Training for Your First Marathon – A Different Approach

Lauri, my neighbor two doors down, is a personal trainer and Pilates and yoga instructor. Lauri emailed me and asked if I would help her friend train for the marathon. I was torn — on one hand, I know some foxy-old-guy tricks for making a first-time marathon less painful. On the other, I hate the marathon.

“Hate” is perhaps too a strong word. What I feel for the 26.2-mile distance is frustration. During my marathon years, I practiced the standard, “run 40 miles a week and finish a marathon” program, and as a result, I was never adequately trained for the distance. I never had a “good day” in the marathon. Even in my best races, the last six miles were murder.

After 12 marathons, I “retired” and began running trail ultramarathons. I ran ultras for seven years, and the experience destroyed any meager joy I had ever found in the shorter distance. For starters, ultras are easier. Really; at least, up to 50 miles. Most ultras are run on trails where the footing is pleasantly varied, and the scenery is pristine. The pace is relaxed, you can eat as much as you like, and the extreme distances tend to create a bond between the runners.

But those aren’t the only reasons I ran ultras. An ultramarathon strips you down. Veteran ultrarunner Gary Cantrell warns first-timers that, after the first 40 miles of their first 50, they’ll feel “like a very old person.” I ran ultras because I like that feeling. It’s an accurate description for what happens to you physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Humbled in body and mind, no longer able to fantasize or rationalize, you come in contact with the stark reality of your simplest, most essential being. The only victory possible, when you can no longer think big, ego-pleasing thoughts, is to cultivate a big and open heart. It’s like a week-long backpacking trip where the city gradually falls away and you feel increasingly simple, cheerful, and childlike. Only, in an ultra, it happens in a few hours.

Marathons are nearly always run through big cities, on leg-battering pavement, amid noise and crowds. Ultras are a quiet place where you can be yourself. A trail ultra is like a lonely western road that passes through an occasional small town. You can’t escape the city that is the marathon, because no matter where you go, the city comes along with you. The marathon reminds you of yourself. The ultra challenges you to let go of yourself, because there’s no other way to win the game.

If you MUST run a marathon

Most runners, at some point, at least think about running a marathon. My feeling is that, if you’re going to run 26 miles, why not make it as pleasant and easy as possible. To that end, here’s my marathon training guide for beginners. Notice that it aims at helping you finish a marathon. Veteran marathoners may not find much help here. On the other hand, I’ve known marathoners who improved when they changed their approach.

The long run

Let’s face it, 26 miles is a long way to go. Those training programs that promise “finish a marathon on just 30 miles a week of running” do work. My complaint is that they don’t make a first-time marathon sufficiently easy and pain-free. I believe it can be easier.

There are two really bad ways to prepare for the marathon:

  1. Train too little.
  2. Emphasize the wrong kind of training.

I’m going to say something really crazy, okay? Ready? If you’re training for your first marathon, think about running just once a week.

Okay, not literally. But you should realize – and I mean, understand it with every cell in your body – that there’s only one run every week that will truly improve your chances of finishing a marathon with your dignity intact. And that is, of course, the long run.

Can you spend 10 years training for your first marathon? No? That’s how long it takes to train to run the marathon competitively – that is, as close as possible to your ultimate potential. If you’re able to no less than 60-70 miles a week, and if you can finish each training run feeling “pleasantly tired” but never completely wiped-out, then you’ll likely be able to finish the marathon in style, and run your personal best.

Ten years is how long it takes the top runners to realize their full potential in the marathon. Ten years is how long it takes them to work up to running 100 to 130 miles per week.

If you haven’t got that much time or talent, you can still benefit from emulating the training of the world champions – in principle, if not in speed and mileage. That’s because even the great runners know that what counts most is the long run

The long run will be your most important training session. Therefore, you must ruthlessly eliminate anything that interferes with the long run. For a beginning marathoner – and even for an elite – the long run is sacred. It’s the single aspect of your training that you must get right.

Many first-time marathoners work up to running 30 to 40 miles per week, with a 20- to 24-mile run every other week. In most runners’ minds, 30-40 miles a week is the minimum mileage it takes to finish a marathon. But they’re wrong.

Let’s imagine that this week you’ll be running 40 miles, with a long run on Saturday of 24 miles. During the long run, you’ll run straight through the first hour, and then you’ll start taking walking breaks – you’ll run 5 minutes and walk 1 minute. Let’s say that this week you’ll be running 24 miles on the weekend and an additional 16 miles during the week.

