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READY, SET, GO!: Training for a First Marathon

Hamilton, Janet S. M.A., RCEP, CSCS; Sorace, Paul M.S., FACSM, RCEP

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000172
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Learning Objectives The reader can expect to learn the process of developing a training plan for a runner who is reaching for the marathon distance for the first time. This process will include the various phases of training while considering a number of variables, including race date and the athletes’ experience and race goal.

Janet S. Hamilton, M.A., RCEP, CSCS, has been a member of ACSM for 28 years and currently serves on the Certification Exam Review Committee. She has coached distance runners of all ages and abilities for more than 20 years and is the founder of RunningStrong.com and author of the book Running Strong & Injury-Free. She was instrumental in developing a coaching certification program for the Road Runners Club of America. She has 20 years of experience in clinical orthopedic rehabilitation and was an assistant professor in the Health & Fitness Management Program at Clayton State University for 7 years.

Paul Sorace, M.S., FACSM, RCEP, is a clinical exercise physiologist for the Cardiac Prevention and Rehabilitation Center at Hackensack University Medical Center. Paul is an editorial board member for ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® and is the clinical associate editor for ACSM’s Certification Review, 4th edition. He is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and a competitive distance runner.

Disclosure: Both authors declare no conflicts of interest and do not have any financial disclosures.

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INTRODUCTION

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Developing a training program for a first marathon requires consideration of a variety of variables to ensure a safe progression to achieve the athlete’s goals. This article presents a process for developing a training plan for an athlete who is reaching for the marathon distance (42.2 km or 26.2 miles) for the first time. Not all “first timers” are created equal. For example, the numerous charity marathon training programs like Team in Training and others (see a list here — http://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/run-all) attract some people who have no running experience and yet wish to complete a marathon to raise funds for a worthwhile cause. On the other end of the spectrum, one finds the “first timer” who’s been running for years but just has never completed a marathon. Each athlete should be evaluated individually.

Although there is clearly not a single best training plan for all runners (each of the authors in the bibliography has his or her own training philosophy), there are certain common goals to be achieved. The primary goal of any training program is to establish the endurance base needed to complete the target race distance and to establish that endurance base without causing an overuse injury in the process (6,13). A secondary goal might be to establish the fitness to be able to complete the distance at a “race effort,” although many first-time marathoners may not be able to sustain a race effort for that prolonged distance until they have completed more than one marathon (12).

Consider the following when outlining a training plan:

  • 1. Date of the event.
  • 2. Location of the event. This includes consideration of course profile as well as typical weather conditions for the date/time of the race.
  • 3. Athlete’s goal for the event. Complete or compete (time goal)?
  • 4. Athlete’s current weekly distance and longest recent run.
  • 5. Experience of the athlete. Has he or she run other races besides the marathon? How long has he or she been training?
  • 6. Fitness level of the athlete. Ideally, this is an objective data point such as a recent race time. Has he or she been injured in training or racing?
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Event Date

Establish how many weeks you have to train and don’t forget to account for the fact that your athlete should allow for a taper before race day (1). A longer training window allows for more gradual progressions as well as possible life interruptions or illness. Training to complete a first marathon will likely require a minimum of 24 weeks or more if the individual is starting from a current mileage base of 20 miles (32 km) per week and a long run of 6 miles (10 km). If the individual is starting from a lower mileage base, additional time is warranted. For first-time marathon runners, achieving a total weekly distance of 40 to 50 miles (64 to 80 km) and a long run of 18 to 20 miles (29 to 32 km) should establish adequate endurance to complete the event. If he or she has a time goal in mind, achieving multiple runs of 20 miles and a weekly distance greater than 50 miles per week will help (2,10,12). Some authors suggest a weekly distance goal of 2.3 times race distance (~60 miles or 96 km in this case) is best (5). If the athlete is not injury prone and has a higher mileage base, extending the long run to 22 miles (35 km) or possibly 24 miles (39 km) will further increase his or her chances of meeting the time goal; however, one must always weigh the risk of injury when increasing mileage in a novice marathon runner (11).

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Event Location

Research the event in advance to gain important information about course profile, elevation, and terrain, as well as typical weather conditions for the date of the event. Courses that are particularly hilly call for some attention to hill training, and marathons that are held on trails rather than roads indicate a need for specific trail training. Weather conditions at any location can vary substantially from the “average” for any given date, but selecting an event during the time of year that a location typically experiences temperate weather (45°F to 55°F or 7°C to 13°C) often makes for a better outcome (4). Include terrain, time, and temperature-specific training often during the training cycle, and if the event is local to the athlete, include training runs on the actual course when able.

