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How to Train for a Marathon

Runners crossing the finish line of the 2014 Boston Marathon

You scorched the 5K. Blasted the 10K. Owned the half marathon. Next up? The marathon.

The marathon is one of the most popular race distances, but logging 26.2 miles isn’t easy. Many plans consist of 12 to 20 weeks (or more) of training, which can take a toll on your body and your mind, not to mention your social life, eating habits and work schedule.

But running a marathon is possible.

Training to run long is a commitment. This guide will explain basic marathon training for beginners, including time commitments, general training and proper nutrition. (For specific training that matches your goals and running history, look into a local marathon training program through Fleet Feet Running Club.)

Runners competing in the 2014 Chicago Marathon

How Long Does it Take to Train for a Marathon?

Be sure you have at least a year of consistent running under your laces before committing to a marathon. That’s because going the distance puts a lot of stress on your body. Without building a solid running base, you increase your risk for injury—and your risk for a less-than-stellar time. You can better transition into race-specific training once you have a broad training base.

Most standard marathon training plans last three to five months and ask you to run five days a week, which includes one long, slow distance run lasting from one to four hours. On top of that, you need time to recover, sleep, cross train, eat, work and do all the other stuff you do each week.

Runners begin a race in Columbus, Ohio

How Many Miles Do You Run Each Week During Marathon Training?

Your running diet consists of different types of workouts. Training plans package these workouts to optimize your time and effort and to set you up for race-day success.

Your weekly training will include:

  • Mid-distance runs. Shorter runs during the week add mileage to your overall total and work on your endurance and discipline.
  • Speed workouts. These workouts can be tempo runs, fartleks or hill sprints, which teach your body to pick up the pace. A well-rounded training plan includes a couple of speed workouts each week. (Hill sprints are beneficial even if you’re training for a flat race.)
  • Cross training. Swimming, strength training and indoor cycling provide a workout on days you don't run and work other muscle groups to help keep your body balanced and stave off injury.
  • Long runs. Your most important run each week is your long run. In addition to increasing the time spent on your feet, the introduction of new distances can boost your mental capacity and fortify your endurance.

Your overall mileage increases each week and varies from person to person depending on your experience and capacity to handle the training load. The bulk of the miles come in the form of the weekend long run, which is roughly 20 to 30 percent of your overall weekly mileage. Before your taper (a drop in mileage leading up to the race that helps your muscles repair for the big day), your long run will reach between 20 and 24 miles.

An assortment of healthy foods for runners

What to Eat When Training for a Marathon

Eating, and eating well, is an important part of marathon training. The right foods provide adequate fuel for your runs and help you recover after hard efforts. Restrictive diets and calorie cuts don’t always work with your training because your body not only needs more food and more variety of food as your training load increases, but restriction often leads to unhealthy, counterproductive habits like binging.

If you’re preparing for a long run, you need more fuel to power your muscles through the entire workout. Going faster for a shorter distance? Some simple carbs can get you through. But always rely on real, whole foods for most of your calories. Whole grains, healthy fats, lean meats and an array of nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables will prime your body for peak performance.

And don’t forget about your post-run eating plan, either. The food you eat after your run is as important as what you eat before a workout because your body breaks down and loses nutrients during exercise. So, you need to replace the spent fuel to help your muscles rebuild and prepare for their next run.

Taking in protein and carbohydrates, like what you would get from a bowl of savory oatmeal, soon after your run will help your body build new muscle fiber and replenish spent glucose stores. Eat nuts, granola bars, greek yogurt with fresh fruit or nut butters to kick start your recovery—even chocolate milk has the right amounts of protein and carbs to aid your weary body.

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