A beginner’s guide to the marathon

Can you really train for a marathon?

You've probably seen a marathon on TV and you may also know a few people who have successfully run one — but could you complete the great 26.2-mile marathon distance? If you've ever considered preparing for and completing a marathon, but need more of an insight into what it’s all about, check out this essential guide to running a marathon, which will answer the following questions:

  • How do I get started training for a marathon?
  • What should I wear to train for a marathon?
  • What should I eat and drink during my marathon training?
  • How much training do I need to do?
  • How long will the race take me?
  • What happens on race day?

How do I get started training for a marathon?

Simply follow the three-step checklist below to get off the mark:

Step 1. Check that it's safe for you to begin exercising. If you've not exercised for some time, get a check-up with your doctor before you begin.

Step 2. Evaluate your fitness levels. You need to know where you are fitnesswise before you can progress, so sit down and honestly assess where your running and general fitness levels currently are.

Step 3. Select a training plan. Trying to prepare for a marathon without a training plan is almost like trying to find your way to a new town without a map and signposts! To successfully set off and ultimately complete your journey towards marathon success, you need to follow a structured training plan that is right for your fitness levels and will take you safely towards your marathon goal.

What should I wear to train for a marathon?

To start your training, basic shorts and a t-shirt (and/or a sweatshirt) are pretty much all you need. There is an excellent range of running-specific kit available that will keep you dry, help you to avoid any chafing problems, and is light and comfortable to wear but to begin with, you’ll probably find that you already own enough gear to get you started. However, you shouldn’t compromise when buying your training shoes, and it is definitely worth investing in a proper pair of running-specific trainers. Seek out a specialist retailer who can advise you and assess your gait, so that you have the most suitable shoe for your running style. Remember that a good pair of running shoes is an investment in comfort and injury prevention, and will repay you again and again long after your initial purchase and use.

What should I eat and drink during my marathon training?

Correct nutrition and hydration is an essential part of your marathon preparation and the race itself. Without the correct fuel (and enough of it!), you will be unable to complete the longer runs so paying close attention to your diet is key. To get you thinking as a runner, you need to be consuming plenty of ‘slow release’ carbohydrate to provide energy, so choices such as pasta are ideal. Also, don't neglect your fluid intake because your requirements will increase both for storing fuel in your muscles and because you will lose more through sweating.

How much training do I need to do?

Up to a point, the more training that you are able to complete, the better. However, you should always remember that the most important component of any training plan is rest and so a correct training plan will balance building up your marathon-specific fitness with sufficient recovery time. Use the table below to help you gauge how much time you need to commit per week, depending on what marathon finishing time you're aiming for. Your training plan should comprise a careful blend of long runs, recovery sessions and faster-paced training as you build up your marathon-specific endurance, so that you will eventually be able to run for several hours.

Training time per week Marathon finishing time
5-6 hours 5-6 hours
7½ hours 4-5 hours
10 hours 4 hours

Note that as a marathon is an unpredictable event, the above target finishing times are just a general guide.

How long will the race take me?

Of course, your race may be faster or slower depending upon the weather conditions on the day, and whether or not you pick up any strains or get stitch and so on (hopefully you won't!). It’s also important to remember that you will actually be out on the road for longer than your target time for example, it can take up to 20 minutes simply to make it to the start line at a mass participation marathon. However, as many marathons use modern computerized timing systems, the organisers will be able to record your personal race time from when you cross the start line to when you cross the finish line so you don't need to worry about not getting the right finishing time.

What happens on race day?

The day of the race is a fantastic experience that no runner ever forgets, and completing the marathon will make the build up and the culmination of your training all worthwhile. You should pack for the race a day or two beforehand. On race day itself you will need to rise early so that you can top up your energy stores before heading for the start.

At mass participation marathons there will often be over 30,000 runners on the course on race day, which always makes for an amazing atmosphere. Everyone lines up in positions according to their expected finishing time, indicated by placards by the side of the road and then the start gun fires and the race is underway! 

En route there will be drinks stations for you to top up with water and/or energy replacement drinks, and you'll be able to see these locations on a map of the marathon in advance of the race. Note that you don’t need to drink at every drinks station instead, you should only drink when you are genuinely thirsty. Many runners also carry their own drinks bottle, so that they can take in fluid between drinks stations if necessary.

Pace judgement is also very important during the race, and your training plan will have helped you prepare for running at an even, consistent pace. Each mile or kilometre will be clearly marked along the course route so that you can check your progress.

There are usually big crowds at the finishing line of a marathon, and so crossing the line and achieving your goal is a memory that will stay with you forever. Once you have finished, you will receive your medal, food and drink, and often a goody bag with a souvenir race t-shirt and other products. A few days after your race you can expect to receive the race results and often also a selection of photographs taken around the course of you in action.

The marathon can I really do it?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes! Progressing from non-runner to marathon finisher is always a real success story, and one that is genuinely achievable by following a correctly structured training plan that will help you towards your marathon goal. Preparing, training for and completing a marathon is a great accomplishment and a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding experience. And as well as achieving your goal, there is a great spin-off benefit too: improved general health and fitness. So, if you're considering taking the marathon plunge, then do it we guarantee that it’ll be the experience of your life no matter what your finishing time is.

Comments (3)

  • Lady_K 'After reading this, I think i might be able to do it!'

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  • Virginia_Moffatt 'My twin sister and I completed our first FLM 2 years ago with similar regimes, so we can testify they work.If you still doubt you can do it, why not check out her account of the experience - "Running on Empty. The Diary of a Marathon Mum" by Julia Williams. For further details go to http://www.marathonmum.com/8.html and order a copy - it's well worth it for the inspiration. I have to plug a book that is so nice about me.Good luck and have fun, definitely one of the best events of my adult life! Virginia'

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  • Shar1 'This is so inspiring. Gonna put my running shoes on now lol'

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