How-To: Run Your First Marathon

Find your long-distance legs with these training and nutrition tips

Before I ran my first one, I asked every experienced marathoner I knew how I should train my body to run 26.2 miles. With few exceptions, everyone gave me the same, wise-guy answer: Run. A lot.

That wasn’t satisfactory. There had to be more than just “running” that went into completing a marathon injury-free. Through personal research and experience running several marathons myself, I’ve come up with what amounts to a rough training method. So now, when marathoners-in-training ask me how to prep, I don’t offer them the same lame-duck answer I got. Instead, I offer them the following:

Give yourself enough time to train.
It takes between six and nine months to prepare for a marathon, depending on your current training level. If you already work out three to four days a week and can comfortably run four or five miles, six months should be enough. Choose your marathon accordingly.

Put in your miles—lots of them.
Obviously, this is the most important part of training. If this is your very first marathon, try not to run on consecutive days, giving your muscles time to recover between runs. Be prepared for, but don’t expect, your legs to be sore and tired almost the entire time you’re training.

How far you run should vary from week to week. I prefer to run three times a week—two moderate weekday runs and a longer one on the weekend. The distances will increase over time, but try to start with runs that are squarely in your comfort zone.

Start, for example, with four- to five-mile weekday runs and a seven to eight-mile run on the weekend. With two months left before race day, your short runs should be eight to 10 miles, and you should be able to do at least 16 miles on your long run (add two miles every two to three weeks to steadily work your way there).

But don’t put in too many.
You don’t have to run a marathon distance before the big day. In fact, your longest run in training doesn’t have to be more than 20 miles, and you should do that run three weeks before race day. Don’t worry about cutting your weekday runs by a few miles directly before and after your very longest training runs.

After your big 20-miler, it’s important to taper your training in the final three weeks before the run. After all, you want your legs to feel fresh and strong for your first marathon. Follow the following schedule for your taper: 75 percent of your max weekly miles in the first week, 50 percent in the second week, 35 percent in the third week (the last one before race day).

Listen to your body.
Your black-and-white, gridded-out training schedule is only a guideline. If your legs are feeling extra sore one day, take it easy on a run, or take an extra rest day. This goes the other way, too: If you feel great, go ahead and add a couple of miles.

The best advice I ever got regarding my training was to listen to my body. It’s hard to come to terms with, but your body knows best. Don’t ignore the messages it’s sending to your brain. If you push your body too hard, you risk injury, which will throw off your training much more than an extra recovery day.

Don’t neglect your other muscles.
You don’t need to cross train, but if you’re the type that likes to work out more than three days a week, you should take your days off of running to bike or swim. I find yoga to be helpful—it helps you stretch your sore muscles, and all those Warrior positions provide some decent strength training for your legs. For more targeted legwork, light squats and lunges also work great. Just 10 to 20 of each exercise daily will make a noticeable difference.

Find what fuel works best for you.
Everyone’s body is different, so, unless you already know, you should experiment with different brands and flavors of nutritional and energy supplements during training. Take a Gu pack for one of your long runs and eat it about halfway through. Your next time out, try Clif Shot Bloks or something by Honey Stinger. See how your stomach reacts to each and which ones you think taste best (just because you’re working your body hard doesn’t mean you have to torture your taste buds).

On race day, most marathons will pass out some sort of supplement around mile 18. If you have a sensitive stomach and you’ve found that some supplements bother you, you may want to play it safe and carry your own during the race. My favorite marathon freebies are orange slices—they’re sweet, refreshing and easily digestible.

Relax, and enjoy the race.
Race day is a big day, sure, but don’t let yourself be overwhelmed. Eat breakfast at least two hours before you start running (it’s the most important meal of the day, after all). Eat what you normally do before running, and don’t overeat. Try to treat it like a normal morning, and your body will likely perform exactly how you’ve been training it to. Now go out and have fun—you’ve worked hard for this.


Editor’s Note: There are many ways to train for your first marathon, and each runner knows his or herself best. Some work you five days a week, while others do three with tempo runs and repeats built in. Here are a couple more options to look into, one from the New York Road Runners, and another from FIRST.