TRAINING FOR YOUR FIRST MARATHON -- developed for ADA's Team Diabetes program
(NOTE: ADA phased out its Team Diabetes program, but these training principles are still valid!)
by John Mackenzie

Welcome!  Team Diabetes is a great win-win program: you can have fun, get yourself in great shape, and raise funds for a worthy cause at the same time!  Running a marathon will be one of the greatest physical challenges of your life, and the experience will teach you a lot about yourself.

This page provides guidance on how to train for and run your first marathon.  Hopefully you will already be a regular runner with a good aerobic fitness base.  If you are new to running, or just coming back to it after a long layoff, training up for a marathon will be quite a challenge.  If time permits, you should develop a fitness base with a more basic running program before beginning your marathon training.  Ideally, you would be running regularly for a year or more before attempting a marathon.

First, you need to define your marathon objective.  We'll assume you want to finish, but exactly how do you want to cover the 26-mile-385-yard distance?  Many people walk marathons, some as official race-walkers (adhering to rules on stride), others as regular participants (running allowed).  Many people use a run/walk strategy espoused by running guru Jeff Galloway: take a 1-minute walking break at each mile mark.  Most marathoners will try to run the 26.2 miles start to finish so they can say they really ran the marathon.  Some succeed, others have to walk later sections of the race.  You don't need to target any specific finish time for your first marathon; just try to run the distance as well as you can.

One important objective is to have fun!  You should approach your first marathon as a learning experience.  Promise yourself you will stick with the training program.  As you progress through successive training cycles of stress and recovery, notice how your strength and endurance improve.  Some of the training phases outlined below are pretty exhausting, but if you do the hard work in advance, your first marathon experience can be one of the most rewarding experiences of your life!  The race will drain you physically and emotionally, but that's only temporary.  The satisfaction is forever!

What You'll Need

Running is an inexpensive sport, but you should at least invest in proper running shoes and clothing.

Shoes:  Shoe cushioning breaks down with time and wear, so if your shoes are more a year old, or have done more than a few hundred miles, or were used for more than just running, treat yourself to some new ones.  Running shoes last longer when you use two pairs alternately, keep them well ventilated between runs (loosen the laces, pull the tongue through the laces, pull the insoles halfway out), and let them air dry (no heat) if they get wet.  Use newer running shoes only for running; after they're worn down you can retire them to general wear-around use.

When you go to a sporting goods or specialty shoe store, ask if there is a salesperson who runs and understands running shoes.  If you have an older pair, have the salesperson examine the wear pattern to determine the right type of shoe.  Running shoes vary in cushioning, foot stabilization, weight and style.  Buy a shoe with a lot of cushioning and no more stabilization than you need.  Don't worry much about shoe weight: super lightweight shoes will be undercushioned.  Ignore style, it won't get you to the finish line.  Running shoes typically size small, so ignore the nominal sizes and buy a shoe that gives your toes plenty of room, since your feet will swell a bit during long runs.  If you run in thick, cushioned socks like Thorlos, wear these when you try on shoes.  Jog around the store in a few pairs and see which pair feels best.  Once you know what sizes and types of shoes work best for you, you can often get them cheaper by mail at places like RoadRunner Sports or National Running Center.

Clothes:  The last decade has seen the development of various moisture-control fabrics (polypropylene, polyester fleece, GoreTex...) that are great for running.  Tops, shorts (preferably with small pockets), tights and jackets made from these will keep you far more comfortable than cotton, which can get really wet and chill and chafe you.  Don't overdress for your runs: on cooler days start chilly and let yourself warm up over the first mile.  On really cold days wear two or three top layers. A common rule of thumb is to dress for a run as if the weather were 20 degrees warmer than the thermometer shows.

Other Stuff:  You can get running socks with extra cusioning or two layers to prevent blisters.  Vaseline or other anti-chafe stuff on your nipples, armpits, crotch will prevent chafing.  A watch with a stopwatch function that records splits will help you gauge pace, but the durations of your runs aren't that important.  A water carrier belt is useful for long runs if you don't want to stash water along the way.  Test various energy drinks, bars and gels on your long runs to see what works best for you.

