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How to run a marathon: A beginners guide
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Running a marathon is a remarkable achievement that requires physical endurance, mental strength, and dedicated preparation. Whether you’re motivated by a personal challenge, the opportunity to raise money for charity, or simply the joy of running, understanding your “why” is essential. This guide will help you prepare for your first marathon, covering everything from selecting the right race to recovery after the big day.

Reasons for doing a marathon

Running a marathon is a significant accomplishment, providing personal satisfaction and the excitement of achieving a major goal. Many runners are inspired by the chance to support a cause, as numerous marathons collaborate with charities, enabling participants to raise funds and awareness for issues they are passionate about. Furthermore, the marathon experience fosters a strong sense of community as runners share the journey with others with similar goals. The physical and mental challenges of marathon training also offer significant health benefits, improving cardiovascular fitness and mental resilience. Understanding your motivation can help sustain your commitment throughout training and race day.

Being physically and mentally prepared

Being physically and mentally prepared for a marathon is crucial for success. Physically, it’s essential to be in good health and injury-free, which can be assessed through a visit to a physiotherapist. Training requires several months of consistent effort, including running in various weather conditions to build endurance, strength, and flexibility. Mentally, the challenge is equally demanding. Developing a positive mindset and resilience is key. Techniques such as visualisation, where you picture yourself crossing the finish line, and stress management, including practices like meditation or deep breathing, can significantly enhance your mental readiness. Balancing both physical conditioning and mental fortitude will set a solid foundation for your marathon journey.

Selecting the right marathon, how long you need to train for a marathon

Selecting the right marathon is a crucial step in your journey. When choosing a race, consider your personal goals and schedule. Researching the course difficulty, location, and climate is important, as these factors can significantly impact your experience. Look for a marathon with a supportive crowd and a scenic route to boost your motivation. It’s also essential to factor in the time needed for adequate training; most beginners require 16-20 weeks of preparation. Consider marathons that offer ample time for this training period. Thoughtfully selecting a marathon can enhance your enjoyment and increase your chances of a successful run.

Preparing for a marathon

Setting realistic goals

Preparing for a marathon involves setting realistic goals, developing a comprehensive training plan, and incorporating cross-training to build strength and endurance. It’s crucial to gradually increase your running mileage, allowing your body to adapt and prevent injuries. Adequate rest and recovery are essential, so listen to your body and don’t hesitate to take extra rest days. Address any injuries promptly with the help of a physiotherapist to avoid setbacks.

Mental preparation is equally important. Maintain motivation by setting small, achievable milestones and celebrating your progress. Stay positive and visualise your success to boost your confidence. Incorporate a mix of running workouts, including long runs, tempo runs, and speed work, while balancing them with activities like cycling or swimming. This holistic approach will prepare you both physically and mentally for race day.

The importance of building endurance and stamina for a marathon

Building endurance and stamina is essential for marathon training. For beginners, it’s important to gradually increase both the longest run and total weekly mileage to prepare your body for sustained effort. Once you have established a strong base, add interval training to improve cardiovascular fitness and boost speed. Tempo runs help you develop a steady, race-pace rhythm. Strength training, focusing on your core, legs, and glutes, enhances running efficiency and reduces the risk of injury. Speed work, such as track repeats, improves your running economy.

Equally important is the tapering phase, where you reduce training volume in the weeks leading up to the marathon to allow your body to recover and peak on race day. Balancing these various training methods builds a solid foundation, enabling you to handle a marathon’s physical and mental demands and perform at your best.

Ensuring proper nutrition and hydration

Proper nutrition and hydration are essential for marathon training and performance. A balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats fuels your body and aids recovery. Carbohydrates are particularly important as they provide the primary energy source for long runs. Adequate protein intake supports muscle repair and growth, while healthy fats contribute to overall energy levels.

Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day and using electrolytes to replace lost minerals during long runs. Practice your race-day nutrition strategy during training, including energy gels or sports drinks, to see what works best for you. Monitor your calorie intake to ensure you consume enough to support your training intensity and volume. Avoid trying new foods or supplements close to race day to prevent gastrointestinal issues. Proper nutrition and hydration enhance your performance and help prevent fatigue and injury, setting you up for a successful marathon.

Mental preparation and motivation

Developing a positive mindset can significantly influence your performance and perseverance. Visualise yourself completing the marathon, focusing on how it will feel to cross the finish line. This mental imagery boosts confidence and prepares your mind for race day challenges. Stress management techniques like deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can help maintain calm and focus.

Recognise that training will have highs and lows; staying motivated through difficult periods is crucial. Set small, achievable milestones and celebrate each victory to maintain momentum. Finding a training partner or joining a running group provides social support and accountability, making the journey more enjoyable. Additionally, understanding and embracing your reasons for running, whether for fitness, personal achievement, or charity, can reignite your motivation. By nurturing your mental resilience, you’ll be better equipped to handle the demands of marathon training and race day.

