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Before you embark on a marathon training program, figure out where you’re currently at with running and where you’d like to go. This flow chart from Hansons First Marathon can help get you started.
5 Questions to Ask Before You Start Marathon Training
While there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all training plan, there are several questions you should ask yourself to ensure a greater chance of success. Ask yourself the following questions prior to beginning your marathon training in order to help guide yourself toward the smartest way forward.
Q1: Am I running on a regular basis?
Runners generally answer this one of three ways.
No. I’m new to running.
If this is you, your smartest, safest approach will be to first take the time to build your strength and endurance. You can do so by starting your training with our “Couch to Marathon” (C2THON) program, designed for brand-new runners. The plan first takes you through an 8-week training regimen that is aimed at slowly and safely building your mileage and fitness from scratch. It includes a run/walk progression to help you work your way up to 30 minutes or more of continuous running.
When you combine our 8-week 0–5K plan with an 18- to 20-week marathon plan, you’re looking at 26 to 30 weeks of structured training. This may sound like a lot, but it ends up far more time-efficient than if you were to go directly into marathon training, get injured, spend time recovering, and then start over.
No. I used to run regularly, but injuries/illness forced me to take time off.
If this is you, just bouncing back from a period of time away from running, we strongly advise you delay your comeback until your body is fully ready. Injured runners often get overzealous in their return to training and as a result, end up taking two steps back for every step forward. Not only should you be confident that you’re healthy and recovered before you start training, it’s also important that you identify whatever it was that put you on the bench in the first place. Were you running too many miles? Do you have a strength imbalance? Was it an old injury rearing its ugly head? Whatever it may be, address the issue so it doesn’t come back to haunt you during marathon training. While you don’t need to ease in with a 0–5K program, be sure to log at least a few weeks of easy mileage before beginning regular marathon training.
Yes. I run several days a week and have been doing so for a number of months or years.
If this is your answer, you are most likely ready to jump into marathon training immediately. If you are handling at least 15 miles per week and you have 18–20 weeks to devote to your marathon buildup, you’re in business.
Q2: Have I run any races recently?
Having real data from a recent race to inform your goal setting is extremely helpful. However, if you do not have that data, fear not. You have a few options. You can launch into your training by running a local 5K or 10K to gauge your current fitness; races are fairly easy to find on any given weekend. If you don’t want to jump right into a race, that is OK too. It just means that the first several weeks of training will be a bit of a guessing game in terms of establishing paces, and it may necessitate tacking on several extra weeks to the beginning of the schedule to determine where you are. As your training progresses, it makes sense to sign up for a shorter race or two to test your fitness and help you pinpoint a marathon time goal.
If you do have some recent shorter races under your belt, then you have much of the information you need to set an appropriate marathon goal.
Q3: Why do you want to do a marathon?
Marathon training is a significant undertaking. And a lengthy one. In order to stay motivated, it’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. When you ask yourself, What do I want to get out of this experience?, you should have an answer (or answers) to that question.
Runners respond to this question in a variety of ways. Some are looking for a lifestyle overhaul, and taking on the challenge of a marathon feels like a good way to jump-start that process. Others are driven by some kind of competitive goal, such as qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Some are drawn by the allure of the bucket list. These are all perfectly valid reasons to take on the marathon distance. Where you might run into trouble is if you see yourself in either of the following descriptions.
No goal: The lack of an identifiable goal can undermine your training. The marathon is a long-term undertaking and without a guiding goal, you’re less likely to stick with the plan. Some runners—new ones in particular—are hesitant to set a goal because a part of them doubts they can do it. If this sounds like you, consider first taking on the 0–5K plan.
Goal without commitment: You have big goals, but you don’t have the time or motivation to train adequately. Training for a marathon is hard. No matter what numbers you’d like to see on the clock as you cross the finish line, training requires day-in and day-out commitment and effort. What’s more, the faster you get, the more training you have to put in to continue to see progress. Lofty goals will require more mileage, harder workouts, and a greater amount of recovery. If you aren’t realistic about this and you set a goal that requires more time and effort than you’re able to put in, you’re likely to flounder. It’s good to be confident and optimistic about your goals, but also be sure to be reasonable.
