Training for your First Marathon


Gavin Edmonds in the London marathonIntroduction

If you are new to running, you should think twice before attempting a marathon. You should train for a year, or ideally two, before you put your body through the stress of running 26 miles 385 yards. You should certainly NOT attempt a marathon with less than 9 months running under your belt. This means, for example, that if you are thinking of running the London Marathon in April, you should start training by August the previous year. It is possible to run a marathon with less preparation, but you have a significantly increased risk of injury, and you are unlikely to enjoy the experience.

If you are not already running regularly, then you should ideally begin by walking for three weeks, to give your body time to adapt. See our guide to starting out.

The specific training to build up to a marathon begins about 3 or 4 months before the race. Before that, your running should be aimed at building up your fitness, stamina, strength and speed, to lay down a sound base for your marathon preparations.

Specific training programmes for the marathon are widely available. Former Serpentine Club coach Derek Turner has written a programme for beginners, available on our training pages. Here, we explain the principles and components of marathon training, to enable you to "roll your own" training programme, or to understand the rationale behind training programmes written by others.

Remember that everyone is different.

A marathon training cookbook

The principles of marathon training are straightforward. Your body needs to adapt its joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons to withstand the impact of running, to develop a metabolic system which can provide sufficient energy to keep you running for anything from 2 to 6 hours, to develop a cardiovascular system sufficiently powerful to deliver oxygen to muscles over that period, and to build strength strength and flexibility in muscles sufficient to carry you round. This is achieved partly by stressing the various components of the body, enough to push the limits of what they can do but not so much that you injure yourself. During periods of rest, your body will then adapt to improve its capacity to meet these challenges. It is also achieved by practising, so that your body learns how to be more efficient at moving you forward while using less energy, and becomes more efficient at storing and converting energy.

To achieve all this requires more than simply going out running each day. You should be running in a variety of different ways, designed to improve different aspects of your performance. (Also, running the same distance at the same speed every day is very boring.) A marathon training programme will therefore consist of a number of different components.

The long, slow, distance run (LSD)

This is the cornerstone of any marathon runner's training programme. For most runners, it is something you do at the weekend. The aim is to build up to running to 18-20 miles, but at a pace significantly slower (eg a minute a mile slower) than you intend to run the marathon. The LSD run helps your body to adapt to running for a long period of time, and trains your metabolism to use body fat as a source of energy while you are running.

Start off with a distance that you can manage easily – say 7 miles – and then gradually build up the distance. As the marathon approaches, you should aim to complete about 4 long runs (about 20 miles each), which should be 2-3 weeks apart, and the last of which should be at least 3 weeks before the marathon.

From November to April (ie in the run up to the London Marathon), the Serpentine Running Club organises LSD runs in Richmond Park on Sunday mornings. This is a splendid setting for your long run, and there are always groups running a variety of distances and speeds.

The tempo run (ie race pace run)

Beware: the term "tempo run" means different things to different people. It is most often used to describe a run at your target race pace. Some authors, however, use it to describe a "fartlek", which is something else entirely.

The intuition here is fairly obvious. When it comes to the big day, you want your body to be used to running at your target pace. You need to learn how to move along at that speed efficiently. So work out your target time for the marathon, and then work out how many minutes a mile this requires. If you are aiming for a 4 hour 30 minute marathon, for example, then your race pace is 10 minutes 18 seconds a mile. At least one of your training runs each week should be at this pace.

Start off by running 7 miles at your race pace. 16 weeks before the marathon, start to extend your tempo runs. Each week you should complete the distance exactly at (neither faster, nor slower, than) your race speed. If you are too fast or too slow, do the same distance the following week. If you hit the pace exactly, extend the distance by another mile the next week.

Your aim should be to get up to about 18 miles at race pace, 4 weeks before the marathon. Do not go beyond this, because you risk injury and tiring yourself.

Speed work, track sessions and fartlek

Training at speed helps to build stronger muscles and improve your running efficiency. Even if you are training for the marathon, speed work will help both your speed and endurance. Serious athletes do a lot of speed work, and relatively little long distance work. However, speed work is hard on your body, and it is therefore the training which is most likely to injure you.

Most speed work is done at an athletics track. (Serpentine has coached track sessions for runners of all standards on Tuesday night at Paddington Track and Parliament Hill Track, and on Thursday at Battersea Millenium Stadium.)

Track sessions usually consist of "intervals" – that is, running a distance (which might be anywhere from 100m to 2,000m) in a fixed time – often at about the speed you would run a mile flat out – and then having a short rest (the "interval") before doing it again. The aim is usually to complete the distance in the same time on each repetition.

