Launch Pad: How to Get Started With Marathon Training
The marathon is a brutal event—a 26.2-mile test of not just a runner’s physical fitness but also their mental ability to block out pain and keep pushing. Most people will never run one, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. Greg McMillan is an eight-time marathoner, a USA Track and Field trail marathon national champion, and a coach who’s designed marathon training regimens for thousands of runners over his decades in the sport. He subscribes to a dirty little secret shared by elite running coaches: The marathon is gettable.
“Anybody off the street can finish a marathon,” McMillan tells Men’s Journal. “I’m of that same belief that with the right amount of time, it’s no problem.”
Most people who take on a marathon have at least some running experience before diving into their training. But McMillan has coached plenty of marathoners who didn’t run much at all before taking on 26.2, and the trick for training is the same whether a runner has 10-mile or half-marathon experience or none at all. An aspiring marathoner has to pick a plan, stick to it, and stay healthy. That’s it.
Want to run a marathon? Here’s what you need to know.
Related: The Best Men’s Running Shoes Under $100 in 2023
Use a Marathon Training Plan
The internet is flush with training plans, like those offered by McMillan or by the legendary Hal Higdon. There is no set period that any runner needs to spend in marathon prep, but some common guideposts are 12 or 16 weeks of buildup for an experienced runner (perhaps someone who has done some shorter races), and 20 or 24 weeks for someone starting from scratch.
There are countless templates to work from, each offering varying paths to get a runner to the same place. They usually follow a similar pattern, however, and include a few main components.
Base Mileage: A typical training plan will focus on building base mileage during the week. By running shorter distances (and slowly increasing that distance over time), you build a foundation and get your body used to the heavy load that will come on race day.
Long Runs: Longer runs push the body’s limits, making 26.2 miles attainable. During marathon training, the highlight of the week will be “the weekend long run” on Saturday or Sunday. It’s usually a 10-to-20-mile push (shorter to start, and then longer as training progresses). Combined with your weekly base mileage, long runs help the heart get better at sending oxygen throughout the body, and they help bones, joints, and muscles become accustomed to running and the continued striking of your feet against pavement.
Taper: After a period of gradually increasing mileage, most training plans will have you taper, where you cut your miles considerably over the last few weeks before the race. This ensures you feel fresh, not fatigued, on the big day. A three-week taper is common but not mandatory, and a runner who needs to stay in their rhythm might prefer less of a slowdown.
Fit Your Marathon Training Plan Into Your Schedule
Building a plan that works for you will be critical. That will require a sober look at your week-to-week schedule so you can figure out what’s realistic and what isn’t.
“I would reflect on your day-to-day schedule, whether you have kids or you’re single, whether you have a demanding job,” says Victor Ornelas, an experienced distance runner who now serves as Senior Director of Vendor Management for Fleet Feet, a major running gear retailer. “Set a smart goal—specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely. I think it’s also important to reflect on areas that you may need to eliminate from your schedule to make this happen.”
Manage Your Effort
The foundation of any marathon prep plan is health. “The real interesting thing about developing as a runner,” McMillan says, “is that the cardiovascular system adapts faster than the musculoskeletal system.”
That means your heart might be able to handle a big run that your legs can’t, and injuries can follow. By slowly building up to longer and longer runs in a training plan, you help your legs (and the rest of your body) get stronger and adapt to running. To avoid injury while training, it’s critical to manage how much you push yourself during the buildup. The line between a good challenge and overextending yourself will be different for every runner, so it’s critical to listen to your body and take recovery seriously.
“We focus a lot on taking care of the body,” McMillan says. “If we can keep the body happy, the cardiovascular fitness will come. That’s everything from foam rolling, mobility work, ice baths, seeing a physical therapist, seeing a massage therapist, chiropractor, whatever.”
Get the Right Gear
For marathon success, it’s important to have the right running gear, especially running shoes. It’s very much worth your time to visit a brick-and-mortar running store and let a professional help you find a shoe that fits your feet. There’s a good chance it’ll save you a trip to a foot doctor later on. (Read on for more gear essentials below.)
One Last Tip for Race Day
Race day will be punishing, but it should also be fun. It’s a celebration of everything a runner has worked toward in recent months. By this point, the work is done, and the hay is in the barn. Just make sure you’re hydrated and that you’ve had enough time in the morning to get your bowels moving before the race.
“On that race day, even if it’s outside, hit up those bathrooms earlier,” Ornelas says. “Don’t wait ‘til the last minute, because those lines get really long.”
Related: Best Running Workouts to Increase Speed and Endurance
Essential Gear for Running a Marathon
The best running shoe for you is a matter of personal preference and physiology. For my first marathon, the Fresh Foam X 1080 provided critical heel support that eliminated pain that had been mounting with another shoe. For even more options, check out our guide to affordable running shoes and our guide to racing shoes for running.
Chafing is one of a runner’s worst enemies. Applying an anti-chafe product between your toes, on your joints, and in other irritation-prone places is a great way to take care of your skin and prevent chafing during a long run. I used Body Glide for my race, and it prevented irritation; I also liked that it didn’t give off any weird odors.
Most marathons will have stations with water and electrolyte drinks available for runners. But during your long training runs, there won’t be volunteers ready to hand you a cup of Gatorade. You’ll need to figure out mid-run hydration on your own. While some runners like to strategically plot out drinking fountains on their routes or hide bottles of water along the way, a lightweight hydration vest designed for running makes staying hydrated much simpler.
A marathoner has to eat, including during long training runs and while hustling through the actual race. Products like Honey Stinger’s energy chews are easy to put down while running—essential to avoid choking—and are a convenient way to get carbohydrates and sugars mid-run. Your body will thank you for the boost.
Recovery, recovery, recovery. Running is hard on your muscles, and a massage gun gives them a deserved respite after a few hours of repeatedly pounding your legs into the pavement. Theragun, a leader in this space, offers an affordable mini gun that helps push lactic acid out of the muscles after a run. Most runners can’t totally avoid soreness, but a massage gun can help lessen the pain.