How to Run a Marathon

Inspired to try a marathon for yourself? If you're already a keen exercise devotee, fit and willing to undergo rigorous and methodical training, a marathon is an achievement you can work toward. Marathon running is an enjoyable sport for many people from all walks of life, with some devoting their entire day to training for the marathon while many fit the training in around everyday activities and work responsibilities. Whatever your motivation and deadline for running a marathon, with the right training plan and a determined attitude, you'll achieve your goal.

Note: This article is an overview on what you'll need to focus on generally to prepare for your first ever marathon run; the specifics of race training programs are not provided but should be sought separately in accordance with your own fitness level, personal needs and relevant race terrain and requirements.


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    Achieve a base fitness level. Do you know how fit you are right now? If you can't run, walk, bike, or do some other aerobic activity for at least 30 minutes at a time, you will need to work up to this first before attempting any running program. The first step is to talk to your doctor about a fitness assessment and to explain your intentions to begin training for a marathon. He or she will be in the best position to advise you on the challenges specific for your body and health issues. Even if you're not very fit right now, take heart. With gradual yet consistent training, your fitness will be restored quickly and you'll be able to keep improving.
    • Plan for regular medical checkups throughout your training, to ensure that all is well.
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    • Be aware that running can expose latent injuries from previous sports activities. If you have any such old injuries, discuss this with your doctor.
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    • Ensure that your diet is in top shape. A healthy diet will complement your running training, so seek foods high in nutrients and balanced properly for your needs. In particular, both simple and complex carbohydrates are "long-distance runner's fuel", so focus on dietary plans that include healthy sources of these. This article isn't the place to detail athlete nutrition but there are plenty of good resources online and in relevant books that you should spend time reading.
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    • Obtain a good anatomy book or app. It's really helpful to understand your body's muscles, bone structure and systems through visualizing them as well as learning about how they contribute to your overall well-being.
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    Purchase running gear appropriate for running training. Fortunately running gear isn't that expensive and there are plenty of good sports stores selling decent gear. Of most importance is the gear for your feet, and while some marathon runners have always preferred running barefoot, most people prefer a supportive shoe. Shoes should support the foot and protect it; begin by knowing how your foot needs supporting. There are three basic types of foot––pronator (strike the ground with the outside and back of the heel), supinators (land on the outside of the foot and roll outward) and neutral (a combination of these elements). Each foot fall has different possibilities in terms of injuries and the shoe needs to be able to correct or minimize damage from your natural foot fall pattern as best as possible.[1] Your absolute best bet is to get shoes from a store specializing in sports shoes rather than one featuring many other products because this will ensure that the retail staff know everything there is to know about the shoes as specialists. Also be aware that some shoes can be customized for better performance, so you might need to investigate this if current shoes aren't ideal.
    • Socks: Most marathon runners prefer wearing socks to absorb sweat when running and to prevent chafing against the shoe. There are plenty of choices in the running stores but you may like to experiment with natural and synthetic fibers to see which work best for you.
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    • Hats: Don't run without a hat; choose one that allows for plenty of air circulation and won't come off in a gust of wind. A visor is probably best for hot weather runs, as it lets the heat out easily.
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    • Clothing: For women, get a good, supportive sports bra. For everyone, clothing needs to be relevant to the climate in which you're training. If it's cold, you'll need layers to trap heat; if it's hot, you'll need light clothing that allows the release of heat quickly. There are plenty of modern fabrics suited to both purposes. Consider a running vest/top and shorts, long pants and jacket, crop top and leggings, etc.––visit a reputable sports store that specializes in running clothes and do your research on the types of fabrics and styles available (most runners advise "ABC" or "anything but cotton" because cotton adds weight by holding in sweat). Try on different outfits to see what feels good and move around in the store to see how the clothing responds.
    • Eyewear: It's recommended that you wear runner's sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays. Runner's sunglasses have such features as special grips, ventilation holes, side glare cutters, shatterproof when dropped, lightweight, etc.
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    • Accessories: Some of the helpful items that you might like to have include a runner's belt to hold food, supplements and water; a water bottle; a night light for training when it's dark; and sun protection (sunscreen). Some runners also like to have their own running watch to pace themselves during a race.
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    Adopt a good running style suited to you. Before you even begin to train, assess your posture and seek to do the right thing from the outset. While there is no single correct way to hold yourself, you should aim to be relaxed and to hold your torso upright and your spine straight.[1] When running, keep your arms loose at your sides and avoid bringing them up or moving them across your chest from left to right, as this restricts your breathing. Pay attention to your neck and shoulder area––tension here will cause strained running. Find ways to remind yourself to relax when you're running and you'll experience a much smoother running style.
    • Concentrate on your breathing. Inhale deeply from your diaphragm (pit of your stomach) to ensure deep, even breathing that maximizes your breathing. Shallower breathing is what tends to lead to runner's stitch.[1] Ultimately, your running style is a combination of what feels most comfortable for you, while aiming to stay relaxed and breathing well.
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    Get started. Train on easy routes to begin with and avoid inclines or anything that might make the run difficult or uncomfortable. Aim for short runs to start getting your body used to the feeling of running. Choose an area that is safe, enjoyable and has plenty to look at so that you find the experience interesting enough to want to repeat it! When you first start out, there will be times when you want to run, then walk. Give in to this desire initially, as it's your body's way of telling you it needs time to adjust. At least you're out there, getting going. Even renowned marathon runners consider walking on occasion during training helps to relieve stiffness.[1] Also, don't try timing yourself or trying to meet set distances for the first few runs. If you don't manage to achieve these goals, you might be tempted to give up. Moreover, whenever you start a run, give yourself 10 minutes before giving up––often it is these first 10 minutes that give you the energy and mindset to keep going.
