How to Start Training to RACE Marathons

Figuring out where to begin is maybe the hardest part.
Figuring out where to begin is maybe the hardest part.

We get asked a lot of questions here, and one we get asked an awful lot is this one:

I’ve finished marathons, but now I want to train to race one! How do I do that?

We’ve also heard variations like:

I’ve raced a half, but now want to race a full marathon.


I want to eventually go sub-3 like you and Barley, but…

or simply,

Where do I start to train to race a marathon to my potential?

I told you where you need to be 10 weeks out before going sub-3, but a lot of you wanted to know how to get to that point. The short answer is it depends on where you’re starting and what you’re ultimately capable of, sure, but no matter what big dream marathon time you aspire to, there’s a common starting point for training to get there. 

Now, don’t get turned off by my use of sub-3. That’s just an example and one I am familiar with and one a lot of women aspire to, even if it’s only their wildest imaginations. Even if you might never ever go sub-3, this and Barley’s and my sub-3 posts are still for you. The point is to help you figure out what you need to do to train to race a marathon at your best. So when you see sub-3, just substitute BQ, or sub-4:00, or whatever your goal is.

Anyway, I recently shared the chart of my most recent training cycle, the training cycle that ended with a 2:54. Depending on where you are in your training history, you might have looked at it in disbelief that people really do run 90 miles per week and don’t turn into a pile of poo. Maybe you were left scratching your head about how to get to that point to begin with.  I left you without any real ideas on where to get started.

Let’s fix that now. It is hard to see several seasons into the future and know how hard you have to work to make seasonal improvements. As Barley shared recently, it can take several seasons of consistent work to get where you want to go, but first you have to start somewhere.

Step 1: Be in very good athletic shape

Before you start training to really race marathons, you need to be in really good athletic shape. I don’t mean pretend you are in very good athletic shape; you should honestly assess your fitness level and figure out if you actually are in really good athletic shape.

What do I mean by very good athletic shape? I mean you have a solid base and are capable of physically handling the demands of a structured marathon training plan. There will be some variability among what that means for each person, but I think I can make this generalization:

  • You are capable of handling about 50 miles a week.

That doesn’t mean you have to run 50 miles a week, but between running and cross-training you are fit enough that you could handle that mileage. I’d hate to say you’ll just know it when you see it, but that is how it is. It’s subjective.

Step 2: Consistency

Next, make sure you can handle the mileage. I say it again and again, but never before have I intended for these words to be advice: run every day. The objective is to build up to running every day, averaging ten miles per day. Only then will you be training to race a marathon to your potential. It might take you a season or two or even three or four to get to that point, but ultimately that’s where you want to go.

You might be able to get to  7 days of running each week more quickly than you think. There’s one simple thing you can do that might help: slow down. Where’s the fire? The first priority is to get the miles in. More miles is an important component for building the aerobic capacity that makes the rest possible. While cross training is a good start, you need to be building aerobic capacity in the muscles you actually use when you are running.

Running as many miles and days as you can is important to get used to being on your feet running for this long every day, and I promise by itself, running higher mileage every day will lead to big improvements within a few months. Recovery is equally important, so be consistent about the time and conditions of your runs and aim for at least 22 hours of recovery every day between runs.

Step 3: Figure out what we mean by workouts

Workouts are runs with purpose. You will never hit your goal by going out there every day and running as hard as you can or, conversely, by never running harder than easy. Get used to the idea of doing different kinds of runs, with different purposes, and at different paces during your training weeks. These kinds of runs might be track workouts, tempo runs, strides, goal paced runs, etc.

imageI suspect that when you start doing workouts, you’ll have no idea what you are doing. I sure didn’t. But that’s why you will pick a plan (see below).  Even with a plan, be careful of all of the mistakes that runners make when doing speed workouts. Speed, when done incorrectly anyway, kills: improperly incorporating speed work (e.g. too fast, too often, etc) is the easiest way to get injured, which is the easiest way to fail to be consistent (see step 2).

