How to train for a marathon: a beginner's guide

How to train for a marathon: a beginner’s guide

You’ve come here because you are planning to run a marathon. Now you want to know how. Seek no more! This is your definitive guide: How to train for a marathon.

Instead of starting this post with stuff like: it takes time and dedication etc. etc. I’m just gonna dive right in.

It is a long read if you read all of it, however: you are going to dedicate months to this project. Best be well prepared!

In this post:

Deciding on your marathon goals

In order to decide on what training strategy to follow, you need to have your goal Crystal clear. Be realistic in where you currently stand as a runner, but don’t hold yourself back. It is good to set tough goals and strive for it.

Are you a beginner runner and is this your first marathon? Your first race even? Going for a marathon finish is a great goals, and an achievement in itself. Perhaps you could go for a marathon under 5 or 4 hours.

Or are you an experienced runner? Do you have a background in track running? Cros Country? perhaps you’ve done a competitive ten miler or half marathon already and you want to step it up? A marathon with a ‘more competitive time goal’ such as running sub 3.30 or sub 3 (or hey, maybe faster) might be more your thing.

If you are the latter, then you should go for a training strategy (mind that i’m saying strategy, i’m not talking training plan yet, that’s further below in this post) with weekly (often twice a week) training sessions on marathon goal pace or faster.

If you are a beginner runner going for your first marathon and your goal is to finish, with no particular finish time in mind, then tempo work is of less importance. The main strategy in your training will be to get you ready for the distance.

Make a note for yourself: where do you stand? Beginner or experienced, and what training strategy does that entail: a focus on distance versus distance and tempo?

How long does it take to train for a marathon?

There’s not just a single answer here. It depends on your fitness, it depends on the training strategy and it depends on your marathon goal. A common marathon training cycle is either 16 weeks, 20 weeks or 24 weeks. There’s also other variations (such as 8 week plans), but we’ll leave them out for now.

Personally, my marathon cycle is 16 weeks. However: I train six to eight times a week whole year round (except for one, two or three weeks after a marathon, and some days after a half marathon). This means that I already have my aerobic base (my basic fitness. The stuff that makes you able to be boppin’ along on your 35km long runs with no worries whether you will make it till the end) in order at the start of my training cycle.

Beginner runner

If you are a beginner runner, I would suggest you go for a 20 or 24 week training cycle. It gives you some extra time to be working on that aerobic base (boppin’, boppin’), but it also gives your musculoskeletal system some extra time to adapt to the training load (oh yes, your body will physically change!), which reduces the chance of injury.

But: i strongly recommend (i’m basically telling you that you should) that before you even start your marathon training. You should take several months (six, eight? the more the better) where you run a couple of times a week. Those need not to be long runs, but you should really be able to go out and run for an hour or so (or perhaps grab your bicycle. That too is a great way to work on your aerobic base).

Experienced runner

If you already run whole year round, and perhaps done some ten milers or maybe even a half marathon. A 20 or 16 week training cycle could be enough to translate your fitness to the longer distance.

It is entirely up to you. I don’t like to go for the longer training cycles myself because it would limit me in training for other distances too. going for 24 weeks of marathon training, means 24 weeks of not peaking on other distances (I do throw in some races, but they’re not peak races).

Marathon basics: The five training phases

Just like with any other distance you need to have some variety in your training as you want to grow on the entire running spectrum. If your goal is to finish a race then it is less important to focus on the tempo work. Feel free to skip this part for now. If you are planning to run competitive, this could be interesting to you.

Generally there are five phases in your marathon training:

here a link:

1. The base phase:

this this is the phase where you focus on your aerobic fitness. Lot’s of easy running here. You could also add some cycling. You will not finish a marathon if you have not done these easy, slow runs. And lots of it. They are not only to get your legs accustomed to running a lot.

This is also the way to train your body in fat burning. Why is that important? If you run fast, you learn to use carbs for running, if you run slow you learn to use fat for running. Carbs give you fast energy. But the problem with carbs is: the tank is empty soon. Fat burning is a slow process, but much more efficient. If you want to run a marathon, you’re gonna have to be good at burning fat. How do you get good at it? by doing it a lot! So again: lot’s of easy running. And you will find, if you would do this for years. Those easy runs get faster and faster.

