With more than half a million people running marathons in 2015, it’s no surprise that conquering a 26.2-miler is on the bucket list for a lot of people. But saying it and actually doing it are two very different things, and it’s just not wise to just tackle what could be a four-plus-hour effort without proper prep. You gotta train—and train smartly—to succeed without injury.

“The first thing I tell people when they say they want to run a marathon is to clear your schedule,” says Gary Berard, a NYC-based certified running coach, founder of GB Running and a coach at the RunSMART Project. “I think many people tend to underestimate the sacrifice and time commitment involved in preparing for a 26.2-mile race.”

Next, you'll need a great plan, which we've convenienty laid out for you. But first, you'll want to read up on everything you need to know and consider about a marathon. 

Prerequisites of the plan

Of course, your pre-training fitness level, and specifically your running shape, also matters. And if you haven’t been running at all—even if you’re, say, a CrossFitter or a competitive power lifter—Berard recommends a four-week period in which you build your base, so you’re up to several half-hour steady-state runs per week even before you start the 16-week program. If you’re really green, start with run-walks for a half-hour, in which your running interval is shorter than your recovery. Decrease your recovery first until they’re even, then increase your running until you’re able to do a full half-hour at a steady pace, and can do it three or four times per week.

From there, each week of your formal training plan will include a long run; two “quality” sessions per week—one that’s higher intensity and lower volume (like intervals) and one that’s speed-focused but at a lower intensity and longer duration (like tempo runs); and two or three easy runs.

Training survival guide

Now that you’re committed to the race, here’s what Berard says are some secrets to success.

Get a GPS watch

As you’ll soon learn, somewhat precise pacing is pretty key in terms of good training. “You don’t need to spend $600,” Berard says. An entry-level offering, such as the Garmin 220 (pictured above), is a great option for $200. “It’s a bit of an investment, but relative to the cost of other sports, running is fairly inexpensive overall.” Get in the habit of eyeing your paces at the beginning, until you learn what they feel like—just don’t be so slavish to your watch that you’re checking your wrist every 2 minutes.

Pay attention to your body

Before you start, you should get a full checkup from your doctor, and ask him or her if you should consider a cardiac assessment. Running, especially running this much, is a somewhat injury-prone sport. It’s also not always comfortable. Don’t be a hypochondriac and rush off to MRI every ache and twinge, but if something seems off or painful on a consistent basis, get it checked out.

Get your head in the game

In terms of mental prep, it’s as important as the physical aspects. “It’s wonderful to be committed, have goals, but you have to eat the sandwich one bite at a time,” Berard says. If you’re someone that struggles with commitment in life, consider hiring a coach or joining a training program. “Because you will reach a point in the plan when you’re just ready for the race to be over already.” You’ll also most likely be contending with weather—the heat of summer for a fall marathon, or the cold of winter for a spring one. Plan ahead to train during the most hospitable time of day. And when you have no option, you have to run anyway, even if it's on the treadmill for a really long time. “You’ll never ever regret going out but you will regret not going,” Berard says.

Maybe don't go it alone

Even if you’re a no-commitment-is-too-much Type A, “training with someone—whether it be a coach, a running group, a charity program, or a buddy—is a huge advantage for accountability and to help you get, and stay, excited about it,” says Berard. During the training cycle and even during individual workouts, motivation can wane. Hopefully, that won’t happen at the same time for whomever you train with, so you can keep each other going during rough patches.

Don’t forget to eat and sleep

With all the hours you’re now running, it can be tempting to eat more (you’ll be hungry!) and sleep less (when else will you get in that 6-miler if not at 5am before work?). But how well you eat and sleep is crucial to keeping your body happy, healthy, and adapting to all that stress you’re putting on it. “Get to bed early, don’t go out to drinks on Friday and not eat dinner,” says Berard. “Because you have to get up at 6am to get 16 miles in on Saturday morning.” Prerun, most people do best if they consume a small amount of easy-to-digest carbs and protein (such as toast or a banana with peanut butter). Overall, stick to nutritious whole foods with a balance of carbs, protein, and healthy fats, eaten at regular intervals throughout the day, and you should be good.

