No matter how fit you think you are or how often you jog – competing in a 26.2-mile race is not something you can just show up and muscle through. It requires planning, consistency, and a whole lot of training.
This is likely not a surprise to those reading this. Most anyone who takes their fitness seriously understands that you need to do a bit more than slip on a pair of running shoes and gym shorts in order to successfully complete a race. You need a plan, a good deal of willpower, and tons of training. But which plan? And for how long should you train? And what should you eat? The answers to these questions are not immediately clear even to experienced runners. So to help, we’ve highlighted the basics of how to train for a marathon. In this post you’ll find everything from dietary recommendations to running plans, and a list of great gear for marathon running.
History Of The Marathon
Pheidippides Bites The Dust
Marathons didn’t just spring up out of nowhere. The race, like everything else on this blue marble, has an origin story. It goes a little like this.
In 490 B.C.E. the Greek and Persian armies clashed on a battlefield outside of the town of Marathon. The Greeks were outnumbered, but they managed to flank the invading force and beat them back to their ships. Once Greek soldiers overpowered the Persian forces, a courier by the name of Pheidippides was ordered to run to the Acropolis in Athens to spread news of the victory. After the courier arrived and delivered his message, he collapsed and died (need we further emphasize the importance of training?). To commemorate the Greek victory, the 1896 Olympics set a route from Marathon to Athens – a distance of roughly 25 miles. A small number of athletes entered into the competition and even fewer completed. All the same, this race ended up being the birth of the modern long-distance foot race.
The race length would’ve stayed at 25 miles if it wasn’t for the 1908 London Olympics. To please the Royal Family, organizers lengthened the course, making it so runners would finish directly in front of the viewing box – an extra 1.2 miles from the original finish line. For whatever reason, the distance stuck – making the official length 26.2 miles.
Laying A Plan Of Attack
So at the very least you know you want to run a marathon. Now what? First things first, you need to set a calendar.
If you’re running under 15 miles every week as it stands, your ramp-up time should be somewhere between 18 and 22 weeks. If you easily clock in over 15 miles every week, you can likely get ready within a span of 12 weeks (though you’ll have to really work at it).
It isn’t enough to just set a date, sign up, and start running. Five or so months may seem like a really long time to wait to tackle your first marathon – but patience is a virtue here. The more you allow your body to get used to running long distances, the less likely it is that you’re going to injure yourself. And injuries do happen. Gnarly ones. Think stress fractures, torn tendons, and pulled muscles – all of which can very easily put you on the couch and back out of shape.
With that information in mind, you should hunt for a marathon to sign up for. If you’re getting ready for your first, it helps a lot to sign up for a local race. These are easier to train for a few reasons. First and foremost, you can familiarize yourself with the course by training on sections regularly. Secondly, you won’t have to worry about feeling out of your element when race day rolls around.
But it isn’t enough to just set a date, sign up, and start running. You need to commit to spending hours and hours every week dedicated to accomplishing the goal of running a marathon. As a result, you’ll likely have to shuffle your priorities and change up your calendar so you’ll always have enough time to get out and train every week. Embracing the fact that training for a marathon will change your schedule is among the first steps you need to take in order to accomplish your goal.
Pick Your Poison
When you’re running for long distances, you’re asking your body to do something a little more complicated than just growing its muscles. You’re looking to increase the amount of energy your body can expend over a period of time, change how it replenishes itself, and strengthen its slow twitch muscles. None of this comes intuitively. In fact, there are a handful of different schools of thought on how best to train our bodies to accomplish something like a Marathon. Both will get you to the finish line, they’ll just do it in different ways.To keep it simple, we’ve outlined the two most popular methods of marathon training. One was developed during the first real running boom in the 1970s and is still championed by successful and well respected runners. The other method outlined here was developed and popularized later and has become the de facto approach for the majority of runners. Both will get you to the finish line, they’ll do it in different ways.
Long Slow Distance: This theory of training was first brought to the fore in the 1970s by German physician Ernst van Aaken. The idea behind it is that running for an extended period of time at a slow pace would go a long way towards getting your body to improve its aerobic fitness. The broad rules to this method are as follows: you should run no less than three times a week, no more than five, and for no less than one hour every run. In addition, runners shouldn’t go further than 15-miles per run, and later on in the program should go on a two-hour run at least once a week.
This method most definitely works – but it has a ceiling. More designed for those who are interested in simply finishing rather than fishing fast, the LSD approach can leave speed-freaks wanting. In addition, this type of method can take up a lot of time and not necessarily give you a return on it. As you increase your mileage and time running, you’ll eventually start racking up ‘junk miles’ – this is a term for mileage you rack up that doesn’t end up giving you results. In other words, you’ll plateau.
