No matter how many times you complete it or how fast you run, the marathon is always a challenge. Likewise, marathon training is always a puzzle of figuring out exactly how hard to push yourself to improve – without pushing yourself so hard that you overtrain or resent running by race day.
On one end of the spectrum, you have cookie-cutter plans or overly rigorous methods. You must run six days per week, 60 miles per week, to run a marathon. You must spend 18 weeks training. On the other end, knowledgeable coaches will answer “it depends on the runner.” But what does individualization actually look like?
These are some common questions about marathon training. This post is not intended to be prescriptive, but rather illuminate some of the considerations in structuring a marathon training plan. What does “it depends” actually entail? Essentially: consider yourself (or, if you are a coach, your athlete) as an individual runner and consider each training cycle individually.
It’s worth remembering that there are almost as many different approaches to marathon training as there are coaches. These questions reflect my research on marathon training and coaching philosophy.
How many weeks should I train for a marathon?
Typically, the standard plan ranges from 16-20 weeks – which itself is a generous range! When you look at the training of some elites, they spend approximately 12 weeks building up for the marathon. Plans for novice marathoners may even advocate 22 weeks of training.
The number of weeks you should train for a marathon depends on numerous factors:
- Your fitness base, including weekly mileage and long run
- Number of marathons you have done in the past
- Goals for the race
- Injury risk and burnout risk
- Practical considerations (recent race, need for downtime between training cycles)
For some athletes, I’ll spend 20 weeks preparing them for a marathon. For others, we focus on marathon training for only about 14 weeks.
- 12-14 weeks: very fit; coming off of a recent race or large base building period and comfortable with higher mileage already; athlete thrives on focus but wants to avoid burnout
- 16-18 weeks: solid base but long runs/mileage do need building; big goal; athlete thrives with focused workouts and frequent cutback weeks
- 20-22 weeks: low mileage base, novice marathoner, or returning to running; athlete requires gradual build-up in mileage
How far should my longest long run be?
If you look at popular training methods, you will see anything from 16 miles (Hansons) to 26 miles (Galloway). Jack Daniels says that your longest long run should not exceed 3 hours, while McMillan encourages up to 4.5 hours for slower marathoners.
This article delves more into your longest long run before the marathon. Your fitness background, experience in the marathon, aerobic base, goals, and pace all factor into the decision. For most runners, the longest long run ends up being 18-20 miles, with outliers in either direction.
What types of workouts should I do?
Every run should have a purpose. Yes, you can probably go out, run random intervals around a track, and eventually become faster. But if your goal is optimizing your training – reaping the most adaptations from the time you can devote to training – you want to train with purpose. Training smart allows you to run faster, maximize your improvements, and reduce injury risk. You will also feel prepared for the specific demands of the race – thus creating a more positive and enjoyable race experience.
We can sit and debate the exact merits of every type of workout – and honestly, almost every soundly-constructed running workout has its benefits. My philosophy: the further away you race, the more you can focus on becoming a well-rounded runner; the closer your race, the more specific your workouts should be to the demands of the race.
In the focused weeks of marathon training (about 8-12 weeks before the race), a majority of your workouts should focus on the unique demands of the marathon. These demands include a high level of endurance, fatigue resistance, increased lactate threshold, speed endurance, and running economy. Marathon specific workouts include tempo runs, long runs, marathon pace runs (if you have a time goal), long intervals, and progression runs. That does not mean your plan will be completely devoid of short interval workouts (since those can improve running economy), but a majority of your quality days will utilize these marathon specific workouts.
If in doubt, consider working with a coach. A coach will account for both your goals and your individual strengths and weaknesses when assigning workouts. It will take the guesswork out of training, motivate you to try intimidating workouts, and introduce you to workouts you may have not done on your own.
For some marathoners – such as first-time marathoners focused on finishing or injury-prone runners – the more prudent choice may be focusing on overall weekly mileage and the long run. The marathon is, after all, an endurance event, and mileage build your endurance.
Should I strength train during marathon training?
Yes! You absolutely should! Strength training decreases your risk of injury, improves your fatigue resistance, and increases your power output. It is a vital part of becoming a better runner. Even a couple of short 15-minute strength sessions per week will make a difference.
How many miles per week should I run during marathon training?
Mileage is one of the biggest debates in marathon training. There are proponents of high mileage, who believe that every runner must run at least 60 miles per week, if not more, to do well in the marathon. Then there are the low-mileage advocates, who think three runs per week supported by cross-training is the ideal method.
At least in my experience of coaching, most runners fall in the middle. Many runners thrive off of moderate mileage: enough to boost their aerobic capacity and adapt their musculoskeletal systems to the demands of the marathon, but not so much that they are sacrificing sleep or other aspects of life.
If you are looking to improve, consider slightly increasing your mileage (if life permits) from previous training cycles or spending more time close to your peak mileage. Mileage will build your aerobic capacity, improve your fatigue resistance, and increase your running economy – all of which influence marathon performance.
It is also worth thinking about training volume in terms of time, not mileage. A 3:00-hour marathoner may run 7-8 miles during a one-hour easy run, while a 5:00-hour marathon may only run 5 miles in one hour.
Should I run every day in marathon training?
With exceptions at the highest level of performance, no. Marathon training puts significant physical stress on the body. In order to fully adapt to training, you need to be able to recover from that stress. Stress + rest = adaptation. So the harder you train – both in terms of mileage and intensity – the more recovery you need.
Almost all marathoners below the elite level will need a weekly rest day. (It’s also worth noting that even some elites, such as Olympic marathoner Jared Ward, take weekly rest days.) Take a rest day – a real rest day. A recovery run or a hard spin class or strength training are not resting. If you want to do something, take a walk, do some yoga or Pilates, or spend 20 minutes doing foam rolling and mobility work. Be as disciplined in your rest as you are with your training.
Are you training for a marathon and want individualized training without the guesswork? Learn more about my coaching services and contact me here!
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