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Event Goal

In most cases, an athlete reaching for a marathon for the first time would be advised to set a primary goal of completing the event with only minimal attention paid to a time goal. However, some athletes are adamant about a time goal — even for a first attempt at the distance. If this is the case, the athlete should consider a slightly longer training window to enable him or her to first gain endurance and then subsequently work on speed endurance.

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Athlete’s Current Weekly Distance and Recent Long Run Distance

Athletes with a long-established foundation of fitness through running other distances may be able to progress quickly through a training progression, whereas those who are relatively new to the sport may require longer adaptation periods. The length of time it takes an athlete to adapt to a given training load is highly individual (7). The often-stated “10% per week rule” (increasing total weekly distance no more than 10% per week) is certainly a viable option but has no scientific basis (9). Some athletes may only tolerate 5% or perhaps 10% every other week. Knowing where your athlete is in terms of his or her current mileage and where he or she needs to be to achieve his or her goals allows you to evaluate whether there are enough weeks in your plan to accomplish the task or if selecting another event date might be the more prudent choice.

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Athlete’s General Experience

Most athletes reaching for a first marathon will have been running for years and may have several race distances under their belts. However, others who are brand new to the sport of running will need to establish a fitness base before doing higher-intensity workouts at target race paces, and they may require more time to progress their endurance base. Athletes who come to running with a foundation of fitness based in other sports like swimming and biking may find that, although they have good aerobic fitness, they still require a period to adapt to the specific musculoskeletal demands imposed by running.

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Athlete’s Current Fitness Level

This crucial information is needed to establish proper training paces as well as establishing a realistic and achievable marathon time goal. Ideally, this is a recent race time or perhaps a 1- or 2-mile time trial to provide an objective data point to calculate from. Generally speaking, a 1- or 2-mile best-effort time trial represents a good simulation of maximum aerobic pace. Obviously, the preferred method would be to run a local 5k (3.1 miles) or 10k (6.2 miles) on a flat and fast course because the inherent nature of the competition provided by other athletes may boost performance and give a better estimate of true current ability. The athlete’s goal marathon race pace and training paces are then estimated based on either the time trial or a current race pace (2,8,10,12). Multiple pace estimation tools exist, and each will give the athlete estimations of similar race performances at various distances. Although pace estimates may vary from one pace calculator to another, there will be a relative consensus that provides the athlete with a realistic time target for various race distances. It is important to understand that all pace estimation tools are built on the assumption that the athlete has the requisite endurance base to race the given distance at an all-out relative effort. Certainly predicting a marathon finish goal from a half-marathon race data point is likely to be more accurate than predicting it from a 5k time but that doesn’t make the 5k time a useless data point. Indeed, using the 5k race time as a simulation of near maximum aerobic pace (97% according to most) enables the athlete to calculate an appropriate training pace for most training runs because the majority of training for a first marathon will be focused on maintaining an easy aerobic effort while building endurance. For most athletes, running at roughly 70% to 78% of 5k race effort is appropriate for most training runs, with the slower pace being appropriate for longer training runs for marathon distances. Multiplying 5k pace by a factor of 1.43 to 1.28 will give a pace representative of 70% to 78% of that race effort (Table 1). In addition, a variety of online pace calculators are available (https://www.mcmillanrunning.com/, http://www.runnersworld.com/training/pace-calculators, http://runsmartproject.com/calculator/).

TABLE 1

TABLE 1

Establishing proper training paces for a variety of training stimuli helps maximize adaptation and minimize injury risk. Often, for a first-time marathoner, nearly all of the training is done at easy aerobic effort (70% to 78% of 5k race effort), with a smaller window of time spent on specific marathon goal pace running and an even smaller window of time spent at high-intensity paces such as the 5k race pace (12). Particular attention should be paid to any reports of running-related injury — recent or past — to ensure that contributing factors have been addressed and that training progressions are moderated as needed to avoid reinjury (11,13).

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PHASES OF TRAINING

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Phase 1: Base Building

Goal: Achieve total weekly distance and long run distance commensurate with the goal. Build weekly distance carefully, paying attention to adequate recovery between harder workouts. Key workouts should include one long run per week that typically represents approximately 33% to no more than 45% of total weekly distance and two moderate distance runs, each representing approximately 20% to 25% of total weekly distance. In addition, one or more shorter “recovery” runs (each representing about 10% to 15% of total weekly mileage) or equivalent duration cross-training workouts will round out the week and enable the athlete to attain the needed weekly mileage. During this phase, the emphasis should be on “easy effort” aerobic running. For many athletes, the “talk test” will help them achieve the proper effort — they should be able to converse with a training partner without becoming breathless (5,12). Including hills and specific terrain similar to the target race during this base building phase is entirely appropriate. This also is a good time to acquaint the athlete with hydration and fueling strategies to use on marathon day.