Yet, with that being said – well known runners like Jeff Galloway and John Bringham both use variations of LSD running for their popular marathon training programs. They both have a following because a good number of folks who train for marathons prioritize ‘running to finish’ rather than trying to shave downtime.
Hal Higdon Method: Though it isn’t always referred to as the ‘Hal Higdon Method’, an 18-week training schedule that slowly steps-up your running distance week over week was first popularized by the legendary runner. Higdon was a track athlete in High School and in College – clocking competitive mile times early on in his running career. In fact, Higdon was so good he participated in Olympic trials in the early 1950s. Before the running boom had even taken off in the U.S., the Chicago native was even competing in the Boston Marathon – once finishing fifth with a time of 2:21:55.
Higdon’s other passion was writing. He freelanced for publications ranging from the New York Times to Playboy. But it was when he wrote about running that he was at his best. Higdon eventually combined his strengths and started preaching the benefits of an 18-week marathon training method that got people running both quickly and for long periods of time.
His basic idea of incorporating rests, cross training, and ramping-up mileage over time while still focusing on speed has been embraced by lots of trainers. The main knocks against this popular method are that it can find it too intense and taxing for many simply looking to cross the finish line. Others take issue with the fact that Higdon’s plans usually only go up to 20 miles – leaving you on your own for that final 6.2
More Than Just Running
Supplementing Your Training Routine
Running isn’t the end-all-be-all of exercise. Even while you’re training for a marathon, it’s important to incorporate cross training as it’s sometimes called into your routine. That could mean swimming laps, going on bike rides, or getting into the gym and lifting weights. Our preference? HIIT.
Cross Training: High Intensity Interval Training involves short, intense workouts punctuated by brief rests. An example of a HIIT workout would include a minute of push-ups, then thirty-seconds of rest, and then on to jumping jacks with the same active-to-resting ratio, and then again on to another etc. for a total of just 15 minutes or so. The fundamental theory behind this type of training is that when you put your body in an anaerobic state, it’ll improve its cardiovascular function and overall aerobic capacity. While this method alone wouldn’t get you anywhere close to getting marathon ready, it’ll definitely help with your overall fitness.
Rest: Just because you’re training for a Marathon doesn’t mean you should throw the concept of rest out the window. In fact – short-term rests are exactly how your body recovers and grows stronger. Working out is essentially a process that breaks down your muscles and strains your body while resting is how your it recovers and grows stronger. It is during your rest period that the number aerobic enzymes grow, glycogen stores are restocked, and blood volume increases. So when you’re thinking about your week and what days you’re often too tired to do something or have prior commitments – consider incorporating those into your marathon training schedule. Obviously, you’ll have to make a judgment call on your priorities, but not everything in your life needs to take a backseat as you train.
Fuel For The Fire
Other than actually getting out there consistently and clocking miles week after week, the most important part of any marathon training program is your diet. How you fuel your body takes skill, practice, and a bit of trial and error.
Much like your training regimen, there isn’t necessarily a ‘right answer’ here. A lot of approaches will help propel you to the finish line, but in different ways. In the same way that you have to fill up a sports car with premium gasoline, you’re going to want to eat nutrient rich, high quality foods.That being said, we do have some broad recommendations for those looking to put a 26.2 sticker on their truck.
While training, you’re essentially trying to turn your body into a fine-tuned engine – something that produces a lot of power regularly and for long periods of time. So in the same way that you have to fill up a sports car with premium gasoline, you’re going to want to eat nutrient rich, high quality foods. That means the higher concentration of nutrients per-calorie the better. Combine that principal with eating balanced meals regularly and avoiding junk food and you’ll be well on your way to a great marathon diet.
To give you a bit of a roadmap in finding that perfect balance, we’ve outlined what your ‘fuel’ should consist of; carbs, fats, and proteins. Different diets will recommend different ratios of these components – often called ‘macronutrients’. Without getting too deep into the weeds of how these nutrients interact with one another and fuel your body, here is an overview of each.
A carbohydrate is a sugar that can be found foods like fruits, bread, and beans. When ingested, carbohydrates fuel muscles, the brain, red blood cells, and the nervous system by being converted to glucose. Because they’re the preferred energy source for your body, many runners recommend a diet with higher amounts of carbohydrates.
Fats can be found in eggs, avocado, sausage, bacon and more. While some people believe fat should be avoided, it’s actually a key component to any diet. Fats carry essential nutrients and acids that help your body regulate blood clotting, inflammation, and more. And to top it off, they help flavor your diet.