    • Run with a friend if possible. This can give you the motivation to run more often and it's nice to have someone to spend time with. Moreover, if you're able to talk to this person as you run, it's a sign that you're pacing yourself properly.[1]
    • It can be very helpful to maintain a running diary, either in paper or digital form. This can help you to track your progress, motivate you and can eventually be the place where you set goals once you're a more confident runner. It is also one way to recall a training pattern that worked well for you, something that might be hard to remember if you haven't written it down. However, don't be a slave to the diary––it's supposed to be a flexible tool, not a rule master.
    • If you include stretching as part of your running (not everyone agrees that it's essential or helpful), be sure to stretch correctly. Check out instructions for proper stretching online or in relevant books and follow the instructions accurately.
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    Consider joining a running group or club. Even if you don't plan on training with the club regularly, it's a good way to get reputable information and advice and there will undoubtedly be events that you'll be interested in entering to test your progress. It's also a great source of motivation to be among people who have similar goals and interests as you.
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    Enter your first running race. Many runners consider that it is helpful to train for shorter long distance races as a way of gauging how they're doing; shorter distances allow you to assess your performance and readiness for longer distances. Local fun runs of 5 to 10 km (3 - 6 miles) are a great way to start out, as well as any shorter long distance runs held by clubs or running groups. When you actually run the race, don't presume to place yourself at the front; take your time and pace yourself by staying with those of a similar ability to you. Being caught up with fast runners can exhaust you and be a very demoralizing first time experience; eventually you'll get there if that's what you want but for now, it's about pacing yourself and actually getting through the race.
    • Most races require you to enter well before the date of the race. Keep an eye out online or through other information sources and plan accordingly.
    • Before any race, check that your gear is well worn in; you don't want to be breaking in new shoes!
    • Keep well hydrated before, during and after the race. Most races will provide hydration stations which you can take advantage of.
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    Move on to a half marathon. Once you're comfortable with the long distance races of at least 10 km (6 miles), the next sensible step is to try a half marathon. At this level of running, you're now capable of running the half marathon and you're not far off running a full marathon either.[1] Obviously, this is a lot tougher than the long distance races and your training will need to reflect this. Concentrate on building up your endurance with strength runs, semi-long runs, a longer run and rests. Including one day of rest each week of training is important for recovery. There are many possible training plans for beginner half and full marathon runners and you must spend time doing research into the different suggestions for appropriate training. Importantly, there must be rest days included in each week's schedule and some flexibility built in. When training, include a variety of running experiences, including uphill and downhill, sand running, fartlek, interval training and speed endurance sessions. Moreover, don't just train by running––some cross-training will benefit your overall fitness level, as well as giving your running muscles a deserved break. Suitable cross-training sports include swimming, cycling, gym workouts, walking and fitness dance.
    • Training plans run from ones that suggest training three days a week to ones that suggest training seven days a week.
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    Once you feel that you're comfortable with running and you've proven to yourself that you've built up the needed stamina and longer distances, consider committing to a full marathon. Choosing which marathon you want to run is one of the best ways to inform your ongoing training. Not only do you turn your general plan (running a marathon) into a specific one (running the New York City Marathon on November 5th), but once you've invested the registration fee (typically between $40-$100) you have extra financial incentive to run it, too! In general, once you're ready to give the marathon a go, give yourself around 18 weeks before a marathon to train to an adequate level, more if you feel it's needed. Note––if you have run a half marathon as part of your preparation, you'll need to allow plenty of time for recovery from that race to the time of the marathon race.
    • When choosing a marathon for the first time, choose one with the least amount of challenges. Avoid anything too hilly, held in hot weather, or at altitude. Choose a marathon course that will work for you, not against you, ideally one at sea level, on a flat course, with cool weather and a large, supportive crowd.
    • Find a buddy to do the specific marathon with. You'll motivate each other!
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    Settle on a marathon training plan. Again, as with the half marathon, you'll need to do the research into an appropriate training plan matching your fitness, abilities and terrain to be run. And you must have a plan––those without one often fail to make the marathon starting line. Any training plan that you choose should involve a gradual building up of distance from the half marathon level. Good plans will start with 3 to 16 km (2 to 10 mile) runs that gradually build up and include varied terrain such as hills and beaches. Importantly, be absolutely aware that there are no shortcuts to building up your mileage endurance––anything offering a build-up to readiness within two months or less should be avoided like the plague! Try to vary some of your training areas––after a time, monotony may set in and a change of scenery can help improve your enthusiasm, as well as keeping a firm eye on your goal. Also, every single thing you're likely to wear or try on the day of the marathon needs to have been tried before the marathon––this means breaking in shoes and clothes, knowing your pace and testing all of your equipment.
    • Increasing mileage should occur gradually within any program chosen, and should not increase by more than 5 miles (8 km) weekly.[2]
    • Focus intently on establishing a healthy marathon pace. It's very important to understand that this pace differs from what most people perceive as a "normal" pace and you'll need to adapt to it, usually by slowing down somewhat.
    • Over training is as bad as under training. You'll lose enthusiasm if this happens. Do not respond by upping the training––take your much needed rests instead.
