To Marathon, Or Not to Marathon? How Do You Know You’re Ready to Run 26.2?

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...
Poor Descartes wasted all that time on the existential question to end all existential questions when he really should have been pondering whether to dive in and train for a full marathon or not. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That is the question.

I recently had an epic run, during which I broke through my mileage plateau without suffering any immediate ill effects, I can’t help but wonder if I should just go ahead and do it. I know darn well I can run a half-marathon, albeit maybe slower than I would like, but could I run a marathon this coming February? I have plenty of time between now and then to finish a first-time marathon training program.

I wondered what came into other people’s decision trees when deciding whether to run a marathon or not. Over and over again I see emotion as the top reason.  A feeling of strength, beauty, power. There’s a moving article called Why You Should Run a Marathon that epitomizes the emotion of it. But what I really want to know is: how do you know when you’re ready? 

Run a marathon, or go back to bed?
Run a marathon, or go back to bed?

How can I be sure my body is ready to endure fourish and a halfish hours of running? And what about my mind? I’ve done so many runs that have been between eight and twelve miles, a couple of 13.1s and one epic 15-mile run. I know I can hang for two hours. But four and a half!?

A bit of searching around on the wonderful world of Google quickly revealed some common themes to figuring out whether or not you should undertake marathon training.

1. Running experience. 

Both Runner’s World and a site I’d never heard of before called HillRunner – and probably a hundred more – suggest at least a year’s worth of running experience, with as little as three miles three times per week. Jeff Guadette of goes so far as to say that you should be able to average 40 miles per week for five or six weeks before you even begin training. Personally, I’ve got two out of three of those covered.

2. Training time.

I get that setting a 26.2 mile goal requires dedication. So does anything else that’s worth doing right (think career, relationship, family, education). It’s all of these other things that are also worth doing right that compete for training time. Several Salties have contributed articles about making the time to run, but how many hours per week really need to be set aside for training? Looks like a minimum of about four hours per week, but of course it depends on the training program you follow.

3. Ability to follow a training plan.

This might not be 100% necessary, but you have to wonder if you can’t follow a training plan – even loosely – can you run a marathon? There are sooooo many train-to-finish plans out there for newbies like me! If you follow a Jeff Galloway type program, you only have to do two 30-minute runs per week plus your weekend long run, which will reach 26 miles a few weeks before the race. I don’t think I would feel mentally prepared to run for four hours on race day with a program like this. Hal Higdon’s easiest program requires four days per week, a couple of them typically pretty easy – we’re talking five miles or less, here – with a buildup to 20 miles. Again, I don’t think I could get mentally comfortable with running a marathon with a buildup of only 20 miles per week.

I did 15 miles yesterday, I could probably do 20 in a couple of weeks. Does that mean I can run a marathon? Not yet. The Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (F.I.R.S.T.) has a training program for first timers that only requires three key runs per week, but they’re set up to be a little more challenging and let you decide to do cross training or easy runs on your non-run days. That program also only goes up to 20 miles. That happens to the program I’ve chosen, because I like all of the freedom, but since it’s an 18-week program and I’ve got about a month of wiggle room in there, I’m going to do at least one longer run before my marathon to get my mental game on. Maybe 23 miles.

4. Ask yourself why you want to run a marathon.

Personally, I want to run a marathon for the same reason I wanted to do Army Basic Training: just to see if I can (that’s a crappy reason for joining the military, but at least it’s honest). There’s no one for me to impress, my husband thinks it’s a little nuts. After I told her about my 15 mile breakthrough run my daughter flat out told me, “you know my friends think you’re crazy, right?” My mom is concerned that it’s too much (if you remember from my intro post, she also said it was okay for me to quit cross-country in high school, which is why I didn’t). But she’s the type that worries to worry and has never been a runner and doesn’t understand. Not very many people understand. I’m not sure I understand.

I’d like to know from those of you Salted with experience (see what I did there?)…Did you have a magic moment when you realized, “holy shiz! I could run a marathon if I wanted to?”

When did you know you were ready to train for your very first 26.2? 

A 30-something runner striving to hit that ever-elusive BQ. Mother of two young teens, fan of fantasy/fiction/sci-fi (<-read: geek), with a fascination for tortoises and a love of the outdoors.

