How to Coach Yourself to a Great Marathon

Reading Rilke
Dig into those resources to coach yourself to a great marathon! (Photo credit: Underpuppy)

So you want to run a marathon, huh? That’s awesome.  But how are you going to train for it?

You could hire a coach to craft a sweet training program for you. But if you are like most runners, you don’t have or don’t want that option.  You are on your own.

Never fear!  Whether you are a beginner or running your 50th marathon, there is a plethora of valuable and inexpensive (if not free) resources available to help you every step of the way.

Today, I’ll share some of my experiences and offer some tips and ideas on how to find all the resources you need to coach yourself to a great marathon.

As many of you know, I currently work with a coach.  But that certainly isn’t how it’s always been.  I wasn’t a high school or collegiate runner.  In fact, I never even considered lacing up & hitting the pavement until I was in my mid-20s and my boyfriend (now husband) bet me I couldn’t run 3 miles.  I of course accepted the challenge and ran 3 miles the next day!  I loved it and started running 3-4 miles regularly.   But I didn’t care about pace or distance or time, and it never dawned on me to run a race, let alone a marathon for several years.  When I was 31, we moved to Wisconsin and I learned my new neighbor had recently run a half marathon. This piqued my interest, so I started researching half marathon training plans online. I realized that it didn’t take THAT much more to go for the full.  So I bypassed thoughts of a half and decided to train for a full marathon. I also talked my new neighbor into doing it with me.  Tip #1 – Recruit someone to train with you!  She will help keep  you motivated and will  hold you accountable.

This is Hal Higdon, marathoner extraordinaire,...
Hal Higdon, marathoner extraordinaire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So we were now committed to running a marathon!  But we had no idea how to adequately train for it.  Hal Higdon to the rescue!  Higdon is a highly regarded runner who offers free training schedules on his website.   I followed his Novice training program. It is a great beginner program.  The mileage isn’t too hefty, but it will prepare you to cover the 26.2 mile distance.  With it, I ran my first marathon in 3:53 with a big negative split.  Tip #2: Look for free training programs online.

Before I even finished my first marathon, I was thinking about Boston.  But I knew I needed to up my game to qualify.  So I purchased the Advanced Marathoning book by Pfitzinger/Douglas.  Enter tempo workouts, VO2Max workouts and long runs with marathon pace miles.  Tip #3: There are some great books out there too.  Do some research and ask for recommendations.

The book has a ton of valuable information on training and has several different schedules to follow.  I chose the lowest mileage schedule.  With it, I amped up my training significantly, but I also discovered that the higher mileage and higher quality was too hard for me.  Too fast, too soon.  So I went back online, found Higdon’s intermediate plan and mixed the schedules a bit.  The result?  I was able to complete my training and earned that Boston Qualifier (BQ) with a 3:37.   Tip #4: Be flexible with training programs if you need to.  Mix it up instead of giving up.

My Running Bible for 5+ Years

Of course, once I hit that BQ, I wanted to get even faster (3:25 baby!).  As I gained more experience, I was able to complete the schedules in the Advanced Marathoning book and it became my training bible for 9 more marathons.  The book has 12 week, 18 week and 24 week schedules so I had flexibility with how long my training season would be.  It also has plans with varying mileage, so I could max out at 55 miles per week (mpw), 70 mpw, or even jump up to over 90 mpw (I never did).  This gave me a lot of room to enhance or reduce training as necessary to fit with the time I had or the goals I had season over season.  As a bonus, the book includes “multiple marathoning” guidance (running more than one marathon in a short period of time)  which I needed (and I say that loosely) in 2007.  With this guidance, I was able to run a PR marathon (3:26) just 3 weeks after running another marathon.  Tip #5: Select a book or online resource with a variety of schedules to work with.

During the entire time I have been training for marathons, I have also actively participated in running boards/forums/blogs.  These are great resources because let’s face it, most of our friends, family and co-workers don’t train for marathons.  They don’t have advice to give and they certainly do not want to hear about it ad nauseum.  So it is great to find like-minded people and swap advice and experiences.  Tip #6 – Get involved in online communities.

To date, I have run 11 marathons without coaching.  I qualified for Boston, ran Boston twice, and saw an improvement of roughly 30 minutes in my finishing time.  If I can do it, you can certainly do it too.

