How to Pick a Marathon Training Plan
Arguably the most important part of your marathon training is the plan you choose. Picking a training plan that is too aggressive or not aggressive enough will leave you equally disappointed on race day.
When training for my first three marathons, I tried all sorts of stuff - Runner’s World, Hal Higdon and whatever the Nike+ app was doing at the time. I finished ok, but they left me thinking I was missing something. It wasn’t until I started using more specific and eventually a custom written plan, that my entire experience improve.
Here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way to help you pick your first, or best marathon training plan to meet your goals (and of course, an offer to use our new free plan).
Who Should Run a Marathon?
I was once called an “elitist-asshole” by someone on Hal Higdon’s Facebook page for saying running a marathon isn’t for everyone. That’s not what I said, but whatever…
I would love it if everyone could experience the joy of finishing a marathon. However, it is brutally demanding, and training for one is like a part time job. It takes a toll physically and emotionally.
If you are brand new to running, get a few 5k’s, 10k’s or better yet, half marathons under your belt before jumping into the proverbial deep end of the running pool. There’s no reason you need to go from couch to marathon.
As you’ll see below, there are a few other things you should consider before picking a marathon training plan. Whether you have been running for a year or more, and looking to tackle your first, or have run a couple, but looking for something different, here are four things to consider.
1. Evaluate Where you are Today
How much have you run in the past week? Month? Six months? Do you have any lingering injuries that may be an issue down the road? Are you healthy enough to start?
I recently made the mistake of jumping into a marathon plan before an old injury fully healed. In hindsight, I should have done a bit more rehab. You can always find another race a few months away. Even if you’ve already paid the $100+ to register, that pales in comparison to what you’ll be paying in physical therapy if things go bad.
This is important when choosing a marathon training plan, because if you need more time to get in shape, you will want something a bit longer. If you already have a great base, you could settle for a 12 week plan, that is just focused on the race.
2. Figure out Your Goals
The second important thing to decide what your goals are. Is it to run under a certain time, or just finish? Even if your expectations are only finishing, you likely need to do it in 6 hours or less (most courses have a time limit).
Look for a plan that includes some faster stuff. That might sound scary, but everyone should be doing a little speed work - even if you just want to finish. This doesn’t mean 400m repeats on the track (necessarily), but a tempo run at marathon pace will help you figure out how fast you can run it.
I just want to have fun!
Lots of people say this when training for a marathon, seemingly not caring about anything else. I promise, promise, promise that if you pick the right training plan that prepares you well, you will have a lot more fun!
3. Examine your ‘Life’ Schedule
What does your life look like in the coming 12 - 16 weeks? Do you have vacation or work trips planned? Are you expecting a new child? Is your work schedule unpredictable and you can’t reliably commit to running more than two or three days a week?
How you answer those questions will not only determine the type of goals you are able to set but if now is a good time to tackle a marathon. As I think about my next marathon, I’m considering not only what’s going on now, but what will be going on in the next few months.
It is hard to run enough weekly miles to successfully complete a marathon while running less than 4 days per week.
Even that is a stretch.
If you know you cannot commit to 4 - 6 days of running per week, now might not be a great time to tackle a shorter distance. As my coach always says, “the marathon isn’t going anywhere… you can always try again in 6 months.”
Training for a marathon involves a bit of a lifestyle shift. Sleep, nutrition, strength training… it’s all part of the equation. Marathoners really need more sleep, and if the only way for you to squeeze in a run is by shorting yourself an hour or more of sleep, that’s not a great strategy.
4. Find a Trusted Source
Finally, when choosing a marathon training plan, consider who wrote it. How much experience do they have with running and coaching? Is there even an author named?
Does your plan author know what it takes to get a normal runner to the starting line prepared to make it to the finish, with a realistic goal in mind?
Our marathon training plan is written by Antonio Vega, a former elite runner with Mizuno and Team USA Minnesota. He has a 2:13 marathon PR and a 61 minute half marathon PR. While those times are impressive, that’s NOT what makes him an authority when it comes to creating a marathon training plan.
What makes him smart is his ability to put together plans that will realistically challenge runners beyond what they thought they were capable of. I have multiple examples of how he has done this for me and a plethora of runners he works with.
Would you Benefit from a Custom Training Plan?
Three years ago, I started working with a coach. I immediately noticed that the ever-evolving training plan he was writing for me was different than anything I had done before.
Runners are unique, and while there are some basic principals everyone should follow, we are all an experiment of one. From injuries, to travel schedules, or self-evaluation of ability. A custom training plan takes all that into account. Working with a coach can not only give you confidence when you feel down but also a dose of reality when you want to work harder than necessary.
With that in mind, please download our Free Marathon Training Plan!It should work awesome for most, but may not perfectly suit your needs. Please don’t hesitate to ask if you have questions about how it might be tailored towards your goals.
Need something a little beefier? We have some paid options as well.
When You Should Start Training?
Marathons take more planning and training than other race distances. Here are some upcoming dates for some of the “big” fall marathons, and the 16 week prior training start date. Many of these are frequently used to qualify for Boston. While that might not be your goal, these tend to be fast.
- Med City Marathon (MN) - Late May. Start training early January.
- Grandma’s Marathon (MN) - Late June. Start training early February.
- Twin Cities (MN), Wineglass (NY) & Portland (OR) - Early October. Start training early June.
- Chicago (IL) & Steamtown (PA) Marathon - Mid October. Start training mid-June.
- Baltimore (MD) Marathon - Mid October. Start training late June.
- Mankato Marathon - Mid October. Start training late June 29.
- Marine Corps (DC) Marathon - End of October. Start training early July.
- New York & Milwaukee Marathon - Early November. Start training mid-July.
- Richmond (VA) Marathon - Mid November. Start training late July.
- Philadelphia Marathon - End of November. Start training early August.
- California International Marathon - First weekend in December. Start training mid-August.
- Houston (TX) Marathon - Mid January. Start training late September.
Your Marathon Training Plan
What is something you think needs to be included in a great marathon training plan?