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  1. This question is a perplexing one whose answer will evade us. Demons and deities will not allow the secrets to be revealed to us mortals. My first marathon I ran with about 2 runs per week, topping out at one 20 miler. I finished with negative splits at a 4:09 and a wonderful experience. Since this time I have done tons of training varieties trying to get down to a BQ, and at times felt prepared only to be squashed (I realize your question is more ‘when are you ready to run your first marathon’, not ‘any marathon’, but I’m co-opting it I suppose).

    As for first timers, I think if you can run 30 miles a week for a handful of weeks, and run a 20 miler with some success (meaning not doing a zombie shuffle at the end) then you’re ready to finish. Then again, knowing if you are ready has such randomness, that the world may never know.

  2. I ran my first marathon 12 years ago in 4 hours and 36 minutes, with the goal of just finishing. I was on the “one and DONE” plan. I honestly had no desire to ever train or run a marathon after that again. Fast forward eleven years and the story begins with me meeting and developing a friendship I cherish beyond words. I train with two (sometimes four) other ladies who are marathon runners. They have run at least 8 marathons themselves. I started training with them in the spring of 2011 with the thought of just running the Cleveland half marathon. After running with them for a few months, they convinced me to train for and run another marathon. It was an easy sell. I loved hitting the pavement with them and letting the miles flow by so easily over girl talk. That motivation to run another marathon quickly led to a bigger goal of “now, we try to get you to qualify for Boston”. I thought they had gone crazy. No way did I believe I could run my second marathon, at least 45 minutes faster than the first. But, I did. I trained and I ran a BQ. That was all it took for me to catch the “marathon bug”. I love everything about the marathon. I love the training. I love the personal conviction. I love the carbo loading. I love the race. I love seeing the runners throughout the race, meeting people, slapping spectators hands. Now, I don’t love hitting that notorious “wall” at mile 18-22 (it varies for different people). But, I do LOVE plowing through that wall. Overcoming that mental & physical challenge is so worth every hour of training and every moment of sacrifice. The marathon by far is my favorite distance. In two short weeks I will be toeing the line (fingers crossed that I don’t have an injury right now that will not allow me to) for my 5th marathon (4th in a row). I plan to run Boston in April of 2014 to make my 6th marathon. I know that I need a break. I plan to take a year off of the 26.2 after Boston. Marathon training is hard. Especially when you have four kids who are young and work full time. It is a passion of mine, tough. I say GO FOR IT to anyone who is questioning if they are ready. You may start a love affair like I have:).

    1. I swore off of long distances after my last half- in 2011. I had run a half in 2005 or 2006, but at the time I was in fantastic shape. Not so for the 2011 race. I trained all wrong, and was miserable by the end, and turned down the Mylar blanket, so I froze my tail off once I cooled down. I can’t tell you how the distance bug crept up on me this year, but it seems to be holding on strong, and it’s nice to be in a place where I can do ten or twelve miles like it’s nothing. Like you, I’m starting out with a “one and done” plan…and we’ll see where it leads!

    2. WOW! your testimony made me convinced! I’m working full time, and ran half marathon 5x. I guess I’m now ready to do a full. I’m a mom, and my husband thinks I’m crazy, I started running just 10k and from there, it made me realize I can do this!

      Thank you! and more power to all the runners out there!

  3. This is a great post! I think most adult-onset runners jump into the marathon too quickly. Many people take up running just to cross the marathon off their bucket list and in so doing probably don’t realize that they might actually be talented runners because they jumped into to too much too quickly or didn’t adequately prepare for the race. I personally think most of us should be consistently training for months/years rather than weeks/months before jumping into a marathon, if we want to keep running all life long and want to have a good experience with it. But many just want to do the one and done thing or just want the 26.2 sticker for their bumper and don’t care, which is fine, of course! To each her own 🙂

  4. I ran my first road race almost exactly a year ago, which was a half marathon. Before I started training, I was not a runner, and didn’t particularly enjoy running. After completing my first half, I was seriously addicted! I knew right then and there that I would enjoy running for years to come. Six months later, I knew that I wanted to do a full marathon. Was it a huge jump to go from non-runner to half-marathoner to marathoner in less than two years? Probably, but I know that I am well-trained for my first marathon, have been consistently training for over a year, and I am still loving the sport!

