Before you run a marathon, before your first long run, you need to have a plan that will get you start line ready.
First and foremost, let me say, yes, you need a plan.
You cannot wing it when running a marathon. Sure, there are always stories of ‘a friend of a friend’ who completed a marathon without any training. Who just showed up on race day never having run longer than a 5k and nailed a 3:30 marathon. Maybe those stories are true, maybe they aren’t. In either case, even if it is physically possible, it’s an amazingly bad idea.
You cannot show up on race day without preparation.
That might work for a 5K. Maybe for a half marathon (although, I’d highly recommend against it).
But a marathon is a different monster and you have to prepare.
Picking a Marathon Training Plan
The sheer number of options when choosing a marathon training plan can be overwhelming.
A quick Google search produces millions of hits. And that’s just the off-the-shelf plans.
The options are literally endless if you create your own plan or create one with the help of a qualified coach.
To prevent (or at least minimize) training plan overwhelm, there are a few things to consider before you pick your training plan.
When you consider what you want (or need) in advance, it gives you something to judge a training plan on and you’ll greatly increase the chances you’ll end up with a training plan that works for you.
Off-The-Shelf vs. Custom
The first decision you’ll need to make is if you’ll use an off-the-shelf plan or a create a custom one (either yourself or with a coach).
Off-the-shelf plans are quick and cheap. But you also get what you pay for. They may not fit your calendar or fitness level.
Many can be of dubious quality. Some plans are created by knowledgeable coaches, but others I’ve seen… well… lets just say they are iffy.
If you decide to use an off-the-shelf plan, always check out if it came from a trustworthy source.
Don’t get tricked into using a plan just because it looks good. Pinterest is ground-zero for training plans that look amazing but that don’t seem very sound. Just because someone has the graphic design skills to make a plan look good does not mean you should trust your training to them.
Custom plans take a little more knowledge and skill (and money if you choose to work with a coach), but they are designed for you, your calendar and your physical needs.
There also is an in-between option: long before I was a certified running coach, I would create my marathon training plans by starting with an off-the-shelf plan, and modify it to suit my needs.
If you are looking for a place to start, I swear by Hal Higdon’s Novice 2 Marathon plan. It has been the basis for nearly every one of my marathon training cycles.
How Many Weeks?
If you are already a runner (running 3-4 times a week or averaging around 15 miles a week), you can usually be marathon ready using a standard 16 or 18 training training cycle.
If you are a newer runner, you can still start training for a marathon, but you should not (I repeat SHOULD NOT) pull a standard 18-week plan off the shelf and expect to be marathon-ready.
A couch-to-marathon plan is doable (it’s basically what I did when I started running 20 years ago), you just have to adjust your timetable accordingly. Depending on where you are starting from, you should plan on adding an additional 3-6 months to a standard off-the-shelf training plan.
Your Marathon Training Preferences
When considering your training plan, consider your life, your other (non-running) obligations, and what types of runs and workouts you are willing to do.
Be realistic about your time and training.
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but knowing the answers will help you find (or create) a plan that will work for you.
The most objectively perfect training plan won’t do you any good if it doesn’t suit you, how you run, how you train, and what other obligations you have.
Do you want to do (and are you willing to do) speed or track work?
If you are training for your first marathon, a primary goal should just be to finish. A specific finish time should be secondary.
I find speed work (which becomes more important when training for a specific finish time goal) can be too much and can be too intimidating for many first time marathoners. But many runners love the track.
To each their own.
Do you want a plan that incorporates track or speed work?
Again, there is no right or wrong answer here. Just know yourself and what you are willing and able to do.
Do you want to incorporate cross training into your marathon training?
Personally, I love cross training – staying active while giving my running muscles a chance to recover is key to my marathon training, but I know others detest it. If they are training for a marathon, they only want to run.
Do you want a plan that incorporates cross training?
Strength, Flexibility, and Mobility Work
Some coaches consider strength, flexibility, and mobility work as cross-training.
I consider it a separate thing and a necessary part of being a well-rounded runner.
How much strength training do you want incorporated into your training plan?
How often (and how formally) do you want yoga, stretching, foam rolling and other mobility worked into your training?
Rest Days and Step Back Weeks
You can’t keep pushing harder and harder over the course of 18+ weeks. Your body (and your mind) needs to rest, recover, and adapt to your training.
Rest days are not slacking off from training, they are an integral part of training and are just as important as any run you’ll do.
Your plan should have some sort of rest or active recovery days and step back weeks (when you run fewer miles than the previous week).
When picking a plan consider how many rest (or active recovery) days you want to take each week. Also consider how often you want your plan to step back a bit to ensure your body has time to adapt to training.
Considering what you want in a training plan before you start looking into specific options will greatly increase the chances you’ll end up with a plan that works for you.