General Guidelines for Your Marathon Preparation—Enjoy Your Training
By Uta Pippig
CONGRATULATIONS on your decision to run the most exciting race on earth, dear marathoner or marathoner-to-be!
Each marathon is a new adventure! Making the breathtaking and sometimes overwhelming decision to run those traditional 26.2 miles can not only be quite uplifting but it can give you the much-needed energy to start your training. I wish so much that your marathon journey is successful, fulfilling—and most of all—joyful for you.
It doesn’t matter whether this is your first time preparing for a marathon or one of many. A good overall approach to your physical and mental training is as important as a specific running plan, and can help you be at your best on marathon day.
You might have just started to outline a new schedule for training, with a few tune-up races and all the elements necessary for your upcoming marathon. No matter what race you are focusing on, it will be helpful to embrace, that while there are basic rules for training, it is essential and beneficial to experience joy while running, and celebrate one workout after another. Each run will bring you closer to your goal, and you will experience the satisfaction of knowing you are making progress—and that, in itself, can give you new energy.
You will be able to build on your workouts to finally create a great performance in your marathon. Until then, you still have many weeks of preparation, so consistently allow yourself to stay relaxed and focused! By remaining stress-free, you can conserve the mental energy you will need for the more intense training during the two months prior to your event.
Marathon training is a journey towards being able to maintain your energy. This means being efficient in your training and in your weekly planning. It is best to develop a plan you can handle, enjoy, and accomplish with a happy and confident feeling each week.
The joy of training will help lift you up at a time when you might face some harder training runs or when you might have to adjust your training. Running with joy will enable you to free some energy as well, and learning how to maintain that energy is one of the great secrets of a marathon preparation. I wish I could tell you in person how much it helped me in my training over the years, so try to keep the joy and relaxation as much as possible in your routine. This is my main message of this article: enjoy the journey of the upcoming weeks of training!
My training motto is: “Intensity Meets Playfulness.” Of course, it sometimes was not easy, and it felt intense, to run in challenging conditions. I remember those winters in Colorado during my Boston Marathon preparations in the early and mid 90’s. I still tried to keep the journey fun, uplifting, and inspiring! Embracing this feeling will help you reach a comfortable level of positive mental attitude and high energy.
You already might have begun your training and are paying more attention to setting a good training rhythm each week. You also may be focused on the following elements like your nutrition, your sleep, and the right equipment. For the next weeks and months please do everything you can to stay healthy.
Also, slowly increase your mileage each week. Those of you who have run a marathon before might have a little head-start since you know what to expect. I hope you can use your experience to your advantage and make it easier to find ways to improve your training. And if you are a marathon newbie, the points below might be exceptionally helpful to accompany the more detailed training schedule you might already have chosen.
One important final note: Before you begin any running or marathon training, please get a medical check-up from a sports medicine physician(1) or your primary care physician! Please do so regardless of your current state of health. Share your marathon training plans with your doctor, and take all necessary tests before you put on your running shoes.
General Guidelines for Your Marathon Preparation
Below are 12 topics—“General Guidelines”—which might seem like common sense to you, but sometimes they are good to review and to remember. You also can find further topics I discussed previously in the “Training & Exercise” section. You can find this section under the “Beginners,” “Athletes,” and “Families” tabs.
1. Listen to your body. STAY HEALTHY! If you don’t feel well, be cautious. If you feel an injury might be developing, it is better to take off one or two days and get early help from a specialist. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT! Be smart after your workout. For example, take a dry shirt to put on after your run, and always take some fluid to drink. If you feel cold after your workout (being in your wet running clothes can cause this), take a short, warm bath or a shower. At least change into dry clothes. Stay warm after your workouts to avoid weakening your immune system, and maybe getting a cold. (I had a few of these forced days off because I didn’t follow this common sense rule.) Please find a link to the article “Conquering the Common Cold.”
2. PLEASE avoid training too hard and “Overtraining.” TRAIN SMART! Try to stay relaxed and run “playfully,” leaving yourself a lot of reserves. You will be training for many weeks until the marathon. Keep your energy levels high. Increase your mileage slowly. Take your time!
