Marathon training plans – a beginner’s guide

Is there nothing these books can't do?

Don’t take it personally.

If you’re thinking of doing your first marathon, then you should follow a reputable training plan.

But there’s such a wide range of training plans out there – some free online, others to be bought in books or from websites. Which one should you choose, and how should you use it?

Wait a minute. Before you start training for a marathon you have to deal with a few important preliminaries.

First, to train sufficiently for a marathon, whatever your level or objective, you need to have enough time. Will your work and family commitments allow you to fit in at least six hours of running per week? Bear in mind that weeks 8 to 4 before the marathon will include a weekly long run that could take over 3 hours.

A reputable marathon training plan will take somewhere between 16 and 20 weeks – assuming you are already running regularly. If you’re starting from zero running, you should really allow at least another three months before that. (In my case, for my first marathon I went from zero to race day in seven months.)

Then, you absolutely have to go to the doctor for a check-up, and it’s also a sensible idea to see a sports physio or physical therapist for good advice on stretching and treatment of any niggly injuries.

Finally, set yourself a realistic target marathon time based on a shorter race you’ve done. Online tools like the McMillan Race Calculator will use your 5k or 10 mile time to project a potential marathon pace and finishing time for you, all things being equal and assuming you train well and avoid injuries.

Once all that’s done, you’re ready to look for a marathon training plan.

The most popular marathon training plans for all levels might be those devised by athletics coach and writer Hal Higdon. On his website you can find a range of 18-week Hal Higdon plans for marathons and shorter races, for beginners and experienced runners – all explained clearly and all free to download.

Most running magazines will publish their own marathon training plans a few months before a major race. Irish Runner, for example, usually features a four-month Dublin Marathon schedule for all levels. As I write, their 2011 schedule by Brendan O’Shea is still posted on the Dublin Marathon website – I used this plan for that year’s event, though in hindsight I should have cut back the mileage more than I did.

More experienced runners, or those who have the time and appetite for stiffer workloads and increased mileage, might want to check out one of these two iconic training guides – Daniels’ Running Formula by Jack Daniels or Advanced Marathoning by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas (influenced greatly by Daniels, and known colloquially as the Pfitzinger and Douglas plan).

Beginners be warned – both of these training guides are demanding and perhaps not suitable for first-time marathoners. Daniels’ plans, for instance, are 24-week training schedules with no rest days, not even in the week before the marathon.

Those are some of the training plans available out there. So how do you use them and adapt them to your needs? Here are the typical components of a marathon training plan, with a word on how I do them.

Long run: This is the most important part of your running week. If real life forces you to cut back on a week’s training, this is the run you should try hardest to maintain.

For beginners, a slow pace is best, so that you focus on simply clocking up miles and spending time on your feet. With experience and running capital in the bank, you could try dropping in a few race-pace miles or kilometres into your long run – but it’s not essential.

Your long run is when you should formulate your pre-race routine, practise your drinking on the run, and break in the running gear you’ll wear on race day. You should also use your long run for mental preparation too – going over your race plan in your head, or visualising the course and the finish.

Speed work: Running fast over short distances, repeatedly and with recovery in between each burst, will build up your strength and help you run faster over longer distances.

A great speed workout is a threshold run, where you start with a couple of easy warm-up miles (or kilometres), then follow that with some miles faster than your target race pace, before finishing easily again.

If you have access to an athletics track, or if you use a GPS watch, a popular workout for marathon runners is the Yasso 800s, where you take your target marathon time (say, 3 hours and 30 minutes) and run 800 metres in that amount as minutes and seconds (in this example, 3 minutes 30 seconds). Start with four of those 800 metres, with a recovery jog of the same length of time between them, and each week add another repetition until you get to 10 times 800m.

Without a track or GPS watch (and neither are essential) in a park you could sprint to the next lamp-post, jog to the next park bench, run a steady race pace around the football pitch, and so forth – playing with speed like this is called fartlek, from the Swedish for ‘speed-play’. Or you could do sprints on a football field, from goal to goal or diagonally from one corner to the other.

Do your speed training on a soft yet solid surface like an athletics track, parkland or sports field. Sprinting on concrete and tarmac is hard on your back and joints, and at the other extreme, running on soft sand will strain your Achilles tendons. Don’t do any of your speed training on the street – you risk a nasty collision.

Last summer while training for the Dublin Marathon I did two weekly speed sessions – a threshold run and a goal-to-goal sprint workout that I called my post-to-post. As much as I love the thrill and hard work of these sessions, perhaps two in a week is too much. This summer I might drop one  of them so that I need less recovery – but I’ll think more about that in due course.

Recovery: Apart from your weekly long run and your speed training, your other runs should be slow and easy, where you’re neither sprinting nor clocking up huge mileage – just stretching your legs and keeping the machine ticking over. This can feel counterintuitive and difficult, but it’s important to avoid overtraining.

The general guideline for a recovery run is ‘conversational’ – have you enough breath and energy to chat to someone real or imaginary who is running alongside you? If you run alone, you could even try singing to yourself or saying some of your race-day preparation and mental tips like “you’re running faster than you think” or “just keep lifting your feet and you’ll finish”.

I’m also a fan of recovery weeks, where one week in four I cut back a little on the distance and intensity so that my body can recover. During the summer this tends to coincide with weeks where I have shorter races.

Rest: Some training plans call for 6-day or even 7-day weeks of running. Approach with caution. Proper and sufficient rest is vital. Even at my peak marathon training, I’m still only running 5 days a week.

Other runners can do 7-run weeks without difficulty, and good luck to them. But don’t be afraid to drop a run from whatever training plan you use – perhaps take a rest day or a swim instead of a recovery run. This isn’t a dosser’s charter, though. Only through experience will you learn what kind of workload your body can take. Your first marathon is an experiment.

Taper: The last three weeks before your marathon should be a taper –  a progressive reduction in your weekly distance. I cut a third off each of those weeks, for instance, and I resist the strong urge for one last long run.

Many marathon plans don’t seem to taper as much as I would like them to, and I wonder how many runners are overtraining and feeling tired at the start line or at halfway.

So those are the basics. Good luck with your marathon training!

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10 Responses to Marathon training plans – a beginner’s guide

  1. Good post, I agree running a marathon should be an educated decision and especially the training plan should be made carefully.
    I was wondering where you were, are you flattered yet? 🙂

  2. Ray says:

    slight correction – there are no rest days in the base-building phase of the Daniels plan, but in the main 18 week plan you can take rest days if you like. You have key sessions and a weekly distance target, but you can break up the non-session distance as you like

    • Run and Jump says:

      Rest days if you like is hardly a strong encouragement by Daniels towards rest days. An experienced runner might be able to judge this but maybe not an eager beginner trying their first training plan.

      • Ray says:

        I wouldn’t recommend Daniels to beginners anyway (though I believe the latest edition of his book contains a wider range of marathon training plans)

      • Run and Jump says:

        Agreed – as I said in the post above, Daniels and Pfitzinger are more suitable for experienced runners than marathon novices. And even the guys on the Marathon Talk podcast, training for the 2014 Manchester marathon, are finding Pfitzinger tough!

  3. Great post. I think rest days are important, especially as your miles increase.

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