A marathon is a huge achievement, but for most people in reasonable health, it’s not impossible. In fact, ticking off that dream of crossing the 26.2 mile finish line may be more achievable than you imagine.
“I do think most people could run a marathon if they train for it,” says Allie Kieffer, a NURVV ambassador and marathon running legend. “No matter how many marathons I do, watching a marathon is always inspiring. Most of us, even when training for a marathon, don’t run 26 miles until the big day, so it always excites me to see so many people conquering that feat.”
“Anyone can run a marathon if they put in the training and give themselves enough time to prepare,” agrees Steve Paterson, people development and product trainer at Runners Need.
So, if you don’t consider yourself much of a runner, how exactly do you transform yourself in a marathoner?
Allow yourself the right amount of time
It’s important to be realistic; you don’t want to sign up for a marathon next month if you’ve never run 5k, but it won’t take years for you to go from the couch to wearing that marathon medal either.
How long you need to train for depends on your exercise history and current fitness levels, explains Paterson. “But the important advice is to give yourself plenty of time and don’t rush your training, as you risk suffering injury, which could set you back weeks.”
Most runners need between 12 and 20 weeks to train, but anyone with a lower fitness level will need longer, he says. “If the longest you’re able to currently run for is eight to 12 miles, you’ll need around 18 to 20 weeks to prepare.
“For those who cannot run eight miles, it would be best to look at carrying out marathon training in four to five months, setting themselves the goal of working up to a half-marathon distance first.
“A complete beginner would be looking at needing to build up their running for at least six months or more.”
Build it up slowly
It’s all about getting your body used to an increased level of activity. For complete beginners, for the first week, Paterson advises simply going for a couple of brisk 30-minute walks, “to put you in the training mindset”.
“Then swap walks for jogs and gradually build up the time and distance you are running,” he says. Try the Couch to 5k app to build confidence.
Don’t get disheartened
I've pulled a muscle 3 miles from my house so looks like I'll be getting a bus home #MarathonTrainingFails
— Claudia (@claaudiaamoran) November 22, 2015
Everyone starts marathon training with a differing level of fitness and running experience, and anyone who’s ever completed 26.2 miles will tell you that the lead up to it is never ‘perfect’ – even for the most seasoned of runners. You’ll enjoy some runs more than others, feel strong and fit one day, and unmotivated the next, sometimes you might wonder why you’re doing it at all. It’s all part of the journey.
“It is important to acknowledge your starting point and understand that if you’ve never run before, that you’re not going to be able to run miles and miles straight away,” says Paterson. “Understand that this is completely normal and that you shouldn’t be disheartened.”
Increase your mileage at a safe rate
Most injuries are a result of increasing the training load too quickly. “A person’s longest run shouldn’t be increased by more than 10 per cent per week – very small increments if you’re doing 3-5km max,” Paterson says.
“This is the single most important factor for a new runner, as it’s easy to get carried away.”
His advice is to split training into four week blocks and gradually build up runs for three weeks, before doing slightly less on the fourth week to “allow your body a break, as it gets used to the training”.
— Steph Pike (@stephpike_) July 17, 2021
Sign up to shorter races too
Getting race day practice – whether it’s during a 5k, 10k, or half-marathon race – will be invaluable experience, both in terms of the practicalities on the day and how you pace and hydrate.
Kieffer says: “I’m a huge advocate of racing within a marathon training block [where you do the same type or intensity of training for a set number of weeks at a time]. It’s a way to track progress, have fun, put less pressure on one race, and do some speed work.”
Incorporate speed training
While, for the most part, runs can be at a pace which would be comfortable enough to hold a conversation, incorporating some short speed sessions can do wonders for running fitness.
“Speed training is essential for becoming a faster and stronger runner,” says Paterson. His advice is to make one weekly session a faster one, including some tempo intervals.
“This type of training improves your muscle function and also makes you a more economic runner in terms of oxygen consumption,” he says.
Taper your training towards the end
It might seem strange but three to four weeks before a marathon, you want to have reached the peak of your training (rather than just before race day). It’s usually recommended for your longest run to be 20 miles, not 26, and after that, to immediately taper the volume of your weekly training mileage.
“This is so important in ensuring your body is well rested before your marathon, to get you into peak performance for the race. You want to cut down your mileage by 20-30 per cent each week. You also want to make sure you’re not doing any lower body weight training or cross training activities which may tire the legs.”
The week leading up to the race may only include a couple of easy runs.
Paterson adds: “It’s really important to rest up, stay hydrated and look at fuelling your body with more carbs a couple of days before.”