2. The speed and strength phase

This is where it gets fun. Here you will start to focus on building speed. If you are a 5k runner, it will look a little different (you won’t be seeing any 12×200 meter track sessions). A typical speed/tempo workout is 6-8×1600 meter at half marathon pace. This is the phase where you get a feel for running at marathon pace. You need to know the pace real well (even without really looking at your watch all the time). Another tempo workout here could be: 2×15 minutes at marathon pace.

3. Distance phase (translating speed to longer distances)

If you got your pace printed on your body. You will enter the distance phase. I am not talking about your long runs here. You will be doing long runs from start to finish, and they will gradually become longer. No the distance phase is where you translate your tempo from the previous phase to longer distances. Where you did 2×15 minutes at marathon pace before. You could be doing 2x 20 or 25 minutes at marathon pace here. Or 3×18 minutes.

This is also the phase where your long runs start to peak and where you will add tempo work to your long runs. This one’s a nice killer: 35km long run with at the end 2×30 minutes at marathon tempo with one minute rest in between. If you can handle this one you know you are close to race day.

4. Taper (before the race)

Whether you are a beginner or experienced runner. The final two weeks will see the training reduce. With the last week being less than the second to last. Tapering means cutting down on your training. No real long runs anymore. When taper starts your body is tired from all the training you’ve done. It will start to recover (and it does so fast), because you reduce your training, you will lose a tiny little bit of fitness, but your recovery is more than the fitness you lose.

Some (most) runners experience little pains here and there, perhaps your nose gets a little snotty. All in all you get a little uncomfortable in your body.

Don’t worry, it is all part of marathon training. Don’t even worry if you seem to feel a little feverish (of course 39 degrees celsius is a different story). And don’t worry about the snotty nose at the start of the race. It will disappear.

In the last week you will only do two or three short runs, and on the day before the race just a couple of sprints (nothing that will get you too worked out) just to get the legs going. These sprints will probably feel terrible, and you are convinced you will fail during the race. They are supposed to go terrible and you will not fail during the race.

The three days leading up to the race you will also start with carb loading. I’m not dealing with that in specific here. But I’ve written a post on that too, plus an easy to use excel sheet you can download.

5. Recovery (after the race)

And then the great recovery starts. This is the phase where for a couple of days it will look like you shat your pants. This is also the phase where you will have to re-learn all sorts of stuff: walking up and down the stairs, getting on and off the toilet, or the couch. You will have to learn how to climb up a sidewalk if you cross a road. It differs from person to person how long it takes. But you must take time to recover (it is ok if it takes more than a month). If you don’t you will hurt yourself. But the fun is: you are going to love this phase. Because you will feel so, so proud of yourself!

How often should you run in a week?

How much you actually run in a week completely depends on your goal and strategy. The first question is, how many times a week are you able to run? Can you go out three times, or 6 or even 8 times a week (although the latter is far from necessary, even if you want to go sub three hours on your race).

If your goal is to finish. Then you could go for three or four days a week. In weekdays a shorter run, with a weekend long run.

If you are going for that competitive marathon, it’s a different story. You should be prepared to run at least 90 and perhaps 120 (or more) km’s in your peak weeks. It depends a little on your running pace of course. So five or six times a week would be best.

How long should your longest run be?

This is always the one question people have. The long run can be daunting. It is a misunderstanding that, if you train for a marathon you must always have a couple of long runs that are 30km or more. That is not the case!

Professional marathoners sometimes do long runs that are 45 km long. However, they run these long runs under three hours. And that is relevant because: running longer than those three hours, will add fatigue, but won’t add fitness so much. If we are not expecting pro athletes to run longer than three hours, how can we possibly ask any random individual to do so.

Instead: your long run should be three hours max. 2.45 is enough! If you run longer, it’s just going to get you more fatigued and less rested for your next training. It won’t do you any good to run longer. And so if that long run is 25km, then that’s it. If its 30km, fine.

For competitive runners it is, again, a different story: There has to be some 32 km runs at least, and preferably a 35, granted that you can do that under three hours on an easy run. You need to experience the load on your muscles and joints, and get accustomed to it (at least enough so that you can run your best during that race).

