If you google ‘marathon training plan’ you can easily feel overwhelmed. There are literally hundreds to choose from. How on earth do you decide which one is right for you? How many times a week should you run when training for a marathon? What distance should your longest marathon training run be? Do you need to do anything other than run? There are so many questions to answer, I want to explore this topic and share my tips.
Running a marathon is a big deal and it shouldn’t be underestimated. 26.2 miles is a really long way! Yes, people turn up and do them having done very little training, there’s always someone at the start line bragging about the fact they’ve only trained up to six miles, but let me tell you that they don’t find it easy. They are also less likely to finish, more likely to get injured and probably won’t have as good a time.
Marathon distance is never easy BUT, it is possible. And it is far more possible if you are prepared and trained. Standing on that start line is nerve wracking, there are always so many doubts going through your head. If you can line up knowing you have done the work, with lots of training under your belt, then you will have so much more confidence and be able to enjoy the event more too. Yes, it will still be hard but it won’t be AS hard and you will undoubtedly succeed.
Choosing your marathon training plan
All runners are different and there is definitely no ‘one-size fits all’ when it comes to marathon training plans. If you’ve never done a marathon before it can all feel very scary and confusing. That can make you doubt you have the ability to even start! Do not let this put you off. Once you have a plan you literally do one run at a time and you will be amazed how it all adds up. You will be marathon ready and experience that glory of crossing the finish line. I’m excited for you to experience that! Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you choose the right plan:
What’s your experience level?
A training plan for someone who has run multiple marathons and is looking to get a 3hr 30 PB will look very different to one designed for first time marathoners just hoping to get round. Be honest about where you are and what your capabilities are. Don’t be tempted to overestimate your ability. Plans will start off easy and build up so make sure you are setting yourself up for success by picking one at your level. I don’t mean you shouldn’t be ambitious and push yourself but do be realistic.
How long should your marathon plan be?
Marathon plans vary in length from around 10 weeks to 20 weeks. If this is your first marathon and you have never or rarely run over half marathon distance then it’s wise to choose a longer one. If you’re running frequently and in good shape, used to long runs but just need to up the distance a bit for marathon then you’ll get away with a shorter plan. Following a plan takes effort and I actually find it quite hard to sustain for too long. For me, I choose a 12 to 14 week plan, any longer than that and I lose some enthusiasm for ticking the runs off! I always build in a couple of extra weeks to allow for illness, work pressure or ‘menopause weeks’. That way if I have a really bad week and just can’t follow the plan then I don’t panic.
How many times a week should you run?
This is an important question. You simply have to choose a plan that is going to fit with your life. There’s no point in choosing one that has you running five or six days a week if you currently struggle to find the time to run three. Again, set yourself up to succeed. It’s entirely possible to run a marathon on three runs a week. I’ve done it many times and it’s worked perfectly. I know I don’t have the capacity to run five days a week and I don’t actually want to. I know my menopausal body needs extra recovery time and my risk of injury would be too high without enough non-running days. This is a very personal thing and if you are an experienced runner and used to running very frequently and really aiming for high performance levels then great, go for it.
How many miles a week should the plan be?
This is an interesting question! Some plans, especially older plans are very high mileage. There has been a trend over recent years to reduce the number of miles run, avoid ‘junk miles’ and focus more on the quality and purpose of each run to maximise strength and endurance. I love this, it suits me well, especially with time constraints and wanting to train on three or max four runs a week.
What is most important is that you start the plan easily being able to do the first few weeks. If the distance you run when you start the plan is a big step up from your usual, then you are going to struggle and be at high risk of injuries such as ITB syndrome and shin splints which are more common in runners who increase their distance quickly.
All plans should increase the miles run gradually as the weeks go by. I’m not going to recommend a set number of miles per week that you need to run, it is very individual. You will hear runners saying you need to be doing 50 miles a week to do a marathon, I don’t agree. Of course it depends what your running experience is and what your planned outcome is. To me, what is more important is that your running is sustainable and consistent and you don’t get injured. The hardest part of a marathon is getting to the start line well, injury-free and ready to run.
What type of runs should be in the plan?
As I mentioned above, most plans these days don’t just tell you to run a certain number of miles. You can ‘run clever’ and maximise your training by using a variety of different runs a week. You definitely need a long run each week and this should gradually increase in distance. This is essential. This might be followed by a recovery run to shake our your legs. Interval runs, hill runs and tempo runs are also handy to help build your fitness, strength, speed and endurance. Mixing up the types of run helps to keep things interesting too. It can feel a bit monotonous if you’re simply trying to clock up the miles at the same pace every single run.
How many long runs should be in the plan and what’s the furthest I should run?
You definitely need one long run every week. If you’re on a beginner plan, this may start around five miles and slowly build up. More experienced runners may come into a plan already comfortable at ten miles for a long run. Plans reach a peak around three weeks before the marathon as they include an easier couple of weeks (a taper) before the event.
It’s not necessary to run the full 26.2 miles before race day. Some plans will take you up to 23 miles. I have never gone above 20 miles. I find those very long runs are exhausting and they really take their toll on me and have a knock-on effect to my work and family life. I know plenty of people who don’t go up to 20 and run marathons with 16 or 18 as their longest but I feel I need that 20 for my confidence on the day.
Previously my plan would go 12, 14, 16, 18, 20. For my most recent marathon however, to accommodate for the unpredictability of my menopause and because I was coming in to the plan able to run 10 miles on my long run, I alternated long and longer runs. This worked a treat and allowed me to recover well and not feel too fatigued. I ran 10, 11, 9, 13, 9, 16, 10, 17, 14, 18, 20, 12, 6, Marathon.
Sometimes it’s better to focus on time rather than miles. Spending more than three hours running is very exhausting so I try not to have more than one or two runs over this time frame.
Should the plan include things other than running?
Yes! A marathon training plan needs to have more than just running in it. Strength and conditioning work twice a week will make a world of difference to how you perform on the day and will help you to keep your running form in those last miles when you are exhausted. Don’t skimp on it is my advice. I’ve done it with and without and with is definitely better!
You can also include some cross-training such as swimming or cycling if you like. This is a great way to get the cardiovascular fitness without the impact of running so it’s ideal if you are injury prone. I have to admit that I’m not that keen on either so any cross-training I do tends to be walking. Long hikes in the hills help your endurance and work towards ‘time on your feet’ which can be a killer if you aren’t used to it.
Should there be rest scheduled on the plan?
Rest is an essential part of a training plan. It’s when you get fitter and your body recovers, repairs and re-inforces itself for your next run. There should be rest days each week, at least one or two. There should also be easier weeks on the plan. The frequency and distance will increase for three or four weeks and then be followed by an easier week. This allows your body to adapt to the load you are putting on it. Then there should be a couple of weeks at the end of the plan which ease up and act as a taper to the big day. Honestly, don’t miss out the recovery. Marathon training is a long haul, you need to be patient and really look after your body and rest is an essential part of this.
Those are the questions I think you need to answer when choosing your plan. Scour the internet, ask running friends which they used and keep going until you find one that suits YOU and your daily life. It has to fit in to be achievable. If you want, you can consider getting a personalised plan from a running coach. Plans often need to be tweaked and adjusted to work round your life and if you come up against hurdles, having someone experienced to advise you can be really valuable.
I hope this is helpful and has given you some guidance if you are embarking on a marathon and looking for a training plan. Please do ask me any questions in the comments or on social media. Do share what plans have worked for you too.
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Featured photo by Anete Lusina Rest: drjulietmcgrattan.com