Running a marathon can be overwhelming if it’s your first one. So we asked professional runners, trainers, and athletes to share their marathon training tips and marathon race day tips to help first time marathoners tackle 26.2.
By Amy Schlinger
You signed up for your first marathon. That means you’ve decided to tackle 26.2 miles. Congratulations—the hardest part mentally is over….so far! But now you have to start the training and prepare for what to expect on race day, which can be a bit overwhelming if you’ve never done this before. Running your first marathon is a huge commitment and an incredible accomplishment once completed, but it takes a lot of time and dedication leading up to the big day. If you’re feeling a bit lost or like you may have gotten in over your head when you begin looking through training plans (I have to run how many miles per week?!) you’re not alone.
To help all the first time marathoners out there, we spoke to those who know the distance—and training for it—best! From professional runners, to trainers, to marathon vets and lovers, we’ve rounded up the best marathon training tips and marathon race day tips for first time marathoners. Check them out below and let them help you find your way across the finish line.
Tips For Marathon Training
1. There's not a one size fits all training plan.
Everyone comes to the marathon with a different background, different levels of athleticism, experience, and technique. Make sure you follow a training program that's specific to you and not to everyone else. This makes the whole experience, from the training to the race, a lot more enjoyable.”
“Get comfortable with your goal pace. On race day, the crowds and excitement can lead you to get caught up on someone else’s effort. Focus on yourself and what you need to do, you don’t want to go out too hard in a marathon. Practice your pace and patience so that on race day you stick to your race plan.”
—Kara Goucher, U.S. long-distance runner and Olympic bronze medalist, and nine-time marathon runner
3. Listen to your body.
“I signed up for my first marathon four months before the race, having never run over six miles in my life. I tried to stick to a marathon training schedule that had me running over 40 miles per week at its peak. If you’ve never run serious distances before, your body probably won’t just adjust to it immediately. Unfortunately, I ignored the signs and ran through some significant pain in the height of my training, resulting in a near tear of my achilles tendon, sidelining me for the three weeks before the race. Thankfully I ended up being OK for race day, but it was almost catastrophic. For my second marathon, I planned better and only did one long run per week, and other workouts four to five times per week, like Spin, elliptical, HIIT, etc. This kept my endurance where it needed to be without putting too much impact on my body constantly. When it comes to marathon training, don’t be a tough guy. Listen to your body.”
4. Strength train at least once per week.
“In my office, weak runners are here all the time with injuries. Strong muscles reduce ground impact forces, lessen injury risk, and make running more enjoyable. Plyometric or jump training is the most effective and runner-friendly way to strength train, so hop to it!”
5. Train anyway, despite the weather.
“If it’s raining, run anyway. If it’s cold, go out anyway. If it’s hot, train anyway! You can’t control race day so you should carry-on and make adaptations in your training to fit the conditions of the day. If you’re tired or you don’t feel well, change the workout accordingly, but still follow through with your training so you can see how you would adapt if it were race day.”
6. Fuel well and often.
“The marathon is an energy game. No matter the weather, you need calories and hydration. Practice during long runs so your gut knows how to handle what you choose to give it. Remember in cold weather, drinking cold fluids may not seem appealing, but you might even need the calories more since shivering burns valuable glycogen.”
7. Test wear racing flats.
“I see a lot of people running in training sneakers and flats can make you feel much faster! So if fast is your goal, try changing your shoe to a racing flat for training. They have slightly less cushioning though, so you can decide if the sore calves and quads are worth it!
—Molly Huddle, American long distance runner in track and cross country, two-time marathon runner
8. If you want to use caffeine, test it before race day
“The amount of caffeine you need to intake to actually have any sort of performance enhancement is a lot, so you have to make sure it sits well with your stomach. Try using it during training so you don’t run into any issue on race day.”
9. Train with a buddy.
“The actual marathon is usually fun and the route is full of cheering fans. But it’s those long on-your-own training runs that can sometimes seem like the most miserable things on Earth. Training with a group or a partner is a great way to distract from potentially long and boring runs. You want to look forward to your runs and not dread them. Having the comoradary and accountability of a team and/or group goes a long way.”
—Kelvin Gary, NASM, performance enhancement specialist, owner of Body Space Fitness in New York City, and three-time marathon runner
10. Refuel, stretch and ice after every long run—or when you feel like you need it.
“Immediately after each long run, I’d drink a post-workout shake, spend at least 30 minutes stretching, and another 15 minutes icing. I’m not sure my body would have made it the distance without it. Especially if you’re a bigger person like me—I weigh about ~90 lbs more than the typical elite marathoner—the recovery piece is just as important as the training itself.”
