A foolproof guide to running your first marathon, plus training plan

My first marathon was a huge leap into the unknown. It was a small provincial race – marathons were still fairly niche in 1991 – and I toed the line with a cheap stopwatch strapped to my wrist, clutching a packet of glucose tablets and reeking of Deep Heat.

I finished, and went on to run many more, but how much better my experience could have been had I known more! Compression, progression, fuelling up, tapering down, negative splits, positive thinking… There’s a wealth of information out there now on how to train; everything from what sessions to do, how many miles to run and what to eat and drink, to how to stay motivated, get your pacing right and avoid injuries. The trouble is, not all of it is the same. It’s easy to end up confused, underprepared, burned out or, worst of all, injured.

And that’s where this guide comes in. We’ve distilled the collective wisdom and experience of coaches and experts to bring you a simple but comprehensive guide. If you’re a first-timer, you’ll find everything you need to know here. But even if you already have a marathon or two under your waist-band, we guarantee you’ll find some valuable ways to upgrade your performance: be it a new session to try, a nutrition tip, a mental strategy or an injury-preventing strength move. Whether or not you follow our 16-week training plan, you’ll have the nous you need to tweak your training for optimal performance.

The challenge

If you’re already a runner, you could turn up for most race distances with very little planning and preparation. You might not perform your best, but you’d get by. Not so with the big one. ‘It’s important not to underestimate the challenge of a marathon,’ says coach Jeff Gaudette (runnersconnect.net). ‘You need to have a healthy respect for the distance and be ready and willing to prepare for it accordingly.’

That means being willing and able to devote yourself to a specific marathon-training plan for at least 16 weeks. But you should already have a solid few months of running behind you before you begin. Mara Yamauchi, former Olympic marathoner and a qualified coach (marayamauchi.com), warns that rushing into the marathon without sufficient prior experience means you’re unlikely to do the distance justice. ‘The incredible appeal of the marathon pulls people in straight away,’ she says. ‘But I’d advise building up through shorter distances first – 5km, 10km and half marathon.’ 

Coach Martin Yelling (yellingperformance.com) doesn’t believe a lack of running experience is a reason to rule out a marathon completely: ‘If you’ve got no background in running, at least four to six weeks of being regularly active before you embark on a marathon plan is better than a complete standing start,’ he says. See the Commitment checklist below, for more pointers.

On your marks

So what’s the best way to prepare to run 26.2miles? ‘You need to start with a reputable plan from a trusted source,’ says Yelling. ‘Then ask yourself, “Can I fit this plan to me and my life?” Not, “Can I make myself fit the plan?”’

Yamauchi agrees. ‘If you currently run 20 miles a week then your training plan should begin at that sort of level, not 40 miles a week,’ she says. ‘You need a training plan that is challenging, but not so challenging you can’t maintain it week after week without risking injury or fatigue and underperformance. It’s very individual, which is why you need to be ready to tweak any off-the-shelf plan to meet your needs.’

And, says coach Russell Holman (runfaster-pb.com), you need to be flexible and responsive along the way. ‘Many newbie marathoners fall down by being married to their plan,’ he says. ‘They feel they must complete every single session, even when work, illness, injury or family commitments get in the way and end up squeezing them in on rest days or by making shorter runs longer or harder. This risks burnout or injury, which could scupper your chances of even making the start line.’

Before you set off on any journey, you need a goal. If this is your first marathon, you may not have any goal other than to cross the finish line. But many coaches believe every runner should have a time goal. ‘New marathoners often struggle with pace judgement because they haven’t trained with any focus on pace,’ says Holman. ‘Using race-pace calculators, along with training performances, helps you predict a realistic, achievable finish time which helps you get the pace right on your training runs, especially long runs.’

Yelling advises seeing your initial goal as an aspiration, rather than a rigid target, to be reviewed regularly. ‘Race performances are part of that assessment, but it’s also about regular monitoring of how your body is responding to training,’ he says. Our plan (below) includes a 10K and half marathon to help you assess your marathon potential as training progresses.

Training talk

‘The most important attribute you’ll need to run a marathon is stamina – the ability to keep going for a long time,’ says Yelling. Research in the journal Sports Medicine found that almost 98 per cent of the energy required to run a marathon comes from the aerobic energy system. ‘Building a strong aerobic foundation – a good engine – should be the mainstay of your physical preparation,’ says Yelling.