Now ask yourself: How much will those extra 16 miles contribute to getting you read for the marathon? Answer: Not much.

“Pleasantly tired” is the extremely important phrase that Arthur Lydiard used to describe how a runner should feel after every training run. “Pleasantly” means that when you finish a run, you should never feel staggeringly tired or wiped-out. And that goes even more for the long run. Later, I’ll suggest some fuels and training methods that will help you finish your long runs feeling good.

For now, I’ll boldly assert that all of your running should be planned around the long run. You must protect the quality of the long run, at all costs, because it’s the only part of your training that will get you through the marathon. Running 30-40 miles per week means nothing, in itself; what matters is how you arrange those miles. Thus, the “extra” 16 miles in the example above are dangerous, because if you run too hard, or too long, they will erode the quality of the long run and diminish or eliminate the training effect from the long run.

It’s good to remind ourselves how training works. You give your body a little bit more work than it’s used to, and then you let it rest. In this way, you challenge your body, and then you give it all the sleep and good nourishment it needs to get stronger.

What happens if you start cutting corners on sleep and food? Right: your body won’t get stronger. If you eat poorly, get too little sleep, and run too far or too fast, your body will take much longer to recover. And if you don’t give it the time it requires, it won’t get stronger at all; in fact, it will very likely get weaker.

You’ll know when this happens. Instead of getting stronger and feeling better in your long runs, you’ll realize that you’re training harder but your endurance is fading. Take it from me, overtraining is no fun – it takes all the joy out of running.

Every body is different. Your biomechanics and VO2Max are decided by your genes. Your body’s response to training is also unique. Some bodies are able to thrive on training that would destroy less-gifted bodies.

Different bodies aren’t just a little bit different – the difference can be vast. David L. Costill is one of the world’s leading sports physiologists. In a recent interview on Runner’s World Daily, Costill said:

When I coached Bob Fitts (a former champion distance runner, now one of the country’s most prominent muscle researchers), we used to have heated arguments about performance. He would insist that anybody could be a champion if they trained hard enough. He’s since changed his opinion. Now, he admits: “Oh no, it’s genetics.” If you start looking at genetics in a four hour marathoner and a 2:05 guy, they are markedly different.

When Costill tested world-class distance runners in his lab, he found that they were able to run the marathon aerobically at a very high percentage of their maximum oxygen uptake capacity. Those tests destroy any simplistic theories about what’s “aerobic” – for example, that 65% to 75% is the “aerobic training zone,” and so on. In fact, each person’s “aerobic training zone” is unique.

When Costill tested former marathon world-record holder Derek Clayton of Australia (2:08:33), he had Clayton run for 30 minutes on a treadmill at his marathon pace (about 4:50 per mile). During the test run, Clayton was able to hold a steady conversation with the lab scientists, indicating that he was running aerobically. Costill notes that this ability of the top marathoners to run at very high speeds aerobically has been little studied, and is still poorly understood.

Whether that particular ability is “born” or can be trained, isn’t known. In Fitness Intuition, I tell how, at age 60, I was able to run about three miles at 96% of my maximum heart rate aerobically, with complete comfort (“The 96% Run”). I’m certainly not a gifted runner, but I had trained hard; so I conclude that the ability to run easily at close to maximum capacity may be affected by training.

The point I intended to make, before I began babbling about Costill and VO2Max, is that we must train our own bodies as they are, not as we might prefer them to be. And that means giving the long run top priority, and carefully, with complete honesty, monitoring our recovery. If we find ourselves doing all our long runs in a state of less than complete recovery, we might as well ask for a refund on our entry fee, because there’s no way we’ll get progressively stronger in training.

In Fitness Intuition, I describe how ultramarathoner Eric Robinson said he only began to make progress toward his racing goals when he cut back his training mileage drastically and began giving his body — as he put it — “massive amounts of rest.” In the months before his first 100-mile trail race, Eric ran just once a week, plus a few fast quarters on the track at mid-week — but only if he felt “exceptionally strong.” On that training, he grew steadily more fit and was able to finish the 106-mile Leadville Trail race in a respectable time.