11. Try to be regimented with your fueling strategy (and practice it in training).
“If you start the race committed to taking a gel or drink every 20 minutes or so rather than waiting until you feel like it, you will have a more reliable energy bank—even if you skip some gels late in the race, although I recommend taking them all. I use about four gels in a marathon, plus about 20 ounces of endurance drink.”
12. Respect the rest day.
“Marathoning is all about breaking a seemingly epic challenge into smaller, more manageable parts. It's about the long term goal. A very important component to training is resting. Many first-timers get going in their training and can get addicted to the habit of running most days of the week. They might try to train through designated ‘rest’ days to get ahead in their training, which can cause injury and derail you from your long-term goal. Don't be afraid to listen to your body and take time to recover. Most experts recommend at least one off-day a week, and other days devoted to cross-training, like biking or swimming, instead of running.”
—Katie Perry, VP of Corporate Strategy for comScore, 14-time marathon runner
13. Try training with negative splits.
“Learn how to start slow and increase speed as the miles go. I know I’m not alone when I say I ran too fast for the first six miles of my first few marathons, which can really make for not just a slow time but also an uncomfortable finish! When I started to train with negative splits I was able to race more disciplined.”
14. Practice drinking while running.
“When running a marathon you’ll need to hydrate during the race. Practice this during training! You need to get your stomach and digestive track accustomed to absorbing liquid during exercise. Leave water bottles filled with liquid along your running routes. Take a few sips every 5K or so just as you would during the marathon.”
15. Establish some guidelines, based on training, to keep you from going out too hard.
“I like to use the heart rate zones—you could just use mile splits as well—on my Polar watch to keep me reigned in in the first half, then basically see how high I can get it in my last 5K!”
16. Have a recovery plan.
Rest and recovery is when the magic from training (supercompensation) happens. Overtraining is a common mistake of new marathoners. Having a plan that includes things like foam rolling, massage, cryotherapy, etc. is crucial. Also, understanding that sleep and nutrition are critical parts of recovery is important, too.
17. Mentally prepare to deal with the “wall”.
“Even if it doesn’t come during your training, it’s most likely going to come during the race—that moment when you hit a wall and start to bonk. Take the time to mentally prepare, because your body can handle it most likely, for that moment. Have a mantra on deck or visualize yourself moving through the course and responding appropriately when the time comes.”
18. Practice eating what you will be eating pre-race.
“Plan on having pasta the night before the marathon and a bagel that morning? Practice this before training runs. You want to make sure your nutrition/digestion is dialed in. Stick with plain simple foods and practice before a long run or two to make sure your stomach can handle your planned meals.”
19. Honor the taper.
“You won’t make any personal gains the last two weeks prior to the marathon. In fact, If you train too hard during this period of time, it can have adverse effects on your race day. Make sure you take your taper weeks seriously.
—Luke Lombardo, RRCA Certified Run coach, IronMan triathlete, 13-time and sub 3-hour marathoner
Tips For Marathon Race Day
20. Don’t eat or do anything new the day of the race.
“Your last 20 to 22-miler two to three weeks prior to race day should be prep for the big race day. Wear the same outfit. Take the specific gels/fluids you intend to take during the race. Drink the same amount of water. Race day is not the day to try a new singlet or shoes. Keep everything the same. Race the way you practiced.”
21. Wear your name on the front of your shirt.
“Tape it on, draw it on, printed on, but get your first or last name on the front of your shirt so that people can cheer for you as you run along the course. There is nothing like hearing positive cheers directed at you from a stranger when you need a lift along the course! I always do this and when I hear someone say my name—I look up and it makes me smile!”
22. Run with purpose.
“Having purpose deepens our commitment, especially when we are faced with a tough moment. Ask yourself why you run, why your goal is important to you, and then run with that dedication.”
23. Attitude is everything.
“There's a famous psychological study that split people in two groups. The first group was asked to hold a pencil in their mouth horizontally, forcing them to smile. The second half was asked to hold the pencil vertically, forcing them to frown. The participants then were asked to assess how funny they found a comic to be. Interestingly, the group that forced the smile found the comic to be much funnier than the group that was forced to frown. The takeaway here is that a big piece of marathoning is having a positive outlook and staying mentally strong. In the course of your training and in the race, you might feel defeated and tired, but actively willing an upbeat attitude can help you get across the finish line. A good friend of mine, who I've run several races with, has perfected this approach. He recently ran Boston in the pouring rain and 30-degree weather and claimed it was his favorite race thus far!”
24. Remember that the hardest race is the race from ear to ear.
“Remind yourself constantly to keep going and that you can always do more! It can become very easy to talk ourselves out of that belief during the race, but we can continue—we just need to push hard and use positive reinforcement. I learned my body can do way more than I thought.”
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