Simply running at a comfortable pace for progressively longer distances would probably get you round, but to run your fastest marathon ‘you need a mixed diet of runs, including not just long runs but tempo runs, hills and other workouts’, says Gaudette.

Yamauchi agrees. ‘If your goal is to run a sub-4 marathon, you’ll need to be comfortable at 9min/mile pace,’ she says. ‘So of course some of your training should be at that pace. But you also need to do some of your miles faster and some slower.’

Yelling outlines three distinct types of training that need to be included in a marathon plan. The first is the long run – the ‘lynchpin’ of marathon training. ‘More than anything else, this is what builds that all-important staying power,’ says Yelling. It will also increase muscular endurance and teach your body to become a more efficient fat-burning machine... helping you to hang on to that precious energy stored as glycogen for longer.

The majority of long runs should be run at a very easy pace. ‘The mistake people often make with these runs is overdoing the intensity,’ says Yelling. ‘You should be comfortable chatting while you’re clocking up the miles.’ But Yamauchi is in favour of variety: she suggests doing some long runs a little faster than ‘easy’ pace or including some faster final miles or short surges in the second half of an easy run. ‘Going out and plodding the same route and distance every time isn’t the best way to improve,’ she says. ‘Also play with different terrains, and vary your distances.’

The second type of training involves running at a slightly more challenging pace – faster than your goal race pace – for a sustained, but shorter period. ‘This is all about building aerobic capacity,’ explains Yelling. This might entail a tempo run, a progression run in which the pace increases throughout (‘you might start out slower than your goal marathon pace and finish faster than it,’ says Yelling) or it could be the last few miles of a long run, tackled at a faster pace: ‘Those last few miles teach your body what it will be like at miles 23-26 on race day,’ he adds.

The final type of training to include is harder efforts – short periods of work interspersed with recovery. This could be time- or distance-based speedwork or hill work. ‘This is all about making your race pace feel easier,’ says Yelling. ‘It broadens your spectrum of paces, as well as improving strength and running form.’

If you haven’t ever toed the line of a race before, make sure you include a couple of races in your marathon build-up. ‘A marathon should never be your first race,’ says Holman. ‘Racing gives you insight into everything from what it’s like to run surrounded by other people, to how to cope with pre-race nerves and portable loos and how to fuel and hydrate on the run.’ What’s more, the boost you get from finishing helps build your confidence.

Related: The Runner's World UK Podcast

And the rest

Once you’ve got the basic ingredients of training sorted, distribute the workload sensibly. Following a ‘hard/easy’ pattern – with hard sessions and long runs followed by rest or easy days – is the best way of avoiding overdoing things and helps to ensure you get plenty of recovery time.

Prolonged running causes microtrauma – tiny amounts of bleeding – in your working muscles. With sufficient rest and recovery, they’ll heal stronger and be better able to withstand the stress of running. It also depletes glycogen stores – but at the same time teaches the body to increase its storage capacity for future runs. ‘Rest is training,’ says Yelling. ‘It’s not a weakness. Without sufficient rest and recovery, your body can’t adapt to get fitter and stronger.’ ‘Sufficient’ means different things for different people. A programme may only schedule one easy day after a hard session but your body may need two, for example. Or what may feel fine one week or one month may be too much the next due to other stresses. Always listen to your body, says Alison Rose. ‘You are more likely to get injured if you run when you're fatigued. Muscle fatigue will increase stress on bones, tendons and ligaments while mental stress or lack of sleep means the nervous system won’t be as responsive, so neither will the muscles.’

Do not increase the volume of your training too quickly. The 10 per cent rule is a good guideline – which means not increasing your mileage (or running time) by more than this per week – but again, your body should have the final say on training load. For example, a long run that leaves you exhausted every Monday and unable to put much effort or energy into the rest of the week’s training could do more harm than good.

A great way to monitor all this is to keep a training journal. ‘Having that collection of data enables you to find out what makes you improve, what leaves you flat and what causes injuries to flare up,’ says Yamauchi. ‘But if you’re not progressing as much as you expect, it’s worth looking beyond the running itself for causes. Often, lifestyle factors are the problem. Not enough sleep, poor nutrition or failing to factor in the demands of work, family and other commitments.’