I’m certainly not recommending that you run just once a week. But I am urging you to monitor your recovery with great care. I’m also suggesting that if you’re feeling really rotten after the first hour of a long run, that you stop immediately and call it a day. Walk home, if necessary. What you must realize is that every mile you run in a wiped-out, exhausted condition will be subtracted from your ability to get stronger.

Don’t worry. You won’t lose anything by running less, or walking. In fact, you’ll be giving your body the rest it needs to get stronger. You may be able to do a medium-length run at midweek, when you’re feeling better.

In the weeks and months before your first marathon, you almost certainly will experience a long run that “goes south.” That’s just one of the reasons I don’t recommend trying to prepare for the marathon in just 12 or 16 weeks, as some books recommend. Unless you’ve been doing long runs of at least 20 miles on a regular basis, I believe those programs are folly — unless you’re very talented, with a body that recovers quickly.

Some bodies do get fit faster than others. A study that New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata describes in her book Ultimate Exercise found that 10 percent of the older subjects had bodies that responded extremely well to exercise, becoming fit quickly, while 10% responded hardly at all, and the rest spanned a broad range of average. If you have one of those highly trainable super-bodies, you may be able to finish your first marathon after training just 12 weeks.

How fast?

Where does speed fit into a beginning marathoners’ training program? How fast should you do your long runs? Should you do any speedwork?

Let’s look at these questions one at a time.

Should you do speedwork? Yes and no. No, if you haven’t been consistently running at least 20 miles a week for a year or more. It’s simply too risky. But, yes, if you find, after a tentative speedwork session or two, that it doesn’t interfere with your recovery for the next long run.

Many top distance runners begin their long runs at a relaxed pace, then speed up gradually. Frank Shorter started his weekly 20-miler at 7-minute pace. Later, he would drop the pace to 6:00, then finish at 5:00 pace – a little slower than his pace for the marathon. It’s good to remember that, for Shorter, 7:00 pace was roughly equivalent to 10- or 12-minute pace for a four-hour marathoner.

Starting slow always, always, always works. You’ll always feel better, late in a long run, if you start slowly and give your body the time it needs to get completely warmed up. This applies to every distance from 5K to 100 miles and beyond. (Of course, you’d do your long warmup before racing a 5K.) If you don’t warm up properly, your body simply won’t be able to perform at its full potential. Thousands of marathoners have reported that they feel better after the race when they run “negative splits” (the first half slower than the second).

I’ve discovered that if I run the entire first hour of my long runs no faster than 65% to 67% of my maximum heart rate, and if I’m fit and well-rested, I can gradually pick up the pace during the second hour and finish the run going very fast, very comfortably. But, please note: I’m not suggesting that you should go “very fast” in your long runs. In fact, I’m absolutely certain that it would be a huge mistake.

That’s because long runs are for building endurance, not speed. You cannot work on one, during your long runs, without compromising the other. I mention this whole issue of speeding up during long runs because you’re likely to hear from runners who do it. After you’ve run several marathons, you may find that you can get a larger training effect if you speed up a little bit late in your long runs. But I would suggest that you should never go faster than 78-79% of your maximum heart rate during a long run. My experience suggests that 80% of MHR may be, for average runners like me, an important dividing line. Go any faster, and you won’t get the best training effect; in fact, you may have to shorten your long runs; but run comfortably just under 80%, and you’ll find that you’re able to develop fitness and endurance.

All I can say is that it feels deeply right to take a very long, slow warmup, then cruise at 78-79% of MHR. But if you’re training for your first marathon, you’d do well to limit your heart rate to 70-75%, tops.

The long warmup is hugely important. (See the chapter in Fitness Intuition, “Can Slow Running Make You Faster?”)

How long will it take your body to get warmed up? It’s completely individual. And how can you know when your body is truly warmed-up? If you speed up tentatively, and your body is able to relax into the faster pace effortlessly, then you can know that you’re warmed up. It will feel like you’re slipping effortlessly into a higher gear. There will be no sense of strain. But on days when your body isn’t fully recovered, or it’s sub-par because of illness, poor sleep, stress, bad diet, etc., you won’t be able to run hard without an effort that feels like grimly grinding. The worst thing you can do, on those days, is to override your body’s wisdom and force it to run at a fast pace. Your body will tell you very clearly if it’s okay to run hard – there’ll be a sense of ease and joy. Ignoring the body’s signals is a major mistake. It will take your preparation for the marathon backward; rely on it. The price of inappropriate fast running is slow recovery and lack of improvement.

