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How to Run a Marathon

A simple training plan
 

Increasingly, what interests me about doing difficult things is that the hardest part is almost always the beginning. Getting started, keeping started, generating momentum. After that things become much easier, particularly if the hard thing you are doing is something that, deep down, you really want to do. Once you manage to overcome laziness, busy-ness, procrastination and get into the habit of the new way, things are much simpler. Building a habit is hard though.

I notice all this myself, particularly with regards to getting fit. I love being fit. But I can’t be bothered getting fit. Unless I have an end goal that is powerful enough to get me out the front door, then I tend to lapse into my natural state of laziness and self-loathing! But when I am on a good long stretch of regular training I love it. I miss it when I don’t do it, and I find the progress I’m making an excellent motivation to keep on making more progress.

There are two things that make me persevere with a training plan: I need to really care about the end goal. And the plan needs to be simple.

Today I want to outline a training plan for running a marathon. Marathons are wonderful things: hard enough to be an achievement for anybody. But also realistic enough so that anybody can complete one, if they train properly. I strongly believe that everyone should run a marathon at least once in their life. My first marathon took me 5 hours (dressed as a rhino), my most recent one I managed in under 3.

But if you are not a runner, if you’ve never run anything close to 26 miles, then it can seem impossibly daunting. So let’s not think about 26 miles. Let’s just begin.

This then is a plan that is simple to begin, simple to follow, simple to stick to, simple to notice improvements. In other words, it’s one that you might actually stick to. I am not an expert. I’ve never done anything like this before. So please do let me know your thoughts on how it might be improved. I put together my plan based on my own experiences of training, and thinking about what helped me (an unremarkable runner) to run a sub-3 hour marathon. I also wanted to try to make a plan that was very simple to understand, and would generate results with just three running sessions per week. For busy people, I think it’s important for each run to help you progress with one of the three key aspects of marathon running: run far, run fast, run far fast! There’s nothing more complicated than that.

We are going to work on a 24 week schedule (that is actually much simpler than it first appears!)

marathon.001

Let’s Begin!

1. Sign up for a race.

Until there is commitment there is doubt, hesitancy, and a million chances to procrastinate. If you think you want to run a marathon, then you need to put your money where your mouth is, and sign up for a race. It’s a vital step in persuading yourself that you are serious.

Which race you choose is up to you. You may want one that is local, one that is cheap, one that’s iconic, one that encourages you to raise money for charity, or one in an exciting foreign place like Paris or New York. For marathons in the UK, visit www.findarace.com and sign up for a race that’s taking place about six months from now. That’s enough time to do the event justice. (If you are fit already then you don’t need to train for six months.) And don’t worry – running won’t take over your life for six months: one of the points of this training plan is to allow the running to fit in to your already-busy life. Relax!

Signed up for the race? Good.

Next step: tell people that you have signed up to run a marathon.

Tell people whose opinion you value, people who will encourage you and help you, people who will mock you if you fail to commit. The more people you tell, the more you are committed to doing this!

Step 3. Time to run.

It’s not time to buy expensive clothes and heart rate monitors. It’s not time to muck about with diets and protein shakes. That can all come later, much later, if at all.

We only have a certain amount of willpower within us. If you try to change too many habits at once, you will fail. So we need to save all of our willpower for running until we’ve built a strong habit that’s not going to crumble and collapse at the slightest strife.

For now, wear whatever you like to run in – any old trainers and shorts are fine (remember though the old Army mantra of “be bold, start cold” – you’ll soon get warm once you’re running). All you need is a watch to time yourself.

If you are overweight (and over 25% of Britain is overweight), then weigh yourself now. Make a note of the figure. In the weeks to come, when motivation flags, seeing how quickly and simply you have lost weight will help act as a spur to continue.

And now? Now we run.

You will run three times a week.

At first, each run will be either Run A, Run B, or Run C.

It’s simple to understand, simple to measure your progress, and realistic to fit into a busy life.

Try not to run on consecutive days. But if your schedule means that you have to, then it doesn’t matter much.

If you miss a day, or even a week, just carry on where you left off. We are all busy. We are all lazy. We all get sick. Don’t worry about it. Carry on. Don’t just quit.