Crossing over

Although running should obviously be your main focus during marathon training, not all your training need be running. ‘Cross-training can provide a cardiovascular challenge without extra stress on the legs,’ explains Holman. You might choose to supplement your running plan with cross-training to increase your training volume. Or you might want to replace some sessions with cross-training because you know you are injury prone, or have a niggle. If you are replacing a recovery run, ensure that you don’t push too hard in your substitute activity, but, says Rose, ‘If you are replacing a specific session, mimic it as much as you can with the cross-training activity, as long as doing so doesn’t exacerbate the problem.’ For example, mile reps at tempo pace could become 7-10- minute reps on an exercise bike at a similar effort level.

Most coaches agree that one of the best ways of fortifying yourself against injury during marathon training is to include some strength work from the outset. ‘It’s hard to overestimate the importance of strength and conditioning,’ says Yamauchi. ‘The main reason is injury prevention, but it also helps you run better. Marathon running is about efficiency. If you can run just one per cent more efficiently, it will make a big impact on your time.’

Rose recommends having an assessment or MOT from a runner-friendly physio before embarking on marathon training. ‘Most people have a weakness or issue somewhere in their body that can cope with a certain amount of work, but not with the increased load of marathon training,’ she says. ‘For example, weak calf muscles may withstand 20 miles per week, but not 40. Once a weakness starts to have an effect on the body, it will lead to technique changes, loss of efficiency, and potential injury.’ Strength work need not mean hitting the weights room, though. ‘Body-weight exercises – like lunges, single leg squats, calf raises, bridges and core work are fine,’ says Holman. 

Related: The science behind why you don't remember the pain of running marathons

Eat, drink, run

Marathon training is stressful and demanding on the body. So you’ll need to provide it with plenty of healthy, nutritious fuel. ‘It’s not necessarily about eating more,’ says Ruth McKean, a sports nutritionist at the Scottish Institute of Sport. ‘That depends on whether you are already lean or aim to shed some body fat. Don’t get too concerned about the daily ups and downs on the scales, but do monitor your weight as your training steps up, and if the trend is consistently down – or up – then you need to adjust your calorie intake.’

Getting your ‘calorie budget’ right is key but, says McKean, so is how you spend it. ‘It’s not uncommon for recreational runners to go seven or eight hours between lunch and dinner, with a run in-between,’ she says. ‘Spreading the calories out over the course of the day – ensuring you eat three meals and a morning and afternoon snack – is likely to help you feel better during your runs and prevent overeating after them.’

Runners can obsess over carbs, but there’s no need to start buying industrial-sized bags of pasta. ‘A normal portion of carbohydrate-rich food at each meal or snack should meet your needs,’ says McKean. Focus on a good balance of nutrients – wholegrain carbohydrates, good-quality proteins and healthy fats – with as much fresh, natural food as possible. ‘But equally, if there is a certain food or treat you love, then make space for it in your calorie budget,’ says McKean.

What about during the run itself? It’s only when a run exceeds 90 minutes or so that you need to think about fuelling up on the run, says McKean.

Related: Hydration for runners

For longer runs, though, start to take carbohydrate on board after 40 minutes and every 30-40 minutes thereafter. ‘You have carb transporters in the gut that can be trained,’ says McKean. ‘So don’t decide you don’t much like taking gels or jelly babies or whatever and leave it to race day or you’ll miss out on these adaptations. Taking gels in training also means you’ll need to practise carrying them, and figure out what works best for you – a gel belt, pockets or hydration pack.’

You may have read about ‘training low’, where you don’t fuel up beforehand or take carbs on board during a run. McKean says such strategies are not necessary for most non-elite runners. ‘The best way to tackle your long runs is to run fresh and fuelled. The elites are already so well adapted to burning fat and conserving carbohydrate that they are looking for additional ways of making marginal improvements,’ she says.

One sure-fire way of upgrading your running is avoiding dehydration. However, says McKean, it’s important to think of your hydration on a more general level, rather than just something that kicks in when you put on your trainers. The current advice is to drink to thirst, rather than aiming for set volumes of liquid. McKean recommends monitoring your urine output to determine whether you need to drink more or less. ‘If you go to the toilet every three hours or so, producing a decent volume of pale colour, your hydration is fine,’ she says. ‘If it’s less frequently, and your urine is dark, smelly or scant, then you’re not drinking enough.’ Adjust your hydration accordingly, but try drinking little and often through the day rather than downing 500ml just before you set off on a run.

