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How to Train for Your First Marathon For Essential Guide To Training

The decision to run your first marathon comes with a mix of emotions that tend to swing between excitement and fear. But with the right training and preparation, your debut 26.2 should be an exciting and satisfying (if challenging) journey to the finish line. And with the proper mindset, it can even be fun, too. ‘Approach the race with joy and gratitude, not as a life-or-death thing, ’says Molly Seidel, an Olympic marathon medallist. ‘A lot of people are overly serious, but you can be focused and still have fun with it.’ So take a deep breath and read on for our best tips, tricks and expert advice to help take you all the way to the finish line of running’s most iconic distance…

Build your running foundation (and your leg muscles) through base training

Start with six to 12 weeks of base training. Investment in base training gives your lungs and legs a solid foundation on which to build. Norris says this can also reduce your risk for injury, allowing your body to transform slowly and steadily. (For more on the science behind this transformation, listen to the podcast at the top of the page.)

The goal is to get comfortable running three to four times a week, with your longest run being roughly 5 or 6 miles. Pushing yourself too far too fast could result in injuries, so make sure to take your time: you can start by running 1 or 1.5 miles and build up week after week.

Choosing a First Marathon

Marathons range from quiet, low-key races on backcountry roads to spectator-lined urban races with tens of thousands of runners. To help you get used to the race vibe and identify your preference, run a few shorter races, cheer on a friend or volunteer at marathons.

Choosing a marathon close to home may offer a “home field advantage” with the opportunity to run on familiar roads; on the other hand, choosing a “destination” race can really stoke your motivation fire in the months leading up to race day.

Add Marathon Pace to Select Long Runs

Race-day success, Kastor says, “comes down to the long runs, training, and getting used to the pace.” Run six to eight miles at marathon pace during your long runs. As your body gets more familiar with race pace, it also becomes more efficient at it. It will also get used to the pace on already-tired legs.

Schedule just two or three of these marathon-pace long runs during your training cycle, says Jeff Gaudette, a coach and former Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project pro runner. And spread them out by at least two weeks, with the last one occurring no closer than three weeks before your race.

Another option for an 18- to 20-miler with marathon pace is a progressive long run, Gaudette says. Take the first couple miles easy, then miles 4 to 12 at 15 seconds slower than goal marathon pace, miles 12 to 18 at goal pace, and the last 8 miles at 10 seconds faster than goal pace. This run is best implemented in the final eight weeks of your training plan.

Determine Your Goals Early On

Want to break the four hour mark?

Trying to beat your buddy’s PB?

Just happy to get to the finish line?

Great! Whatever your marathon goals, whether they are time-based, experience-based, or simply ‘to finish’, it is best to identify these as early as possible.

The truth is, most first-time marathoners have vague goals – partly because they don’t know exactly what to expect, and wonder if just maybe in the day of the marathon their body will kick into gear and deliver a good result. I don’t like to leave performance down to luck, and feel success is all in the preparation – and your preparation should be based around your intended goal.

Knowing your goals means you can manage your expectations and be smart about your training.

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.

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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.

What to eat and drink before the marathon

Make sure you are well-hydrated prior to the start of the race. Drink lots of water during the week before the race. This optimizes your hydration before you hit the start line.

Eat a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, such as breads, rice, pasta and starchy vegetables. This helps maximize your glycogen (energy) stores. Don’t experiment with new foods this week. Carbohydrate loading (carb loading) can be complicated. Try it some other time, perhaps before other long runs.

Be sure you have on hand your hydration and food sources for the race, including an electrolyte source. Be sure these are the same you have tested during your long runs. Nothing new on race day!

Keep some variety in your training plan.

Here’s the thing: Most of your training runs should feel relatively easy. Remember, you’re not training for a sprint. You’re going for endurance.

“Increasing your volume and intensity simultaneously can be a recipe for disaster sometimes,” Diboun says. In other words, if you’re upping your mileage every week (your volume) and also running hard during each session, you’re basically setting yourself up for injury.

Diboun says that in addition to your running, you need to focus on recovery, cross-training, and self-care. (Remember how we talked about that time commitment?) “I do a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that does not show up on Strava,” he says with a laugh.

There’s no quick way to determine your ideal marathon pace, but even for beginners, Honerkamp suggests incorporating some interval training into your program and taking time to learn your pace separation.

“It’s just the difference between your fastest running and your slowest running,” Honerkamp says of pace separation. “I think some people, if they don’t have the variation, they run the same pace or have a narrow pace separation. Typically that means either they’re running too fast every day or running too easy every day.”

Once you know what a hard run and an easy run feel like for you, you can start to estimate what feels doable for a marathon pace.

Fuel and Hydrate for Long Runs

You don’t want to go on a long run with your body tank on empty. So, it’s best to eat something small before going on a long run. Aim for something with simple carbohydrates, like oatmeal or whole wheat toast, about one to two hours before your run.

You should also make sure to drink water or sports drinks both before and during your long runs to stay hydrated. It’s best to drink something about every 20 minutes or so during a long run. Depending on the weather, you may need to drink more to stay hydrated.

Many runners also like to bring food, like energy gels, with them to consume during their runs. This can provide an extra burst of energy, which can help a great deal on longer runs. Just note: It’s best to try out any food or drink that you’re not used to on shorter runs first. That way, you can make sure they agree with your stomach before having them on a long run.

Warm Up and Cool Down

When you go on your runs — especially the long ones — you shouldn’t just start running. To avoid injury, you should make sure your muscles are loose and warm for the workout ahead. Try a five- or 10-minute stretching routine before you take your first steps.

The same goes when you’re finishing your run. A leisurely walk or some simple stretching at the end of your run can help prevent your muscles from tightening up.

Using a foam roller before and after your workout also may help.

Remember to Have Fun

Training for a marathon isn’t easy. But it’s important to remember to enjoy yourself. So, on race day, soak in the experience and have a good time. Completing your first marathon is a tremendous accomplishment — take pride in it.



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