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Numerous generic training plans exist both in print and online (http://www.runnersworld.com/training-plans ). However, developing a training plan that is personalized to the athlete generally will lead to more success. By following the guidelines presented in terms of pacing, distribution of training through the week, and progression of weekly distance, the athlete more likely will be successful in achieving his or her goal with a minimal risk of injury. A sample generic plan is included for reference here; however, the reader is advised that individualization of the plan to the athlete will result in a better outcome.

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Phase 2: Sharpening

Goal: Solidify base mileage and introduce measured amounts of training at/near target race pace or race effort, as well as some limited amounts of higher-intensity training if the athlete’s mileage base will support it without risking an overuse injury. By maintaining the weekly distance base achieved in the first phase, the athlete will solidify the physiological adaptation that was started in that phase.

Substituting one or more of the moderate distance runs per week with a run that incorporates some form of faster paced running, either in the form of short or long intervals of high-intensity running or sustained segments of moderate length at or near target race pace/effort, will enable the athlete to develop pace awareness as well as improve efficiency at race pace.

Other runs should continue to be done at easy aerobic paces. For some athletes with limited time to train for their selected event or those whose goal is simply to complete the distance, the focus on higher-intensity speed work during this phase may be eliminated; however, it is prudent to have the athlete do some measured amounts of training at/near the target race pace to develop a good pace judgment. Pace judgment is crucial to executing successfully an even pace strategy throughout the race and avoiding the tendency to slow in the second half because of going out too fast in the first half. This tendency to slow in the second half of the marathon is more prevalent in men than in women and more common in less experienced marathoners (3).

The dosage of higher-intensity running that can be safely prescribed depends on the intensity of the workout being prescribed and the athlete’s total weekly mileage (Table 2). The following might be considered upper limits during training for most athletes reaching for a distance for a first time and highlights why an adequate endurance base is key to race success (2):

TABLE 2

TABLE 2

When one considers the popular and well-known workout known as “Yasso 800s,” this need for a reasonable mileage base to support higher-intensity training is highlighted. In the Yasso 800 workout designed by Bart Yasso (chief running officer of Runner’s World and veteran of more than 1,000 races), one is trying to predict the likelihood of achieving a particular marathon time goal. The athlete runs a series of ten 800-m intervals, each in a time specified by his or her marathon time goal. For example, an athlete with a goal of a 4-hour marathon would run the 800-m repeats in 4 minutes. An athlete with a goal of a 3-hour 30-minute marathon would do them in 3:30. On the surface, this is a simple format, but when one looks into the physiological intensity imposed by this workout, it becomes clear that it is a very intense workout. In the case of an athlete who has run a 5k in 24:37 and wants to complete a marathon in 4 hours, this pace of an 8:00 mile is representative of approximately 5k race pace based on standard pace prediction tools and by any definition would be considered fairly high intensity for that athlete. The total of ten 800-m repeats will mean he or she sustains a 5k effort for a total of 5 miles in the course of that workout. Using the previous suggestion for mileage bases needed to safely perform high-intensity mileage in training, one realizes that to accomplish this volume of high-intensity work with a reasonably low risk of injury, the athlete should probably be logging a bit more than 70 miles per week. Although this is not out of the question, it might be inappropriate for novice marathoners who are running perhaps 40 to 50 miles per week (Table 3).

TABLE 3

TABLE 3

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Phase 3: Taper and Race

Goal: Reduction in training load to enable the athlete adequate recovery and rest before the race (1). A typical first-time marathoner will begin taper about 14 to 20 days in advance of his or her event. A typical taper involves decreasing mileage by 25% the first week, then another 25% the second week, and allowing extra rest days in the week of the race. In the taper phase, it is important to maintain some focus on running at target race pace, but the overall mileage is dramatically reduced. The running that is performed at the specific race pace is vital to appropriate pace judgment on race day (3).