Finding a partner, joining a running group

Having a training partner or joining a running group can greatly enhance your marathon training experience. A partner offers accountability, motivation, and companionship, making long runs more enjoyable and less daunting. Running groups provide a supportive community, access to shared knowledge, and encouragement from fellow runners. They often offer structured training sessions, which can help improve your performance. Social interactions during runs can also boost your morale and help you stay committed to your training schedule, ultimately increasing your chances of marathon success.

Weekly training schedule example, Monday – Sunday

Monday: Rest or light cross-training. Use this day to recover from the previous training and prepare for the week ahead. Light activities like yoga or swimming can aid in recovery without stressing your joints.

Tuesday: Run moderately. Focus on building mileage at a comfortable pace. This run should help you gradually increase your endurance.

Wednesday: Strength and Conditioning (S&C). Incorporate exercises targeting your core, legs, and glutes to enhance running efficiency and reduce injury risk. Activities like bodyweight exercises, resistance training, or Pilates are beneficial.

Thursday: Tempo run. Introduce one tempo session weekly to help develop a steady, race-pace rhythm. This run should be at a comfortably hard pace but not an all-out effort.

Friday: Rest or light cross-training. This is another day for recovery, with light activities to keep you moving without overloading your muscles.

Saturday: Long run. Gradually increase the distance of your long runs to build the endurance needed for a marathon. This is the most critical part of your training for beginners.

Sunday: Recovery run or rest. A short, easy run to promote blood flow and aid recovery, or take a complete rest day if needed.

Strength and Conditioning (S&C): Include an additional S&C session, preferably after a moderate run or rest. This helps build strength and supports your running form and overall performance.

For beginners, the priority should be gradually increasing the longest run and the total weekly mileage to build a strong endurance base. Only after establishing this base should tempo runs and interval sessions be introduced. Consistent S&C work is also beneficial, as it strengthens muscles, improves running form, and reduces the risk of injury, all of which are critical for marathon training success.

See The difference between strength, endurance and power training? >

Preparing for the race

Monitor your health, energy and sleep.

Monitoring your health, energy, and sleep is crucial during marathon training. Regularly assess your physical condition to catch early signs of injury or overtraining. Pay attention to your energy levels; consistent fatigue can indicate the need for more rest or adjustments to your training plan. Prioritise quality sleep, as it’s essential for recovery and performance. Aim for 7-9 hours per night and maintain a regular sleep schedule. Keeping track of these factors helps ensure you stay healthy and optimise your training effectiveness.

Take a running gait analysis assessment

Ensure adequate hydration and nutrition in the lead-up

Adequate hydration and nutrition in the lead-up to your marathon are vital for peak performance. Gradually increase your carbohydrate intake in the days before the race to maximize glycogen storage and maintain balanced meals with proteins, healthy fats, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Stay well-hydrated by drinking water consistently and incorporating electrolyte drinks to maintain mineral balance. Avoid trying new foods or beverages close to race day to prevent digestive issues. Proper hydration and nutrition will help you feel energised and ready on race day.

Organising gear and attire, familiarising the race route.

Organising your gear and attire and familiarising yourself with the race route are crucial steps in marathon preparation. Ensure your running shoes are well-broken and your clothing is comfortable and weather-appropriate. Prepare all necessary items, such as your race bib, hydration pack, and energy gels, ahead of time. Study the race route to understand the terrain, elevation changes, and location of aid stations. If possible, cycle or drive the route to understand the course better. This knowledge helps you plan your pacing strategy and boosts confidence, ensuring you’re well-prepared for race day.

Positive mindset, visualising success, stress management

Maintaining a positive mindset, visualising success and practising stress management is essential for marathon preparation. Cultivate a positive attitude by focusing on your progress and celebrating small victories. Regularly visualise yourself crossing the finish line, which can enhance your confidence and motivation. Incorporate stress management techniques like deep breathing, meditation, or yoga into your routine to stay calm and focused. These practices help you handle training challenges more effectively and ensure you’re mentally prepared for race day.

Plan which stations you will have friends and family at for support

Planning where friends and family will support you along the marathon can be a significant morale booster. Identify key points in the race where you might need extra encouragement, such as challenging hills or the halfway mark. Coordinate with your supporters so they know exactly where to be and when. Their cheers and motivation can provide a mental lift and help you push through difficult sections. Having familiar faces along the course can make the marathon experience more enjoyable and help you stay focused and determined.

During the race

Pacing strategies, tips for staying motivated

Effective pacing strategies and staying motivated are essential for marathon success. Start at a comfortable pace to conserve energy for the latter stages of the race, aiming for a consistent and steady speed to avoid the common pitfall of starting too fast. Breaking the race into smaller segments can make the distance more manageable, allowing you to focus on reaching each milestone. To maintain motivation, remember your reasons for running and celebrate each achievement. Listening to music or repeating mantras can keep your spirits high and help you stay driven throughout the marathon.