One simple tool is running “Negative Splits.” This simply means you cover the second half of your chosen distance faster than the first half. The same principle applies to your interval/speed workouts and to your easy runs. Many of you may be already following this principle. If so, fantastic! Please start each of your training runs or long runs easy, with a good and relaxed feeling.
3. Run relaxed and with joy! Try to stay relaxed during your runs. During the early stages of your marathon preparation you may have opportunities to focus more on your running technique. Maybe you will find it is necessary only to make very small adjustments. It is best to get feedback. A professional in one of your local running stores can help.
Take enough time to get your body accustomed to the slight changes needed before you go into your high mileage training. Maintain a relaxed running form: “shoulders down, arms relaxed, body upright.” In the article, “Would You Like To Run Better? Relax!,” I give advice on how to run properly and achieve a good style so you can run further and faster. You may check it out.
4. Be comfortable with your equipment. It’s especially important to RUN IN COMFORTABLE SHOES. Check your shoes, socks, and other clothes you plan to wear for your training and later on race day. I would suggest getting two good pairs of running shoes: One pair (a more stable, heavier shoe) for all your long and easy runs; another pair (a slightly lighter shoe) for your faster training runs and, later on, for your intervals. This may also help to prevent injuries due to shoe overuse.
The running shoes you wear in your marathon should not only be comfortable, but should have been tested during at least a few of your long runs, some easy runs, and during one or two of your intense workouts. Check the outsole, that is the material in direct contact with the ground, and also examine the midsole, which is the cushioning of your shoes. If there are cracks and/or fissures visible, it’s time to change to a new pair.
If you have logged more than 600 miles in a pair of shoes—or 500 miles for certain lighter models—it would be a good idea to exchange them soon, and take time to get comfortable with a new pair. In one of my marathon runs, I wore relatively new shoes—and it was a big mistake. It was the only time I had to drop out of a race.
Choose the right clothes. Stay away from cotton running clothing; instead choose materials like polypropylene, which keeps your body dry while running. Many runners like performance fabric, for example CoolMax®, since it has the effect of transporting the moisture to the outside. Your local running store will have knowledgeable experts to recommend the right equipment for you. Also, it can be cold, warm, hot, sunny, windy, or wet on Marathon Day, so be prepared. Here is a link to information that might help you with clothing decisions for race day “Two Days Before the Marathon.”
5. Follow the principles of training. Preparation for a marathon can be divided into several periods: A base period followed by a high mileage period, then a highest mileage period, and finally a tapering period—followed by your marathon, of course !
After and within each period allow enough recovery time. For example, two weeks of hard and more intense training can be followed with one week of easy training. We call it “Periodization(2a,b).” You can vary the length of your intense and easy training days and weeks. However, always allow enough recovery and rest days to avoid “Overtraining.” It will also help you to realize your full potential in your marathon.
6. Plan a suitable weekly training schedule and a proper progression of your long runs until the marathon. Try to include one longer run each week in your training schedule, preferably on the weekends because this might give you more time to recover after your run. The length of your long run will depend, of course, on your unique goal for the marathon and on your current fitness level. For beginners, I would suggest that you are able to run 12 miles and for the stronger runners, 13-15 miles by 12 weeks before your chosen marathon (at the latest).
Your weekly training schedule will depend on your goal for the marathon and your current level of running as well. For beginners, I suggest a total of two to three runs per week. If you feel advanced enough, you can even go up to four runs, including one long run and two easy shorter runs. For stronger runners, a well-balanced schedule could be one long run, one faster run, one speed workout (i.e., intervals or tempo runs); in addition two or three easy and relaxed recovery runs in-between. Follow your chosen training schedule wisely.
There are many training models out there, and you already may have selected or actually be working with a particular plan. Runner’s World magazine has a good schedule for marathon training and so does Hal Higdon, with his two different plans for “Beginners.”