The long, slow runs give you a chance to experiment and get used to fuelling and hydrating on the run. Later, when you’re doing pacier long runs and exceeding 18 or 20 miles, it’s about practising your race strategy: what to take, how much and when.

‘Ideally, practise your entire pre-race fuel strategy before a race, such as your build-up half marathon,’ says McKean. ‘This gives you a chance to check whether your proposed strategy still works when nerves are present. You might find you want to adjust the timing of your breakfast, for example.’

Post-run refuelling plays an important role in recovery. Your post-run snack or meal should ideally provide around 50g carbohydrate and 20g of protein. ‘A bowl of cereal with milk, or a tuna sandwich, a natural yoghurt with banana would all work fine,’ says McKean. ‘If you’re trying to lose weight, plan to have your meal immediately post-run so you don’t eat more calories overall.’ See BOX for the ultimate recovery meal.

Studies have identified a ‘golden window’ in the first half hour post-exercise, where muscles are particularly receptive to replenishing glycogen stores. But, says McKean, timing is less critical if you are not going to be training again in the next 8-12 hours. ‘That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat something, more that you don’t end up starving later on and overeating than because of recovery,’ she says.

Related: The complete guide to tapering

The countdown

An important part of any marathon training programme is the taper. This is when training winds down, giving you more rest and recovery so that you feel fresh and prepared on race day. One study review of 50 research papers in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that the average performance improvement resulting from a taper was three per cent. That could equate to more than seven minutes off a four-hour marathon. Our plan includes a three-week taper – during which mileage progressively drops. But there are still some high-intensity sessions to tackle: research shows that maintaining intensity while dropping volume produces the best taper benefits.

Many runners will increase their carb intake – so-called ‘carb-loading’ – in the final two to three days before the race. But others have found that it leaves them feeling bloated and heavy. ‘Carb-loading is best done in conjunction with a sports dietitian, who can help you figure out your needs and devise a plan,’ believes McKean. ‘Otherwise, a low-risk but effective way of making sure your fuel stores are topped up is to continue eating as if you were still training in the final two to three days of your taper when your mileage is much reduced.’

With training winding down, now’s a good time to review your race goal, plan a race strategy, finalise your logistics for race day and get in gear mentally. ‘If the race is starting to loom large, think about all the good things you’ve done during your preparation,’ suggests Yamauchi.

Yelling has some simple but powerful advice when it comes to race strategy: ‘Start at the pace you believe you can maintain to the finish,’ he says. ‘The trouble with marathons is that they feel really easy at the start and really hard towards the end. Avoiding the temptation to go too hard in the early stages when you’re feeling comfortable is key.’ The statistics back him up. One study found that marathoners who went off just two per cent faster than planned goal pace suffered in the final six miles.

‘Run within yourself for at least 20 miles,’ advises Yamauchi. ‘Then if you feel fabulous, speed up.’ The chances are you’ll go through some kind of bad patch during the race. If you’re prepared for it, you’ll cope much better. ‘I used to set myself little goals – the next drinks station, the next mile marker,’ says Yamauchi. Rose recommends focusing on relaxed breathing and good technique when you’re feeling tired. ‘Keep your shoulders relaxed and your head up.’ That way, you’ll also spot the finish line sooner and can prepare yourself for that all-important finish line sprint and photo…

The Runner’s World schedule and how to use it

This 16-week schedule will help runners who can already run consistently for an hour or more to prepare for a marathon. The basic schedule consists of four runs a week – but built-in flexibility allows you to do more or less from week to week. Each week, three of the four sessions are highlighted in red, to indicate that they should not be missed. The fourth session is highlighted in blue – this is the one that should go if you are too busy (or tired) for four runs. The fifth session, highlighted green, is optional.

The plan has a mix of easy long runs and more challenging ones, along with a few breaks from long runs altogether – replaced with a race or an extra rest day. You can swap the days around to suit your time availability and preference, but ensure you still follow the hard-easy rule.

Runs are based on time for the first two months, after which long runs are based on distance to ensure that you have a clear idea of how far you are running as the marathon draws nearer.
If you are less experienced or less fit, focus on the shorter end of the time range suggested, or the lower end of the suggested number of repetitions to begin with.