What resources have you used to coach yourself for the marathon?

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. Great tips! I just registered for my first marathon and signed up for the No Meat Athlete Marathon Roadmap. The mileage looks totally doable, and the workouts are mixed, with cross-training, short easy runs, long runs, hills, and intervals. Along with the training plan, there are recommendations for nutrition and recipes, plus interviews with other plant-based athletes. So far, I’m sold! Here’s to finishing strong 🙂

    1. Sounds great – good luck! One thing that can be tough with running books is they can be WAY more scientific/technical than you want. I looked at the Daniels book a while back and even though he is highly regarded, it was too much work to figure everything out.

  2. As a coach, but not using a coach myself, I think I can see both sides of the coaching question. Many runners are capable of learning enough about training approaches to build their own plans over time – but it takes time to learn about physiology, get new ideas on training, etc. Stock plans can work for a while, but they often aren’t tailored to meet your specific needs – both physically (i.e., helping you avoid injury by understanding your history) and time-wise (asking for longer runs than you can reasonably fit in during weekdays). A good coach can build a plan that accounts for your history, incorporating strength training or other approaches to offset your weaknesses and injury risks. And this can save you the time of having to review all of this yourself. I think that once you start hitting a plateau, it’s time to consider getting a new perspective, that a coach can uniquely provide.

    1. Greg – I completely agree. The more willing you are to educate yourself on all the components of racing, the better you will do if you have to do it on your own. My coach definitely helped me break through a plateau by forcing me out of my comfort zone and making me switch things up. But the truth is, a lot of people can’t afford a coach, don’t know where to find one, or feel weird about hiring one. I know I certainly did. It makes you feel kind of elitist when you aren’t elite and that is hard for people. But I wanted that PR so much, I didn’t care. I am so glad for that. 🙂

  3. I haven’t had a chance to run a marathon since my first, but I’ve improved my HM time by about 26 minutes since my first HM. One of my most important principles of training is the need to learn what works for you as an individual. There is no one right way to train that is good for everyone, and many respected coaches differ on specific implementations of principles. Every training cycle you get an opportunity to change something up a little, find out if it works or doesn’t for you, and implement that (or not) for the future.

    One of the best books for self-coaching, I believe, is Hudson’s “Run Faster from the 5K to the marathon: How to be your own best coach”. It doesn’t just give you schedules and information on the types of workouts, it tells you how to identify your weaknesses and change your training based on that to be the most effective.

    2 other books I’ve found useful, with somewhat different ideas, are Matt Fitzgerald’s books “Brain training for runners” and “Run: the mind-body method of running by feel”. I have found the concept of increasing race specific training towards the end of the schedule, as well as the concept of including workouts specifically (or at least partly) for their confidence-boosting ability have been very helpful for me.

    That said, I take some issue with the statement at the end of your post that “If I can do it, you can certainly do it too.”. I applaud your success, and can only hope for similar success for myself, but do you really think everyone reading this post has the ability to qualify for Boston and from there improve their time by 30 minutes? Even if you think that every able-bodied person has that ability (I don’t), there are many runners out there who have physical limitations on what type of mileage they can run, or what intensity they can run at. I don’t think it is an accurate phrase.

    1. I think Mint was just referring to the fact that she self-coached herself, not that every runner can run the same times she has. I’m sure she’ll respond too, so I’ll let her take it from there.

      Otherwise, I agree – I really liked Hudson’s book and used his methods to train for a few months before I took up with my current coach. I have a really hard time coaching myself, though. I am an overthinker and always second guess myself. I run my best when I “just do what I’m told.” When I don’t have to worry about this or that particular workout, I can just focus on getting the workouts done. When I train myself I’m always wondering if I’m pushing myself hard enough or too hard. Having a coach has really helped me to push myself to run faster than I ever thought I could! I think self-coaching works for many runners, but not as well for others – just like anything else in life 🙂

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience and what works for you!

    2. Thanks Meaghan – and yes, I simply meant that if I can successfully coach myself, anyone can. What “success” means is very different for everyone. For some it is Boston, for others it is to break the 4 hour barrier or set an Olympic Qualifying time. Also, from what I have seen, most people (other than elites who are at peak shape when they run their first marathon) do make improvements – easily 30 minutes or much more in the marathon.