A hunk of meat, a cut of fish, or a bit of grilled tempeh are all great sources of protein. Our body needs this macronutrient because it provides essential amino acids that help provide antibodies, give structure to our bones, regulate blood glucose levels, and build muscle.
How To Prevent And How To Treat
When it comes to sports injuries, it is a question of when not if. Running is hard on your body, and even when you follow best practices, you’ll run the risk of injury. So how do you stay out of the physical therapist’s office and on the road? Knowing what to look out for is a good start. To help out, we’ve highlighted some of the most common injuries and included suggestions for both prevention and treatment.
What is it: Worn-down cartilage in the knee usually felt as a pain in front of your knee cap that heightens as you walk up stairs or squat.
How to prevent it: Focusing on glute strengthening exercises and hip mobility can help head-off any knee issues.
How to treat it: Following the common sports-medicine practice of RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) paired with ibuprofen will help with the immediate pain. Once the pain is in control, working on glute exercises and low-impact cardio like swimming.
What is it: A shooting that presents itself on the lower portion of your shin bone that occurs after an intense day of training.
How to prevent it: There are a variety of ways to prevent shin splints. You can increase your calcium intake, try on shoes that limit pronation, and as always – train your hips and core.
How to treat it: Busting out your foam roller, stretching your calves, RICE, and a little ibuprofen can go a long way. If the pain is persistent, though, it may be worth seeing a physical therapist or doctor.
What is it: Dull pain in the lower portion of the Achilles tendon near the heel usually felt in the morning.
How to prevent it: Stretching regularly and making sure you slowly level up your mileage are both good ways to head-off this particular running malady.
How to treat it: Pairing RICE with calf-stretches and foam-rolling can go a long way to lessen the pain in your heel. Getting an ankle-support can also help speed along your recovery.
IT Band Syndrome
What is it: When the thick ligament running along the outside of your thigh and towards your knee begins rubbing against bone, inflaming it.
How to prevent it: Glute exercises go a long way towards preventing this from happening.
How to treat it: The best treatment for an inflamed IT band is the RICE method. The band is incredibly thick and strong, making it near impossible (and painful) to ‘roll out’ using a foam roller.
Marathon Training Gear
Must-Haves For The Trail
Gear won’t get you to the finish line, but it can certainly help. We’ve pulled together a short list of some of our favorite running equipment to help you push your marathon training to the next level. Whether it be shoes, a cap, or some tunes to help you push it a little harder during your training sessions, these are all pieces of gear you should consider adding to your quiver.
Patagonia Duckbill Cap
While training for a marathon, you’re going to be spending a whole lot of time outside and in the sun. One way to keep cool and protected is by throwing on something like this ultra lightweight running cap. Made from a breathable mesh, lined with COOLMAX fabric, and featuring a dark underbill to eliminate glare, it’s one of the best running hats out there.
TriggerPoint GRID Foam Roller
You better believe you’re going to want a foam roller while training to run a marathon. While it may be painful at first, this gridded roller will help loosen up tight quads, calves, and thighs after tough days clocking in long miles.
Nathan Trail Mix Hydration Running Belt
As you get further along in your running program, you’ll be clocking in 10, 12, or even 20 mile runs. One way to keep from drying up and blowing away is by strapping on something like this hydration belt from Nathan. It’ll make it that much easier to bring along a little refreshment and fuel.
Tracksmith Session Shorts
Cut from an Italian made Veloce Blend fabric, these running shorts manage to be soft, silky, and stretchy enough to go on even your longest runs. A great grab for those looking to push it as hard as they can while still looking sharp.
Adidas Adizero Boston 6 Running Shoes
A good pair of shoes is essential for marathon training. This pair from Adidas features a 10mm midsole drop with boost cushioning, and an engineered mesh upper that is both lightweight and breathable. It is worth mentioning that you may want to get a half-size up. As you train, your feet will actually begin to swell – so you may want to provide a little room for them to expand.
District Vision Nako Sunglasses
These athletic sunglasses from the boutique running company District Vision manage to be both stylish and capable. Thanks to their titanium core the sunglasses weigh in at just 22 grams. And for great grip on even your sweatiest runs, they boast a rubber nose pad and grippy temple tips.
Everyone needs a little extra motivation while running. A great way to get just that is by plugging into your favorite playlist or switching on a podcast to try and forget it all. Apple’s AirPods will do just that without making you deal with the hassle of a cord.
Best Running Shorts For Men
Looking for some photo-finish quality shorts to throw on for your marathon training? Check out our rundown of the best men’s running shorts out there.