Fueling for the long run

There’s some very good dietary advice for distance runners on the website. I won’t repeat that advice here, other than to highlight a couple of important items.

First, you should never try to replenish all of the carbs your body burns during a long run. This is a big mistake. The makers of exercise drinks commonly tell people to imbibe carbs equivalent to what they burn while exercising. But the problem with that approach is that it simply doesn’t work. When you run, your body burns carbs at a faster rate than it can absorb them from race drinks or food. You’ll perform better if you replenish at a rate of 25-50 grams of carbohydrate per hour. (Your body’s ability to absorb carbs will be individual.) Follow the guidelines on the Hammer Nutrition site.

Second, don’t try to restore all of the electrolytes you use during the long run. Again, I recommend that you study the Hammer Nutrition guidelines.

Finally, don’t try to guzzle too much water – although it’s extremely important to get enough. If the weather’s hot, and if you’re getting headaches after the long run, you can be sure that you’ve been drinking too little fluids, and also possibly not getting enough electrolytes.

Please note: these are very general guidelines. As with every other aspect of training, your body’s needs will be unique, and so you’ll need to adjust your fuels accordingly.

Individual differences are never stronger than when it comes to diet. Some people thrive on Gatorade and other drinks that contain simple sugars, while many others begin to feel, deep in a long run or marathon, as if they’d swallowed a bowling ball after taking these fuels.

For most long runs, I thrive on Clif Shot gels without caffeine. For marathons, and for the first 30 miles of ultras, I do well on the Hammer Nutrition Sustained Energy product. I don’t do very well at all on Hammer Nutrition’s Heed and Perpetuem drinks. However, many runners thrive on those products.

How can you find out which fuels work best for you? Try this simple test. During a long run, bring along a “reliable” energy source that you know from past experience works reasonably well. Also, bring some of the fuel you want to test. Start with that fuel. If, at any point during the run, you experience the “cannonball-in-tummy” sensation, or any other negative symptoms, you can switch back to the old reliable fuel. But be very careful: Gatorade and other simple sugar-based fuels work reasonably well for many runners for the first 15-18 miles, and reveal their devastating effects only after 18-20 miles. Don’t imagine that you can rely on them during the marathon if you’ve only tested them in training runs of less than 18-20 miles. You really should test your fuels during at least one 10-mile run without walking breaks, unless you plan to walk during the marathon. Negative symptoms often don’t show up during runs with walking breaks.

I formerly did many long run/walks of 30-35 miles on plain water and electrolytes. (I used Electrolyte Stamina Tabs from Trace Minerals Research, available in health food stores and online.) If the course had hills, I would bring a single protein/carb bar and take a bite every hour, starting after 1½ hours. The reason I started taking no fuels is that a training partner told me he never took any kind of nourishment during long runs or marathons. He was an impressive runner, with a 3:05 marathon PR at age 64. When I tried it, I found that I felt better during my long runs when I didn’t take fuels.

Those were straight-through runs of up to 20 miles, plus ultra-style training walk/runs: walk 1 minute and run 5 minutes on the flats, walk the uphills, and run the downhills. I felt fine during those runs, but I was completely wiped-out afterterward, and my recovery seemed to take a lot longer than it ought to. I stopped doing plain-water runs when ultrarunner Karl King, who’s a University of Minnesota professor of chemical engineering, told me that fuel-free long runs are very hard on the body, because they result in the body producing abnormally high amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone that can cause premature aging. Karl said he’d never seen a runner who used plain water in long runs who didn’t look older than his years.

My recovery is much faster, now that I’m doing my long runs with Clif Shot, Electrolyte Stamina Tabs, and lots of water, plus eating plenty of carbs immediately after the run, and getting a high-quality protein meal several hours after the run (typically, a cheese omelet with organic free-range eggs, or buttermilk and dates).

Scheduling the long run

How often should you run long? Here’s a plan you can try. It’s based on 1972 U.S. Olympian Jeff Galloway’s advice in Jeff Galloway’s Book on Running. By the way, Jeff has posted his complete marathon, half-marathon, and 5K/10K training programs on his website. I urge you to study those programs – they are excellent, and they’ve been used successfully by more than 200,000 runners.

