’s a great way to continue to build endurance and overall strength while minimizing impact. Examples of cross-training are swimming, cycling, rowing, and elliptical/cross-trainer machines. If ever your knees need an extra day to rest, or if the weather is just too bad for running, feel free to replicate your scheduled session with cross-training instead.

Nutrition and Supplements

Along with your schedule for exercise and recovery, nutrition is just as important for marathon training. Focus on consuming a well-balanced diet rich in carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals to support your training and overall health. Part of your training should also focus on learning what fuels you best, because everyone’s body is different. 

RELATED: Marathon Nutrition: How to Fuel Your Next Race Like a Pro

Long runs are good not only for practicing your race pace and your race kit, but also for dialing in your race nutrition. The goal is to consume carbohydrates that replenish glycogen stores and provide sustained energy. Portable snacks like energy gels, electrolyte powders, bananas, and energy bars are convenient options to fuel your runs and prevent hitting the dreaded "wall." You may have to train your gut to accept these foods readily, so the week before your race is not the time to experiment!

Personalizing Your Marathon Training Plan

Your marathon training is your very own journey. This training plan is a guideline based on my coaching experience with a wide diversity of runners, but there is no such thing as a one-size fits all approach. You may need to adapt for your preferences, your fitness level, or your lifestyle. Here are some strategies you can use to customize your marathon training:

  • Join a running club in your local community.

  • Work with a running coach or personal trainer, either in-person or online.

  • Get a custom training plan with Strava that’s based on your own running habits and your race goals.

With that, it’s time to lace up your shoes and get to the track — or the park, the beach, the woods — wherever you choose to begin. I wish you the best of luck and all the best vibes on your road to running a marathon!

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