  5. I signed up for my first marathon because my husband (boyfriend at the time) told me that he was going to run a marathon with Team in Training. He was not a runner. I used to run cross country in high school. I thought if he can do it, than I can do it. Apparently it was just the motivation I needed to start running again. I was hooked after my first one and here i am 7 years, 2 kids later and I just ran marathon #15. I’ve learned a lot in the process, and definately train smarter. I am glad I did my first two with team in training. It is an excellent program that gave me a great foundation to use going forward!

  6. I had a very similar question and approach last fall one year ago. I didn’t know if I was ready to commit to a spring marathon or if I could handle it physically and mentally. So I went for a 12 mile run. My training all summer had been on the order of 3miles, 2 to 3 times a week. Yes…6 to 9 miles a week. Not much, but I have running background. And I figured that if I could just go out for 12 miles without any training, doing a marathon was not out of the question. (ahem..much like being able to do 15 easily). Rather than a question of “Am I ready?” the question was “What’s holding me back? Is it just fear?” Once I addressed my fears of it, I knew that I was ready to tackle my first marathon.

    1. Lisa, I think you’ve really gotten to the heart of what this post was driven by. “Ready” may not be the right question to ask at all. It was when I realized that I wasn’t limited by a certain distance that I realized my excuses were being stripped away, and it really has been just fear holding me back.

  7. In ten days I am running my first marathon. I think a turning point for me was when I did my third half marathon comfortably. I felt at that point I could probably move up to the longer distance. That said, I discovered it takes a lot of work to get past the half marathon distance. For me it was definitely harder than moving from the 10k distance to the half.

    To a certain extent I think how ready you are also depends on your expectations for the race. I knew I could devote time to training but not the time required to blaze a fast pace. So my goal is to finish in the area of 4 1/2 hours, but more importantly to finish feeling good. My last two long runs (32 and 35km) felt great and a I walked away thrilled. I’m hoping for the same on marathon day!

    1. Kristi – that’s awesome! It sounds like you’ve got a solid base, and I’m sure your first marathon will be great. You should post back and let us know how it went!

  8. Don’t over think it.

    You are ready when you want to be ready. Just sign up for one and then you are ready. The only time you “know” you are ready is when you cross the finishing line.

    So you can spend years planning for the perfect 1st marathon, or like me you could be 6 stone overweight and sign up and say ok no bloody choice now i’ve got to get fit 🙂

    Hey 1 year 3 marathons and 1 ultra later… It worked 🙂 Don’t go for perfection just go for it and enjoy yourself, you will have some great runs in training and think i’m so ready for this, then you’ll have a bad long run and think there is no way i can do this… Just keep going and you’ll get over the line, and it’s an awesome feeling.

      1. Good luck 🙂

        It’s like an iceberg running the Massthin is just the visible tip it’s the actual training that makes you feel awesome running the last .2 🙂 you feel on top of the world.

  9. It isn’t just the mileage you have to be ready for, you need to be ready for everyone else having an opinion (supportive or otherwise) about your decision to run a marathon. Parents/caregivers sometimes overly worry about how far you are running and think you’ll break, or something. Friends can be negative about the training schedule, as it eats into down time with them, even if they honestly do want you to succeed. The pressure a loved one can cause when they are overly excited for you; saying they will travel great distances to come see you run, etc can be very stressful to the runner becasue you would be devastated if you let them down!

    This is an event that will usually takes up 4-6 months of a person’s life. The people around you will comment on it and how you react to those comments will contribute to whether you are ready to run a marathon.

  10. I think I may have broken all the rules. I was a dedicated recreational runner (e.g., ran 3-4 miles, 4-5 times per week), but had never run any races before 1999. Then I decided one day that I wanted to run Big Sur, so I started the training after finding Hal Higdon’s running program and started using it. Ran the marathon in 4:45 (I’m not fast, but I can do distances!). Then I stopped running for 14 years. I’m now training for New York 2015, but I’m doing it a bit differently. I guess what I’m saying is, if you give yourself enough time, you can train for almost anything. I’m not breaking land speed records, but I will hopefully have another marathon in the books at the end of this year. Injuries notwithstanding, I don’t think there’s any kind of threshold that says you’re ready or you’re not ready other than your mentality – IF you give yourself the time to get there. A “couch to 26.2” plan in 16 weeks wouldn’t be advisable. But 10 miles a week to 26.2 with some good guidance (and a great massage therapist) could be doable, depending on the person.