Week 1

FIRST RUN: Run A

Run, from your front door or office, at a steady pace, for 16 minutes. You should run at a pace whereby you could carry on a normal conversation as you run. Nice and slow. If you can’t run for that long without getting out of breath, then walk quickly. Don’t worry about it. Make a mental note of where you get to  after 16 minutes – the end of a street, or a distinctive tree. Now turn round and run back home. You need to get back home in 14 minutes, making a total run of 30 minutes. The second half of your run is therefore at a faster pace than the first half of your run: just like the eventual marathon will be. Congratulations! You have begun training for your marathon.

SECOND RUN: Run A

Exactly the same as before, except this time you must reach a spot a tiny bit further away by the time you reach the 16 minute turn around. Keep the pace gentle though: you must resist the temptation to overdo it in the first week!

THIRD RUN: Run A

Exactly the same. Run for 16 minutes, a little further than last time. Then run home in 14 minutes. Every time you do Run A you should aim to get a little further than last time.

After each run drink plenty of water and eat some food as soon as you can after finishing. You need to take in protein and carbohydrate: homemade smoothies, porridge with fruit and nuts, peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches – stuff like that.

WEEK 2

The same as Week 1. Repetition is important: it helps build a routine and form a habit. It shows you how you are progressing. And it is simple enough for a busy mind to cope with.

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run A
  • 3. Run A

WEEK 3

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run B: Pick a different route to Run A. Run for 23 minutes. Run at a pace so that you could chat normally as you run. Easy does it! If you can’t run for that long, then walk quickly when you need a breather. Don’t worry about it. Make a mental note of where you get to after 23 minutes – the end of a street, or a distinctive tree. Now turn round and run back home. You need to get back home in 22 minutes, making a total run of 45 minutes.
  • 3. Run A

WEEK 4

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run B: Every time you do Run B you should aim to get a little further than last time.
  • 3. Run A

Congratulations! You have been running for a month now.

This is the hardest month of any training programme, the hardest phase of building any habit. Hopefully you’ve noticed an increase in the distance you can run and how you feel the next day. And hopefully you are beginning to feel satisfaction and pride at sticking to this plan.

Weigh yourself.

Go to bed 10 minutes earlier each day.

WEEK 5

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run A
  • 3. Run C. Pick a different route to Run A or Run B. Run for 31 minutes. You should run at a pace whereby you could carry on a conversation as you run. If you can’t run for that long, then walk quickly at times. Don’t worry about it. Make a mental note of where you get to  after 31 minutes – the end of a street, or a distinctive tree. Now turn round and run back home. You need to get back home in 29 minutes. You’ve just run for an hour. Well done!

WEEK 6

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run A
  • 3. Run C

WEEK 7

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run B
  • 3. Run C

WEEK 8

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run B
  • 3. Run C

Congratulations! You have been running for two months now.

You’re getting committed and taking this seriously. Hopefully you are feeling fitter, prouder and maybe even beginning to look forward to your runs!

It’s time now to get some new trainers. All these miles will take their toll on your body and it’s important to have good shoes. They might seem expensive, but it’s worth it to prevent injury. Trainers also need replacing quite often once you start running a lot of miles. Visit a specialist running shop such as Profeet and seek their advice.

If you haven’t already, you should begin a stretching routine to aid your flexibility and recovery. It will really help stave off injury and prevent injury. I’m not going to preach too much about it because, though I know it to be beneficial, I can never quite be bothered to do much of it myself. Read here for expert advice.

Go to bed 10 minutes earlier each day.

Weigh yourself and record the weight. Hopefully you are beginning to see results. If not, you need to address your diet.

Indeed, now that your habit is quite strongly formed, and you’re well on the way to being in the running habit necessary to complete a marathon, there may be enough reserve in your willpower bank to begin to improve your diet.

Here’s a few suggestions to begin improving your diet:

  • Drink less alcohol, less often. You don’t need to be more draconian than that. Trying to be too strict on yourself, too quickly, is a surefire way to fail.
  • Eat less crap: crisps, cakes, biscuits, takeaways, fizzy drinks, sugar. If you feel the urge to snack, eat a banana instead. Don’t be too hard on yourself – just try to notice more what you eat, and be honest with yourself about what you eat.