7. You may include stretching in your training routine. Try to add some light stretching after your short easy runs. Perhaps you might be running after sitting at your work desk for a long time—if so, make sure your upper body is relaxed and your lower back is OK. You may try some special stretching and strengthening exercises from our articles, “Yoga for Performancesm: Introduction, Part 1, and Part 2.” Stretching is a great tool to use to stay healthy, but please make sure to stretch only after easy running. Avoid stretching after intense workouts since your muscles are still stressed and “exhausted” from the running activity.
8. Have you ever tried cross-training? Cross-training can be beneficial if added to your running schedule. I enjoyed it for all my marathon preparations. It helped me to recover faster from a race or get sooner back into running shape.
Swimming, for example, can help you to recover from a long run or a tempo run, and at the same time improve deeper breathing. Here, I would just swim easy and use it as part of your recovery. You can train various programs during your swimming sessions like intervals or sprints. In this case, you want to chose an easy day of running where you run first and swim afterwards.
Deep-water running also is a great addition. You will use your running muscles while simply running in the water (with a flotation vest). At the same time, depending on the intensity of the workout, you will be supporting your cardiovascular system. It is also an effective training tool that can be a help in recovering from a number of injuries—but, like everything else I recommend, check in with your physician first to make sure that water running is appropriate for you.
You might enjoy adding cross-country skiing if snowy winter conditions stop you from running. You may find it useful to check “Cross-Country Skiing: A Great Option for Winter Fun and Fitness” to review how this training can improve your aerobic endurance and your strength.
Cycling will help to improve your aerobic endurance as well, though it is not as ideal for your training as cross-country skiing or deep-water running since you use different muscles when cycling compared to when you are running.
Some of you might attend spinning classes—a good workout at the earlier stages of your marathon preparation. However, as you get closer to two months before your marathon, I would keep focusing on running more and more for your primary training, and only “spike” it with some cross-country skiing, biking, or deep-water running. Meanwhile your swimming routine can stay the same up until the last few weeks before the marathon.
A quick note about additional supportive training elements for running: Core strengthening, light weights, stretching, and yoga. Core strengthening work will help you strengthen the muscles that stabilize the spine and pelvis and the muscles that hold the torso. Because of that, exercises do not only include sit-ups. It is best to add: “Plank Exercises” and “Side Plank Exercises.” You can also use the medicine ball for an extended session. And try Pilates—as some of you already do. These are all great workouts!
When you add a session with light weights it is best and most effective if you concentrate on exercises that will strengthen your running muscles. The combination of light weights and core work, with a minimum of one workout each per week, will greatly help your running performance.
9. Treadmill Training. Running in hot and humid summer conditions might be too tough, and in winter Mother Nature can easily kick up a fuss, so treadmill training can be a great alternative and good strategy. In the article “Taming the Treadmill,” I present information about training and workouts on a treadmill, and when to include it in your running schedule, plus other useful tips. Even if you are used to the “humming machine,” maybe you will still discover something new and helpful in your current marathon preparation.
Check especially the first two parts of the article: “When to Run on a Treadmill” and “Good Treadmill Workouts.” Also there are differing opinions of how much to incline the belt and deck. I believe an incline setting of only 0.5% simulates outside conditions best. But, other runners tell me that they prefer a 1% incline. Check what feels best for you and go with your own judgment.
Some advice for newbies to treadmill running: before you start, make sure the belt (the tread on which you run) operates smoothly. Step on the belt when the speed is still very slow and you can walk comfortably, then turn up the speed and start running slowly. Now it’s OK to go even faster until you achieve the desired pace for your workout. Also, please make sure you allow enough time to adjust to running on the treadmill. If at all possible, I would start with only one or two short runs a week. This way you will help your muscles, tendons, and your running biomechanics adjust to the movement of the belt, and you will avoid injury. Later you may add more runs “on the belt.”
10. Diet, hydration, good nutritional routine during and right after your workouts. Choose a diet that generally includes lots of water, the right carbohydrates (i.e., in oatmeal and muesli), and good fats (those with omega-3’s, which are contained in salmon and fish oil products).
