Wondering how to start training for a marathon? This guide will help you get started on the right foot.
The marathon is a brutal event - a 26.2-mile test that tests not only a runner's physical fitness but also their mental ability to block out pain and keep going. Most people will never run one, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying. Greg McMillan is an eight-time marathoner, a United States track and field trail marathon national champion, and a coach who has developed marathon training plans for thousands of runners over his decades in the sport. He signs off on a dirty little secret shared by elite running coaches: The marathon is doable.
"Anyone off the street can finish a marathon," McMillan tells Men's Journal. "I am of the same conviction that the right time is not a problem."
Most marathon runners have at least some running experience before they start training. But McMillan has coached many marathoners who didn't run much at all prior to adopting 26.2, and the training trick is the same whether a runner has 10-mile or half-marathon experience or none at all. An aspiring marathon runner needs to choose a plan, stick to it, and stay healthy. That's it.
Do you want to run a marathon? Here's what you need to know.
Use a marathon training plan
The internet is full of training plans like those offered by McMillan or the legendary Hal Higdon. There isn't a set amount of time a runner needs to spend on marathon preparation, but some common guideposts are 12 or 16 weeks of buildup for an experienced runner (perhaps someone who's done some shorter races) and 20 or 24 weeks for someone who is doing it starts scratching.
There are tons of templates to work with, and each offers different paths to get a runner to the same place. However, they usually follow a similar pattern and involve a few main components.
Base Mileage: A typical training plan focuses on building base miles throughout the week. By running shorter distances (and slowly increasing that distance over time), you'll build a foundation and acclimate your body to the heavy strain that's coming your way on race day.
Long runs: Longer runs push the body's limits, making 26.2 miles achievable. In marathon training, the highlight of the week is the "weekend cross-country skiing" on Saturday or Sunday. It's usually a 10-20 mile push (shorter at the beginning and then longer as the workout progresses). Combined with your baseline weekly mileage, long runs help your heart better move oxygen throughout your body, and they help your bones, joints, and muscles adjust to running and constantly planting your feet on the pavement.
Rejuvenation: After a period of gradually increasing mileage, most training plans will phase you out, having reduced your mileage significantly in the last few weeks leading up to the race. So you feel fresh and not tired on the big day. A three-week taper is common but not essential, and a runner who needs to stay on pace may prefer a lesser deceleration.
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Adjust your marathon training plan to fit your schedule
Creating a plan that works for you will be crucial. This requires a sober look at your weekly schedule so you can figure out what's realistic and what's not.
"I would think about your daily routine, whether you have kids or you're single, whether you have a demanding job," says Victor Ornelas, a veteran long-distance runner who now serves as senior director of vendor management for Fleet Feet, a large retailer of running gear . “Set an intelligent goal – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely. I think it's also important to think about areas that you might need to cut out of your schedule to make that happen.”
Manage your efforts
The foundation of any marathon preparation plan is health. "The really interesting thing about developing as a runner," says McMillan, "is that the cardiovascular system adapts faster than the musculoskeletal system."
That means your heart may be able to handle a big run that your legs can't, and injury may follow. By slowly building up to longer and longer runs in a training plan, you'll help your legs (and the rest of your body) get stronger and adapt to running. To avoid injury during exercise, it's important to control how hard you're exerting yourself during the build-up. The line between a good challenge and overexertion is different for every runner, so it's important to listen to your body and take recovery seriously.
"We're very focused on taking care of the body," says McMillan. “If we can keep the body happy, cardiovascular fitness will come. It's everything from foam rolling, mobility work, ice baths, a visit to a physical therapist, a massage therapist, a chiropractor, you name it.”
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Get the right gear
The right running equipment, especially running shoes, is important for marathon success. It's definitely worth visiting a brick-and-mortar running shoe store and getting a professional to help you find a shoe that fits your feet. There is a good chance that you will save yourself a trip to the podiatrist later on. (Read below for more gear basics.)
One last tip for race day
Race day will be exhausting, but it should also be fun. It's a celebration of what a runner has been working toward for the past few months. At this point the work is done and the hay is in the barn. Just make sure you're staying hydrated and that you've had enough time in the morning to get your bowels going before the race.
"On this race day, even if it's outside, go to the toilet earlier," says Ornelas. "Don't wait until the last minute because those lines are getting really long."
Essential equipment for a marathon run
1. Running shoe: New Balance Fresh Foam X 1080v12
The best running shoe for you is a matter of personal preference and physiology. For my first marathon, the Fresh Foam X 1080 provided vital heel support that eliminated aches and pains experienced with a different shoe. For more options, check out our guide to affordable running shoes and our guide to racing shoes for running.[$160; newbalance.com]
2. Anti-chafing balm: Body Glide
Chafing is one of a runner's worst enemy. Applying an anti-chafing product between your toes, on your ankles, and other areas prone to irritation 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 smells.[Starting at $6; bodyglide.com]
3. Hydration Vest: CamelBak Circuit Run Vest
Most marathons have stations with water and electrolyte drinks available for runners. But during your long training runs, there won't be any volunteers willing to hand you a cup of Gatorade. You have to figure out hydration yourself during the run. While some runners like to plan hydration fountains along their routes or hide water bottles along the way, a lightweight hydration vest designed for running makes staying hydrated that much easier.[$85; amazon.com]
4. Fuel: Honey Stinger Energy Chews
A marathon runner needs to eat, both during long training runs and during the actual race. Products like Honey Stinger's energy chews are easy to put down while you're running -- important to avoid choking -- and are a convenient way to eat carbs and sugar during your run. Your body will thank you.[$35 for variety pack; honeystinger.com]
5. Recovery Tool: Theragun Mini
Rest, rest, rest. Running is hard on your muscles, and a massage gun will give them a well-deserved rest after a few hours of repeatedly banging your legs on the pavement. Theragun, a leader in this space, offers an affordable mini gun that helps push lactic acid out of muscles after a run. Most runners can't completely avoid pain, but a massage gun can help relieve the pain.[$199; therabody.com]