On race day, the athlete should take stock not only of his or her physical condition (including training, injury status, recent illness, etc.) but also of the weather and course conditions. Temperature extremes, wind, or even rain may make his or her initial goal unrealistic. At this point, the athlete is well served to have a “plan B.” A recent study on the impact of weather on marathon performance found that “there is a progressive and quantifiable slowing of marathon performance as Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) increases from 5°C (41°F) to 25°C (77°F)” and that “this phenomenon holds true for both men and women of wide-ranging abilities, but performance for slower runners decreases more as WBGT increases” (4). It is worthwhile to remember that to outwit Mother Nature is a rare phenomenon.

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Even if the conditions on marathon day are ideal, the novice marathoner should run at the pace he or she has trained to run and not faster. Starting the marathon too fast (which can be easy to do with the excitement of the race and legs well-rested from the taper) is a recipe for a long unpleasant marathon (2,8,10,12). It is wise to consider running the first few miles, even the first 5k, slightly slower than the given goal pace. This is literally a marathon, not a sprint.

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RISK MANAGEMENT

The goal of the training plan should be to maximize opportunity for success while minimizing the risk of injury. At each turn, the question should be “what is the purpose of this workout?” (2) and “what is the least overload that can be applied to achieve the physiological adaptation required?” (2). When in doubt, the prudent athlete will focus first and foremost on building endurance and doing so at easy effort/pace and only work into higher-intensity workouts when he or she has achieved a level of physiological adaptation that reasonably ensures that he or she can tolerate the higher loads without injury. Making gradual transitions, providing adequate rest and recovery, and paying attention to signs and symptoms of injury or overtraining will help the athlete achieve his or her goal without being sidelined because of injury (9,11).

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SUMMARY

When training for a marathon for the first time, it is important to respect the distance. Once the distance of the race becomes achievable, then one can begin to work on achieving it at a race effort. Development of an athlete’s training program will vary, depending on a number of factors such as running experience, time until the race, and current/past injuries (if any). Taking these and other variables into consideration, following the phases of training and adjusting the program as needed will maximize the athlete’s chances of toeing the line healthy and ready.

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BRIDGING THE GAP

Developing a training program for a runner requires considering a variety of variables to ensure safety for the runner while helping him/her achieve his/her goals. The primary goal of any training programis to establish the endurance base needed to complete the target race distance without overtraining. Each runner should be uniquely assessed, considering his/her experience as a runner, his/her race goal, race date, and past history of injuries (if any).

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References

1. Bosquet L, Montpetit J, Arvisais D, Mujika I. Effects of tapering on performance: a meta analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007; 39( 8): 1358–1365.
2. Daniels J. Daniels’ Running Formula. 3rd ed. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics Publishers; 2014. p. 47–75, 175–190, 213–261.
    3. Deaner RO, Carter RE, Joyner MJ, Hunter SK. Men are more likely than women to slow in the marathon. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015; 47( 3): 607–616.
    4. Ely MR, Cheuvront SN, Roberts WO, Montain SJ. Impact of weather on marathon-running performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007; 39( 3): 487–493.
    5. Foster CF, Stanley D, de Konig JJ, Porcari JP. Get moving! The first thing you have to do is run more. ACSM Health Fitness J. 2014; 18( 2): 12–18.
      6. Lydiard A. Running to the Top. Aachen: Myer & Myer Sport; 1998. p. 39–45.
        7. Magness S. The Science of Running. Origin Press; 2014. p. 111–233.
          8. Martin DE, Coe PN. Better Training for Distance Runners. 2nd ed. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics Publishers; 1997. p. 167–250–386, 325–386.
            9. Nielsen RØ, Parner ET, Nohr EA, Sørensen H, Lind M, Rasmussen S. Excessive progression in weekly running distance and risk of running-related injuries: an association which varies according to type of injury. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2014; 44( 10): 739–747.
            10. Pfitzinger P, Douglas S. Road Racing for Serious Runners. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics Publishers; 1999. p. 38–62–165, 147–165.
              11. Tietze D, Best TM. Play it safe: injury prevention in the novice runner. ACSM Health Fitness J. 2014; 18( 2): 19–22.
                12. Van Allen J, Yasso B, Burfoot A. The Runner’s World Big Book of Marathon & Half-Marathon Training. New York (NY): Rodale Books; 2012. p. 3–45.
                  13. Vaughan R. Principles of training. In: O’Connor FP Wilder RP, editors. Textbook of Running Medicine. New York (NY): McGraw Hill; 2001. p. 21–36.
                    Keywords:

                    Running; Recreational Runner; Endurance Base; Sharpening; Taper

                    © 2016 American College of Sports Medicine.