If you can't get to one of our track sessions – or you would rather have a go on your own - here is an example. Work out the speed at which you run a mile. Then run 400m (one lap) at that speed. Jog 200m, taking about a minute. Then repeat the 400m. Do 4 x 400m this way (this is called a "set"). Then jog a full lap slowly, taking as long as you want to get your breath back. Do another 4 x 400m set. Do a total of three sets, with a long, 400m jog recovery between each set. Our coaches publish their track programmes on the website. You might want to use these as a guide on which to base your own workouts.

Apart from track sessions, you can improve your speed by doing "fartlek". This is a Norwegian word, meaning "speed play". When you are out running, identify a target – such as a tree or a bridge – ahead of you. Ran fast to the target, and then slow down back to your normal speed. Do this as you feel – pick targets close by and really sprint to them, or pick targets that are further away and run as fast as you can over the distance.

Strength work & hills

For endurance and speed, your legs need to be strong. Most good club runners try to do some strength work – for example, by running hills from time to time. You can also increase your leg strength with specific exercises (such as hopping across the park) or in the gym (use leg extensions, leg press, squats, calf raises, ham string curls). As part of your build up to the marathon, you should spend a few weeks concentrating on strengthening your legs.

Recovery runs

The key to training is recovery. The stress you put on your body does not, of itself, make you fitter or a better runner. It is when your body recovers, and rebuilds the muscles, bones and other tissues, that you improve. This is why it is important to include rest as part of your programme.

To help your body to recover, however, it helps to clear the lactic acid out of the muscles, and increase the blood flow. After a hard session or a long distance run, it is better to do a "recovery run" the following day than to rest completely.

A recovery run should be a moderate pace and feel easy, and not much more than 20-30 minutes. Don't take your watch with you, and just enjoy running gently. It will help your body to recover for your next hard session.

An alternative to a recovery run is to swim or cycle instead.

Putting it together

So to train for a marathon, your typical week might contain

  • a long slow distance run
  • a tempo run, building up to 18 miles
  • one or two speed sessions
  • some strength or hill sessions, possibly replacing a speed session
  • recovery runs
  • a rest day

The order in which you do these during the week will depend on your other commitments. Some basic guidelines for doing this are:

  • do not put two hard sessions on consecutive days (ie speed sessions and hill sessions should be separated by a day of lighter running, though you can just about do an LSD the day after a speed session)
  • do not increase your distance by more than 10% from one week to the next
  • make one week in every four a lighter week
  • if you miss a session, don't try to catch up

Some people prefer a very rigid timetable ("it is Tuesday, so it must be hills today"). That way they can be sure they will fit in the full range of running, without focusing too much on the sessions they prefer. Other runners prefer to use this a guide to the sessions they are going to fit in to the week, and listen to their body when deciding what to do each day.

In practice, if you are member of a club you often find that there are some fixed points in your weekly timetable. So, for example, for members of the Serpentine Running Club, you might do your speed sessions with the club at the track on Thursday and your LSD in Richmond Park on Sunday. You would then fit the other sessions round these fixed points thus:

  • Monday – easy recovery run
  • Tuesday – hills or speed
  • Wednesday – tempo, at Serpentine club run
  • Thursday – speed at Serpentine track session
  • Friday – rest
  • Saturday – moderate pace run
  • Sunday – LSD

Building up to the marathon

You should not rush out and do all this at once. As important as pacing yourself through the week is building up to the marathon itself.

Weeks before the Marathon Guidance
Weeks M-24 to M-16 This is the time where you lay the foundations. Gradually build up, adding no more than 10% a week to your weekly mileage. Your long runs should gradually extend out until you can run a half marathon comfortably, and preferably 16 miles without too much difficulty. If you cut this section short, you increase the risk of injury later.
Weeks M-16 to M-4 Begin your tempo runs at 7 miles in week M-15 Build up by a mile a week, until week M-4 when you should aim to run 18 miles at race pace. Your LSDs should include some 20 mile runs, at least 2 and preferably 3 weeks apart. You should aim to do 3 or 4 of these, the last being about 4 weeks before the marathon. Include 4 weeks in which you focus more on strength training (say in weeks M-12 to M-8), cutting back on some of your speed training.
Weeks M-3 to M-1 Taper down. Maintain the same effort levels, but cut your distances by 25%, 50% and 75% in the last three weeks respectively. You should not run longer than a half marathon in this period.