9 Important Marathon Training Tips for New Runners
Sport & Activity
Experts lend insight into how to prepare your body and mind for race day.
Running a marathon is a major athletic feat, whether you're a beginner or a seasoned runner. It requires a lot of training, patience, and mental and physical strength—and a game plan.
If you're prepping for your first marathon, you're probably wondering how to fuel before the race and how to build mileage slowly and safely, and looking for tips on recovery.
Below, sift through this guide of expert-approved tips for marathon training to help you get to the starting line and enjoy your first marathon.
Tip 1: Come Up with a Game Plan
What's that popular saying? "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail". It seems a little harsh, but there's truth to it, especially regarding a physical feat such as marathon training.
But, failing is subjective. The importance here is setting yourself up for as much success as possible, which can be loosely defined as staying injury free (or taking care of your body through the training cycle), feeling confident in your abilities, fuelling your body properly to support the first two points, and having fun throughout your training and on race day.
If you have the time, Joe DiNoto, founder of Orchard Street Runners, recommended reading "Hansons: Marathon Method", because it "walks a beginner through training for a marathon". More importantly, he said he considers the book a great point of reference for a beginner to gain the knowledge needed to understand the physiology, nutrition and recovery involved with marathon training.
Raj Hathiramani, RRCA and USA Track & Field Level 1-certified running coach, said the optimal marathon training plan is one that takes into account your running background, current fitness level, injuries and conditions, life factors such as how stressful your career may or may not be, and your marathon goals.
"On a weekly basis, a beginner's plan would include a combination of running workouts—easy runs, a long run and an interval or tempo run, as well as regular strength training and optimal cross-training", Hathiramani said. When it comes to mileage, you should build gradually, increasing your mileage by no more than 10 to 15 percent per week, he said. You should also avoid back-to-back high-effort workouts to prevent overtraining and injury.
Tip 2: Do a Body Assessment
Before you throw on your tried-and-tested running shoes and go for a long run, it's important to assess the state of your body in the present moment.
The first thing Noah Abrahams, DPT, does with any athlete is talk to them about their performance goals. From there, he helps people understand how they can expect their bodies to feel (like pain and soreness) as they start training. Then he'll put the client through a multi-plane strength assessment to see how they move, and check their ankle, core and hip strength. All are integral to running efficiently. This assessment entails having someone perform movements such as a lateral lunge, squat, side plank and the knee-to-wall test. It helps an expert see how someone moves and find areas that could be improved upon via mobility and strength exercises.
He also discusses hydration and nutrition and the importance of strength training and recovery—specifically sleep—with athletes, in addition to recovery methods such as dry needling and deep-tissue work such as massages. "If I ask early on, then they can set themselves up to achieve whatever goal they actually have", he said.
If feasible, consider connecting with a physiotherapist early on in your training plan for preventative purposes, and then make those visits and/or do the prescribed movements consistently.
Tip 3: Consider Finding a Coach or Team to Work With
You can find marathon training plans online, but it may be more beneficial to consult with an experienced coach who can customise a plan that's specific to your athletic background, needs and abilities. And while affording a coach is a privilege, there are numerous running groups and coaches who provide community and coaching for free.
Abrahams champions finding a coach because a coach can help you progress or taper your training depending on how you respond to the training plan, something a generic online guide may not provide.
DiNoto said that training with a group exposes you to knowledge that you wouldn't be able to obtain otherwise. Running alongside people from various backgrounds and abilities allows you to pick up a lot of insight and tips about training, and running with a group can help you with your running goals. That said, it's important to bear in mind that something that works for your running buddy might not be the right fit for you—that's where having a coach can be incredibly useful.
Tip 4: Build a Base
Building a robust running base is critical for injury prevention.
"You have to have a really strong base of a lot of slow miles under your belt, just so that the body can support your frame vertically as you go through the four-plus hours that you'll probably take running your first marathon", DiNoto said.
Make sure that your mileage climb is slow so that you don't injure yourself, and know that it's OK to do a walk-run combo as you build your base. As you're going through this process, DiNoto said to make sure that you're paying attention to your recovery practices to reduce your risk of injury and to ensure that you can make it to the starting line in the best shape possible.
Once you've got a solid base, consider adding variations, such as running hills and doing speed work on a track. DiNoto advised giving yourself 6 to 12 months to build a foundation and get acclimated to running longer distances and the physical demand it puts on your body. This also gives you the time to learn, adapt, experiment (and sometimes fail), rehab potential tweaks and injuries, and recover.
Tip 5: Strength Train
Yes, you're a runner, but strength training is integral to injury prevention and can improve your maximal and reactive strength, running economy (the amount of oxygen/energy your body uses to maintain a specific running pace) and your VO2 max levels, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Don't worry, you don't need to become an Olympic lifter to reap the benefits of strength training.
