- How long should you spend training for a marathon?
- Structuring your marathon training
- Planning a nutrition and hydration strategy
- Marathon training injuries
Marathon training is a labour of love and it’s very true that if you work hard and get the training right, race day should be a breeze and a chance to see your hard work paying off. If you’ve run a marathon before but you didn’t get the training right because you didn’t know how, or you didn’t make it to the finish because your training let you down, this guide is for you. This guide to marathon training is also for you if you’ve run your first marathon and now you’re hungry for more and a faster time.
To get the expert insight on nailing your marathon training, we spoke to Anna Harding who is a familiar face among the running community as Lead Presenter on The Running Channel and writer for Women’s Running Magazine. She’s run 11 marathons, including 4 of the 6 World Marathon Majors, so she knows a thing or two about getting marathon training right.
How long should you spend training for a marathon?
One of the first things you should decide when training for a marathon is how long you’re going to train for. This is important as you’ll need to follow a structured training plan if you’re going to run a great race and get to the start line in the best shape possible.
Anna says, “Marathon training looks different for everyone and ultimately depends on your goal for the race. If you’ve run a marathon before and you’re aiming to get a PB this time around, you may already have a good base level of fitness. If this is the case, up to 16 weeks of marathon training (but no fewer than 12) should get you to where you want to be fitness-wise to aim for that goal time.”
If you’re worried about missing planned training runs, Anna has this advice: “Marathon training takes up a lot of time and there may be occasions when you can’t fit in a planned run, or you get injured or are too unwell to run. By following a marathon training plan of 16 weeks, you give yourself a buffer for having to take some enforced time out. Don’t try to cram in missed runs as that could end in injury. Instead, move on as best you can and continue with your training as planned.”
Structuring your marathon training
The best marathon training plans will feature a mixture of training runs such as intervals, easy recovery runs, tempo runs, progressive runs, and all-important long runs. You should also schedule in a taper period of 2-3 weeks leading up to the big day. This is when your training volume decreases to allow you to fully recover and get to the start line feeling fresh and ready to conquer your goals.
Be sure to track your training metrics every time you run so that you can measure your progress and make sure your training is going in the right direction. Advanced metrics like Run Power, which allows you to monitor how much energy you are spending at any given moment throughout your run. Unlike pace, Run Power can be used to compare efforts across hilly, flat or rough terrain and can show inefficiencies in your running stride as you fatigue. Another advanced metric to take into consideration is Stride Phases - a combination of ground contact time (when the foot hits the floor) and flight time (when the foot is in the air). The balance of these relate to your running economy, and more experienced runners typically have a higher proportion of flight time compared to ground contact time. If you’re able to measure advanced metrics like these, you are much more likely to have a successful marathon training block and achieve a PB without getting injured. Find out more about INCUS exclusive metrics here.
For even better results in your marathon training, Anna has the following advice: “A good idea is to schedule in an organised 10k or half marathon race during your marathon training block. This will give you a chance to run slightly faster than your goal marathon pace and also put into practice everything you’ve been working on in training. Personally, my half marathon PB to this day still remains from a marathon training block.”
Organised races are also a great way to smash through those 20-mile training runs, which can otherwise feel like a lonely slog. You’ll be running with like-minded people in race day conditions, so you can practise your fuelling and hydration and enjoy the buzz of the atmosphere to help you get round.
Planning a nutrition and hydration strategy
Nutrition and hydration still remain the sticking point for many amateur runners and a lack of preparation is often the reason for DNFs on race day. What you eat and drink both in training and throughout the race is just as important as the miles you run, so be sure to give this part of marathon training adequate attention.
When deciding how to fuel your marathon, Anna says: “Everyone is different when it comes to fuelling for marathon training. For example, I’m lucky that I can eat and go straight out for a run, whereas others have to wait a while for their food to digest. The same can be said for the type of fuel you use when running your marathon. The best way to find out what works for you is to practise during your training. Use a number of different options including both real food and energy gels, and make a note of how much you used, when you used it, and how it made you feel.”
Under-fuelling and dehydration both play a big part in not being able to finish your marathon race. Anna says, “I find that I can get so caught up in the excitement of the race that I forget to take on fuel before it’s too late. In my last couple of marathons, I’ve written the miles that I’m planning on taking a gel on my leg in black marker pen to remind myself. There are some smart watches that let you set up a feed or drink alert too.”
Marathon training injuries
For runners, there’s nothing worse than not being able to run. It’s somewhat of a myth that getting injured during marathon training is an inevitability - if you train smart then you could nail every single training session and get to the start line completely unscathed. However, getting injured or falling victim to burnout is hugely common and something to take into consideration.
When trying to avoid injury in marathon training, it’s important to think about “The Law of 3 Too’s”. This is: too much mileage, too soon before you are ready, at too fast a pace.” It’s a trap that many runners fall into, especially runners training for their first marathon. If this is something you fell victim to, it’s important to fix it for your next marathon. Do so by increasing mileage gradually; no more than 5-10% every 2 weeks. Make sure your workouts follow a sound progression and incorporate strength training into your weekly regime.
Anna says, “There are ways to limit your chance of getting injured during marathon training. Warming up and cooling down thoroughly both pre and post-run will help your body to mitigate the risk of injury. Strength training alongside your running will also help you reduce the chance of injury, and has been proven to help you run faster and stronger.”
Taking steps like monitoring your biomechanics as you run, left/right balance, and injury indicators is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of getting injured. A device like the INCUS Nova is ideal for tracking these metrics and allowing you to strengthen your training while minimising injury risk.
If you think you’re at risk of burnout during your marathon training, Anna has the following advice: “Marathon training is tough. If it wasn’t, everyone would be out running marathons all the time. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with the training and start to burnout, especially if you’re trying to juggle daily stress, family, social life, and work all at the same time. It’s natural to feel tired, especially in the latter stages of training. The most important thing is to enjoy your running. Unless you’re an elite athlete, our jobs don’t depend on us performing at the highest possible level in our marathon. Remember why you’re running and use that to keep you going when training gets tough. Equally, don't be afraid to take a step back from the training if it really does feel like too much.”
About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.