12 weeks? 15 weeks? 16 weeks? 6 months?
How long does it take to train for a marathon?
How long does it take to train for a marathon for a beginner?
This is something I get asked a lot by people who are thinking about running a marathon and quite often by some who have a place, aren’t sure and are ready to talk themselves out of it.
My answer to the question is……(drumroll)….16 weeks.
If you’re a beginner then I would say 20 weeks.
The thing is, you’re not trying to run the perfect marathon. I’m not sure that even exists. You want to have the best experience for you.
It’s not about CAN you do it but HOW you want to do it.
Here is why I say 16 weeks.
Let me tell you about Alex and Claire, two runners I worked with in the build up to the London Marathon in 2018. You might be able to identify with them and find the right answer for you.
Alex and Claire both got places in the London Marathon and asked me to help them with their training. Both were at different starting points and had different goals. Alex was a complete beginner, was going to be raising money for a charity that had helped his family and just wanted to get round it in one piece. Claire, on the other hand, was a regular runner, had run a couple of marathons before and wanted to be able to get under 3 hours 30 minutes but was concerned about getting injured as in her previous marathons, she got picked up injuries as soon as she stepped up the mileage and wanted to be able to run pain-free.
The 20 Week Plan
I suggested to Alex that we start early and get him into the habit of running regularly before we step things up a bit. The prospect of running 26.2 miles was daunting to him and reminded me of how felt the day I got the acceptance pack for the 1998 London Marathon, my first marathon, and thought “Shit! I better start training”. I knew he found it daunting as the title of his email read “Help!”
The first 4 weeks of this is all about getting into the habit of running and I suggested to Alex to focus on running 3-4 times a week, for around 30 minutes each and at a pace that felt comfortable to him and encouraged him to make one of those runs parkrun, so he could get used to running with other people. This is a good way build fitness without too much pressure and get the body prepared for the journey ahead.
The 16 Week Plan
This is the plan that I recommend to everyone, and lead beginners into, as it gives the body plenty of time to adapt, build endurance gradually and take away the risk of injury from doing too much too soon. This is the plan that I recommended to Claire.
Learning: It’s not about lots of 20 mile runs or hammering the body with speed work and hill reps. I think of it as a jigsaw and putting the right pieces together at the right time to create that bigger picture.
Forming A Base
The first 4 weeks are about forming a base on which we build on. I watched Alex and Claire run to see how they ran and to look for ways in which we could improve the way they ran to make them more efficient and make the whole journey better. They each received a series of exercises to practice that were specific to each of them as well as some general mobility exercises to make running feel easier and smoother.
I also gave them 4 sessions a week with a specific focus to do with form and posture and also pacing as well as some sessions where all they had to do was run and admire the scenery around them. Making them feel relaxed is key to a successful plan and it increases the chances that they will run better on the day.
In their Sunday long runs, I asked them to run every 3rd miles faster and keep the next 2 miles steady. I wanted them to practice their pacing and the faster miles weren’t to be flat-out. Alex was buzzing as he was enjoying the sessions way more than he thought he would and looked forward to each one. Claire was curious as I hadn’t given her any formal speed work sessions or hill reps that were a staple of her previous plans.
Learning: At this stage, it’s not important to be hitting target pace or big miles, just feeling that you’re making progress.
Weeks 4-8 is simply about building from what they were already doing, so that means increasing the distances of some runs and progressing the other runs. I added in a 5th run that was to be done at an easier pace and be used for recovery. I also encouraged them to enter a Half Marathon for the next phase as this would be good practice for the big day. We also started to make parkrun a focus on running hard and measuring progress.
I wanted Alex and Claire to run parkrun hard on the Saturday and then do their long run on the Sundays and get the body used to running on tired legs which is good for dealing with the last 10k of the marathon. I introduced more exercises to practice, some more progressive and some more gentle.
Learning: As you increase intensity and load in training, it’s also good to work on improving recovery from an easy run to some gentle flowing exercises to improving quality of sleep.
The Business End
Weeks 8-12 is where the big work is done with sessions more geared towards race day. For Alex, I wanted to keep things simple and manageable for him while at the same time, feel like the challenge. For Claire, she’s really buzzing now as she’s noticing a difference and running faster but feels like it’s all easier than she’s done before. The last week of each phase, I cut back the distance and the intensity of the sessions and just ask them to run. It’s in the long run of the cut back weeks where Claire is really noticing a difference. That and being able to fly past the people she would always see in the short distance to her at parkrun on the Saturday.
Learning: As a coach, you have to be mindful of the person you are working with and give the right sessions that fit the person rather than the sessions everyone is doing. Sometimes, cutting out the sessions everyone on social media seems to be doing can be more beneficial to some runners
It’s All In The Mind
The last few weeks leading up to the marathon are about keeping everything ticking over and working through strategies for race day. I met up with Alex and Claire for a coffee for a chat through their hopes and fears for the big day as well as tactics and why they were doing the race in the first place.
Learning: Be totally selfish in your thoughts about running the marathon. You’ve done the work and while you may be doing it for someone else, focus on the experience you want to have. It may be the only marathon you run so think of the story you want to be able to tell everyone
Alex ran his marathon in 4hrs 42 mins, had an amazing time, high-fives the kids as he went round, walked for a bit when it got too hot but managed to run the last 6 miles, thought about the charity and how they’d helped him and managed to sprint to the finish. He told me he loved the experience but is going to stick to his weekly parkrun.
Claire was over the moon with her time of 3hrs 26mins. Not only that, she ran it injury free. She said she found it easier than she thought, had found some of our pacing strategies kicking in and working a treat, focused on keeping her rhythm all the way round and stepped up the pace in the last 5km when she realised she could get under 3hrs 30mins. She’s already signed up for her next marathon.
When it comes to training plans, you will see varying lengths of plans and while they all work, you have to find one that works for you. I created the 16 week plans as it’s what I have learned over the years and worked on myself.
When choosing a training plan, don’t look for the ones with all the sessions that everyone is talking about. Look for the one that will fit around your schedule, is flexible to allow for those times where something gets in the way of your training. Look for the plan that will take you from where you are right now and guide you to running your marathon the way you want to.
Or get a plan designed exclusively for you.
If you’re thinking about running a marathon or already have a place in a marathon and need help with your training, have a look at my training plans and let’s have a chat. I’d be delighted to help you :-)