Step 4: Pick a plan and understand the purpose of EVERY run

Having a good training plan is essential to achieving your marathon race goals. A good plan will ensure you are doing purposeful workouts and running enough miles. You can hire a coach, purchase a customized training plan from someone, but I think it’s better to start by using a book from an established coach that explains the purpose of the training and the workouts. These are excellent plans and, if followed properly and consistently, are just as likely to lead to good results for you as a marathon racing beginner. Plus, by gaining experience this way, you will learn what works for you, what some of your strengths and weaknesses are, and provide a baseline for a coach to work with should you choose to go down that road later.

So start with a book. I like Hanson’s Marathon Method book because it’s relatively simple and a lot of people like Pfitzinger’s Advanced Marathoning.  These are just two, but there are many others. Whatever plan you choose to do, it is essential to understand the purpose of every single workout in the plan and to stick to the plan and run those workouts according to whatever purpose each run is meant to serve.

Going for a big-goal takes a ton of hard work, consistency, and perseverance. Before you jump in, make sure you’ve done the base-building and research to set yourself up for success!

How did you make the leap to training to race marathons? If you haven’t yet, what else would you like to know about getting started?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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  1. Great advice! I think a lot of people start running and jump right into marathoning, then run “slow” and think they’re just no good at it. The key to racing marathons, I think, is to have that solid running base down before even attempting to train to race one. Then you can come out of the gate with solid performances and build off of there.

    1. There is no set weight – it depends on your body. If you’re training to perform and eat well your body will find an efficient weight for you.

    2. The book Racing Weight has a great explaination on how to find/obtain racing weight. When I ran the numbers I came out pretty close to what I’ve always considered my “racing weight” (gauged off college competition years). I think it’s pretty accurate and takes into account a lot of individualized factors… not just BMI.

  2. Oooh. This is all really helpful. I’m going to buy Hansons book. I’m reading a sneak preview of it on amazon right now and I think this will be a good step in the right direction!

  3. Great post and 100% agree with you and Salty that having the base is incredibly important when getting started with a RACE training plan. For me I had to start from scratch to make the leap into racing marathons. After I broke my foot in a car accident I started over. The perk of this was that I built a fresh but strong base and eventually worked in marathon workouts to translate that base into a faster marathon. I followed a modified version of a pfitz plan, and using that really helped me learn more about training and the distance. One of the things I also had to do, was figure out my weaknesses. I started getting better at running marathons when I realized that I was strengthening my strengths and not addressing my weak points. (example, I had good speed but not endurance at that speed, so doing more tempos was huge) Focusing on that allowed me to train smarter for actually racing and not just running a marathon.

  4. My non-scientific subjective answer is around borderline-underweight. Think around BMI 19. I raced last year’s 2:59 marathon at 112lbs. I raced this year’s 2:54 at around 117.5lbs. Weight plays a huge factor in the mathematics that determine VO2max, but it isn’t all about weight. If you do everything else right, the weight should happen on its own.

  5. I think Hanson’s gets it right – gotta run more during the week and not rely on the long run exclusively if you want to race a marathon. I’m 12 weeks into the 18 week program and it is hard, but once you get the momentum, it is manageable. I’m not running 10 miles per day, but it is rare to be under 8, and I’m over 10 several days per week. My fitness is at a whole new level and I have had big PRs at several different distances in the past few weeks (hooray for a big PR at the 5k turkey trot!!!!). Consistency is the name of the game, and it works.

  6. I used Hansons for my last marathon and shaved off almost 20 minutes from my previous marathon time. The higher mileage and purposeful runs definitely paid off for me.

  7. I hired a coach when I decided to run my first marathon (with the goal of BQing). It was worth every penny and I beat my goal time by over 20 minutes. She took the guesswork out of the training, gave me specific paces and consistent feedback for my workouts, and was great moral support throughout the process. I’m beginning my third marathon training cycle with her with the hopes of attaining that elusive sub 3-hour time in the spring. Thanks for the timely post!