Eating also takes on special importance as your runs get longer, because you’ll need to determine what you’ll do for sustenance during the race itself. The rule of thumb is that you’ll need to replenish fast-burning carbs, electrolytes, and fluids for any run that lasts longer than an hour. Test out different drinks, goos, and gels during your training runs to learn what works for you—and more importantly, what doesn’t.

Respect the taper

After your last longest run, for the couple of weeks before the race you’ll be tapering—that is, running less mileage and working out less hard. The reason? Your body needs time to absorb all that you’ve asked it to do, and also to fully stock—and more importantly, not consistently deplete—your stores of glycogen for energy during the big race. So as tempting as it might be to run longer—you’ve been doing that for weeks!—just follow the plan. Cool?

Misconceptions of marathon training

Time and again, Berard says, people come to him believing a number of myths. These are the top three:

Myth #1: You need to do most of your runs at or faster than marathon pace.

There’s some logic there—after all, if all of your runs are going to be shorter than the race itself, shouldn’t you push your pace? Actually, no. The majority of your training is to adapt your body at a cellular level to the demands of a sustained 26.2-mile effort. To do that, you’ll be doing a lot of easy mileage to get the necessary time on your feet. “Up to 80% of your running should be slower than your marathon pace,” Berard says. “Most people run their easy runs way too fast. They should be at a pace in which you can hold a conversation.”

To make it a little more precise, he recommends using Jack Daniels’ VDOT calculator. (He’s a well-respected running coach. You can save the other Jack for after the race.) Put simply, it allows you to enter in your time for a hard-run race or training run (aka your race pace for that distance) in order to calculate the paces you should target for different race distances and training runs. If you’ve never run a race, Berard recommends trying a 10K (6.2 miles) as a good distance on which to gauge. As you train and get better, your numbers will likely change. “Pacing targets should be based off your current fitness and increased throughout the program—approximately every 6 weeks,” he says.

Myth #2: You have to do a 20-mile run to do a marathon.

Think about that in time for a second. If your goal is a four-hour marathon, it would take you over three hours to finish 20 miles at race pace—and, as just discussed, you’re not going to do an entire long run at race pace, you’ll do it slower. “There’s a law of diminishing returns after three hours,” Berard says. “And being out there that long requires a substantial amount of recovery.” Therefore, he prefers to think about time spent running rather than distance—and your longest long run shouldn’t top 2 hours, 45 minutes. He caps this program at 18 miles, which he says is akin to European plans that often max out at 30 kilometers. [Note that if, for your own psychological reasons, you'd like to do more than 18, you can do so if your "easy" pace training miles are at/faster than 8:30/mile. If that's the case, you could bump each 18 mile run to 20 miles and leave the remainder of the week(s) the same. But, Berard's advice is to not go faster than your “easy” pace and to not surpass that 2-hour 45-minute mark.] Also, the bunched run (two longer runs back-to-back) that you'll see on the plan is designed to simulate a long run (from a physiological perspective) with a diminished injury risk. Translation: runners aren’t required to run for as long, at one time, but bunching the runs on consecutive days will simulate the physiological stress/benefits required to elicit desired response. 

Myth #3: You shouldn’t speed-train for a marathon.

On the flip side of the first myth, a lot of people mistakenly believe there’s no place in a marathon plan for working on speed. It’s a long slog, no? Thing is, in order to make your body a more efficient running machine, you have to challenge its upper limits of effort just as you're challenging its endurance. “The idea of interval running is to push your aerobic capacity,” Berard says. Faster paces also help condition your body to handle lactic acid, which will make you a more efficient runner, and encourage better running form. 

The training plan

Scroll down for the key and must-read workout notes.

