How to Train for a Marathon If You've Never Run One Before

Although I was a runner and ran regularly, I never had any intention to run my first marathon. One early spring day, I innocently joined my friend on her long run, with plans to run only a small portion of it. I miraculously managed to run with her the full 20 miles, and decided if I could do that, I could do anything! The following day I found myself signing up for a marathon that was—wait for it—eight weeks away. In those two months, I went on one 18-mile long run, peppered in a few shorter speed workouts, and thought a lot about the finish line bagels.

If you’re thinking about signing up for your first 26.2, use this article as a guide to prepare yourself the right way. (In other words, learn from my mistakes.)

Fast-forward to race day and reality kicked in. I hadn’t built the proper mileage base or enough confidence in my ability to finish, and I didn’t know how to properly fuel myself. By mile 10, my body felt spent, yet I still had a full 16 miles ahead of me. That’s when my mental game fell apart. The distance to the finish line felt like it was light years away. I checked my watch obsessively and started to doubt I would finish. I also wasn’t eating nearly enough calories as a I ran, and by mile 20, everything became a blur. I was almost crawling my way to the finish line and hating running the whole way—the sport that I had once loved so much. I somehow stumbled through, but I was very lucky to sneak away without an injury.

For my second marathon, I set myself up with a smart, 16-week plan. I strength trained and foam rolled, and learned what energy gels were and why I should learn to stomach them (more on that below!). I ended up finishing in 3 hours and 30 minutes, qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Since then I’ve run four marathons, including one trail marathon through the Utah desert. Now, I’m training for my first ultramarathon.

Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how to train the right way. As Jason Fitzgerald, USATF running coach and founder of Strength Running, points out: “Your marathon race is a logical extension of your training.” If you train correctly, the race itself is just the icing on the sweat- and mile-filled cake.

Let’s lace up and dive in.

Ready, Set, Build Your Base

The most important step you can take when prepping for your first marathon is to ensure your body can tackle the distance. It’s best to familiarize yourself with 5Ks, 10Ks, and then half-marathons as a way to physically and mentally prepare for longer distances.

“You’re going to be a better runner if you do more running,” asserts Fitzgerald. “Use the calculus analogy. You can't go from not knowing how to count to taking a calculus class.” Putting in time on your feet will help you build that base that you need to continue tacking on more and more mileage.

Before diving into the marathon distance, Fitzgerald strongly suggests training for and racing a half-marathon first. Another good test is to make sure you can run comfortably for an hour. This will make marathon training way less harrowing; you’ve built up a baseline level of endurance and speed, and your body will already be used to the increased weekly mileage, sore limbs, and often insatiable appetite. That said, if you don't have the time to really get into running and racing various distances, don't worry: A good training plan will help you get used to adding miles and running longer.

Find a Good Plan

The next step is to find a solid training plan. A quick Google search will yield dozens of free training plans online, most of which are 16-20 weeks long. One of the most popular plans comes from the renowned runner and coach Hal Higdon. The “Novice” plan is 18 weeks long and covers your basics: long runs, cross-training, and rest. More advanced runners will want to also include tempo runs, speed workouts, and hill repeats; these should be included in most advanced plans you find online (here's an example from Higdon). If you want something specifically tailored to your needs, paying an expert to write you a personal plan (that’s what I did for my second go!), or even hiring a coach, are great options.

In general, good training plans for first-time marathoners include these elements:

A combination of different kinds of runs. Not every run should be done at the same intensity. Your plan will include weekly long runs to build endurance combined with a few shorter tempo runs (tempo runs are runs that you do a bit slower than your current 5K pace) or speed workouts that are meant to build strength and speed. If you run at the same pace all the time, your your body will adapt and at a certain point your fitness will stop improving. This isn’t what we want for marathon training; we want to keep getting stronger and building endurance.

Make sure to take your long run each week seriously. “Marathoners are made from their long runs,” Fitzgerald explains. This is how your body will build the critical endurance it needs, especially so you can push through the infamous “wall” in the final 10K of the marathon.

A smart mileage progression. Your plan should strategically build up your mileage so you don’t take on too much at once. Many training schedules start around 15-20 miles per week and slowly but surely peak around 40 before tapering (with the longest distance of one single run maxing out at 18 to 20 miles).

Strength and cross training. Running will make you a better runner, but both strength training and cross training are critical components of your plan that will build strength and mobility and decrease your risk of injury. Fitzgerald recommends “sandwiching” in strength exercises before and after each run. This looks like dynamic stretches before a run (think: lunges, squats, mountain climbers) followed by 10-20 minutes of bodyweight exercises or a core routine after your run. Additionally, cross-training is a great, low-impact way to simulate running if your body is feeling extra sore. Try pool running or biking. I get my cross training in by cycling to my office (7 miles one way) as a way to sneakily build endurance.

Strategic and active recovery. When it comes to marathon training, rest is non-negotiable. Make sure your “passive recovery” includes taking 1-2 days off a week, and that you’re getting eight hours of sleep a night. For “active recovery,” take your easy runs easy. These typically happen the day after a long run, and are meant to help you maintain a higher running volume while dialing back on intensity. Fitzgerald suggests ditching your GPS watch and running by feel, going nice and easy in order to shake out your legs. Foam rolling, dynamic stretching, and staying hydrated are also important rejuvenation tools that should be done on the daily.