    • Training should gradually (not suddenly) taper in the final two weeks to protect your body from injury and exhaustion.[2] By the final week, you should be in a position to not run at all in the two days leading up to the race.
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    Be aware that other people and events are likely to be impacted by your marathon training. The rest of your life will happen while you train––work and family commitments remain the same! You'll need to talk to people about what you're doing to help them to understand and to ensure that you can get the time needed to attend to your training. As well, their moral support will be vital as much as their preparedness to not see you about much.
    • Injury and sickness happen. You need to be flexible and allow for recovery––it's fine to miss a day or shorten a run every once in a while, but the important thing is to get back out there as soon as you can. Marathon training is a long, slow process, but it's the only way to reach your goal. Never do away with planned rest days and try to run on them instead––your body needs to recover to prevent injury or illness from gaining a hold; any good marathon training plan should involve a good balance between both running training (stress) and rest (recovery).
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    Prepare yourself mentally. Marathon training isn't only physical––it's also about mental training and there are plenty of things you can do to enhance your ability to complete the race. Some of the things that it's recommended you try include:
    • Check out the course in advance. Where possible, drive or cycle the marathon course before it happens. That way, you'll know what it's like generally and this will instill in you the importance of pacing yourself well because it is such a long race! Take especial note of particular landmarks and note their distance on your car or bike computer readout.
    • Even if you can't actually physically trace the course, check it out online through Google Maps to find landmarks, terrain, etc. This will help you to visualize yourself doing the race, an important part of good mental preparation for the race. Study course maps and the profiles, both when you can physically track the race and when you can't, to help you establish good pacing.
    • Watch previous marathon races for inspiration, or even movies about running marathons.
    • Listen to inspiring music.
    • Think positively, use affirmations if you're used to doing so and tell yourself that you can achieve this. Think about the ways you'll deal with pain and despair during the race––what will you think about and concentrate on to distract yourself?
    • Get the support of others. Family members, friends and fellow racers are all important people who can energize you before and during the marathon. They believe in you too.
    • Do anything that gives you a sense of purpose and empowerment without depleting your energy.
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    Make sensible dietary choices in the days prior to a marathon. Eat healthy carbohydrates but take care not to overeat anything, as you don't want to gain weight in the lead-up to the race. The advice from sports nutritionists is to increase carbohydrate intake from 65 percent to as much as 90 percent of your diet, as well as having sports drinks.[1] However, you should be guided by current suggestions from reliable people such as your doctor, nutrition specialist or relevant information from sports experts.
    • Typical food eaten by marathon runners includes bread (wholegrain), pasta, cereals and the like. These provide the glycogen that breaks down into glucose for energy as you're running and when your body has broken down your stored glycogen, it then goes after your liver glycogen, after which it goes for your fat which requires more of your precious oxygen to break down the molecules into glucose.[3] Hence, the more stores of glycogen you have, the better.
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    Run your marathon. On the day, be prepared as with the half marathon––have all your gear and supplies in order and ensure that your training leading up to the marathon day has left you with refreshed and rested muscles (it's recommended to lay off running for two days before the race[1]). Be mentally prepared––all marathon races hurt; it is part of the experience and one for which your regular training and previous races should have prepared you to endure. Keep the goal in mind, which for a beginner is basically to complete the race and gain the satisfaction of reaching the pinnacle of your running goals. Most of all, in spite of the inevitable pain, seek to enjoy the experience––a well prepared marathon runner should be able to find the race fun, especially since the sensation of being part of a crowd of marathon enthusiasts will really give you a boost––use that buzz to propel you onward. Also, many courses have entertainment along the way and plenty of spectators to cheer you along. Take it all in––you've trained for this for months, this is your day!
    • Line up where you feel comfortable and likely to be among runners of the same level as you––as with the half marathon, avoid pushing your way to the front as a beginner.
    • Try to maintain a steady pace that seems on the slow side for at least the first half of the race, but feel free to pick it up during the second half if you're feeling good. Don't get caught up in the thrill of the race from the beginning––it'll feel easy the first few miles but that won't last. Marathons are about patience, not speed.
    • Settle for achieving your marathon running goal within a realistic time, not one that compares you to the champions. If you find you love marathon running after this event, you can aim to build up and become a lot faster over time but for now, don't push things beyond your abilities. It's really important to recognize that until you've run your first marathon ever, you lack experience and have nothing to gauge your performance against, so don't tax yourself with comparisons, assumptions and crazy notions!
    • Make use of the aid stations to drink regularly. Energy drinks will both hydrate and restore sugar for much needed energy boosts. Hydration also replaces water lost to sweating as your body tries to keep cool and you need to replenish a minimum of 0.5 of a liter of water (17 oz) per every hour.[3]
    • You might "hit a wall"––this occurs for many marathon runners at around the 32 km (20 mile) mark of the marathon, a feeling that you're running through thick mud and literally hitting a brick wall.[1] It tends to be caused by poor training in the lead up to the marathon and by running at a pace too fast at the commencement of the race, leaving little in reserve for later. To avoid the brick wall experience, know your pace and stick to it from the beginning, avoid the temptation to try to keep up with other runners, eat extra carbohydrates in the lead-up to the race and stay well hydrated during the marathon.
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    Plan for after the marathon. The marathon is over but you're still pumped. Have someone help you after the race––you'll need warmth, drinks and food. And you'll need a lift home with someone who hasn't just run a marathon. Have it all worked out before you run so that you can let the other person take charge of these things while you bathe in the excitement of your achievement.