Should you run by time or distance?

Although there are some great distance based training plans out there, tailored towards non-elite runners, a time-based plan might be a better idea for you. For several reasons.

Injury prevention

Let’s imagine you go out for a 10K run. You feel great, and you’re running that 10K in 50 minutes. Now let’s imagine another day where you do a 10K, but on that day your legs are tired and you feel sluggish. It takes you 60 minutes to run that 10K. That means you are out on your feet for 50 minutes on a day you feel great, whereas you are out on your feet for more than an hour on a day you feel sluggish.

Now if you run time based you will only run 8K in that hour when you feel tired, and maybe 12 on a day you feel great. That means you’ve got increased effort on good days (12km) and take it a little easier on a day you feel fatigued and sluggish (8km).

Mimic the elite

The logics of time based running become even more apparent when you look at long runs if you’re training for a marathon or ultra marathon. Elite runners generally run their long runs no longer than three hours. This would get them to thirty five or even forty kilometers on their runs.

if we consider running for such a long time detrimental for elite runners, how could we possibly ask that effort of non-elite runners?

Elite runners stick tot that three hour limit because running longer than that, say, four hours, would add fatigue, but not so much extra benefit. It would increase their recovery time and probably have a negative impact on their next run.

If we would ask most non-elite runners to run a forty kilometer long run it might take them four hours to do that run, depending on their level of experience of course. We should ask ourselves: if we consider running for such a long time detrimental for elite runners, how could we possibly ask that effort of non-elite runners?

Time cramped runners

Another reason to pick a time-based running plan is the fact that most of us are not blessed with sponsorships and unlimited running time. We have full-time jobs, kids, a girl- or boyfriend, friends and other business to take care of. Our lives are cramped.

If you are on a tight schedule it is easier to plan a one hour run then a twelve kilometer run. An hour remains an hour, no matter what… And three hours remain three hours… Three long hours of running… You’ll learn to love them. Seriously.

A little distance based running

All that said, I personally do add in a little distance based workouts into my training (for example Yasso 800s). Being a fast runner (but seriously, by no means an elite or sub-elite runner) that goes well under three hours on a marathon, I believe that I reap a lot of benefits from adding in thirty five or thirty eight kilometer long runs (with sometimes tempo blocks at the end). These runs are guaranteed to demand some effort, workouts like these teach me to run on tired legs and demand me to push through when my body (not so) politely asks me to quit.

But note that I can add in these runs because with thirty five kilometers I stay firmly under three hours! Generally under 2 hours and forty minutes. I reap the benefits of distance based running, but I don’t get the unnecessary extra fatigue.

Should you run by pace, heart rate or power?

Should you do tempo work?

I have mentioned tempo work earlier in this post, but I can understand you are not planning to read it from A to Z. 🙂 Certainly, if you are a competitive runner or a runner with a specific time goal then obviously you are going to have to train yourself running at that specific pace. Otherwise, as long as you stay within the limits of the race (most regular marathons have a max time of six hours), you don’t have to worry too much about tempo work.

However, it can be challenging for some people to go out and run at that same pace all the time day in and out. Doing tempo work can spice up your training a little bit. You do have to do it right though. It should fit with the marathon phase you’re in. Don’t worry too much if you don’t know whether you are doing it right. Your coach or training plan will tell you what you have to do and when.

Should you do strength training?

Yes. You. Should. Running is a very repetitive sport. Not only is all the bouncing a constant impact on your muscles and joints, you also continuously work on the same muscles. Over and over again. In order to ‘run strong’ and to prevent injuries along the way, it is good to work on muscles you don’t train so much during your running workouts.

I know, lot’s of runners (me too) hate doing this stuff, but it is really, really important. Why risk injury if you are planning to devote so much time to running that marathon.

A great strength workout is one by Laura Fountain. You can find it on Red Bull’s website. This workout got you covered all the way. It is great to keep this one in your staple and just… do it year round! Even after your marathon it’s a great way to stay in shape.

Are you an older runner?

