Marathon Training Essentials: Basic Components to Get You to the Finish Line
O.K., I’ll say it. Despite what it seems, you don’t actually need a gazillion hours, all the right gear and fancy technology, or an experienced running background to run a marathon. Sure, you’ll run a stronger race with more training time or a breathable mesh tank top, but you could just as easily spend less time and wear a cotton t-shirt to effectively get the job done. I’m not suggesting you throw out your training plan or your collection of GPS watches, but if you’re newer to marathoning or don’t have a lot of time or resources to commit to training, you really only need a few essentials to get you to the finish line.
Back when I ran my first marathon, I was the least experienced runner possible. I literally started to run in order to complete the marathon that I had registered for a mere four months in advance. I didn’t own a GPS watch or any watch at all for that matter, and I certainly wasn’t up to date on training methods or checking out how my friends were preparing for their races on Strava. It’s true, I didn’t know a single thing about marathoning when I signed up, but I still got to the finish line in one (cotton tank top wearing) piece. I wouldn’t say that I was the most dedicated marathoner-in-training, but I made sure to include all of the basics such as long runs and a Friday night spaghetti dinner ritual. If nothing else, I wanted to finish the race and by incorporating the essentials below, I did!
Related: Get our FREE Marathon Training Plan!
The Essentials of Marathon Training
A good marathon training plan will incorporate all of the following things and many more. (Find all of our marathon training advice here.) Will you run your most amazing PR race by only doing the following things? It’s unlikely. But if your aim is to complete the distance for the first time or get to the finish line with as minimal effort as possible, the following things will get you there.
Here are a few of the essential components of marathon training:
O.K. you don’t actually need any base mileage before starting a marathon training plan (see example of my first marathon above), but it certainly would be helpful and you’ll definitely feel a lot better at the end of the race (and in the days after) than I did. Base mileage or any base fitness will allow your body to adapt to marathon training more quickly and will enhance your ability to complete the training and get to the start line injury free.
If you’re brand new to running, aim to run a few times a week for 20-30 minutes in the months and weeks leading up to your marathon training plan. Get your body used to moving and being active on a regular basis and start to get in the habit of running more.
If you have some running experience but have minimal time or resources, aim to run 10-20 miles a week (depending on experience level) for several weeks before starting to train for your race.
Ahhh, the marathon training long run! The bread and butter of all marathon training plans, the long run is often the most daunting (and sometimes dreaded) part. Newer runners may get nervous looking too far ahead into their training plans - you have to run how far? But trust me when I write that if you stick to the plan, you can do it! Depending on your marathon training plan of choice, long training runs will start around 6 miles and take you up to 18, 20, or sometimes even 22+ miles. (Psst…if you’re brand new to running, stick to one or two 18-20 mile runs per marathon training cycle.) It’s obvious that these long, sometimes grueling runs are what will prepare your body and mind for the actual grind of the marathon. Without them, you’re in for a very painful race day indeed, so don’t skimp!
Related: How to Prepare for a Long Run
If you’re a brand new runner, stick to the slow build of the weekend long run as best you can. If you miss a run here or there, don’t panic. It’s relatively easy for the body to run 10 miles one weekend and 13 miles two weeks later, even if you weren’t able to squeeze in that 12-miler the week before. While we’re on the subject, let go of the fact that you won’t be covering the full 26.2-mile distance during training. Are those last 6.2 miles scary and hard? Yep, but with the right training, you’ll be ready for them!
Can’t dedicate quite the amount of time you were hoping during this marathon training cycle? It’s better to skimp on the weekday miles in the interest of building your endurance with the long run. Make these runs the priority.
Food & Fuel
Regardless of how your running is going, you’ll need to figure out your fueling (before, during, and after) in order to have a good race experience. Whenever you run longer than 60 minutes, you should plan to consume some sort of fuel - sports drink, gels, bars, snacks, etc. Newer runners will need to experiment more (here’s a good place to start) whereas more experienced runners should use what they know and trust. Practice in training and don’t try to go without; the energy in the body is finite!
You’ll also need to consider pre-run and post-run meals to avoid further gastrointestinal issues (trust us, you’ll want to get this figured out ahead of time!). Many runners subscribe to the long run or race day eve carbo-load (where pasta reigns supreme) and the morning pre-run bagel. Whatever your carb of choice, be sure to eat a bunch of them in the day before and the morning of a big long run. Then, practice, practice, practice! If spaghetti doesn’t sit well with you one weekend, try a sweet potato the next. If cream cheese makes you feel queasy one morning, try peanut butter on your next early jaunt. Repeat until you feel confident about your race weekend food and fueling routine.
Yes, you read that right, you don’t just have to run, you need to rest, too! We’re not saying you should be doing more resting than running, but you should certainly have an ample amount of both. Marathon training involves a lot of physical effort, so you’ll need to properly recover in order for your body to adjust to the stresses of training. A good training plan will include at least one (but usually 2-3) rest or cross-training days - take them and enjoy! Additionally, if you feel extra crummy on any particular day (say, your knee is feeling wonky or you caught your child’s cold), take a day off. A few extra rest days here or there won’t wreck your training, but if you find you’re missing lots of runs, focus on the time you can commit and adjust your expectations for the race.
All marathoners-in-training should aim to get as much sleep as possible, and hey, take that extra rest day if you need it!
Sometimes you need to do the minimum amount of work to get the job done, especially if you’re a beginner or your days don’t have nearly enough hours. You might not qualify for the Boston Marathon, but you will reach the finish line by building your base, prioritizing long runs, nailing down your fueling strategy, and getting enough rest. Good luck!
Your Marathon Training Essentials
What other essentials should you include in your marathon training cycle? Share in the comments below.