So you have decided to run a marathon, but where to start?

This section deals with …

  • Finding a race to enter
  • Getting a training programme
  • Making use of your club coaches
  • Setting goals
  • Key points to consider when training
  • What to include in your plan

Find a race to enter

Your first task, if you haven’t already done so, is to find a race to enter. There are plenty on the internet and several sites list all races in particular areas of the country – such as Run ABC,, or

If you haven’t chosen one yet and don’t have a particular event in mind, then you should start by deciding WHEN you wish to run your marathon. Ideally, it should be a minimum of 16 weeks from now, preferably more, to give yourself time to train for it – the less fit or experienced a runner you are, the more time you should allow. Most marathons take place in the Spring or Autumn when weather conditions are likely to be most favourable.

Getting a training programme

Once you have decided on a race and have entered it, you’ll need to draw up a training programme. DON’T make the mistake of downloading one from the internet! There are so many training programmes on the net or in books that it’s easy to get confused about what is the most appropriate one for you. Whatever your level, there is no “one size fits all” programme to follow and there are many “gimmicky” plans that will have you focus on one aspect of training at the expense of others, claiming to be THE answer to running a fast marathon.

Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t follow any generic training plan:

They don’t take into account ALL of the following …

  • your highly individual starting point – your current level of fitness;
  • your current weekly mileage;
  • the furthest distance you have run in recent weeks;
  • your current 5k or 10k times (or any indication of your pace over a specified distance);
  • your race goal;

Neither do they adapt to how you are progressing i.e. what you may need to focus on as you work through your plan.

And most importantly, they are not drawn up around your social and work commitments – the days you can/prefer to train. Your training should fit around your life, not your life round your training!

Making use of your club coaches

As a club member you have your club coaches to call upon, as well as dozens of fellow members who are willing to share their experiences, so why bother with the internet when you can get a plan that is devised especially for you. All you need do is email the club asking for help in drawing up a bespoke training programme and we’ll take it from there.

Apart from the advantages listed above, when working with a club coach or personal trainer you can get, and give, immediate feedback. Your coach will include more/less of a specific session to address your weaknesses, and most importantly, a good coach will keep you motivated.

You should also talk to other club members about their experiences but don’t necessarily do what they do! Everyone’s different – what works for them may not work for you, especially when it comes to kit, trainers, re-fuelling etc. On the other hand, be open-minded and willing to experiment – but well before the actual race!

Setting goals

Be realistic. If this is to be your first marathon, it is probably better NOT to set a time target, just finishing in good shape will be something to aim for. Once you have run your first marathon and know what it feels like running 26.2 miles, THEN you can set about improving on your time. After all, you have just run a PB, even if it was 5 hours or more!

And remember, simply knocking 13 minutes off your PB in a marathon means you have to run 30 seconds per mile faster, which is no easy task.

Key points to consider when training

  • Your biggest challenge when training, especially for a marathon, is to get through your plan without injury. When training seems to be going well, too many runners think they can do that little bit extra, add in another run, push that little bit harder, and generally subject their body to a heavier load, and then they wonder why they get injured. If training is going well, it’s precisely because your plan is working and you’re making progress. So as far as your programme goes, follow the old adage of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
  • It comes down to trusting your coaches and communicating with them. If you think your training is too easy and you’re not pushing yourself hard enough, speak to your coach and discuss possible adjustments to your plan.
  • Throughout your programme, “listen to your body” – after each session and at the start of each day, assess any aches and pains. If they are bothersome, consider taking a break for a day or two. If they persist, talk to your coach and if necessary, see a sports physiotherapist – someone who can relate to runners and athletes.
  • Appreciate that rest and recovery are as important as any training session. During training you are stressing your body and it needs to adapt and come back stronger. This is especially important after a high-intensity workout. So, resist the temptation to go for a run on a rest day and think of it as an essential part of your plan. A good training programme may even include an easy week here and there if time allows, like a mini-holiday where you are still running, but at a less demanding level.
  • Before starting, get assessed – have your running style checked for “energy leakages”; time a 5k run; record your resting/maximum heart rate; measure your cadence and your LT pace etc. Then you can see whether things are improving and what may need greater attention.
  • Your training load should increase gradually. Your runs should get longer or the intensity of workouts should get harder only if you have been coping with them up to now. If, for example, you found a 13 mile run very difficult, don’t necessarily step up to a 15 mile run the following week. Do another 13 mile run instead, or even drop down to 10 miles. This is another reason why you should give yourself plenty of time to complete your plan – you need to build in enough time to allow for such setbacks.
  • It’s a good idea to work on weaknesses early in your programme. So if you need to work on your speed, start early on workouts that increase your pace. Or if your legs muscles aren’t that strong, do some strength training.
  • Add variety to your plan – for example, there are many different types of hill work or interval sessions you can include.
  • Each session should serve a specific purpose, be it improving speed, leg strength or aerobic capacity etc.
  • Keep a record of your sessions, so you can refer back to them in the future. Make a note of your rate of perceived effort (RPE); weather conditions; any aches or niggles; and run times, so you can assess whether or not you are improving. But remember, you will have ups and downs, depending on mood, weather, tiredness/lack of sleep etc.
  • If coming back from injury, don’t pick up from where you left off – repeat your last full week or perhaps go back even further, depending on how long you’ve been out.

What to include in your plan

If this is your first marathon, always consult a coach and ask them to draw up a plan for you. But take a look at the page “What do you need to work on?” and subsequent pages on the various aspects of training, for more information.