The 7 Stages Of Marathon Training

Stages Of Marathon Training

This post is part of a series:

Stages Of Marathon Training

For each of my marathons, I’ve used an 18-week training program that is broken up into three-week microcycles. The first two weeks of each cycle get tougher, then the third week is a step back week. The step back week is a nice little mental and physical break

Two steps forward, one step back – gets me to the finish line every time.

As a result of using this pattern for the better part of 20 years, I now can only think of marathon training in three-week cycles.

Each cycle has unique characteristics, and differ in what you need to do to survive and thrive in them.

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Stage 1: Anticipation (Weeks -3 to -1)

The first phase of training starts before you even begin running.

Maybe you’ve wanted to do a marathon for years (or longer), maybe it is old hat. In either case, the weeks before day 1 of the training calendar is all about the excitement and the anticipation

Counting down the days until your daily runs shift from just another run to a marathon training run.

If you are a planner like me you pour over plan options deciding which to do. Pick a plan and enter it into your planner with all the color coded care it deserves.

Day 1 Week 1, is sitting out there on the calendar circled and ready to go.

What To Do

Pick Your Plan

If you haven’t already, select a training plan that you will use.

Layout your runs, cross-training, and other workout requirements. Put them all in your calendar.

Review Your Schedule

Review both your running and non-running calendars for the next few months.

What potential conflicts do you see (travel, work meetings running late)?

How can you plan ahead to minimize (or remove) those conflicts ahead of time? For example, if you know you’ll be traveling for work one week, rearrange your runs that week now to minimize the impact of travel.

Stage 2: Excitement (Weeks 1-3)

Let’s Do This!!

The first few weeks of training are all excitement.

You are actually doing this!

The mileage is maybe a bit longer than you are used to, but it isn’t unreasonable. It’s not that big of a stretch. A long run of ‘only’ 6 or 7 miles?

This marathon training stuff isn’t so bad!

What To Do

Pace Yourself

Mentally and physically keep it in check. Marathon training is its own metaphor- it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

It can be tempting to want to do everything when training starts. Do more mileage (‘just in case’), do more cross training or strength training. Do long runs at a faster pace because the long runs aren’t that long (yet).

Pace yourself. Follow your plan. Trust your plan. Appreciate the extra time you still have before your life is totally consumed by training. Don’t bank miles ‘just in case’ something happens later.

Learn To Rest

Rest days are part of the training, not avoiding training.

Enjoy the time off and rest that you have.

Stage 3: This Gets Real (Weeks 4-6)

This s**t starts to get real.

Mileage just keeps getting longer. It is still doable, but it may start to push the limits of what you’ve done before.

A tiny creeping doubt may occasionally pop in your mind about the sanity of this marathon training idea.

What To Do

Be Where You Are

Don’t look too far ahead on the calendar. You may be at a point where your long runs seem really long, and there are still 3 more months to go. How is it possible that one day you’ll be doing a 20-mile run?

Or a 26 mile run!?

You’ll get there one mile at a time. Don’t worry about it all right now.

Stage 4: OMG (Weeks 7-9)

This is when the challenge of what you have set out to do becomes crystal clear (if it hadn’t already).

The physical challenges become real, the practical challenges become real. How exactly are you supposed to fit in 7 or 8 miles on a weekday?

If you are training for your first marathon, you’ll begin to hit mileages that are you longest ever (if you haven’t already).

Self-doubt may begin to creep in.

What To Do

Evaluate Your Progress

Take a moment to remember where you started and how far you’ve come. Especially if you are newer to running, it’s easy to lose sight of where you were week 1.

Get Out the Door

Stick to the schedule and get out the door- the hardest part is often getting out the door.

Designate a spot 10 minutes from your house- if you go out for a run, reach that spot and still don’t feel it, give yourself permission to turn around and go home guilt-free. In my years of running, I feel like not doing a run several times a month, I’ve actually turned around and gone home maybe twice.

Don’t Think All Or Nothing

Maybe you can’t get an 8 mile run in on a Wednesday, that doesn’t mean you can’t run. Get out the door and do what you can. Divide longer runs into multiple shorter runs.

Stage 5: The Abyss (Weeks 10-12)

The mileage is long, long enough to be inconvenient. Who can do 10 miles on a Wednesday anyway? Do these people not have lives?

The initial excitement of starting has long ago passed.

But you also know the longest mileage is still to come. It is going to get worse before it gets better.

What To Do

Remember Why You Started

Remember why you started this whole running and marathoning thing to start with. Refocus on why it is important to you.


Reach out to other runners for support, especially if they have trained for a marathon. Other runners have been there and commiserate and offer support.

Stage 6: Peak Mileage (Weeks 13-15)

An odd combination of elation (I survived!), happy disbelief (I ran 40+ miles this week!? the most ever!) and utter horror (I ran 40+ miles this week? do I not have a life?)

What To Do

Listen To Your Body

What is working in your training? Check in with your body to make sure you are not pushing yourself too hard.


Treat your longest long runs like a dress rehearsal for race day.

Test the gear, clothing, and fuel that you will be using on race day.

Read MoreLong Run As Dress Rehearsal

Stage 7: The Taper (Weeks 16-18)

Your mileage, at long last, cuts back.

However, the taper will require more discipline than you may expect. All the resting feels weird. It can be tempting to go out and run.

You may find an overall orneriness as the stress of the upcoming race starts to become real just as you lose running as a stress reliever.

What To Do

Take Care of Yourself

Eat well and rest. Drink lots of water. Wash your hands to avoid picking up colds and other bugs.

Don’t ‘Make It Up’

If you missed miles during training, let them go. Don’t try to make them up now.

Trust your plan.

Be Social And Plan Post-Race Activities

Catch up with the friends and family you’ve had to ignore a little as your calendar has been consumed with training. Plan dinners or a weekend away to celebrate your race.

Don’t Overthink It

Your mind may go into overdrive with the race only weeks away.

You may begin to notice lots of new aches and pains, both real and imagined.

Your runs may seem way harder than they should. This is often due to you thinking about a run as ‘only’ a given distance. While you’re running shorter than what you were doing, respect each run.


Read MoreMarathon Taper

Then: race week begins…

What about you? Have you had any other stage of marathon training?

Stages Of Marathon Training

Sara is a runner, running coach, writer, blogger, and a lover of all things written.

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