How to train for a marathon
A marathon is a long-distance running race of a total distance of 42.195 kilometers (26.2 miles). It’s usually run on a road but can also be done on trail routes.
The marathon has become one of the most popular endurance events in athletics – hundreds of marathons across the globe attract a mix of professional runners and motivated amateurs each year.
A marathon will test not only your physical strength and stamina but also your mental resilience and determination. Preparing for a marathon also requires a solid amount of grit and dedication to stay consistent and hold yourself accountable.
Try to start off by developing a weekly running routine and get used to running three, four, or more times per week.
To motivate yourself and stay accountable, add your running sessions to your calendar and track your progress – or better yet, use a dedicated marathon app like Runna to create a personalized running plan based on your goals, current level, and the time you have to train.
To achieve top results at your next marathon race, you'll need to nail not only your training sessions but also your nutrition.
Marathon nutrition involves properly fueling for your runs and recovery, and also making healthy nutrition choices on a day-to-day basis.
To optimize your performance and recovery, keep your protein high, take on plenty of carbs before your tougher sessions, and, if you're looking to really push the pace or distance, don't be afraid to experiment with caffeine, too.
Race week nutrition
You’ve already done all the hard work of training for your marathon, so now it’s time to reduce your mileage and maximize your freshness to run at 110% on race day with the help of some tweaks to your nutrition.
Race week is when you’ll be carb-loading: An increase in the proportion of carbohydrates in your diet, along with reducing your mileage, will allow the muscles to store additional carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, ready for race day. You shouldn’t dramatically increase your calories; instead, focus on increasing the proportion of carbs in each meal.
Whilst you are going through this process, it is also important to not forget about protein. Keeping your protein high throughout this period not only helps muscle recovery, but also slows the digestion of carbohydrates.
This is perfect for race day, too: You don’t want that quick hit of energy release at the start of the race, you want it to be sustained throughout the 42.2 km.
Think about all other areas of our recovery, too: Make sure to sleep well, do plenty of mobility work, and hydrate well. It all adds up.
Your body stores around 3 grams of water for every gram of glycogen, so during this period, you might put on a little weight. If so, congratulations! You have successfully carb-loaded and are ready for race day, when glycogen will act as your rocket fuel.
Three days before your race
Three days before race day is where you might want to slightly reduce foods high in fiber, such as vegetables, whole grains, and cereals. Everyone training for a marathon will understand the impact fiber could have on your bowels, so to have a smooth run, limit fiber to reduce the weight in your intestines.
Two to four hours before your race
After spending the last 7-10 days loading up your glycogen stores with carbs, it only makes sense to see race day with another high-carbohydrate meal to keep them topped up. Ideally, try to have it 3 to 4 hours before you cross the start line to allow your body enough time to digest it.
In this meal, you should keep fats to a minimum and keep your protein intake relatively low, i.e. below 15g.
Most importantly, however, experiment with what works for you during training and have confidence in that – don’t change things up for the big day. We’d encourage you to eat an extra snack before you set off, but make sure it’s something tried and tested.
Marathon strength training
If you incorporate cross-training and strength training within your running plans, this will not only help you optimize your performance, but it’ll also reduce your injury risk.
Cross-training options include cycling, elliptical, rowing or swimming, but ultimately, we’d advise you to do what you enjoy the most. It’ll add variety to your routine when you are running fit and healthy, but it’ll also make it a lot easier to adapt if you are injured. Set yourself goals and challenges while you can’t run – you’ll enjoy it a lot more!
Strength training is a crucial part of a balanced training program, because it not only boosts performance but also helps prevent injuries. It consists of exercises specifically designed to increase your power, speed, and endurance by building the muscles involved in running. With this, it provides a proven performance benefit, helping to improve your running economy by 8-12%.
When you run, your calf muscles will take up to 11x your bodyweight in force, while your quads take up to 4x. It’s essential to make sure your body is conditioned to tolerate these loads. If your muscles are tired, then these loads are going to be distributed elsewhere, for example, your skeletal system, which then may lead to bone-stress injuries.
By using Runna, you'll be able to complement your running with a fully personalized strength and conditioning plan that fits alongside your running workouts. This plan will be optimized to you, based on your strength ability, the number of workouts a week that you want to do, and the equipment that you have available – from bodyweight to gym equipment.
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A marathon is an endurance event, so to get the best out of yourself, you need to control the controllables in advance and make a realistic plan about your pacing.
