I love helping people take on the challenge of tackling their first marathon. This past season, I had the privilege of helping Kim Peiffer, an editor at InStyle magazine, prepare for her first marathon. Kim was already doing some running and living a healthy lifestyle prior to our 12-week training, which made developing her plan for the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon fairly simple.
People often ask me how long it takes to train for a marathon, but that largely depends on your pre-race conditioning. Kicking off a training program in relatively good shape—for example, being able to run 4 to 6 miles fairly easily—is ideal. Hitting this baseline fitness level is what you need to begin tackling the 12-week build-up needed for tackling your first marathon. Some runners may need longer to get marathon ready—even up to 20 weeks—but a good rule of thumb: If you’re interested in tackling your first marathon, goal number one should be to run 4 to 6 miles 5 days a week.
Kim was easily at this point when we began her training in late summer. My main goal in developing her program was to keep her healthy. I also wanted to make sure her training was enjoyable. Lastly, I wanted to make sure she felt mentally and physically prepared to take on all 26.2 miles of running.
Here’s how to create the best training plan for your first marathon.
1. Follow A Basic Template
The basic template I like to follow is doing shorter, faster intervals on Tuesday, doing a run at goal marathon pace on Friday, then going long Saturday. When I began writing Kim’s program, the first week looked like this:
Tuesday: 5-mile easy run
Wednesday: 20-minute warm-up; then 10 x 1 minute hard/1 minute easy. Then a 20-minute cool down.
Thursday: 5-mile easy run
Friday: 20 minute warm-up; then start running at goal marathon pace (for Kim that was a 9:09 per mile pace) for as long as you can sustain, but no longer than 8 miles. Finish with a 20-minute cool down.
Saturday: 5-mile easy run
Sunday: 12-mile progressive long run
The key is to build on this template slowly and adjust based on how your body feels. If you’re new to long distance runs and this first week of training looks intimidating, it’s probably too aggressive. Don’t be afraid to pair it down. I recommend bringing the long run down to 8 to10 miles and capping the Friday marathon-pace run at 4 to 6 miles.
2. Seek Structure (But Stay Flexible)
It’s smart to have a basic training structure that you’re able to adjust and tweak based on how your body is performing. Kim and I would touch base at the end of every week to discuss how the previous week went. Then, I would customize her program accordingly.
Unfortunately, Kim had a few aches and pains along the way, so instead of pounding the pavement we adjusted her plan so she could do quite a bit of her training on either the elliptical or bike. Her biggest challenge was avoiding shin splints, so I recommended some shin-strengthening exercises paired with running on softer surfaces as much as possible. Doing this allowed us to largely keep her shin splints at bay.
3. Embrace The Long Run
Kim’s biggest week of training came three weeks prior to the TCS New York City Marathon. It looked like this:
Monday: 60-minute easy cross-train
Tuesday: 20-minute warm-up; then drills and strides. 4 x 4 minutes at one minute faster per mile than marathon goal pace (about a 8:09 pace). 20-minute cool down.
Wednesday: 60-minute easy cross-train
Thursday: 20-minute warm-up; then 8 miles at goal marathon pace (9:09 pace). 20-minute cool down.
Friday: 60-minute easy cross train
Sun: 20-mile easy long run (but no longer than 3 hours)
It was fun to hear about Kim’s longest run. She felt great and was able to easily log several miles faster than her goal marathon pace. Her previous long run didn’t go as well, but I assured her that long run’s never feel good early on in training—they get more and more comfortable as time goes on, really.
Aside from providing a confidence boost, the results from Kim’s long run assured me of two things: She’d be fine to cover the marathon distance and she’d accomplish her goal of finishing in under 4 hours. While the 20-mile run is pretty standard in most marathon training plans, you can get away with a lot less—like 16 to 20 miles— if you’re able to remain confident in your training. Going for 20 mainly provides you with the psychological benefit of knowing you can cover the distance.
4. Beware of Injury Late In The Game
The biggest challenge in preparing someone for their first marathon is keeping them healthy. I’ve never trained for a marathon without experiencing some ache or pain along the way; it’s to be expected. The key is knowing which pains are OK to run though and which aren’t. My general rule of thumb is that if it’s a sharp pain, a pain that gets worse while running, or a pain that leaves you unable to hop on that one foot, then you shouldn’t run through it.
Despite doing three days a week of cross training to limit the pounding on her body, Kim came down with foot pain about two weeks before the marathon. When something pops up that close to race day, I’m always cautious. At this point all the hard training has been done, so a little extra rest can only help. In this case, I still had Kim run 2 to 3 days a week since the injury wasn’t something she couldn’t train through. The rest of the week she cross trained.
5. Focus On Positive Takeaways
Unfortunately, the pain Kim experienced ended up being beyond what was manageable to start the marathon. We were both bummed that all the training she’d put in wouldn’t be put to the test. And there’s no doubt in my mind that she could have completed the race.
I’ve experienced both the sheer joy that running a marathon can bring and also the heartbreak of having trained for months only to be sidelined by injury or fatigue. As painful as it is not to be able to toe the line, I always found that I could channel that heartbreak to fuel the fire in preparing for my next marathon.
My best marathon (the Boston Marathon in 2011: 2:04:58) came in the wake of not being able to run the Chicago marathon in 2010. Sometimes the best motivation is the heartbreak of injury. I know this minor setback will fuel Kim as she prepares for her next marathon.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.