Diet, Sleep and Stretching

As you begin training, try to watch your diet, particularly your fat intake, and keep track of your weight.  It is easier to run a marathon if you're not carrying excess weight (try running with a 5-lb. backpack; you'll be surprised at how much more tired you get!).  This is not the time to start a big crash diet though!  Just keep it sensible.  If you stick to 3 meals/day, cut back on junk foods, beer, etc., and don't snack after supper, marathon training will take off some unneeded pounds.  Even if your weight remains constant, you will still look trimmer as (low-density) fat tissue is replaced with (high-density) muscle.

Perhaps the most important diet recommendation is drink more water.  A big glass in the morning and an extra glass or two during the day will help your body clear out waste products more efficiently.

A lot of runners take a daily multi-vitamin and/or nutritional supplements.   Glucosamine/chondroitin is supposed to maintain cartilege & joint health.  Vitamin C is supposed to boost the immune system (which may be stressed during heavy training).  Vitamin E is an anti-oxidant.  Fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids which are supposed to improve circulatory system health.  An enteric baby aspirin (81mg) every day or two may also maintain cardiac health.  These are the supplements I use; they have some clinical evidence supporting their use.  Women may want extra iron and/or calcium.  There is less evidence to support the use of other supplements.  Manufacturer statements regarding the benefits of nutritional supplements are generally not verified by the FDA.  Do your own research, and don't believe every claim you read.

As you build up your training, it is important to let your body have the sleep it wants.  Training should improve the quality of your sleep: you fall asleep faster and have longer periods of deep sleep.  Unless you are habitually under-slept, you won't necessarily need more sleep hours than before.  If your sleep seems more disrupted during training, you may be over-training.

Everybody knows stretching is supposed to be good for you, but most runners I know don't stretch much.  Distance training strengthens your calves and hamstrings, but it also makes them tighter, so a lot of runners (including me) can't touch their toes with straight legs.  (So what?  You don't win medals for touching your toes!)  In fact, incorrect stretching is one of the most common causes of runner injury!

Well, I'm a recent convert to stretching.  Flexibility is part of strength (muscle strength = force times dynamic range of contraction).  Take a little time for stretching when you can.  The expert consensus is that stretching should be done gently on warmed-up (but not exhausted) muscles.

Training

Endurance training involves subjecting your body to successively more intense levels of controlled stress (running), then letting it recover (resting).  The running tears down muscle tissue; the rest phase rebuilds it stronger than ever.  The run and rest phases complement each other.  Obviously, if you don't do the running, you won't get stronger.  Less obviously, if you do lots of running but don't give your body adequate recovery time to reap the training benefits, you won't get stronger either!

Ideally you will have been running pretty regularly for at least a year before embarking on a marathon training program, and will be reasonably accustomed to running 5 miles or more continuously.  The more running you have done in the last year, the easier the mileage buildup required for effective marathon training.  If you are new to running but in good athletic shape, you will find this training program quite demanding, but (hopefully) doable.  If you haven't been running and aren't in good athletic shape, you should run what you can, walk the rest, and plan on walking some or all of the marathon.

The core element of any marathon training program is the weekly long run, which you should build up to at least 20 miles three weeks before your marathon.  Twenty miles is an important psychological barrier; having run 20 miles in training will give you the necessary confidence to cover 26.2 miles on race day.  The long run is done at a very easy pace, comfortable enough that you can maintain a fairly easy conversation as you run.  Long runs of 15-20 miles train your body in several ways: you develop aerobic fitness; you learn to metabolize fat more efficiently as your glycogen gets depleted; you gradually strengthen your connective tissues; and you develop a more energy-efficient running form.  For any run lasting over 60 minutes, you will need to carry water and or energy drink/gels/bars to consume as you run, or else have these stashed at regular intervals along the way.  As your fitness improves, try to resist the temptation to do your long runs at a somewhat harder pace.  The residual tiredness from a too-fast long training will impair your subsequent running, and may even harm your race performance.

The day after your weekly long run should be a rest or recovery day.  Unless you are already pretty well-trained for distance races, you will need at least two rest/recovery days each week.  Complete inactivity is fine.  If you feel like running a little to work some stiffness out, keep it short and easy.  Better yet, take an easy bike ride!  You may sleep poorly the night after a long run (did you drink enough water after the run?), but should sleep well the following night.  It is perfectly normal to feel moderate muscle fatigue and a general tiredness for several days at a time during the hard weeks of this schedule.  No one said marathon training was easy!  But you should pay attention for symptoms of overtraining (prolonged fatigue, apathy, low-grade fever, sniffles or sore throat, elevated pulse upon waking) and cut back on your running as appropriate.