Here’s the basic plan. Run the same distance every week, but add one mile every other week until you’re up to 12 miles, then keep running 12 miles on alternate weeks and add a mile to the in-between weeks, until you’re up to 16-18 miles. Then do the longer runs by running straight through for the first two hours, then walk/running until you achieve a total distance every other week of 24 miles. If you find that you aren’t recovering in time for the next week’s medium-length run, you can do the 24-miles every three or four weeks. If you’re over 40, recovery from the long run will take longer; and if you’re over 50, you should monitor your recovery with extreme care, and train accordingly.

During the walk/run portion, walk 1 minute and run 5 minutes on the flats. But walk the uphills, and run all the downhills. After you’ve done several 24-milers, you may want to experiment with walking an additional 2-4 miles past 24 at an easy pace to give yourself the satisfaction of covering the marathon distance.

Philip Maffetone, coach of six-time Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon winner Mark Allen and ultramarathon legend Stu Mittleman, believes it’s a really good idea to extend the long run past the target distance with easy walking. He reports that many of the runners he’s coached who tried this method had an easier time in the marathon. Maffetone feels it has something to do with our internal clock – “total time on the feet” makes a big difference in how well we’re able to tolerate long distances on race day.

Stay Tuned

As I discover other tips for first-time marathoners, I’ll add them here. Meanwhile, I suggest reading “How to Run Your First 50-Miler”, because much of the information given there also applies to the marathon.

In the early 1970s, I worked at Runner’s World as an assistant editor and staff photographer. Over the years, I’ve stayed in contact with Joe Henderson, the RW founding editor. Joe’s biweekly online newsletter is well worth subscribing to (it’s free). Joe has been close to the running scene for over 50 years, and he always has something interesting to say.

In an email to Joe recently, I said, “I’m inclined to think that most 25- to 40-mpw runners are way under-trained.” Joe replied:

Maybe some are, but that’s not my experience with five Marathon Teams, totaling 130 starters and 130 finishers. [Joe teaches running classes at the University of Oregon.] We don’t count weekly miles, but hardly anyone would top 40. Struggling finishes are few, after-effects are minimal. The key, I think, is that the long run is good and long. Any troubles a person might run into would likely surface in the training runs, which become marathon-like. Without these, the risks on raceday would be higher.

You’re right — 30 miles a week is too little for marathon training, if it’s six five-mile runs or five sixes or even three 10s. Even double that weekly might be inadequate if the runs are divided up equally. But if it’s a 20 and two fives, then it will work.

In a follow-up email, Joe wrote:

The least-quoted part of his [Jeff Galloway’s marathon training] program is what to do between the long runs. Not much. Don’t know if this makes his books, but he said at his camp last summer to do “one hour during the week. It can be a single hour, or two 30-minute runs, or three 20s. The point is, limit yourself to that hour.” Or as you would say, don’t do anything that interferes with the long run. I’d say the same.

When I followed Jeff Galloway’s program for the marathon, I made two big mistakes: I focused on overall weekly mileage instead of the long run; and I did speedwork. As a result, I was continually overtrained; which meant that I never reaped the improvement I was working so hard to accomplish. I believe I would have enjoyed my training much more if I had put most of my energy into the long run.

A friend of mine made a similar mistake. He followed Galloway’s program, but he misjudged his ability. He ran speedwork at midweek, consisting of repeat miles, as Galloway recommends for an experienced runner. But instead of running them at a realistic marathon goal pace, he ran his dream pace: 6:00 per mile. The all-out speedwork and the long runs were too much; during the race, he went out at 6:00-6:30 pace and crashed at 14 miles.

I’m 65 years old. I told Joe how I wasn’t recovering between my long runs. I was warming up at 65% of MHR for an hour, then running hard for an hour, up to 92% of MHR (yes, I know, it was crazy), and I simply couldn’t do hard speedwork on the alternate weekends. As a result, I decided to limit my heart rate during the longer runs to 78-80%, after warming up for 40 minutes to an hour.

Here’s Joe’s reply:


Our Marathon Teams do just that (and not much of that, at that). They alternate a long run one weekend with a tempo run (at about half the previous distance) the next.

Sounds good to me. The only thing I would add is that tempo runs have been proven less effective than intervals for improving speed at the 5K and 10K distances. (Source: a study reported, in the early- or mid-90s, in Running Research News.