Generally, training plans work with weeks (16, 20, 24 weeks etc.). If you are a beginner runner that is a little older (I will leave up to you whether you consider yourself an older runner), working with a weekly training plan might be too impactful on your body. You might have experienced a running injury in the past, that you do not want to come back.

There are also training plans available online with a 10 day cycle, instead of a 7 day cycle

Those plans tent to squeeze in a little more rest days after a long run, or after tempo work.

These plans are not only for older runners though. If you are a runner that’s prone to injury. This might be good for you too.

Otherwise there is also a thing called ‘run walk run’. Made popular by Jeff Galloway. You can read some more about it on the marathon handbook.

Should you hire a coach or take an online training plan?

If you want to go for a marathon you can either choose your own path and try to work towards the distance. I don’t recommend this. There is a lot of science behind marathon training. There is a lot of knowledge about the right way of training for a marathon. You are increasing the chance of making it to the starting line if you make use of that knowledge.

There are two options:

  • Hiring a coach, either online or local
  • Using an online training plan that you follow

The first option is the most expensive, but also the most tailored to your needs. With a coach you are able to discuss the plan, the fact that you perhaps have a full-time job and children to take care of. etc. etc. You can get advice along the way if you feel an injury coming up. And a coach will be there to support you (much like a psychologist).

When I ran my first marathon, however, I did not have a coach. Instead I used an online training platform. I bought a training plan and tried to follow up as much as possible. I had to come up with my own strategies if I ran into problems. For me it worked out fine (but i’m not prone to injury, there was little risk for me).

At this point, as I want to take my running to the next level (sub 2.30 in the future?!?!), I decided to go with a coach. She’s amazing and it is real nice that there is someone to ask: why should I do this workout? What is it for? What to do next? Should I run this or this race? I feel this, is that normal? I’ve lost two toe nails in the past week, am I ok (yes, I am completely ok, since then I’ve lost many more. My vaporfly’s are dark red/blackish due to all the blood from racing).

But, money is a thing. And with everything I wrote in this post you should be able to pick the right online training plan and manage without too much worries.

Where can I find online training plans?

Finally, a question with an easy answer. When my dad and uncle’s were marathoners in the seventies and eighties (it was still a bit of a sport for goofs back then), they had these books and had to jot down everything on paper, and had stopwatches for their tempo workouts.

Oh: his generation had to count their heart rate! My dad told me that he would check his pulse for six seconds, count the beats and calculate that to an hour to know his heart rate… I just look at my watch. What a world of difference!

The days of books are not yet over (books are nice to read). But training plans nowadays are just loaded into your sports watch and you just execute them.

There are two great platforms out there you can use:

  • trainingpeaks
  • Final surge

Training peaks

This is the biggest training platform out there. It has a ton of data, and there is lots of training plans you can buy for this platform. I dare to say that all known coaches have there plans ready for this platform. You can find 16 week plans, 24 week plans, 10 day cycles. Anything. And other sports too! There are pace based plans, heart rate based plans, power based plans. You name it.

Trainingpeaks can be free, but you have some limited options. There is also a pro version, that is going to cost you a little more.

I use Trainingpeaks myself.

Here’s a link to training plans available on Trainingpeaks

Some great training plans available on Trainingpeaks:

  • 80/20 endurance
  • McMillan Running (I used one of McMillan for my first marathon. I loved it)
  • Jeff Galloway (run/walk)
  • Hal Higdon

Most plans cost you about $50, they got you covered from start to finish. Often it includes some videos on strength training too.

Once you have made your decision, based on everything I wrote above, you can just pick a plan that suits your needs most. With the above coaches you are sure to pick a professionally designed training plan.


I don’t have too much experience with this platform myself. What’s great though, is that it is completely free for athletes. Most (maybe all) training plans by coaches listed above are also available on Finalsurge. I think Greg McMillan is even actively advertising it on his website. He’s clearly an advocate of Finalsurge.

Here’s a link to Finalsurge training plans

Both platforms work fine. Trainingpeaks offers some more running data but you can definitely do without, if you are not planning to invest.

That’s it for now. This post is continuously being modified and updated as my insights and knowledge grows.

Feel free to leave a comment with suggestions or questions that I can answer in this guide.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *