Everything You Need to Know About Training for Your First Marathon

Everything You Need to Know About Training for Your First Marathon

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I’ve been a regular runner since I was a teenager and gradually got more comfortable tackling longer distances in my twenties. I go to a neighborhood run club for five- to eight-mile runs in the park on a weekly basis and have logged four half marathons. So, when an offer to run the 2023 London Marathon landed in my inbox, I didn’t immediately delete it.

Instead, I read it a few times, absorbing that Westin Hotels and Resorts was promoting its gear-lending program, which allows guests to check out top-notch fitness equipment from Hyperice and Bala during their stay. To get the word out, they secured a few spots in the London marathon and offered one (along with a stay at The Westin London City) to me.

Had this opportunity not fallen directly in my lap, I’m not sure I ever would have had the confidence in myself to sign up for a marathon, but I’m so glad it did. I ran my first marathon in abroad and learned a ton about training, fueling, recovering, and myself along the way.

If you’re gearing up for your first marathon (in your hometown or another country), keep reading for expert-backed advice on how to train effectively and safely finish the race.

Pinpoint your marathon motivation

Step one of running a marathon for the first time isn’t building a running base or even entering a lottery for race entry. It’s determining what is going to motivate you to spend a big chunk of your time dedicated to running.

“I think it really has to mean something to you,” says Chris Heuisler, the senior brand manager and global run concierge for Westin Hotels and Resorts. He’s run 34 marathons and helped coach me through my own training.

While I had an idea of what my goal finish time would be, my objective was to finish the race without injuries and manage to enjoy the experience. To Heuisler, ignoring a specific time goal and having intrinsic motivation—wanting to prove to yourself that you can do it—is often the key to a successful first marathon.

It’s also helpful to lean on others to make the daunting task feel more manageable, according to Sara Dimmick, a certified personal trainer, USA triathlon coach, and the founder and co-owner of Physical Equilibrium. “Announcing it out loud and enlisting your friends and family to help you in the process will also motivate you to stay on track,” she says.

Make a realistic marathon training plan

While it’s certainly possible to train for a marathon without any running experience, experts don’t recommend it. I was consistently logging about 12 miles a week before getting serious about training and knew that I could run 13.1 miles from my previous half marathons.

Dimmick recommends athletes be able to run or at least run/walk a 10K before embarking on marathon training. Similarly, Heuisler suggests running a consistent mileage—such as 15 to 20 miles per week—for at least four to six weeks ahead of starting a marathon program.

If that’s not possible, then you may want to manage your expectations. “They might not be able to run the whole marathon if they don’t have a running base, but for sure, anyone can train to jog/walk a marathon,” Dimmick says.

She also suggests people plan to spend a minimum of four months preparing for their first marathon, but everyone is different. “It really just depends on the client’s goals, current fitness, and how much time they will dedicate to the training,” she says, adding that most programs are 16 to 20 weeks long.

What’s most important is to start slow. Jumping straight into marathon training without prior running experience could lead to injuries if you’re not careful. When in doubt, talk to your doctor and consult a running coach to make a plan that works for you.

Don’t skip marathon cross-training

Cross-training (aka doing exercises complementary to running in addition to logging miles) may seem like an afterthought, but it’s a huge part of safely training for a marathon and preventing injuries. “It’s important to build durability in your joints by doing strength training and non-impact exercise,” says Dimmick.

She recommends doing low-impact cardio exercises like cycling and swimming to build strength in the tendons, ligaments, and muscles while protecting joints. “It will also help build overall strength which will translate to faster running and more efficient form.”

Heuisler advises runners make time for cross-training at least twice a week with a heavy focus on core strength and stability. “Running is a one-legged sport,” he says, explaining that the nature of running can reveal asymmetries in the body. That’s why prioritizing balance, core, and stability is paramount for runners. He suggests doing exercises like single-leg deadlifts and single-leg squats with bodyweight to teach your body to be on one leg at a time.

Take warm-ups and recovery seriously

“If there’s one piece of advice I would have given myself 20 years ago, it would have been: Make sure that you have a pre-run routine and a post-run routine,” says Heuisler. It can be as simple as a five-minute warm-up to wake up the glutes and hips and a five-minute cool-down to work on hip mobility, core strength, and stretching the hamstrings and quads.

When it comes to recovery, “listen to your body,” says Dimmick. Rest days should be built into your weekly running plan, but even if you have a long run planned, it’s okay to take a day off if you’re feeling tired or run down. “Sleep, hydration, and proper nutrition are key to recovery and being able to perform your best.”

Both running experts have their own favorite recovery activities. Dimmick likes ice baths and wearing compression boots after a long or hard effort run. She also recommends Pilates and yoga to complement running and move on a recovery day. Heuisler prioritizes getting eight hours of sleep minimum and drinking tons of water. He also enjoys using the Hypervolt massage gun.

Fuel up for long runs and race day

“What you eat and when you eat directly impact how you feel on your run and how quickly your body can adapt to your training,” says Kristy Baumann, R.D.N, L.D.N, a registered dietitian and runner. You need carbohydrates to restock glycogen stores, so your muscles have energy. You need protein to rebuild muscle tissue that gets damaged during training. And you need fat to help your body absorb nutrients, she explains.

Pretty much everyone has heard of carbo-loading for long runs, and for good reason. “Fueling with simple, quick digesting carbs will help you feel strong on your long run and help you recover faster,” says Baumann. Simple, easy-to-digest carbohydrates include pasta, potatoes, rice, bread, and fruit. These types of foods are ideal fuel for long runs and race day.

Fueling up doesn’t stop the night before a big run. When you’re doing cardio for long periods of time, you need energy to keep moving. For many runners, that means using energy gels, chews, or food packed with simple carbohydrates, like dates and applesauce, every 30 to 45 minutes, depending on how long your run is, explains Baumann.

“Energy gels and chews are specifically formulated to help your body digest and absorb carbs very efficiently,” she says. I’m a fan of GU energy gels, which include amino acids, sodium, and caffeine, but every runner has their own preference. “There is not a one-size-fits-all,” Baumann adds, noting that finding your favorite mid-run fuel often takes a bit of trial and error.

What you eat immediately after you run is also important for quick, efficient recovery. “Eating adequate carbohydrates and protein and rehydrating with fluids and electrolytes is essential,” Baumann says.

Plan ahead for marathon travel

Traveling for a marathon adds another layer of pre-race nerves, but “There’s no use in raising your heart rate before the race even begins,” says Heuisler. That’s why he suggests getting to the airport early and flying to your destination a day or two in advance of your race, especially if you’re traveling internationally. “Control what you can control,” he says.

If you’re stressed about getting sick before traveling for a race, you might consider wearing a mask in crowded areas leading up to the big day, says Dimmick. “Sleep, hydration, and proper nutrition will also help with preventing illness,” she adds.

Staying at a hotel that supports athletes, like The Westin Hotels and Resorts, is also helpful. While at The Westin London, I had access to recovery gear and help mapping out a shake-out run the day before the race.

Finally, traveling for a race likely means going without your usual cooking supplies. To deal with this, Baumann recommends planning ahead. “Pack and bring your pre-race breakfast that you’ve practiced eating before your long runs,” she says. You can also research local restaurants and grocery stores ahead of time so you know what’s available when you get there. And don’t forget to pack your go-to energy gels and chews, too.

Enjoy the moment

Running a marathon should be fun. Yes, it requires months of grueling training, saying no to plans, and adjusting your lifestyle, but the day of the race is yours to remember for the rest of your life.

“It’s your marathon, it’s your story, it’s nobody else’s,” says Heuisler. “I think there are too many first-time marathoners who go in and think that that time on the clock tells you how your race went, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he continues.

I’ve now told the story of my first marathon many times, and I can confirm no one cares what my finish time was. They just want to hear what it was like to run 26.2 miles. I tell people about the crowds of strangers cheering me on, how it rained the entire time, the joy I felt high-fiving little kids along the route, and how I started to cry when I realized I was actually going to cross the finish line.

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