  • While running your race, if you begin cramping, there is a good chance you are low on sodium. This can happen from excessive sweating, lack of electrolytes (either by over hydrating through water or insufficient intake of sports drinks during your physical exertion). A very quick and easy fix is to ingest salt- either through a tablet, a salty food such as pretzels or as a last resort, simply drinking sports drinks. It is not a bad idea to carry a small salt pack (the kind you would get at a fast food store) to eat should cramps appear during your race. The effect is almost instantaneous to resolve muscle cramps.
  • Do as much research as you can. Every runner has his or her little tricks to make training easier, advice on nutrition, favorite training plans, etc. Try out as many as you can and see what works for you.
  • It's important to get proper nutrition during the marathon. This can come from sports drinks, gels, bananas or jelly beans. Sports drinks and gels often contain electrolytes which you should ensure you replace, especially during the first half of the race. Your body isn't designed to store more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) worth of calories, so you need to get some during the race (this is another reason why many runners "hit the wall"). However, it is important that you do not mix sports drinks AND gels at once, unless you have tried this during training runs. The combination of the two can lead to GI distress and ruin your race.
  • Find out in advance what kind of drinks and food will be available on the course. You will probably need to bring your own gels, but the race will probably supply water and possibly sports drink, especially if it's sponsored.
  • Get to the race early, and get in a porta-potty line right away. When you're done, get right back in line. This helps to keep you from having to stop once the race has already started. Some runners pin sheets of toilet paper to the inside of their clothing, just in case––the excitement of running does tend to give you the "runs"!
  • Be prepared for your body to do some strange things as it responds to the significant distance. Toenails will turn black, and other parts will chafe. Deal with these problems early on, and they won't be a concern on race day.
  • Do NOT try anything new on marathon day. Anything you think you may want to do during the race, you should try during your long runs. The slightest change in routine with the added stress of the race can lead to GI issues, cramping, and the inability to finish.
  • Once you finish the marathon, get as many carbs and proteins in as possible. This will help significantly in the recovery process if you are able to replenish essential carbs and proteins within 30 minutes of finishing.
  • If you're training like a marathoner, you should eat like one too. Carbs, protein, calcium, iron, and other vitamins are all essential for you to train like you need to. Cut out as much junk food as possible (and preferably all of it).
  • Consider joining a training group. Besides being a great way to meet new people, having other people expecting you to train with them goes a long way in motivation.
  • After the race, take an Epsom salt bath. It helps pull out lactic acids and can help with soreness and stiffness as well as inflammation. Add the salts to a warm bath and soak for 20 minutes. It is relaxing and will significantly help ease the effects of running for 26.2 miles (42 km).
  • Invest in a good pair of shoes (or two). A good pair of running shoes should cost you $50-$120 and will last about 300-500 miles (500-800 km). Go to a running specialty store and get fitted for shoes by an expert, if you can, before you start your training. Ideally, you can buy two pairs of shoes and rotate them every other day.


