How to Train for a Marathon
Advice from a Boston Marathon Winner
Fifty years ago almost no one ran marathons – no one but the lean-and-hungry types
who were chasing Olympic glory. The “first running boom” in the late 1970s and early
1980s advanced the marathon’s popularity. But it took Oprah Winfrey and her 1994
completion of the Marine Corps Marathon to throw the doors fully open, and to welcome
women and slower men to the 26.2-mile endurance challenge.
In 2015, more than 550,000 runners completed American marathon races.
Worldwide, the number of marathon events has skyrocketed from 968 in 2000 to
4,448 in 2014.
Yes, many have run a marathon. That still leaves many more wondering if they could go
the distance. Here’s what you need to succeed.
Follow a Proven Marathon Training Plan
A three- to six-month marathon training plan is the sine qua non of anyone’s quest
to run a marathon. This is the document that tells you when to run, and how much to run,
each week. The Internet contains hundreds of different marathon training plans, most of
them quite similar. Surprisingly, most are also very good.
That’s because they tend to be based on a basic structure that has proved highly
successful. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of runners who follow a plan make it to the marathon
of their choice. Once on the starting line, an amazing 95+ percent finish the marathon.
When choosing your training plan, look for the following characteristics. First, a
low weekly mileage and long run in the early weeks. Second, a slow but progressive
increase in both of these, with an emphasis on the long runs, which will often stretch
to 20 miles. Third, three to five days of running workouts per week. Fourth, one easier
recovery week each month. And fifth, a two- to three-week “taper” at the end of your plan.
The free training programs at HalHigdon.com are challenging but have stood the test of time.
Focus On the Long Run
The traditional weekend long run is the centerpiece of every marathon training plan.
It’s also the workout most likely to derail you. Long runs are mentally and physically
tough. If you start your long runs too fast – a common mistake – or simply don’t have
much running experience, you could falter on long runs.
The best way to avoid this problem is to mimic an approach Paleolithic hunters
followed two million years ago while pursuing game on the African veldt: Alternate
periods of running and walking. Marathon training guru Jeff Galloway has popularized
the run-walk-run method, helping thousands of would-be marathoners worldwide.
Some Galloway runners take a one-minute walk break every mile. Some run for 4
minutes and walk for one. Jeff and his wife Barbara often cover marathons with 30
seconds of running and 30 seconds of walking. It sounds almost nauseating, but with
a little practice, you’ll easily settle into the rhythm.
And, thanks to the walking breaks, you’ll be able to cover far more miles than you
could by running alone. You’ll learn how to succeed at the long run, and then at the marathon.
Pick the Best Shoes for You
You’ll likely be running more miles than ever before, so of course you’re concerned
about making the right shoe choice. Maybe too concerned. Some runners obsess about their
shoes and all the alleged injury-prevention, energy-return, and other claims.
There’s no need. While some runners were drawn to barefoot or minimalist running after
the 2009 publication of the book “Born to Run,” this fad has faded. Today biomechanics
experts, veteran runners, and running-store retailers favor middle-of-the-road shoes –
ones without a lot of fancy doo-dads, but with enough cushioning to protect the feet and legs.
This approach received support from a 2011 study of 81 women runners who were training for
a half marathon. The researchers found that “motion control” shoes with anti-pronation devices were associated with more injuries among all types of runners than “stability” shoes with fewer
features. Sometimes, less really is more.
A new paradigm in shoe selection states that you should pick the shoes that feel the best
in the store and during a brief tryout jog. This method doesn’t sound very precise or technical.
But its biggest proponent, Benno Nigg, has spent more years evaluating running shoes than just
about anyone else.
Prevent Injuries Before They Strike
Good shoes can prevent some injuries, but they can’t prevent all injuries. Most injuries
aren’t caused by footwear but by training mistakes, particularly the Terrible Too’s: too
much, too soon, too fast.
The best injury-prevention strategy is a training plan that follows the rules
mentioned above, and includes as much rest and recovery as possible. Forty years
ago, the great running doctor-philosopher George Sheehan, M.D. preached: “Listen
to your body.” This sounds easy, but can prove difficult for the highly motivated
marathon trainer. You’re afraid to miss a workout or two, so you ignore your body’s
clear messages, such as “Sore calf muscles!” or “Pain in the knees!”
Don’t ignore. Listen. And take two to three days off from your plan’s scheduled
workouts whenever you notice an unusual soreness. Remember this training truism:
You don’t have to do every workout in your plan. No one’s perfect; no one ever hits
all their workouts, not even the Olympians. If you finish about 80 percent of the
runs in your training plan, particularly the long runs, you’ll achieve about 98
percent of the plan’s benefits. On “off” days, trying walking, swimming or
bicycling if they don’t aggravate your injury.
A couple of words about stretching. It’s no panacea. In fact, it may cause more
problems than it alleviates. No study has ever found that stretching prevents injuries.
If you enjoy stretching, do it after your runs when your body is warmed up. Don’t stretch
before running. Just start your runs slowly and gently. A full body strengthening program
will pay more rewards than stretching.
Fuel Your Body but Don't Over-Drink
All runners understand that their performance is affected by their nutrition and
hydration practices. And both become more critical when you are running a marathon.
Unfortunately, the nutrition world is full of such conflicting views – and changing
science – that it’s often difficult to separate proven methods from the over-hyped.
For example, recent studies have convinced many that dietary fats, even some saturated
fats, are not a major health issue. Sugar and processed carbs might be the larger foe.
Predictably, some exercise nutritionists are now proposing high-fat diets for endurance
However, until more and better research is completed, carbohydrates are still the best
source of energy for marathon runners. So stick with the pasta, potatoes, rice, pancakes,
and breads before your marathon. During the race, consume sports drinks and gels or bars
that give you a steady supply of simple carbohydrates. Just make sure to practice your
race-day fueling plan on your long runs. Don’t do anything new and different on race day.
Also, you don’t have to drink nearly as much as you may think. Runners used to be
instructed to replace every ounce of sweat with water or a sports drink. The new rule:
It’s common, and not harmful to your health or performance, to finish a marathon two to
three percent lighter than you started. That amounts to 32 to 48 ounces, or more, of fluids
you don’t have to consume. Bonuses: You won’t waste time stopping at every fluid table,
and the less you drink, the less you’ll experience an upset stomach, a common marathoner
Use Your Brain
For decades, runners and exercise physiologists were so intent on studying the heart,
the legs, oxygen uptake, lactic acid production, and the like that they tended to overlook
the brain. Whoops.
Today we realize the conscious and unconscious brain plays a central role in anyone’s
marathon success. First, you have to practice confident thinking on those days when it
seems impossible that you could ever run a full marathon. It may help to learn about
“race-day magic” – the inexplicable but very real phenomenon that makes running a marathon
easier than most training days. At any rate, use your brain to set up motivation
reinforcement loops – with yourself, training partners, friends, social media groups,
etc. – and then rely on these reinforcements to maintain your motivation.
For an extra boost, try caffeine. Countless studies have shown that caffeine
increases brain alertness and endurance performance. Many runners drink coffee
before their workouts, and use caffeine during their marathon. It makes the seemingly
impossible just a little bit easier.