Fueling and hydration at the right time

Proper fueling and hydration are crucial for marathon success. During the race, drink water and electrolyte to stay hydrated and maintain electrolyte balance. Regularly take small sips rather than large gulps to avoid stomach issues. Use energy gels, chews, or bars consistently to replenish glycogen stores and sustain energy levels. Practising your fueling strategy during training helps identify what works best for you, ensuring you’re well-prepared to keep your energy steady and avoid fatigue on race day.

Enjoying the experience – remembering your why

Enjoying the marathon experience is just as important as the physical challenge. Embrace the atmosphere, soaking in the excitement and energy of the crowd. Focus on the journey, appreciating each milestone and your progress. Stay present and mindful, taking in the sights and sounds around you. Remember your reasons for running and let them motivate you. Sharing the experience with fellow runners and supporters can also enhance your enjoyment, making the marathon a memorable and fulfilling accomplishment.

After the race

Rehydrate, warm down, stretch.

After crossing the finish line, it’s crucial to start rehydrating immediately, sipping water or an electrolyte drink to replenish lost fluids. Begin your warm-down with a gentle walk to gradually lower your heart rate and ease your muscles out of their high-intensity state. It’s important to keep moving during this time, as remaining stationary or sitting too long can cause your muscles to stiffen. Follow this with gentle stretches targeting your major muscle groups, holding each stretch for at least 20-30 seconds. This routine helps prevent stiffness, promotes flexibility, and aids overall recovery, setting the stage for a smoother post-race recovery..

Eat nutrient-dense foods

Eating nutrient-dense foods after the race is vital for optimal recovery. Focus on consuming a balanced meal rich in carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats within two hours of finishing. Carbohydrates will replenish your glycogen stores; proteins will repair muscle tissues, and healthy fats will support overall cell function. Include fruits and vegetables to provide essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, aiding in reducing inflammation and speeding up recovery. Opt for whole foods like lean meats, whole grains, nuts, and legumes to get the best nutrients to help your body recover and rejuvenate.

Rest & Recovery

The importance of proper recovery after a marathon

Recovery after a marathon is crucial for your body’s healing and long-term performance. Adequate rest is essential; your body needs time to heal from the physical exertion and repair muscle tissues. Taking time off from intense training allows your muscles, joints, and connective tissues to recover fully, preventing overuse injuries and burnout. Sleep plays a significant role in this process, as it releases growth hormones that facilitate muscle repair. Emphasising recovery prevents injuries and prepares you for future training and races, ensuring sustained progress and overall well-being.

Ice baths, saunas & massages

Incorporating ice baths, saunas, and massages into your post-marathon recovery routine can help to enhance your body’s healing process. Ice baths help reduce muscle inflammation and soreness by constricting blood vessels and decreasing metabolic activity. However, avoid using saunas during the first 2-3 days post-race, as they can exacerbate inflammation during the initial recovery phase. Massages can relieve muscle tension and improve flexibility, but staying active with gentle walking and non-impact activities like light cycling is more important. These gentle movements help maintain circulation and prevent stiffness, promoting a smoother recovery.

Take time off training.

Taking time off from training after a marathon is crucial for allowing your body to recover and rebuild fully. This rest period helps repair muscle fibres, replenish depleted energy stores, and reduce the risk of overuse injuries. After the race, you might feel a high and an urge to run again, but it’s important to resist structured training. If you do feel like being active, keep it short and light. Doing gentle activities like walking or yoga can keep you moving without stressing your body. Embracing rest ensures you return to training refreshed, stronger, and more resilient.


How to boost stamina for running?

Boosting running stamina involves consistent training, including long, interval, and tempo runs. To build overall endurance, incorporate cross-training activities such as cycling or swimming. Ensure adequate rest and recovery, maintain a balanced diet of carbohydrates and proteins, and stay hydrated to support your training efforts.

How many miles do marathoners run per week?

Marathoners typically run 30 to 50 miles per week, depending on their training and experience levels. Beginners might start at the lower end of this range, gradually increasing mileage as they build endurance. Advanced runners often include long runs, speed work, and recovery runs to maximise their training effectiveness.

Can you train for a marathon on a treadmill?

Yes, you can train for a marathon on a treadmill. It’s especially useful for interval training and tempo runs. However, it’s important to include some outdoor runs to adapt to varying terrain and weather conditions, better simulating race day conditions. Treadmill training can be supplemented with outdoor long runs for optimal preparation.

When to do the longest run before a marathon?

The longest run should typically be done 2-3 weeks before the marathon, during the peak of your training. This allows sufficient time for tapering, where you gradually reduce mileage to let your body recover and reach peak performance on race day. The longest run is usually between 18 to 20 miles.

How do you get more oxygen while running?

To get more oxygen while running, focus on deep, rhythmic breathing. Practice belly breathing, where you expand your diaphragm rather than your chest. Incorporate breathing exercises and maintain good posture to open up your airways. Additionally, interval training can improve your lung capacity and overall cardiovascular efficiency.

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