Training for
Your First Marathon

If you’re training for your first marathon there are some tips and strategies that you should use to not only complete the race, but make it an enjoyable event as well. There are three areas to focus on for marathon training:

  1. Training
  2. Race day
  3. Post-marathon

If you train smart and plan right, marathon day will be the experience of a lifetime – and the race itself will just be a small part of the memories.

Your Training Plan

Running your first marathon may seem like a colossal task, but it’s really the culmination of months of training. Your training runs should push you and challenge you enough that the race itself won’t be as hard as it might seem now. This training is focused on getting your body to adapt to and handle the longer miles…26.2 of them to be exact. A successful training plan will:

  • Gradually increase the mileage from week to week

  • Have sufficient rest for hard workouts and long weeks

  • Flexible enough to fit into the rest of your life

  • Have a good mix of endurance and speed work

  • Include enough variety to keep you from burning out

Make sure the race is far enough away so that you can train properly for it. Training for your first marathon can be miserable if you try to do too much too fast. Give your body time to introduce small incremental challenges, followed by periods of rest. There is no ‘cramming’ for a marathon.

If you’ve recently started running and are now up to a maximum distance of 3 miles, the 20-week marathon training plan below will pick-up where you are and take you to race day (26.2!). See ‘Start Running’ for a 10-week plan to help get you there, if your mileage is still not quite up to 3. If your maximum distance run in the last few weeks exceeds 3 miles, than pick up the plan below at the week that matches your maximum single-day mileage.

20-week Training Plan for Your First Marathon
(distances are in miles)

Week Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Total
1 2 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 2 Rest 4 11
2 2 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 2 Rest 5 12
3 2 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 6 14
4 2 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 7 15
5 2 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 8 16
6 2 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 9 17
7 2 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 10 18
8 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 11 20
9 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 12 21
10 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 7 16
11 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest / XT 3 Rest 14 23
12 3 Rest / XT 4 Rest / XT 3 Rest 8 18
13 3 Rest / XT 4 Rest / XT 3 Rest 16 26
14 3 Rest / XT 4 Rest / XT 3 Rest 9 19
15 3 Rest / XT 4 Rest / XT 3 Rest 18 28
16 3 Rest / XT 4 Rest / XT 3 Rest 10 20
17 3 Rest / XT 4 Rest / XT 3 Rest 20 30
18 3 Rest / XT 4 Rest / XT 3 Rest 11 21
19 3 Rest / XT 4 Rest / XT 3 Rest 12 24
20 2 Rest 3 Rest 2 Rest 26.2 33.2

XT = Cross-Train: Swim, Bike, running

First Marathon - Race Day

It’s finally here – the BIG day! This is the day that you’ve spent months preparing for. No need to be nervous, although most of us will be. Given all of the time and effort you put into getting to this day, don’t let a small obstacle like parking or breakfast keep you from meeting your goal. Here are some race-day pointers for your first marathon:

  1. Pack the night before, pin your bib # on your race shirt, and lace your timing chip in your sneakers. Don’t forget to pack a post-race snack for the car ride home and your favorite grease-of-choice (Vasaline, BodyGlide, SportSlick,,,) for the race itself.
  2. Depending on the climate and time of the marathon you chose, you may want to wear some throw away clothes. I’ve started some marathons with old socks on my feet, an old t-shirt for a hat (“dew-rag”), and an old long sleeve shirt that I can toss. By the end of mile one, most runners will not want the extra warmth – so bring something you can afford to shed. Most marathons collect this clothing and donate it to local shelters…so don’t view it as littering ;-).
  3. Don’t try anything new on race day. If you eat before training runs, eat before the marathon. Don’t pick the BIG day to try new shoes, socks, breakfast bars, etc…go with the tried & true!
  4. If the area is a new or unfamiliar one, make sure that you leave yourself plenty of time and that you have a map. If it’s a big race, you may find yourself with some parking challenges, so get there early
  5. Get in the port-o-john line! Don’t have to go? Well you may have to go by the time you get to the front of those long lines! I’ve been in the port-o-john line for a few marathon starts…no fun…can be a stressful start to a race. Some lines can be 20+ minutes long, so get in line, stretch and get that ‘business’ out of the way so you can leisurely walk to the starting line.
  6. Start slow! I’ve read this advice in just about every article, book, and magazine I’ve seen for marathoners, but I haven’t always listened. I’ve had much more enjoyable and successful races when I start slow and finish strong. Those race jitters can often make us run a quick first 5 miles before realizing that we’re going much faster than our planned race pace. A quick start turns many first marathons into last marathons (See the race pace calculator and race prediction calculator to help you set the right goal for you)
  7. Replenish. Make sure you use the water stops, sports drinks, and energy gels throughout the race. I like to run with a water bottle and fill it up and keep going so that I can sip it as I go. Plan for how you’re going to hydrate and refuel, as this can make or break your race-day experience.

  8. Pick a specific rendeavous point to meet family or friends. Race day can transform familiar landmarks into a mob scene. Try to have a very specific meeting point to see your loved ones after the race (especially if they have the car keys and pain-killers! ;-).
  9. Eat some post race carbs. More often than not, there will be piles of bananas and other goodies at the finish line tents. Eat some. Your muscle’s glucose stores will be empty and now’s the time to fill them back up.
  10. Keep moving. While it’s often easier said than done, try to stay on your feet and walk it off. If you can, do some gentle stretching like touching your toes so that your muscles don’t cramp up. If you’re in pain, there’s usually a medical tent that can offer some anti-inflammatory or other pain-killers.

The Next Day: Post-Marathon

Congratulations - you ran your first marathon!! Chances are your legs will be plenty sore the next day. You’ll likely see stairs and curbs as obstacles while you hobble from place to place. For the next 2-3 days, you should try to go for a short walk 15-30 minutes once or twice a day to get the blood flowing back in your legs. If it’s painful, stop. Your body has been through a lot and now isn’t the time to stress it – it needs rest – but the walking will help process a lot of the waste that is probably still in the muscles and help get oxygen to the sore areas. Over the next week or two, start back to your running schedule, but avoid hills and speedwork. I recently followed a marathon with an aggressive training plan that started just 2 weeks later and got some unwanted downtime thanks to a sore Achilles tendon. Give yourself ample time to recover before you start stressing your muscles again. It’s much better in the long-run.

Let me know how you make out in your first marathon. It’s a great experience and one that you’ll be glad you did. Have a great time!

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