The pace run is is your second-longest of the week.  You should start and finish at an easy pace but include some faster-paced miles in the middle.  There are really only two ways to run faster: lengthen your stride and/or increase your stride frequency.  Experiment a little and see what feels best!  Your objective is to find the fastest pace you can sustain without accumulating lactic acid in your leg muscles.  This pace should feel pretty hard, but not all-out.  It's okay to feel some moderate stiffness the next day, but if you're too sore to do the next day's easy run, take that day off and try a slower pace in the middle of next week's pace run.  Pace runs increase your aerobic efficiency, build your confidence and train you to manage your running effort.  In the latter stages of the marathon when you're starting to hurt, you can sometimes get some relief by increasing you pace and shifting the stress-points in your feet and legs.

You might want to include some "stride-outs" at the end of your pace runs.  A stride-out is a short (~100 meter) burst in which you increase your stride rate and then stride length while maintaining good running form.  It is not an all-out sprint.

Finally, your training week should include two or three shorter easy runs.  The day after your pace run you may just want to "run the kinks out."  The other two easy runs precede your two hard-effort days, and should be three to five miles at a fairly comfortable pace.

The typical 19-week marathon training schedule (below) includes at least two rest days each week.  Every third week (yellow) has reduced mileage to promote recovery.  And the final three weeks before the marathon involve a gradual "taper" (see below) to full recovery just prior to the race itself.

Here is a suggested training schedule with recommended mileages for each day, appropriate for someone with a conventional Mon-Fri work week.   We end each week on Sunday, when most marathoners do their longest training runs to close out each week. You can rearrange each week as you like, as long as you get in the necessary runs and appropriately timed rest days.
 
Week Mon
(rest)
Tu
EASY
Wed
PACE
Th
EASY
Fri
(rest)
Sat
EASY
Sun
LONG
total miles
for week
18 0 3 3 0-3 0 3 5 14-17
17 0 3 3 0-3 0 3 6 15-18
16 0 3 3 0-3 0 3 7 16-19
15 0 3 4 0-3 0 3 8 18-21
14 0 3 3 0-3 0 3 6 15-18
13 0 4 5 0-3 0 4 10 23-26
12 0 4 6 2-4 0 4 11 27-29
11 0 4 5 2-4 0 4 8 23-26
10 0 4 7 2-4 0 4 13 30-32
9 0 4 7 2-4 0 4 14 31-33
8 0 4 6 2-4 0 4 10 26-28
7 0 5 8 2-5 0 5 16 36-38
6 0 5 9 2-5 0 5 17 38-41
5 0 5 7 0-5 0 5 12 29-34
4 0 5 10 0-5 0 5 19 39-44
3 0 5 10 0-5 0 5 20 40-45
2 0 5 8 0-5 0 5 14 32-37
1 0 5 5 0-5 0 5 8 23-28
race week! 0 3 3 rehearsal! 0 0 0-1 Marathon!

Races:  The best way to learn pacing, and how to handle pre-race nerves, is to try some shorter races.  I strongly encourage you to run a local race or two (check the Marathon Sports website) in lieu of a regular Saturday run.  If you haven't raced before, start with a 5K (3.1 miles).  Then try a 10K (6.2 miles).  If you're really ambitious, see if you can find a 15K (9.3 miles), 10-miler or half-marathon (13.1 miles).  I encourage you to really race these, rather than treat them as social runs.  Try to run the fastest pace you think you can maintain for the race distance, but don't get carried away in the excitement of the start and go out too fast!  Spend your energy steadily so you finish with an empty tank.  After you finish a good race, you'll feel incredibly relaxed and proud.

The day after a race you should stick with a very easy pace.  Don't race more than every 2-3 weeks, and don't race during your final 3-week taper period.

Energy drinks/gels:  You have heard about "bonking" or "hitting the wall," which is the exhausted feeling you get when your muscle glycogen is depleted and your metabolism switches to fat-burning for energy.  For undertrained marathoners the transition occurs between 12 and 18 miles, comes on fairly quickly, and feels bad enough that completing the marathon becomes extremely difficult.  Your long-distance training runs will train your body to make this metabolic transition more gradually, and accustom you to the feeling of high-fat metabolism.  And you can train your metabolism to postpone this transition beyond the 20-mile mark by ingesting energy drinks/bars/gels during your long training runs.

