Training for Your First Marathon with Some Running Background

By Derek Turner

There is no such thing as a training guide for everyone. This is an excellent starting point, by an experienced runner and coach. But everyone of us is different, and has different needs, constraints and goals. Treat any training guide as just that: a guide only. Please speak to one of the Serpentine coaches if you want individual training advice.


Congratulations on deciding to run your first marathon. The first task to do is to look at your existing schedule and decide how to modify it to give the base from which to build your training schedule on. The important points to be looking for in your existing training are the total weekly mileage the number of times you run a week and the longest runs that you under take. To analyse your existing training assumes that you have already been keeping a log of your training. If you haven’t then you should start now, as it will enable to keep your training on course. Check the training log spreadsheets on our website.

The schedules below assume that you will be able to run on at least 6 days a week, and that you are able to set aside up to about three to four hours one day a week for a long run. The build up to the marathon should be a slow increase in the volume of running. I advocate that runners should neither increase their weekly mileage or their long run by more than 2-3 miles a week. (This is I know a cautious approach but I would rather that runners stayed injury free and enjoyed their running. Some coaches will suggest increasing weekly mileage by up to as much as 5%).

The most important aspect to your training is the long run and total mileage run. Your main aim is to complete your first marathon comfortably. (If you have been running and competing 10kms, ½ marathons and so on and are determined to do what will for you be a good marathon time, I suggest that you look also at the improver's schedule). Your training runs should all be done at a jog or slow run. This is aerobic running your muscles getting sufficient oxygen completely to burn the fuel contained within them.

As there will be a wide variation in the background level; of running that you have I have prepared two first time marathon schedules: one for those currently running less than 35 miles a week, and one for those doing more.

An 18 week schedule from a base of 20 miles running a week

This basic training schedule starts at a weekly mileage of 20 miles. It is primarily intended for people who are running anything between 18 and 35 miles a week.

If you run less than 20 miles a week, gradually increase your mileage by no more than 2-3 miles a week.

If you are running more than 20 miles a week but fewer than 6 times a week, then you should run more often, but shorter distances.

Example: 9 miles, 3 x 3 miles a week

You go running three times a week on a route of three miles, and your total mileage is 9 miles a week.

Your first priority is increasing the number of times that your run a week. Each week introduce a 2 mile run until running 6 days a week.

Your training schedule will look something like the following

Week               Total
Week 1 3 0 3 0 0 3 0 [10]
Week 2 3 0 3 2 0 3 0 [13]
Week 3 3 0 3 2 0 3 2 [16]
Week 4 3 0 3 2 0 3 2 [17]
Week 5 3 2 3 2 3 Rest 2 [20]

Of course this means that the full schedule will take 23 weeks instead of 18. If you do not have sufficient time read the short cut notes later on.

Example: 21 miles a week

You run 6 miles on Sundays and 4 miles on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Your long run is 6 miles, you run 5 days a week and your total mileage is 21 miles.

The first thing is again bring the running up to 6 days a week. This can be done by inserting a 2 mile run. Then making it a 4 mile run the week after. The training log should look something like this.

Week               Total
Week 1 6 4 4 4 4 4 0 [23]
Week 2 6 4 2 4 4 4 4 [26]
Week 3 6 4 4 4 4 4 4 [29]


Your weekly total mileage will now be 26 miles, with a long run of 6 miles. You are now ready to enter the schedule at week 5.

An 18 week schedule from a base of 20 miles running a week

Week Sun Mon Tue Wed Thurs Fri Sat Weekly Mileage
1 4 3 3 4 3 rest 3 20
2 5 3 3 4 4 rest 3 22
3 6 3 4 4 4 rest 3 24
4 7 4 4 4 4 rest 3 26
5 8 4 4 4 4 rest 4 28
6 9 4 4 5 4 rest 4 30
7 10 4 4 5 5 rest 4 32
8 11 4 5 5 5 rest 4 34
9 12 4 5 5 5 rest 5 36
10 13 5 5 5 5 rest 5 38
11 14 5 5 6 5 rest 5 40
12 16 5 5 5 5 rest 5 41
13 17 5 5 6 5 rest 5 43
14 19 5 5 6 5 rest 5 45
15 20 5 5 6 5 rest 5 46
16 13 5 5 5 5 rest 8 41
17 5 4 4 rest 3 2 1 19
18 M              

An 18 week schedule from a base of 35 miles running a week

As with the schedule for the those commencing with a base of 20 miles a week you will have to modify your training slightly to fit into this schedule. However as you are already running at least 35 miles it will be relatively easily for you to identify where to make the changes and the appropriate week in which to enter the schedule.