  • Running after dark and alone can be dangerous. Either choose a well-lit area or run with a friend and stay alert at all times.
  • Work on your form––twenty, even fifteen miles into a run, your simple aches magnify into brutal man-rippers.
  • You know smoking is bad, right?
  • Alcohol can have a severe negative impact on your training. Many marathoners choose not to drink at all throughout their training, and it's not a good idea to over drink a day or two before your long runs.
  • Make sure to eat right! When you're asking your body to run 20-100 miles (32-160 km) a week, poor nutrition can seriously hurt the quality of your running and make you constantly tired and sick.
  • Listen to your body. If you continually get sick or hurt, there's obviously something wrong. Even if you get advice from an Olympic marathoner about how to train, if you find yourself run down all the time, it's not for you.
  • Problems you can strike when running include:
    • Runner's stitch (a sharp pain in the side, diaphragm or below the rib cage) - it's painful and it often afflicts beginner runners. It might be eased by running in a more relaxed fashion, toning your muscles more and breathing deeply rather than in a shallow manner. Try to chill out more when running.
    • Cramps - another painful affliction that can stop the run there and then. While it's not certain what brings them on, you might be able to prevent them by drinking drinks with electrolytes, drinking more regularly, running when it's cooler and running less distance (not really helpful when it's a marathon!).
    • Chafing - this can result from clothing rubbing on your skin or skin rubbing on skin and can be quite unpleasant. Remove clothing labels where possible.
    • Blisters - these are fairly commonplace for runners and have their own level of pain. Be careful if they burst from rubbing, as infection can occur. Some ways to prevent blisters include: wear correctly-fitting shoes, keep toenails trimmed to fit the shoes properly, wear socks that wick away moisture and don't bunch up.

Sources and Citations

  1. Fordyce, Marathon Runner's Handbook, (2002), ISBN 1-85974-723-X
  2. 2.02.1Harold Tinsey, Training for the Marathon,, retrieved 18th July 2012
  3. 3.03.1Brian Rohrig, The Chemistry of Marathon Running, ChemMatters, October 2008

Article Info

Categories: Marathon Running and Training