How Intermediate Marathon Training Works

You're an intermediate marathon runner if you've run a marathon before and you have a specific goal in mind for your next one.
You're an intermediate marathon runner if you've run a marathon before and you have a specific goal in mind for your next one.

Intermediate marathon training is about taking your body to the next level of running. But how do you know if you're an intermediate runner?

Specifically, an intermediate runner is someone who, for the past year or so, has run four to five times a week, 45 to 90 minutes each session, for a total of 20 to 40 miles (32.19 to 64.38 kilometers) a week, including a weekly long haul of 10 miles (16.09 kilometers). You've probably also completed -- or even raced -- a 5K (3.1 miles), 10K (6.2 miles) or half-marathon. You're truly ready for intermediate marathon training if you've run a marathon before but would like to finish it this time with a specific time goal in mind. Or maybe you'd like to race it.


If you run 5 miles (8.05 kilometers) regularly, you may be an intermediate runner. But if you've never run a marathon before, you're not ready to race a marathon until you've finished a marathon.

Training for a marathon involves stepping up both the intensity and the mileage of your "practice" runs. A carefully arranged, four-month-long program will train your body to run, and run fast, those 26.2 miles (42.16 kilometers), at the very top of your physical ability. This isn't just about crossing a marathon off your bucket list. It's about true athleticism and maybe even trying to win the thing.

You're not a novice, so you already know about interval running and training over months. Intermediate marathon training still takes a while -- around 16 to 20 weeks. But the plan is more than just long runs. It's about building in and adding intensity, speed bursts, and hills to your runs, which are various lengths (although many of them are, in fact, long). The weekly long run that you routinely do will increase as the training progresses, to adapt your body to the idea and strain of continuous, hours-long race-level running. This is supplemented with sustained tempo runs at high paces, rest periods, endurance tests and cross training, all of which promote aerobic strength and marathon-level pace setting.

Read on to learn how to set up a proper intermediate marathon training schedule.


Intermediate Marathon Training Schedule

Most intermediate training schedules can prepare an intermediate runner for a race-quality marathon within a 16- to 20-week period. The kinds of running and extra activities conducted on those days vary in order to increase endurance, speed, efficiency and even the psychological wherewithal necessary for a marathon. For example, speed-oriented workouts focus on improving speed and performance, and become longer as the training period progresses. Each week, you'll run a total of anywhere between 25 to 40 miles (40.2 to 64.3 kilometers). Maybe more.

First, let's look at the different kinds of training activities an intermediate marathon runner may do.


  • Aerobic intervals are two-to-three minute periods in which you run a bit faster than normal training or race-day pace, enough to increase your breathing. That's followed by a minute or so of slow recovery jogging.
  • Uphill time is time spent running up inclines.
  • Tempo runs are quick bursts of running, alternating with jogging.
  • Long runs are 8 to 10 miles (12.8 to 16 kilometers) and they help increase your endurance.
  • Speed work is bursts of running of a few miles -- some at the pace you plan to run the marathon and some faster -- that help enhance cardiac strength and even psychological determination.
  • Strides are gradual but smooth accelerations run over 100 meters (328 feet) in a straight shot, followed by deceleration, then walking. These are generally a part of the mandatory cool-down period.
  • An easy run is similar to a warm-up pace, in that it is comfortable and paced consistently; if you can talk while you're running and feel like you could be running faster, that's an easy run.
  • Goal pace is the per-mile/kilometer speed you'd like to obtain in the real marathon.
  • Cross training activities are non-running tasks that will increase your body's ability to perform. Cycling, yoga and swimming are a few examples.

How these all fit in together is a very intricate puzzle that changes gradually and carefully over 16 weeks for optimal marathon preparation. Take a look at the sidebar for an example training schedule.

For more tips, read the next page.


Tips for Intermediate Marathon Runners

Follow your schedule as close to the letter as possible, and you should be golden come race day, 16 or so weeks after you start training. But as you know, long distance and endurance running is more than just running until you can't run anymore. There are a lot of other things you can do, tangential to physical training, to prepare your mind and body.

For example, in training, "go soft" whenever possible, in terms of running surface. Avoid running on pavement if you can. There will be less impact and wear on your knees and feet if you train on softer surfaces like even-cut grass, hard-packed dirt, or modern, bouncy track surfaces.


Hydration is also key. Obviously, drink lots of water and sports drinks, right? It's not quite that simple. The trick is to train your body to be used to marathon-day hydration levels by drinking marathon-day levels throughout the training period. So even if you're only running 10 miles (16 kilometers), you should still hydrate as if you're running 26.2 miles (42.1 kilometers). Technically, you'll be getting more fluids than you need. But if you step up your hydration on marathon day and your body isn't used to it, you might wind up with indigestion and fatigue.

And remember to pace yourself. For the first 5 to 8 miles (8.05 to 12.85 kilometers) or so of the marathon (or your long training runs), cut your speed to about 10 to 15 seconds below your consistent goal pace. An extra 10 seconds each minute for five minutes adds up to about 50 seconds, which doesn't sound like a lot. But it's just enough for you to hold onto some extra energy for mile 20, when you'd otherwise be running out of steam. Coaches call this technique "race day rules." They even suggest breaking for few seconds before slowly resuming running and regaining the pace, which conserves your energy for when it counts at the end of the race.

Finally, recovery days are a must. Truthfully, the human body is not meant to run 26.2 miles as fast as possible all at once, and it has to prepare. Your body needs a day or so every week to rest, both to recover to full capacity and to give muscles a chance to "learn" their new expectations.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Hadfield, Jenny. "'Intermediate Run' Marathon Training Program." Health Magazine. 2006.
  • Health Magazine. "Run a Marathon: Intermediate Marathon Training Plan." May, 2008.
  • Norris, Frank. "Marathon Training: Intermediate." 2009. Florida East Coast Runners.
  • Rennie, Doug. "Your Ultimate Marathon Training Plan." Runners World. August 2004.,7120,s6-238-244-255-6946-0,00.html
  • Runners World. "Marathon Training for Intermediate Runners." (June 30, 2010)