I hope you enjoy a nice breakfast routine and you eat something in the morning before your long training runs. Some of you might like oatmeal and/or muesli. This is great! Additional information might help you to perfect your morning routine, so here is a link to an article I wrote with my nutritional adviser, Dieter Hogen, about breakfast: “Kick Start Your Day.” Perhaps you could try our breakfast routine before a short run. If it suits you, then try it out before longer runs as well until you feel “safe” with a nutritional strategy you can use on your marathon day.
Hydrate well before, during, and after your training—especially during and after your longer runs. Practicing proper hydration now will get your body accustomed to it—and learning to drink “on the run” (during your long runs) will simulate conditions that you will face in the marathon and give you an advantage on the “big day.”
If you have the chance to run on a treadmill in the gym, you can easily hydrate well during your run. When you are finished with your workout, try to keep in mind the so-called “recovery window.” This is the period immediately after prolonged exercise, when the muscle enzymes that support glycogen production—the primary fuel your muscles relied on during your workout—are elevated. Therefore, the best things to eat right after a workout to replenish your muscles’ energy stores, preferably during the first 30 minutes, are similar to what you ate before it, meaning an emphasis on easily digested carbohydrates. The sooner you are able to take in these calories, the more glycogen your body will produce, and the sooner your muscles will be returning to their normal state.
11. Sleep. This will be very important during the months leading up to your marathon. Endurance athletes need at least 8 hours of sleep each night. After intense days of training some of us require even 9 hours for best recovery. Find out what you need by examining how you feel. Among many other benefits, adequate sleep will help you to strengthen your immune system, build and repair muscle, and sharpen your mental focus—all leading to stronger performance in your training and marathon.
I hope you can maintain your energy, and develop a harmonious combination of working and being with your family, together with your training and much needed recovery for the next weeks and months. Achieving this will help you to have a relaxed and focused mind, which hopefully will help to give you a good night’s sleep!
12. Friends and family. Ask your friends for support during the next months. Maybe invite your family to be part of your adventure—they might enjoy sharing in your achievement. I teamed up with some friends once a week to train and it helped me to stay on a good schedule. Training partners will push you when you don’t feel a hundred percent and you can enjoy many great runs together. And it’s nice to have someone to greet you (and even catch you!) at the end of a workout.
Yes—you can do it and you will be fine! Whenever you might feel you are behind schedule, just re-group, re-schedule, and then continue training. If this happens, please be open to adjusting your time goal for your marathon. The following article I wrote—“Make Your Wishes Come True: How to Set and Achieve Your Goals”—may help you with proper goal setting, and what to do when you face a difficult time or even an injury during your training.
Finally, remember that you are not alone! Runners around the world are currently preparing for the marathon and you will be at the starting line with thousands of them. I was always excited by that thought, and I also felt tremendous respect for my fellow competitors.
At the starting line on marathon day, I thought about how everyone there had trained for this event for many months, just as you are doing now. I would think, “Yes, today is a day of celebration—in only a few hours, all the months of work and training will pay off.”
The feeling of being part of something so brave and adventurous—the marathon!—can give YOU additional energy. I hope you can apply this feeling of excitement to your marathon preparation and celebrate each mile. Then crossing the finish line at the end of your 26.2 miles will be a moment of joy you will never forget—including all the FUN you had getting there.
Stay healthy and best of luck for your training. Keep running!
(1) The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM): What is a Sports Medicine Physician? www.amssm.org/BrochureImages/WhatisaSportsMe-1.pdf, retrieved July 2011.
(2a) Joe Friel’s Blog: K.I.S.S. Periodization. www.joefrielsblog.com/2010/04/kiss-periodization.html, April 2010.
(2b) Joe Friel’s Blog: What’s Wrong With Periodization. www.trainingbible.com/joesblog/2008/11/whats-wrong-with-periodization.html, November 2008.
Updated May 27, 2015
Updated October 26, 2013
Posted July 27, 2011