How to Train for Your First Marathon

Do you have what it takes to run those 26.2 miles?
Do you have what it takes to run those 26.2 miles?
Hemera/Thinkstock

When you cross the finish line at the end of your first marathon, sweat stinging your eyes, the first thing you may notice is your body, specifically your legs: numb, quivering, miraculous. Next, a low rumble of noise will sharpen slowly into jubilant cheering. A friend's familiar face, smiling ear to ear, will swim into focus amid the blur of a finish line crowd. Someone will hand you a sports drink, a foil blanket. Someone will drape a medal around your neck. "When you cross that finish line -- no matter how slow, no matter how fast -- it will change your life forever," said professional marathoner Dick Beardsley in the film "Spirit of the Marathon." You've decided to train for your first marathon; something in you is ready to embrace that change.

Legend has it that around 490 B.C., Athenian army messenger Pheidippides took off running from Marathon, Greece, to deliver a message of victory over the Persian army. Over 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) later, he reached Athens, where he delivered his message -- and then promptly keeled over and died from exertion. In 1896, the first modern Olympic games commemorated the hero's feat with an endurance run from the Plains of Marathon to the Olympic stadium in Athens. Dubbed the "marathon," this footrace became an even greater test of endurance in 1908 when Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII, requested that the race be lengthened to 26.2 miles (42.16 kilometers) so she could view the finish from her perch in Windsor Castle [source: Galloway].

Today, the prevalence of "26.2" bumper stickers and T-shirts marks a sea change in popular attitudes about the sport. Though at elite levels the marathon is as exclusive as ever, the sheer number of participants simply seeking to finish the distance has more than doubled in the past 10 years [source: Newman]. Whether you're training for your first marathon with a specific goal in mind or for the thrill of finishing the world's most iconic endurance test, you'll want to begin with the basics.

First up, what sort of gear will you need? We explore that in the next section.

First Time Marathon Training Gear

Have someone at a shoe store check your gait for the right type of running shoes.
Have someone at a shoe store check your gait for the right type of running shoes.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Today's marathoners have access to a plethora of gadgets and gear designed to help them go the distance; however, at its purest, running requires little to no fancy equipment. Let's talk about the bare essentials:

  • Running Shoes. From racing flats to foam-reinforced stability shoes, running footwear choices are endless. To find the best fit, have your gait and arch-type analyzed at a specialty running store, most of which offer free analysis. These stores can recommend running shoes at various price points to complement your natural stride and correct over/underpronation.
  • Running Clothes. No fancy attire is strictly necessary for running. However, moisture-wicking fabrics may keep you drier and more comfortable, and for women, properly fitted sports bras are a downright necessity. Last but not least, runners who experience inner-thigh chafing may find that form-fitting capri-length running pants offer relief.
  • Hydration. Electrolyte-replenishing sports drinks may improve performance; however, they often contain sugar and calories that are unnecessary on runs under 75 minutes -- especially for runners trying to lose weight [source: Shea]. Regardless of whether you choose sports drinks or old-fashioned water, be sure to carry fluids on your runs. If you don't like running with a bottle, try stashing water along your route before you run or investing in a hydration belt or backpack.
  • Nutrition. Pack some snacks to get the calories you need on runs over 75 minutes. When Lance Armstrong ran his first marathon in 2006, he reportedly snacked his way through several chocolate-flavored gels (small packets of nutrient-dense gel designed to be consumed on the run) and finished in under 3 hours despite little formal marathon training [source: Shea].
  • Gadgets. Of all the wallet-busting options available to runners, the most useful is probably a heart rate monitor, which can help runners maintain a steady pace. GPS watches that enable distance tracking on the go and training assistants such as the Nike+iPod Sports Kit are also neat -- but strictly optional -- additions to a runner's arsenal.

Now that you have some idea what sort of gear you'll need, let's talk about what to expect from your first marathon.

Expectations for Your First Marathon

Take note of your time when you finish the race, but make sure you enjoy it above all.
Take note of your time when you finish the race, but make sure you enjoy it above all.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Whether you're an elite athlete focused on winning your age category or a beginning runner simply hoping to stagger across the finish line, you can expect one thing from your first marathon: your personal best. Here are some other things to expect:

  • Impact on Your Day-to-Day Life.At the outset of training, expect to run for at least 30 minutes a day, 3 to 4 times per week (your easy run days) and at least 1 hour, 1 time per week (your long slow distance days). For the next 18 to 24 weeks, as training progresses, so will your daily time committments. What may seem like no big deal at the outset of training will likely take up much of your free time by race day.
  • Training Expectations. Because training will slowly but surely take over much of your free time, expect to become interested (friends may say "obsessed") with running. You'll pore over magazines and websites, learning about proper nutrition and fluids, workouts to improve your speed and performance and how to deal with problems like black toenail and, for guys, the dreaded nipple chafing. For the most part, an escalating interest in all-things-running will help keep you focused and motivated. However, resist the urge to over-train. Rest days are important for preventing burnout and injury.
  • Race Day Expectations. By the time race day arrives, you've done all you can do; the rest is mostly out of your control. Expect crowds. Expect a thrum of nervous excitement particular to athletic competitions. Expect to see a variety of runners -- from weedy, nervous, obsessed types to jolly, chatting jokesters. Arrive early; there will be long lines at the port-o-potties and delays finding a place to park. Be prepared by bringing a reasonable stock of fluids and snacks for glitches with the course (such as hydradration and nutrition stations that run dry before you arrive). Look forward to an enormous aura of excitement; your first marathon is a special experience. Drink it in.