Week Sun Mon Tue Wed Thurs Fri Sat Weekly Mileage
1 6 6 6 6 6 rest 5 35
2 7 6 6 6 6 rest 6 37
3 8 6 6 7 6 rest 6 39
4 9 6 6 7 6 rest 6 41
5 10 6 6 8 6 rest 7 43
6 11 6 6 8 6 rest 8 45
7 13 6 6 8 6 rest 8 47
8 15 6 6 8 6 rest 8 49
9 17 6 6 8 6 rest 8 51
10 19 6 6 8 6 rest 8 53
11 20 6 6 8 6 rest 8 54
12 18 6 6 8 6 rest 8 52
13 13 6 6 8 6 rest 8 45
14 20 6 6 8 6 rest 8 54
15 20 6 6 8 6 rest 8 54
16 13 5 5 4 6 rest 10 43
17 6 5 4 3 2 rest 1 21
18 M              

Points common to both schedules

Following the schedule

The trick is to try to stick to the mileage as indicated in the schedule. Keep a log of the runs you actually do and a weekly total of the miles you run. This will necessitate measuring your routes before you go out running. (Do not guestimate, use time run as an estimate, or rely on the accounts of others). This is unless you can measure your courses by other means such as cars, bicycles or measuring wheels etc. Incidentally if you live in a hilly area you will do extra distance because of going up and down hill: ignore ignore this factor unless your runs are severely hilly – in which case add 10%. (In my experience it is possible even in hilly areas to avoid many hills, and running downhill gives the body a lot of unwanted pounding).

As you increase your mileage listen carefully to your body. Proceed with caution. If you are feeling tired then revert to the previous week’s level of training before going back to the level you were at. If forced to take some time off because, of injury, illness, problems etc. do not be tempted to re join the training schedule at the level you would have been at but join it at the level you were at – or even below (especially if the break was more than 2 weeks). This may all add a few weeks to the time taken to train up to the marathon, but better safer than sorry.

The long runs

These are best done in the company of others. The Serpentine Running club often arranges long runs on Sundays, especially in the build up to the London Marathon and to Autumnal Marathons (October/ November). When running long runs it is best to split into packs of runners with similar jogging paces. As the pace is slow it is a great opportunity to socialise and chat . It is a pleasure to run alongside one of the club's great raconteurs like Bob Davidson who will take a half an hour telling a good joke. However if it is not possible to run in ability groups, faster runners can go ahead and then wait at pre-arranged spots or can double back if they are on a higher mileage schedule. What should not be allowed to happen is for the group to fragment and leave people alone as this can be discouraging. It can lead to problems if someone is unsure of the way or they suffer physical problems (eg cramp or twisted ankle).

Where possible the long runs should be run on soft surface such as park land or downs to reduce the stress on the body. Make sure you are appropriately dressed for the weather. Take a light weight water proof top with you when running, particularly in winter, as if you are forced to stop then your sweating body will quickly chill down especially if there is any breeze. Listening to the weather forecast can be important as in the time you are running a different type of weather system could replace that which you started with.


This is as an important part of the training schedule as the actual build up. The reduction in mileage in the 2 weeks leading up to the marathon allows you to recover from the training and go into the marathon fresh, with full energy reserves. A marathon should be respected and it should certainly not be treated as a training run. Even ultra runners will taper their running off if they want to compete at the best of their ability.

What if I reach week 16 with more than 2 weeks left to the marathon?

This is an ideal position to be in. If this is the case then have long runs on the Sundays of between 18-20 miles. You could either keep at week 16 mileage or carefully increase the mileage by inserting a mile or two in the week. By having these few extra weeks of training you should be all the more stronger on the day. Ensure however that you follow the last two weeks tapering down as indicated in the schedule.

Short cut

Runners should not go into any event insufficiently prepared and should not be praying that they will survive. If you have not enough time to complete the training for your preferred marathon then seek an alternative or do not do it until next year. The London Marathon will permit you to defer your place on grounds of illness.

If you are behind with your training then it is possible to modify the training schedule slightly. Although you will be able to complete successfully the marathon on the reduced schedule it does not leave any margins. You should not think, "OK, I will delay the start of my training."

The short cut is this. From week 8 you increase the long run by 2 miles a week but keeping the rest of the week's mileage constant. (eg Mon 4, Tues 5, Weds 5, Thurs 5, Sat 6). Build up to a maximum long run of 18- 20 miles three weeks before the marathon. The crucial factor is to build the long run up to at least 18 miles.


Stretching is just as important for marathon runners as other athletes. Warm up before stretching as a part of the training. It is also good to do a stretch routine after your daily runs.

Derek Turner