Hathiramani said strength training at least twice a week is critical to improving your form and reducing your risk of injury. He recommended performing exercises that target your core, back, hips, glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves. Being stronger in these areas will help you improve your endurance and speed, and also minimise common running injuries like IT band syndrome, runner's knee and piriformis issues, Hathiramani said. Your coach—or a certified health professional such as a physiotherapist—can provide strength exercises to help you achieve your goals and prevent injury along the way.
Tip 6: Cross-train
In addition to strength training, cross-training will also help you get to the starting line in one piece.
Abrahams recommended doing a form of cross-training that is quite different from running and gets you off your feet. Swimming is a great example.
"What I like about getting in the water is there's a buoyancy element to it, so you float a little bit. There's kind of a compressive element to it too as well", he said.
DiNoto suggested cross-training modalities such as rock climbing and swimming to help strengthen your leg and hip muscles in a way that running can't. Programming restorative yoga into your routine is another great form of cross-training that also stretches your muscles, Abrahams said.
Tip 7: Don't Underestimate the Importance of Recovery Work
You may be tempted to get as many miles in as possible ahead of race day, but it's crucial to take time to recover.
"One of the things that most people fail to do is take into account how much trauma goes through the body when training for a marathon race", Abrahams said, so it's important to show your body a lot of tender love and care throughout the process.
Abrahams takes a homeostatic approach to sport and recovery work by "not just treating one thing but treating the whole body". Dry needling, global stretch sessions (aka stretching head to toe), and myofascial or active release can improve your muscle health. The specific areas he recommended focusing on are the pecs (chest), subscapularis first rib (located just below the base of the neck), psoas (a long back muscle), piriformis (a small, deep buttock muscle) and quadratus lumborum (the deepest muscle of the abdominal wall), down to the feet and ankles.
Tip 8: Focus on Your Nutrition
Another important aspect of your marathon training plan is nutrition. As Abrahams said, you're spending a lot of miles and hours on your feet, so you've got to make sure you're consuming the appropriate fuel to aid in recovery and supply you with energy.
"Nutrition, in general, is very personalised, and so are nutrition strategies for a marathon", said Rayanne Nguyen, RD, CSSD, LDN. "Just like you have a training plan for your runs, it's important to have a plan for your nutrition—not just for the day of the race, but for your whole training cycle", she said.
If you don't fuel properly during your training, you'll struggle when it comes to racing, Nguyen said. Everyone will have different needs, but when you increase your activity levels, you need to increase your energy intake (or how much food you're consuming).
"Runners need a well-balanced intake of macronutrients—carbs, proteins and fats—in addition to plenty of fruits and vegetables", Nguyen said. And because carbs are the body's main source of energy, you'll need to increase your carb intake, he added.
Nutrition Tips to Follow During Your Training Cycle
When it comes to training, Nguyen said it's important to consume something before training, ideally 30 to 60 grams of quickly digesting simple carbs, to give you a boost of energy and prevent gastrointestinal discomfort during training. Consider a sports drink, apple sauce, fruit snacks or a few bites of an energy bar.
If your runs are 60 to 75 minutes or shorter, Nguyen said you probably won't need to refuel, aside from making sure you're taking in fluids and electrolytes. She suggested working with a registered dietitian to figure out what this should look like for you. If your runs exceed that time frame, Nguyen said to refuel with an easy-to-carry, quick-to-eat tolerable carb source.
During training, consuming 30 to 90 grams of carbs per hour is ideal, and this should increase as the length of your run increases. This will also help you determine your nutrition plan come race day. She recommended testing out carb-electrolyte sports drinks, gels, energy chews, fruit snacks, dried fruit, and jelly sweets or other non-chocolate sweets.
When it comes to your hydration needs, you should be consuming fluids every 15 to 30 minutes, said Nguyen. It's essential to practise proper hydration and nutrition while training so that you can prepare your stomach to tolerate more food and fuel.
Post-training nutrition is equally important, according to Nguyen, who said to think of your stomach after a workout as being an empty petrol tank that needs to refill on fuel. "If you don't refuel, you can start the next training session on 'empty', which can lead to increased injury risk, fatigue and difficulty completing the workout, etc.".
The goal for your post-workout nutrition is to get carbs, protein and a source of hydration in your system within 30 to 60 minutes of completing the session. "The sooner the better, and something is always better than nothing", she said.
Tip 9: Enjoy the Process
One of the most important things you can do is enjoy the process. Training can be gruelling at times, and your body and mind will be challenged to the max, but try to enjoy it. Running a marathon is a major feat, and you should be celebrating yourself throughout the entire journey.
Words by Tamara Pridgett