Now that you know what to expect, let's talk about the meat-and-potatos of how to get you there: the marathon training schedule.

First Time Marathon Training Schedule

There is no one-size-fits-all marathon training program. Regardless of your goals and fitness levels, however, most marathon training schedules share similar elements:

  • Work Backward from Race Day. Marathon training lasts 18 to 26 weeks -- pick your race date and work backwards from there.
  • The Talk Test. If you can't speak easily while jogging, then you're running too fast. Pushing the pace will result in exhaustion and burnout, especially in beginning runners who aren't familiar with their own natural rhythm and limitations. A heart rate monitor can help you identify and stick with heart rate at which you can speak without huffing and puffing. You should run your Easy Run Days at this pace and your Long Slow Distance days at a slightly slower pace.
  • Long Slow Distance. The LSD day is the one day per week when you build endurance by running further than you have in past weeks. Your first LSD day will be between 3 to 6 miles (4.83 to 9.66 kilometers, depending on the length of your training schedule) and you will escalate the distance each week, with a bit of a break every 3rd week or so. For instance, if you're running 6 miles in week 1 and 7 miles in week 2, you might scale back to 5 miles for week 3, and then up to 9 miles for week 4.
  • Easy Run Days. The meat-and-potatoes of marathon training, ERD's are the types of runs you will do on the 3-4 days you aren't resting, cross-training or doing LSD runs. For your ERD's, start off with a small mileage (such as 3 miles, or 4.83 kilometers) or a short time run (30 minutes or so) and escalate gradually. You'll probably never run more than 10 miles (16.09 kilometers) or 90 minutes on an ERD day.
  • Cross-training and Rest. You should rest at least 1 and up to 3 days per week during marathon training. This will help prevent injuries and burnout. To improve performance or to stay motivated, try cross-training by biking, swimming or doing yoga on two of the "rest" days.

There are many online sites such as Runnersworld.com, Active.com and others that offer fee-based marathon training programs tailored to your specific needs. Once you've decided on a schedule that fits your goals, you're ready to begin training. Find even more tips on training for your first marathon in the next section.

Tips for First Time Marathon Runners

Take your mind off of the long run (or the cold weather) with some mind games.
Take your mind off of the long run (or the cold weather) with some mind games.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

As you adjust to a new normal of 4 to 5 runs days per week, you'll begin looking for ways to keep your running routine fresh and exciting. Here are some tips for improving performance and staying motivated:

  • Measure Your Mile. To find your "pace," Jeff Galloway suggests going to a high school track and timing yourself as you run a "magic mile" (4 laps, or 1600 meters) at a pace that feels slightly fast to you. You will feel winded, but not so winded that you need to stop. Multiply your time by 1.3 for your estimated marathon pace. Use this predictor to time your pace on training runs. (ERD's should be run at your marathon pace, LSD days will be 2 minutes slower [source: Galloway].
  • Hill Training. Running hills prepares you to run faster without subjecting your legs to the pounding they get on flat terrain. Map out a hilly route on one of your easy run days and chances you're your average times will improve [source: Galloway].
  • Join a Group. Running with friends will distract you from the task at hand and help you stay motivated to complete your training runs.
  • Mind Games. On your LSD runs, distract yourself with mind games. Count stop signs. Play word association games. Do math problems in your head. Even counting your own footsteps can help take your mind off pain, boredom and other negative thoughts; before you know it, you'll be back in that blissful, meditative head space that makes running so desirable in the first place.

One last trick: On the last mile of a 3-hour-long run or even during the final minute of a routine jog you're struggling to complete, picture yourself crossing the finish line of your first marathon. Feel the weight of that medal against your chest. Imagine the cheering crowd, the endorphins surging through your body. There's no doubt that training for your first marathon is tough. It requires stamina, commitment and heart. As you tick training runs off your schedule, you're proving something to yourself about who you are and what you can accomplish. Running the race will be the icing on the cake, the proof in the pudding. By the time you run your first marathon, you'll already be the new you: a runner. Find related articles, links and lots more information on the next page.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • Dunham, J. (Director) Twist, G. (Producer) and Harris, M. (Executive Producer). (2007.) Spirit of the Marathon [Motion Picture]. United States. Image Entertainment.http://www.marathonmovie.com/
  • Fitzgerald, Matt. "Which Fluid Hydrates Best? Water or Sports Drink?" Active.com.http://www.active.com/running/Articles/Which_fluid_hydrates_best__Water_or_a_sports_drink_.htm
  • Galloway, Jeff. "Marathon: You can do it." Shelter Publications. 2010.
  • Higdon, Hal. "Marathon Training Guide." Halhigdon.com. 2000.http://www.halhigdon.com/marathon/Mar00index.htm
  • "Marathon FAQ with Hal Higdon." Active.com. 2010.http://www.active.com/running/Articles/Marathon_FAQ_with_Hal_Higdon__part_2.htm
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  • Shea, Sarah Bowen. "Carbs on the Run." Runnersworld.com. Aug. 14, 2008.http://www.runnersworld.com/article/1,7124,s6-242-301--12826-0,00.html
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