There’s nothing like an ambitious goal to focus your training, and running a marathon definitely fits the bill. Plenty of mere mortals have completed the 26.2 mile race, but it takes time, planning, and of course an appropriate level of fitness. Here’s how to know if a marathon is a realistic goal for you.
If You Can Run Three to Five Miles, You’re Fit Enough to Start
Believe it or not, marathons aren’t just for super athletes. A slew of politicians and actors have run marathons. Sean Combs’s goal in 2003 was reportedly to beat Oprah’s 1994 time. Meanwhile, a course at the University of Northern Iowa teaches novices to run a marathon with just a semester of serious training. The people who teach that class published their program as the Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer, and it’s a great guide for anyone who is starting from scratch.
Most beginner marathon programs start with the assumption that you can run two to three miles a few times a week, and that you can handle a five-miler as your first long run. If that’s not where you are, you need to back up and establish a fitness “base” to build on.
A Couch to 5K program is perfect for that starting stage. If you’re new to exercise, do that. While you could jump straight to marathon training after that, most coaches would recommend that you make sure you can maintain that level of fitness for at least a few months first.
If you’re already an athlete, though, an accelerated plan isn’t so farfetched. You have strong muscles and lungs, but running puts some strain on your bones and tendons that other sports don’t. So you don’t need to build fitness; you just have to get used to running. Then you can jump into a training plan.
Training Takes at Least Four Months
Marathon training plans are structured programs that gradually work you up to the challenges of tackling a 26.2 mile race, over the course of four months or so. Even people who have done marathons before will use a structured program for each race season. Nobody stays in marathon shape year-round.
You can find a series of well-respected marathon programs for free at HalHigdon.com. They’re pretty typical of plans you’ll find elsewhere, including the ones built in to training apps like Runkeeper and Nike+ Run Club.
On any program, expect to go running at least four times a week. A typical program has at least three shorter runs, and one long run. When you get close to race day, your runs will get up to 20 miles or more, but you won’t be doing a 20-miler for every run that week—nobody has that kind of time, and it would wreck your body. Instead, you’ll be doing maybe five-milers on the weekdays, and one grueling 20-miler on the weekend. Usually there is also a midweek day where you do either a medium length run, or some other challenge like a day of speedwork or hill running.
That’s a serious time commitment. At a 10 minute per mile pace, the first week of Hal Higdon’s Novice 1 plan adds up to 2.5 hours of running: not too bad. But the peak week, when you do that 20-miler, totals almost seven hours. Fully half of that is a single long run that will eat up your entire Saturday morning.
If this sounds like too much, stick to shorter races. You can train for a half-marathon with far less of a time commitment, or just stick to 5Ks, where you never have to run more than three to five miles unless you really want to.
But if you’re up for the challenge and you’ve cleared your calendar, then there’s no reason not to proceed. It’s time to pick a marathon.
Choose Your Race Before You Start Training
You want your training program to end on race day, so it’s best to sync up your marathon choice with your training schedule. Most cities only have one marathon, so you can take the date or leave it. If you want more options, you may have to travel.
When to sign up depends on which marathon you choose. If you want to run the New York City marathon, for example, you have to apply in January even though the race isn’t until November. The organizers hold a lottery, and you only have a slim chance of getting in: just 23 percent of applicants were accepted in 2016. On the other hand, if you have your eye on the Pittsburgh marathon, all you have to do is fill out a form and pay the fee. In 2016, it didn’t even sell out until three weeks before race day.
This means if you want to run New York, you need to find out whether you got in, and then start thinking about when and how to train. If you don’t get in, you can start looking at other marathons that might be your second or third choice.
On the other hand, with an easier to enter race like Pittsburgh, you can begin your training with the race day in mind, and then not actually pay the registration fee until you are confident that training is going well. The delayed approach would mean missing early bird pricing, but it may be worthwhile if you aren’t feeling confident. Marathon registration refunds can be difficult or impossible to get.
Expect a Physical and Emotional Rollercoaster
The marathon itself is the experience of a lifetime, but the training will feel like a grueling part-time job. You have to show up even when you don’t want to. It takes a ton of time. You will come home sore.
In the process, you will learn to take care of your body. You’ll have to eat well to fuel recovery, and you’ll find yourself sleeping more. If you run with training partners, you’ll get to know them pretty well. If you don’t, you’ll spend a lot of time with your own thoughts.
You’ll give up your Saturday mornings. You’ll miss sleeping in, but you’ll also feel great when you show up to brunch with a fifteen-miler already in the bank. There will be a day when you run farther than you ever have before, and every step beyond that point is a new lifetime accomplishment.
Over the weeks and months, your runs will get longer and longer. About three weeks before the race, you’ll do your last really long run—almost never 26 miles, but more likely 18 or 20 or 22. That’s because long runs are hell on your body, and you need time to recover.
Those last three weeks are called the taper, when you run less and less because you’re letting your body heal and repair so it will be in the best possible shape for race day. Your body will feel great, but your brain may enter a state that runners call “taper crazy.” Did you train enough? What will you do with your newfound free time? Have you overthought your race day outfit yet?
After all that, you will show up for the marathon, you will run the marathon—assuming you didn’t get injured during your training—and you will finish exhilarated and exhausted. That’s when you’ll know it was all worth it.
Illustration by Sam Woolley. Photos via Pexels.