 

WEEK T W T Sa. Su.
1 4 miles 10x200m w/ 200m recovery 5 miles 4 miles 2 easy + 2x2 miles w/ 2 minutes rest + 2 easy
2 4 miles 6x400m w/ 400m recovery 6 miles 4 miles 1 easy + 6 medium + 1 easy
3 5 miles 10x200m w/ 200m recovery 5 miles 5 miles 13 miles
4 4 miles 5x3 min. w/ 2 min. rest + 2 miles 5 miles 3 miles 15 miles
5 5 miles 1 easy + 8 medium + 1 easy 4 miles + 4 strides 3 miles 2 easy + 4x1 mi. w/ 1 min. rest + 2 easy
6 3 miles 1 easy + 4 medium + 1 tough + 2 medium 4 miles 3 miles 16 miles
7 5 miles 7x2 min. w/ 1 min. rest + 2 miles 6 miles + 4 strides 5 miles 2 easy + 3 hard + 4 easy
8 5 miles 5x3 min. w/ 2 min. rest + 3 miles 7 miles 5 miles 17 miles
9 4 miles 1 mi. easy + 8 mi. medium + 1 mi. easy 6 miles + 4 strides 4 miles 2 easy + 4x1 mile w/ 1 min. rest + 2 easy
10 5 miles 1 easy + 4 medium, + 1 easy + 2 medium + 1 easy 5 miles 5 miles 18 miles
11 5 miles 5x3 min. w/ 2 min. rest 7 miles + 6 strides 5 miles 14 miles
12 4 miles 2x2 w/ 2 min. rest 5 miles 17 miles 12 miles
13 4 miles 4 easy + 3 min. rest + 6x100m w/ 100m recovery 7 miles + 6 strides 3 miles 3 easy, 12 medium
14 5 miles 6x2 min. medium w/ 1 min. rest 6 miles 5 miles 12 miles
15 5 miles 2x2 mi. w/ 2 min. rest 5 miles 4 miles 10 miles
16 5 miles 3x1 mi. w/ 2 min. rest 5 miles 2 miles RACE

 

Workout notes

On MONDAYS, perform supplemental training, except for week 16, when you should rest. Workouts may include strength moves such as squats and lunges; movement-based, range-of-motion stretching; core workouts; yoga; aqua jogging; and elliptical.

FRIDAYS are rest days.

Begin each running workout with a 10- to 15-minute (1- to 2-mile) easy warmup and end with a same-length cooldown. Include dynamic stretching prior to running and gentle static stretching afterward.

Mileage totals do not include warmup and cool-down distances.

All runs are marked in miles unless otherwise noted.

All runs are to be run at easy pace unless otherwise specified.

Calendar key

(E) Easy Runs: This pace should feel comfortable and free from stress or pain. You should be able to hold a conversation. “‘E’ pace promotes desirable cellular changes and further develop the cardiovascular system,” says Berard. For most runners, it will be 1 to 1:30 slower than marathon pace as predicted by the VDOT calculator.

(M) Marathon Pace: Ideally, the full 26.2 miles will be completed at this pace on race day, however, this should feel slightly more challenging than an easy run. “Training at marathon goal pace allows a runner to experience race-pace conditions,” Berard says.

(T) Threshold Pace: This pace should feel challenging but not impossible, i.e. "comfortably hard." “T” running is best for improving the body's ability to clear lactate and in simple terms is great for improving endurance. Quantitatively, “T” pace is what should be a hard but sustainable pace for approximately one hour.

(I) Interval Pace: “I” training is demandingly hard but it isn't all-out running. It’s best for improving aerobic power and makes the body function at, or nearly at, VO2 max—the peak effort where your body hits maximum oxygen consumption. This will likely be the pace you are able to race for about 12 minutes.

(R) Repetition Pace: The fastest pace of your marathon training plan, this is the pace at which you’d be able to race for one mile. “The primary purpose of repetition training is to improve speed and economy of running,” Berard says. Because the aim is to get both faster and more efficient, your recoveries between reps should be long enough that each work set feels no more difficult than the previous work set.

(RI) Recovery Interval: During quality workouts, recovery intervals represent the downtime between work sets. “Generally, this will be walking or a very easy jog—approximately M pace + 1:30/mile or slower,” says Berard.        

Strides: Strides help focus on proper running form at high intensity and help develop neuromuscular coordination and efficiency. These are done at a very fast effort but are not quite full sprints. “Focus on proper form: quick turnover, engage hamstrings, knees up, heels to butt quickly, explosive forward momentum, and landing on the forefoot,” Berard says. You’ll target one-mile race pace for 80-100 meters.

Rest: Full stop, rest, recover, objective is to lower heart rate and slow/control breathing.