WEEK 9

This is a recovery week. Pay attention to your body when you train. It’s important, particularly if you feel jaded, permanently tired, or are no longer beating your previous turn-around points, to allow your body time to rest and recover. If in doubt, have a rest. Over-training is just as bad as under-training.

  • 1. 30 minutes slow
  • 2. 45 minutes slow
  • 3. 60 minutes slow

WEEK 10

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run B
  • 3. Run D: Run for 40 minutes, at “conversation pace” then turn around and run home. Run D will grow into the “long runs” that are utterly crucial for completing a marathon. Speed is irrelevant on these runs: it’s time on your feet that matters. Therefore you don’t need to measure where you reach at turnaround time. Indeed, to maintain your interest as these runs grow longer, it’s a good idea to run a different route every time you do Run D. This is your chance to explore and to notice your horizons expanding! Take a bottle of water and a small snack with you every time you run longer than 1 hour.

Week 11

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run B
  • 3. Run D: 45 minutes then turn around. Conversational pace.

Week 12

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run B
  • 3. Run D: 50 minutes then turn around.

Congratulations! You have now been training for 3 months.

As your weekly long runs increase, you might want to invest in some specialist wicking running clothes, a running bottle, a food belt, hydration salts, and energy gels. Your running shop will help advise you on this. During any run longer than an hour you need to eat and drink to replace calories and fluids.

Eating when running takes getting used to. It can cause cramp, tummy upsets and occasional catastrophically-urgent dashes into the bushes! Better to get your body used to this now, rather than on race day…

Weigh yourself.

Go to bed 10 minutes earlier each day.

Drink less alcohol, less often.

Improve your diet: eat more protein, fruit and vegetables this month. Begin to switch refined carbs (white bread, white pasta, white rice) for brown bread, brown pasta, brown rice. Don’t go crazy with this, or you’ll quit. Just begin to make small changes.

To run a marathon to your best potential, you need to be able to do 3 things:

  • 1. Run far
  • 2. Run fast
  • 3. Run far, fast

Up to now, we have been working on point 1 and 2. From now the programme changes to focus on point 3 as well.

The programme sticks with its routine of 3 runs per week. If you have the time, and sufficient willpower, it would be useful to also do a slow 30 minute recovery run on the day after your long run. If you don’t have time for this then be sure at least to rest on the day after the long run: they are going to become increasingly draining and time consuming from now on.

If ever you are too busy to do a full week, be sure to prioritise the long run. One long run will help you deal with 26 miles more than a couple of short ones.

Note that, to this point, we have had no idea of the distance we are running, only the time we run for. In order to just get to the finishing a marathon, this system is simple and works well. If, however, you are interested in running a fast marathon (“fast” means “as fast as your own body is capable of running”), then it may be time for you to move over to a more specialised, detailed training programme such as these for the final three months before the race.

Week 13

  • 1. Run B
  • 2. Run E: speed work. This will hurt. But it will do you good! Find a hill that will take about 30 seconds to sprint up. Sprint up, walk down. Repeat 10 times. You should be in a world of pain here!
  • 3. Run D: 45 minutes then turn around

Week 14

  • 1. Run B
  • 2. Run E
  • 3. Run D: 50 minutes then turn around

Week 15

  • 1. Run B
  • 2. Run E
  • 3. Run D: 55 minutes then turn around

Week 16

  • 1. Run B
  • 2. Run E
  • 3. Run D: 60 minutes then turn around

Congratulations! You are now running for 2 hours!

That’s an incredible improvement on the 30 minutes you managed at the start of the programme.

Weigh yourself.

Go to bed 10 minutes earlier each day.

Drink less alcohol, less often.

Improve your diet: eat more protein, fruit and vegetables this month.

Stretch more.

Week 17

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run E
  • 3. Run D: 70 minutes then turn around

Week 18

  • 1. Run B
  • 2. Run E
  • 3. Run D: 80 minutes then turn around

Week 19

  • 1. Run B
  • 2. Run E
  • 3. Run D: 85 minutes then turn around

Week 20

  • 1. Run B
  • 2. Run E
  • 3. Run D: 90 minutes then turn around

Weigh yourself.