Effort levels are described according to perceived exertion ratings. But says Yamauchi, don’t get too fixated on pace. ‘GPS has been both a blessing and a curse for runners,’ she believes. ‘It’s important to run – and race – sometimes, without constantly checking your watch.’

Never blindly follow the programme if you’re feeling exceptionally tired or finding the sessions too challenging – or too easy. ‘Have confidence that missing the odd session, or even having to take a week or two off, doesn’t have to spell disaster,’ says Holman.

Keep a note of the sessions you complete and how they felt so you can monitor whether you’re getting progressively fitter, or simply more exhausted.

Can you commit?Are you accustomed to running at least three days a week?
Suddenly stepping up from one or two sessions a week – or none – to four in week one of your training plan is a bad idea and one that risks pain or injury. ‘Three runs a week is typically the minimum you’ll need to commit to,’ says Yamauchi.


Are you injury free?
Think very carefully about embarking on marathon training if you’re carrying a niggle. ‘For those who are already having treatment and seeing improvement, then a sensible build-up could be OK, providing you are willing to cross-train where necessary,’ says physiotherapist Alison Rose (cspc.co.uk). ‘But never ignore existing niggles. The priority should be to sort them out, or the likelihood is they will cause problems as training ramps up.’
 

Is your family onside?
For four months, your focus will be on marathon training. You’ll need to prioritise runs over lie-ins and family strolls, weekend breaks and late nights. ‘Accept that your life will change during this time,’ says Yamauchi.  It will be much easier if your partner, family and significant others will be supportive rather than resentful. ‘I can say with 100 per cent confidence that I would not have achieved what I did in my running career without my husband’s support,’ says Yamauchi. ‘Assure your loved ones that your focus on training will not be never-ending – it’s for a fixed period.’ Try to get them involved, too. If they’ve supported you along the way, race day will be gratifying and exciting for the whole family. 
 

Is your diary clear?
You’ll need a clear run at this. So don’t sign up for a marathon for which the training is going to clash with other major commitments, such as your wedding or going on safari for a fortnight just when you should be doing your longest runs

 

When to train, when to rest
Few of us get through marathon training without having to take time off for injury or illness at some point. ‘The more time you have off, the more gradually you need to get back into it,’ says Rose. ‘For example, if you’ve had two or three weeks off, I would suggest running only alternate days for the first week back. Then increase to a training-to-rest ratio of 2:1 days and then 3:1 days.’ Start back with a few short easy runs, rather than your scheduled workouts, to start to increase the load on the body again, and to check that the injury has gone before starting to push. 

If you’ve managed to cross-train, you’ll have lost less fitness, but it’s still important to reintroduce running gradually. Runners who have lost a lot of time – particularly during the key weeks, when mileage is ramping up, may need to reconsider their goal. Far from copping out, it takes bravery to adjust a goal, or indeed to decide it’s wiser to cut your losses and save your marathon for a later date.

If you get a niggle, ice it as soon as possible, says Rose. She offers these guidelines to help you decide how to proceed thereafter.


Train if…it’s more of a small ache than a pain, one that doesn’t affect your movement. ‘This should be fairly safe to train on,’ says Rose, or to ease by cross-training or taking a day or two off.’
Rest if…the niggle is more of a sharp pain, which doesn’t ease when you slow down to a jog or a walk. ‘Rest and ice for 24-48 hours,’ says Rose. ‘If possible, give the injured area relative rest while cross-training to maintain fitness.’ But, she warns, don't simply rest for weeks. ‘If it goes on that long it is an injury, and there’s a reason why it’s not going away,’ says Rose. A good physio can give you advice on what the problem is, how to manage it and what training you can do.’

 

Gauging goal pace
Pace calculators can be a useful tool. Try to use longer races rather than shorter ones as your prediction distances, and go for terrain/courses that are as similar as possible to the race you’ll be running. A 5K race time will predict your marathon time less accurately than a half marathon, while using a hilly offroad 10K time will sell you short. If you have a range of distances to use, plug all of them in and you’ll get a predicted ‘range’ of marathon times, which is more useful to work with than a single figure. And use your most recent times, not your PB from a few years ago!

However, Martin Yelling believes pace calculators shouldn’t be used in isolation. ‘There is huge value in learning to put everything together,’ he says. ‘Don’t just use what you achieved in a set of Yasso 800s, or a single 10K time.’