Periods of Training for Your Marathon Preparation and Distance Progression for Your Long Runs

By Uta Pippig

Dear Friends,


I hope your training is progressing well. Many of you who are getting ready to run a marathon three to four months from now are still in the base period of your training. And, of course more training periods lie ahead.

I understand that you are working with your own uniquely-tailored schedule, so I thought it might be beneficial to explore a few aspects of your overall training schedule. This also includes examining the value of sufficient recovery time in between each training phase, and exploring a few guidelines for the distance progression of your long runs.

Four Periods of Training

While following the principles of training for your marathon,

  • you will move on from your base period, which for many of you takes up six to eight weeks,
  • to the first build-up period about two months before your event, with three weeks of higher mileage and longer runs,
  • followed by the second build-up period—again lasting three weeks—introducing your highest mileage and your longest runs, and finally
  • to your tapering period, with the shorter and faster runs that will get you ready for your race. The tapering period usually is scheduled for the last two to three weeks before the marathon. Interestingly, some elite runners taper even longer, with a final recovery week just before their marathon.
  • Please make sure you allow enough recovery between each training period. Many runners take six to eight days—a so-called “Recovery Week”—depending on their specific schedule. This will help your body and mind to be ready for the next training phase by giving you time to “digest” all the workload from the previous phase, and begin your next one at a higher level of fitness.

Within these four periods of training, it is essential to take enough time for each individual training period to maximize its benefits. It is equally important to move slowly, and first recover from one phase or period of training before going to the next. I discuss this further in one of my training messages in “Marathon: Training Advice for Your Recovery Weeks” and in the article “General Guidelines for Your Marathon Preparation” (see point 5).

Runners enjoy the home stretch to the finish in Berlin. ©
Runners enjoy the home stretch to the finish in Berlin. ©

Additionally, allow enough recovery time in between intense workouts during each training period. When you check your uniquely-tailored weekly training schedule up until marathon day, you will see specific suggestions about when to train hard during your “Hard Training Weeks” and when to recover while adding an easy “Recovery Week.”

Please always keep in mind that even though you are following a plan, you need to go with your own feelings as well! For instance, if you feel very tired during your hard weeks of training when you have ran more intensely and have added miles to your long runs, it can be time to relax for a week (“Recovery Week”), and run easier and fewer miles—even if the plan doesn’t suggest it at that point. Then, after you feel you have recovered, you can continue to train harder again. 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”—a key factor in helping you to realize your full potential in your marathon.

For beginners and intermediate runners only: There might be a situation where you still feel strong after three weeks of adding miles and you are convinced you could add another hard week of training. If so, then go for it. However, advanced runners should not exceed three hard training weeks in a row because your training is different and more intense and you may risk “Overtraining.” In this case, two hard training weeks in a row is the general rule of thumb.

All this is part of the concept of periodization that I will explore in one of my future messages.

The start of the Chicago Marathon... ©
The start of the Chicago Marathon… ©

Sometimes injury or other challenges may prevent you from following your originally planned schedule and the essential training principles. If that does happen, please stay calm and positive. Have the courage to adjust your time goal and training plan for the marathon. Then move forward with your modified training schedule. This will help you to continue without risking further injury or feeling too overwhelmed during your remaining time of marathon preparation. It will also help you avoid adding unnecessary pressure to your other personal goals.

In short, in difficult situations like the ones I have mentioned, step back, re-think, re-schedule, and continue your training! Be the master of your “running mind”—it will give you more determination, better focus, and most of all the courage to run freely and strongly. It also will help you be better mentally prepared for your race.

Distance Progression for Your Long Runs

Plan a proper progression for your long runs. Follow the guidelines in your uniquely-tailored training schedule. The length of your long runs will depend on your goal for the marathon and on your current fitness level. For beginners, I would suggest you are able to run 13 miles, and for stronger runners, 14 to 15 miles by, at the latest, 12 weeks before your chosen marathon.

 By end of First
Build-Up Period*
By end of Second
Build-Up Period
Beginners I 17miles20miles
Beginners II18miles20-22miles
Intermediate I18miles22miles
Intermediate II 18-19miles22miles

* 7 to 8 weeks before your marathon.

** Please do not plan your longest run too close to your event. My suggestion is to not schedule it closer than three weeks before your marathon and at the end or during the last days of your highest mileage period.

*** For our advanced runners, only go further than 22 miles when you are feeling confident and strong.

The elite women are starting their race in Boston. ©
The elite women starting their race in Boston. ©

To all runners, please run “Negative Splits” by starting each of your long training runs easier than you finish them, and with a good and relaxed feeling. Running “Negative Splits” means to cover the second half of your chosen distance faster than the first half.

Maybe you are able to plan to run your longest distances on weekends. This is preferable because it might give you more time to recover after your run. And during your “Hard Training Weeks,” try to include one longer run each week.

I wish you good luck for your fitness and training! I will be back with a few thoughts on your “Recovery Weeks”—so essential for your marathon preparation. Stay tuned…

Keep running,

Reading Suggestions:

  1. Key Training Principles for the First Build-Up Period of Your Marathon Preparation
  2. Training Advice for the Second Build-Up Period of Your Marathon Preparation

Updated January 11, 2017
Updated January 15, 2015
Updated December 28, 2013
Posted January 2013