Q4: How much time can you dedicate to marathon training?
Marathon training is going to require a good amount of your time. Before you sign on the dotted line of the race registration form, consider whether now is the right time to make training the priority it needs to be. Remember, training will probably involve some compromise in other areas of your life.
It is difficult to adhere 100 percent to a training schedule. Some flexibility is required. However, while we all have days when we fall of the training wagon, if you are able to complete only, say, 70 percent of a program, it isn’t going to help you successfully finish a marathon and achieve your goals.
Step back, asses the larger landscape of your life, and envision where training will fit into the topography. It may require significant changes or shifts in your daily schedule. Or perhaps you will find that simply becoming more efficient in other areas opens up the time you need to train.
Keep in mind that all training days are not created equal. With our system, there are typically 2–3 days in the week that require a fair amount of time for training. On other days, the time commitment is less. In terms of overall time commitment, you can expect training to take about 10–12 hours per week at the peak of training. Ask yourself, Do I realistically have that time to devote to the marathon?
Q5: Are you injury prone?
Consider carefully before you answer that. Many athletes we coach initially tell us that they can’t run high mileage because they have found that they get injured easily. We’ve discovered, however, that many of these folks aren’t all that injury-prone when they are subscribing to a smart, quality training plan. Some simply haven’t been taught how to safely and effectively approach a running program. Others aren’t sure how to tell the difference between the discomfort that inherently accompanies training and an ache that signal injury and requires medical attention. That said, some runners truly are injury-prone. Keep in mind a few common root causes of running injuries.
Inconsistent training: We don’t expect you to do every single workout and run every single mile in our plans. The reality is, life happens. Kids get sick, work schedules change, and cars unexpectedly break down. To assure success, however, you will need to do the large majority of the workouts. Missing several days of training and then trying to play catch-up by piling on the miles almost always results in injury and illness.
A mix-and-match approach to training: Some runners attempt their first marathon by piecing together a plan from various bits of advice they’ve garnered from the Internet and suggestions from friends. The problem with this approach is that the training consists only of what the runner wants to do, rather than what he or she needs to do. This can not only thwart your goal time, but also upset the proper balance of training and cause injury. The Hansons training plans endeavor to keep you from falling victim to the less-than-satisfying results that such a haphazard approach to training can produce.
Previous injuries and ailments: Whether you’re an experienced runner or a complete novice, if you’ve had chronic injuries, it’s important to get clearance from your physician before starting to train for a marathon. He or she may suggest that you keep your running mileage low and gain fitness through other means—something that certainly can be accommodated but it is vital to get advice from an expert if you hope to reach your marathon goal. If you have suffered training injuries in the past, take care not to jump to conclusions about the culprit. The injuries may not be the running itself, but rather improper footwear, poor training practices, or other issues.
After considering the ins and outs of training, injuries, and motivation, one important fact should be clear: At no point did we suggest that certain people aren’t good candidates for running a marathon. Even if you’re starting from scratch, there is a way for you to successfully complete the 26.2-mile distance. The only instance in which we would advise against starting to do some sort of training are if you’re injured, sick, unmotivated to put in the time and effort, or a combination of these factors. You can work around hurdles such as lack of experience or past injuries if you’re currently healthy and motivated. All it takes is the right plan adjusted to your particular needs to put you on a successful journey toward the marathon.
Hansons First Marathon has four training plans to accommodate the variety of runners coming to the marathon distance for the first time. Whether you need the From Scratch Plan, the Just Finish Plan, the Advanced First Timer Plan, or the Express Plan, this guide will help you determine the right plan for you so that you are confident and prepared for race day.
Adapted from Hansons First Marathon: Step Up to 26.2 the Hansons Way by Luke Humphrey and Keith and Kevin Hanson. Hansons First Marathon will help any runner who is new to the marathon train smart and find success at the marathon distance.