Learn How to Fuel Right

Once you start running 30+ miles a week, your stomach is going to notice something’s going on. Feeding your body with the right amount and type of calories is going to give you sustained energy so you feel great during your runs and you don’t feel sluggish during the day.

One of the trickiest parts of training for a marathon is figuring out how to fuel properly—especially during your runs. I never felt hungry while I ran and it was hard to know when my body was cueing me to take in calories. Did I really need 100 calories of this sugary gel stuff if I wasn’t having hunger pangs?

The short answer is yes. Lifelong Endurance running coach Kaitlyn Morgan explains if you’re running for longer than 45 minutes, you’ll need to eat during your run. Many runners eat gels (like GU) and chews, which typically come in 100-calorie servings and are packed with a mix of slow-burning and fast-burning carbs so that you can get a quick hit of energy and also replenish your body’s carbohydrate stores so that you have them for later, Morgan explains. Make sure to try all this out during your training runs so that your fueling strategy is totally locked in before race day.

If you’re not a gel fan, you can experiment with real foods too. “Take some of your favorite snacks that you would want to eat on a trail and try them while running and see what works,” urges Morgan. I love dried figs, peanut butter pretzels, and gummy bears but every stomach can tolerate different foods during a long workout, so use your long runs as a way to test out different types of fuel. When going long, Morgan says to aim for 100-150 calories every hour, depending on your body’s needs, which you’ll likely have to figure out by trial and error. (Though there are online calorie calculators you can use if you want some hard numbers to go by.)

After runs, workouts, and strength sessions, your body is going to need to refuel itself, too. (Gels don’t count as dinner.) While experts usually suggest that eating soon after a workout is better than waiting a long time, that “30-minute window” theory, where you must eat within a half-hour of exercise or else you lose your chance to recover properly, is contested.

No matter the debate, it’s a good idea to try and eat something within an hour of a tough run to give your body the nutrients (and energy!) it needs to recover and rebuild muscle—even if it’s just a snack and a full meal comes later. Focus on consuming a mix of protein and carbs, like Greek yogurt with honey, a banana with peanut butter, or a protein smoothie with fruit and your favorite protein powder. If you skip your post-workout meal altogether, you'll likely end up feeling fatigued and lightheaded.

Lastly, it’s important to stay hydrated, both while running and resting. During runs, consider bringing a hand-held water bottle or hydration pack, or plan your route near plenty of water fountains. If you start to feel unusually hot, tired, or disoriented, this is a sign you could be severely dehydrated, so you will need to pump the breaks and get some fluids. There’s no one-size-fits all recommendation when it comes to how much water you should drink on a run, so stay in-tune with how your body is feeling and stop running and start rehydrating before you feel thirsty and definitely if you experience any symptoms of dehydration.

Build Your Mental Game

Many runners often overlook the psychological part of training. But you should think of your mind like a muscle. Just like you need to build up strength in your hamstrings, calves, and core, you also need to train your mind to prepare for the challenges and discomfort you’ll experience. (Your long runs will help you with that, for sure.)

I’m a huge mantra fan. If I’m feeling particularly off during a run, I tell myself to “grind through it,” knowing that not every run will be easy and sometimes I have to grind my way over the pavement. If I feel good, I simply tell myself “smooth,” and visualize myself gliding over the roads. As for race day, I always write “You are stronger than you think” on my hand, a reminder that my mind will typically give out on me before my body.

Confidence is another key element of feeling mentally fit. Fitzgerald explains that getting comfortable racing will make you more confident at the start line. Add some 5Ks and 10Ks into your plan so you can learn how to navigate race situations and prepare for race-day nerves.

“Racing is a skill,” he remarks. “It’s one of the few times in your running that you’re going 100 percent, and you have to subject yourself to that to understand how to deal with your feelings and continue to push yourself through the marathon.”

Ready, Set, RACE!

When race day finally rolls around, the most important thing you can do is copy how you prepared for training runs. Don’t try anything different; stick to your same pre-run breakfast, wear your normal sneakers and socks, and try to get your typical amount of nightly sleep.

To ensure you’re smiling at the end, Morgan suggests setting multiple goals that you know you are capable of achieving. “Have a goal, go for that goal, but don't be so stringent,” she says. “If you set that bar [too high] and you miss it you’re going to be devastated.”

For every race, she suggests creating an A, B, and C time goal. That way, you have a range to shoot for versus trying for one number and one number only. But remember, you don't have to set a time goal, especially if this is your first marathon. As Morgan says, “For first-time marathoners, just finishing is a perfectly great goal to set.”

Lastly, remember to trust your training. If you put in the work, you’ll be prepared to run a marathon. The race will be uncomfortable, but it will also be incredible. Don’t go out too fast, keep relaxed when it gets hard, and run through the finish line toward your well-deserved medal—knowing you just completed an amazing athletic feat.