Go to bed 10 minutes earlier each day.

You’ve only got one month until the race: no more alcohol until then!

Improve your diet.

Stretch more.

The hard work is almost over. Congratulations!

In the next month you’ll taper down to race day. This allows your body chance to recover. Do not be tempted to put in big miles – it’s too late!

Week 21

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run E
  • 3. Run D: 80 gentle minutes then turn around

Week 22

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run E – don’t be too hard on yourself!
  • 3. Run C

Week 23

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run B
  • 3. Run C – at a gentle pace

Week 24

  • 1. Run A
  • 2. Run a Marathon.

Congratulations!

Only those who have run a marathon can call themselves marathon runners…

marathon.001

Click here if you’d like to print it out to use.

Feel free to hack, modify, edit, duplicate etc!

Read Comments

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Comments

  1. HI Alistair for new runners can I suggest reading the Non-Runners Marathon guide. Its got lots of really useful guidance for the non runner turning into a runner, espcially the mental side Since starting running just under three years ago its got me from the no exercise and being a couch potato through two half marathons and a 50km.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Non-Runners-Marathon-Trainer-David-Whitsett-ebook/dp/B006B7LSDY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1422610646&sr=8-1&keywords=Non-runners+marathon+guide

    Reply
  2. A bit complicated for my liking. Here’s mine: (based on personal experience of 1 marathon and some other races)
    1. Start 4-6 months before, not 3 months before, if starting from zero.
    2. Run as far as you can (until you are struggling) on day one.
    3. A week later, run at least a mile further than the week before. If you feel comfortable after that, run another mile extra. So every week run 1-2 miles more than the week before. These are the long runs for many people on a weekend. Never miss the long run. It is the one that counts.
    4. Do at least 1 short run in the week. (Assuming you are looking at a 4 or 5 hr marathon rather than 3, and assuming you start training well in advance, there is no need to run 4 times a week.)
    5. Pay attention to the food intake. Learn what works for you. Personally I found I would run out of energy before even a half marathon, and I had to learn to eat a large meal (pasta+fish) 2-3 hours before a long run plus jelly babies 3 hours into the run. But others are definately different. Make sure you experiment and find out what’s best for you. Experiment when your runs are up to the 10-20 mile range. Hitting the wall = bad food management?
    5. For the London marathon, people schedule half marathons a month before the marathon. I don’t get this. By early March you should already be able to run at least 17 miles.
    6. Use your common sense. Do we really need fartlek fast runs in training, the experts say so, but does it really make any sense to do fast short runs to train for a slow long run. I didn’t bother. Likewise the always reccomended but over-rated tapering. Apart from the risk of injury I can’t see why running say 24 miles 2 weeks before the marathon day is going to cause your body any issues. It will probably build up your fitness.
    7. 20-30% of your training schedule should be written off to allow for slight food and leg injuries and minor illnesses.

    Reply
    • Alastair Posted

      Hi Jamie, Most of your tips are along the same lines as mine.
      I really disagree with #6 though – I felt being able to run fast, and then to maintain running fast was absolutely critical to getting me a ‘fast’ (for me) time. Not necessary, sure, for just running 26 miles, but crucial for running 26 miles fast.

      Reply
      • My goal was sub 4 if I was aiming for sub 3 I wouldn´t have run only 2 times a week either and might have tried more speed runs.

        I agree to the extent that you should train at the speed you want to run the marathon but I don´t see why you should run fast slow fast slow why vary the speed in training.

        If you want to run a marathon in sub 3 hours that´s a speed of 9mph. So to train for a sub 3 hour marathon could you not simply run as far as you can at a constant 9mph until you´re too tired to continue, and repeat that process until you can do it for 26 miles.

        Reply
  3. I also wanted to tell a story. My first training run for the London marathon. I decided to run from my office to my house. It was 2 miles. I didn’t make it. I had to give up half way and walk the rest. It took the second or third attempt to make it. After I touched my house at the end, I lay on the floor and sweat panting at the end for ages. That last hundred yards, to make it 2 miles from my office to my house, was so much harder than any part of the London Marathon. The last few hundred yards of that I was cruising past people at speed. So no matter how little you can do at the start, believe you can do it.

    Reply

 
 

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