It's a good idea to find out what specific brand of energy drink and/or energy bar or gel will be provided at the marathon, and to test these out in advance, so you're confident they won't upset your stomach during the race.  Experiment with energy gels (PowerGel, GU, etc.) or bars.  You should wash these down with plain water (not an energy drink!).

Taper and Pre-Race

The final three weeks of this training program involve a gradual reduction in mileage and training intensity.  Maintain your flexibility; keep eating intelligently (don't pig out and gain weight), get lots of sleep, keep drinking lots of water.  If you have done all the hard work up to this point, it is now time to get yourself completely recharged so you'll be completely recovered and fresh on race day.  Three weeks may seem like a lot of recovery time, but this training phase is every bit as important as the mileage build-up phase.  If you fell behind in your long run buildup, you might try a final long run early in the first week of the taper, but don't try to make it up any lost mileage after that.  A lot of marathoners don't taper enough, thinking they'll perform better if they squeeze in another long run or two during the last three weeks.  This strategy usually backfires: they don't recover completely, and end up suffering through the final miles of the marathon.

Race week involves minimal running.  You'll feel great, just itching to get in one more fast-tempo training run.  Resist the temptation!  Three or 4 days before the race you should try a dress-rehearsal.  Figure out all the stuff you'll need on race day, get it all organized, put on your marathon shorts, singlet, etc., including any gels or other things you'll carry, and run 3 miles exactly the way you want to run the first 3 miles of the marathon.  Try to do this at the same time of day the race will start.  Visualize the race.  This dress-rehearsal will give you focus and confidence.

If you expect cold or rainy weather at the marathon start, prepare for it.  Either arrange for someone to take your warm-up clothes just before the start, or plan on using disposable clothes.  If it's rainy, I use a large garbage bags with head and arm slits as a disposable raincoat.  Or you can buy throwaway sweats at Goodwill or Salvation Army and toss these early in the race.  (This is not littering, it's recycling.  The race cleanup will collect all the discarded clothing and usually donates it to Goodwill or Salvation Army.)

Your most important sleep night is two nights before the race.  Stick to your usual diet; don't try anything weird.  Eat one or more high-carbohydrate meals (spaghetti, rice...) during the last day or two before the marathon.  Drink extra water.

The day before the marathon you should be feeling like a racehorse, ready to rip!  Take a very short jog to loosen up your legs.  If you have been doing stride-outs at the end of your pace runs, do a few of those now.  (If you haven't done stride-outs before, don't risk injury trying them now!).  You'll have to pick up your race packet.  Enjoy the expo!  Drink extra water.

The night before the race, have a another big carbo meal.  Get all your stuff laid out and make sure you have everything you'll need.  Set the alarm and get to bed on time.  If you're too nervous to sleep, don't worry: it won't affect your race performance.  You should be hydrated enough that you get up once or twice in the night to urinate.

Have a light breakfast at least two hours before the race.  Go easy on the coffee.  Keep drinking extra water until about two hours before the race.  Get your race clothes on.  If you were issued a transponder chip (see below) with your race number, don't forget to lace it onto your shoe! Put vaseline on areas that may chafe.  Get to the race start an hour early so you have time for the porta-potty lines, bag check, etc.  If the weather is cold, stay as warm as you can

Race Strategy

Chip vs. Gun Time: Big marathons typically have you wear a transponder chip that identifies you to the automatic timing system. This records the time you actually cross the starting line, various split times along the course, and your finish time.  So you will have two finish times: your "gun time" is the total time elapsed between the gun start and your finish; your "chip time" is the actual time it took you to run from the starting line to the finish.  The difference is the time it took the starting pack ahead of you to move forward so you could cross the starting line.  In some marathons this can be 5 or 10 minutes.  Only the elites actually trying to win or set course records worry about gun times. If you ask any other marathoners about how they did, they will tell you their chip times.

