How to Train for a Marathon

Training for a marathon is serious business, but with the right advice and guidance, you can get the 42.2km distance under your belt.

If you’re new to running, start with a beginner’s running program, followed by a 10km running program and then a half marathon training program before moving on to the marathon. Incremental progress is important in marathon training – it’s the smartest and safest way to train because you build your endurance gradually while avoiding injury.

Running clubs can provide inspiration and motivation because you’ll be training with other aspiring marathon participants. And 12WBT has a great Marathon program which, like its other running programs, provides weekly Exercise Plans that safely build your speed and distance, with strength exercises and stretches to help prevent injury.

Starting Out

Before you start to train for a marathon, get clearance from your doctor to make sure you’re free of injury and in good physical condition. This is important because injuries can crop up among marathon runners, so you should be especially vigilant in preventing them.

You should be running on four to five days per week, making steady progress towards your marathon goal. In addition to running, you should dedicate a day to strength and core work, and have one rest day a week.

Equipment for Running a Marathon

Comfortable, breathable running clothes are vital, and don’t compromise on good-quality running shoes. For optimal comfort and injury prevention, replace your running shoes every 750km to 1000km.

Other optional but very useful equipment when running long distances includes:

  • MP3 player loaded with upbeat tunes and an armband to hold your device
  • Hydration pack or belt to stay hydrated during long runs
  • Heart rate monitor
  • Free apps such as MapMyRun, RunKeeper or Strava – or preferably a GPS watch – to measure distance
  • Foam roller, golf ball or tennis ball for self-massaging
  • Moisturiser or a specialised cream to combat chafing and blisters

Building Up to a Marathon

Mix up your five running sessions a week as follows:

  • One fast-paced tempo run
  • One session of interval sprints or hills
  • Two easy to moderately paced recovery sessions
  • One long, steady-paced run

When training for a marathon, your main focus should be on building your endurance to safely cover the marathon distance rather than trying to increase your speed. Use the following tips as a guide for increasing your distance gradually:

  • Begin with a 22km run on your first week
  • Increase your weekly long run by 1km to 2km each week until you reach 35km
  • Begin to taper off two weeks before your marathon with a 25km to 28km run
  • Tapering is when you decrease training before a race in order to maximise muscle recovery
  • One week before your marathon, continue to taper by making your long run 60 to 75 minutes long
  • Your next big push should be the marathon itself

On your non-running days, incorporate some strength, core and stability exercises. Core training is especially important for marathon runners. A strong, activated core is essential for distance running because it prevents poor posture during longer runs, which can lead to muscle imbalances, niggles and eventually injuries.

Nutrition for Running a Marathon

Marathon running requires special attention to nutrition, especially carbohydrate intake. Your energy requirements are higher when you’re training hard, so eat more carbs on those days.

Make sure you eat carbohydrates with every meal (not just on your running days), including the evening before your long runs. And after a long run, a meal rich in carbs and protein can aid recovery.

Add these foods to your daily diet to ensure optimal performance:

  • Whole grain breads and cereals for energy
  • Foods rich in protein (such as lean meat, fish and vegetarian options like tofu or eggs) to help muscles recover and repair
  • Fruits and vegetables to keep your immune system healthy
  • Low-fat dairy to keep your bones strong and help with muscle recovery
  • Foods high in iron to prevent anaemia

Hydration for Running a Marathon

Hydration is of utmost importance in marathon training. You should be drinking two litres of water per day, and more on heavy training days. You need to consume enough fluid to replace what you lose through sweat.

It’s easy to become dehydrated when running long distances if fluids are not readily available. Some consequences of dehydration are:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Overheating
  • Early fatigue
  • Impaired mental function
  • Reduced performance
  • Upset stomach

Drink water before your run so that you’re pre-hydrated, and ensure that you have access to water throughout your running session. You’ll need to drink between half a litre and a litre per hour while you’re exercising. As a quick test, assess your urine when you go to the loo – if you’re properly hydrated it should be pale yellow, not dark yellow.

Sports drinks can be beneficial on longer runs because they help minimise fluid loss. If you’re training for longer than 90 minutes, use a sports drink to replace electrolytes lost in your sweat.

Avoiding Injuries

Injuries are common in marathon runners and are often the result of taking on too much too soon, so increase your training load gradually. You should also prioritise warm-ups, cool-downs and plenty of stretching. Follow all the advice given to you by your doctor, running coach or personal trainer.

Because injuries are more common on hard surfaces like roads, try to do most of your runs on grass ovals, dirt tracks or athletics tracks. However, make sure you do train on some hard surfaces from time to time to prepare for your marathon.

Extra tips to avoid injuries:

  • Use a foam roller, tennis ball or golf ball to self-massage stiff, tired muscles, and/or have regular professional sports massages, which will help maintain joint and muscle flexibility
  • If you experience any pain, stop and attend to it immediately - with prompt treatment, you can often prevent small injuries from becoming chronic ones

There’s no question that training for a marathon requires dedication and hard work, but it’s worth every drop of sweat and aching muscle. When you cross that finish line, the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel will be incomparable, so stick with it!