Start by working out your goal time, i.e. what time you are aiming to finish in. For example, if you are aiming for 3 hours and 30 mins, then this is an average pace of 4:58 mins per km. Hitting the pace to the exact second is tricky, so we’d recommend setting a pace range of 3-4s either side of your target pace (4:55-5:03 per km, in this case).
You can then break down your marathon into sections and focus on each section at a time.
Coach Steph would take on the following approach when running a marathon, spitting the run up into three parts:
- First half: The first half of a marathon should feel comfortable and like you’ve got plenty in the tank. Stick to the slower side of your target pace. Enjoy the first half and try not to get ahead of your pacing plan. Remind yourself that you still have a long way to go!
- From halfway to 36k (22miles): The halfway point is where your marathon really starts. Focus on getting to the next kilometer or mile rather than worrying about the rest of the race. You can gradually work up your way to a faster pace if you’re feeling well, but only increase it by ~5 seconds per km. If you aren't sure, then hold.
- Final push: You've got 6k to go. It might feel like your body is being weighed down but everyone else will be feeling this, too. Keep ticking off the kilometers and give it everything you’ve got. Use the energy from the crowds and focus on runners ahead of you: Can you pick them off? In the last kilometer, give it your absolute all to cross the finish line and celebrate your successful race.
Keep on top of your fueling plan from the get go. We advise a gel every 30-35 minutes (i.e. 60g carbs every hour).
Post-marathon recovery: sleep, rest, cross-training, and more
If you’ve just completed your marathon, first of all, congratulations!
You now need time to recover. No matter how well you prepared for it, most runners see the finish line as the ultimate end and never really think about the recovery process.
But pounding the pavement for 26.2 miles is hard! It’s strenuous, exhausting and painful, sometimes to the point it feels like you got hit by a bus.
That’s why it’s crucial to approach your post-marathon recovery in the same way as your training, i.e. as an essential part of the journey. This way, you’ll be able to get back to running without risking injury.
Here are some tips to help you recover from a marathon:
- Allow for a few days of rest: Following a marathon, give your body a few days of rest from running to help it heal from the stress of the race. Other sports like swimming or cycling are okay, but stay at low to moderate intensity.
- Get enough sleep: Sleep is when the body does most of its repair and recovery work, but keep in mind that because of the adrenaline rush it might take you a few days to get consistent 8-hours nights.
- Take care of your post-marathon nutrition: Refuel your body with meals rich in carbs (to replenish your glycogen stores) and in protein (to help with muscle repair).
- Set a new goal: Completing your race will leave a vacuum if you don’t have another goal in mind. Set a new goal to stay focused during the recovery period.
Marathon gear: shoes, clothing, and more
What you wear while training for a marathon and on race day will have a significant impact on your comfort and performance.
Keep in mind the golden rule, however: On race day, don’t try anything new.
Stick to clothes, shoes, and gear in which you’ve already run long distances. You don’t want to discover halfway through your maraton that your shorts ride up uncomfortably or that your t-shirt feels itchy.
Look for high-quality performance fabrics that can wick away sweat to keep you dry and comfortable during your run, such as polyester or nylon. Cotton should generally be avoided as it can retain moisture and cause chafing.
Consider running socks, which can help prevent blisters; female athletes should also choose a well-fitted sports bra.
Make sure you try all clothing and accessories on longer training runs.
Investing in a good pair of shoes for your marathon training (and race) will help protect your body from the impact with the ground.
We recommend going to a shoe shop that specializes in running shoes and has a treadmill in-store so that you can test a few different pairs.
If you're looking to shave a few seconds off your 5k time, you could even look to invest in a light, carbon-assisted pair of shoes!
Other gear: Watches, hydration gear, and more
A running watch (or your phone’s GPS tracker) will help you monitor your pace and distance during training and the actual race. Plus, a watch helps you track all training runs and view all fitness data post-workout such as paces, heart-rate, and progression.
To help you get most of your training plan, Runna integrates with Garmin, Apple Watch, Coros, and Strava.
Hydration gear, like a handheld water bottle or a hydration vest, along with nutrition supplies like energy gels or bars, are also key. You might also consider a running belt or armband to carry your phone, keys, and other essentials.
Lastly, don't forget to apply a high-SPF sunscreen and wear a hat or sunglasses to protect from sun damage, even on cloudy days.