Even if you're going for a Boston qualifier time, it's your chip time that matters.  If you start too far forward in the pack you will probably go out too fast and tire too soon. If you start toward the back, you're more likely to begin at the right pace. One caveat though: if you're serious about getting your best chip time, factor in the width of the start versus the roadway. A wide starting pack heading into a narrow roadway can leave runners jammed up for minutes after they cross the start line; in this case you would start further forward to minimize your time in the jam-up. (The Boston Marathon uses a narrow starting chute to limit crowding after the start line.)

Pacing:  The best marathon strategy is usually to run an even pace for the entire distance, but this is easier said than done.  In all the excitement of the start, you will have a natural urge to go out much faster than you realize, and if you succumb to this temptation, you will tire too quickly and will really pay for it later in the race.  A wise strategy is start out slow until you are calm enough to judge an appropriate pace, then settle into an easy, steady pace that you can hold for at least 20 miles, and let the final 6.2 miles take care of themselves.

Hydration is critical!  You should drink water and/or a familiar sports drink at every water station!  To make sure you get enough, walk through the water stations, and maybe take two cups.  If you want to keep moving, make eye contact with a volunteer and point to their cup, so he or she can hand it off to you with minimal spashing. The volunteers will probably be telling you what they have--typically either water or Gatorade--so be sure you get what you want. To drink while running, pinch the top of the cup together to minimize spilling and sip out of the edge.  If you wait until you feel thirsty before taking water, you'll already be dehydrated and headed for trouble: cramps, nausea and worse.  Avoid oranges and fruit juices (they're acidic), and do not try any unfamiliar sports drinks or food during the race!  If they upset your stomach, you'll reduce or stop your fluid intake, get dehydrated and break down.  If you're using gels, take each gel just before you reach a water station and wash it down with water. Many marathoners carry ibuprofen to take mid-race; this seems to reduce swelling and pain later in the race. Some people carry a salt tablet or two to take mid-race (along with plenty of water!); this helps maintain electrolyte balance and prevents muscle cramps later on.

During the final miles of the marathon you will discover that this race isn't just a physical challenge; it's a mental challenge as well. Unless you are extremely well conditioned, you will "hit the wall" with at least moderate discomfort. You know you are going to feel physical fatigue, but you should anticipate mental fatigue as well! Your mind will probably begin playing tricks on you, telling you that this is a silly endeavor with no real purpose, that you should stop, maybe just wait for the straggler's bus and ride to the finish. Or just walk--walking will get you there eventually! DO NOT LISTEN! TRY TO KEEP RUNNING! This is where mental toughness can really pay off! You have invested months of training to get this far. Keep telling yourself that THE PAIN IS TEMPORARY, BUT THE SATISFACTION IS FOREVER! You have worked too damn hard to break down and quit now. Go ahead and cry if you want, but keep moving. Keep giving this your absolute best effort; soon the race will be over and when you cross that finish line you will have won something most people will never dare attempt.

Post-Race

You did it! Once you are over the finish line, let the volunteers take over. Someone will give you your finisher's medal, maybe give you a foil blanket to warm you, get the transponder chip off your shoe, point you to the refreshments. Eat and drink whatever you can, maybe stretch gently, try to walk out some stiffness, get your bag and try to get dry clothes on if it's cold. Maybe there's a massage tent where somebody will work some of the lactic acid out of your muscles. Maybe you can flop on the grass in the sunshine, or lie down and get your legs elevated; this will reduce cramping later. Maybe shuffle back to the finish line to cheer in a friend. You feel absolutely wiped out, and you feel fantastic! Enjoy the endorphin rush! People at a marathon finish are the friendliest people anywhere. Enjoy the great post-race atmosphere!

In the first few hours after a marathon, it's critical to get warm, rehydrated and fed. Let someone else be in charge of getting you back to your hotel room or home. Enjoy the shower and clean clothes. Lie down on the floor with your butt at or near the wall and elevate your legs straight up the wall for a few 5-10 minute intervals. Have a good meal and maybe take some ibuprofen. You may not sleep as well as you expect to that night; don't worry, you'll sleep like a rock the following night. You'll probably be stiff for a few days, particularly when going down stairs. Take walks, keep hydrated. Don't resume running until you really feel like it, and don't resume hard running for a couple of weeks. Finishing a marathon leaves you highly vulnerable to injury.

Hang your finish medal on the wall. Your finisher's certificate will arrive in the mail after a while. You will probably receive offers for race photos by mail. Enjoy. Brag all you want.