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Marathon Training Schedule

by Claudia Piepenburg, editor for Peak Run Performance

Have your thoughts turned to marathon training? You're not alone; hundreds of runners are thinking the very same thing. The reasons for this phenomenon vary from runner to runner, but Chicago, New York and peer pressure frequently make up the top three.

  • If you live in a part of the country that has cold winters, the arrival of spring often means the desire to get outside and run is so strong that you'll decide, "why not train for a marathon this fall since the weather this spring is so gorgeous?"
  • Boston Marathon fever. No matter what part of the country you live in, you probably know someone who's running the Boston Marathon. Their excitement is infectious; before long you'll start feeling sorry that you didn't train last year so you could qualify for this year's race. Then you remember: There's 2003! Or 2004…2005…
  • Your marathon-training friends are challenging you to join them.

How do I know I'm Ready to Train for a Marathon?

Although everyone is different and some people may be more athletically gifted than others, the following guidelines will help you decide if it's time to seriously consider marathon training.

  • Have you been running regularly for at least a year? Yeah, you may know someone who started running two months before they ran their first marathon but trust me, that person is definitely an exception! Running a marathon is serious business, the training is difficult and whether you finish in three hours or six, you're putting a lot of stress on your body. You need at least twelve months of solid base training under your belt before you start marathon training.
  • Have you averaged 25-30 miles per week for the past six months? Running a marathon requires that you run a minimum of 40 miles per week for at least three or four months. If you're starting with base mileage of only 10-15 miles per week, it will take three months or more just to get up to 40.
  • Are you at least 21? Running a marathon is an older runner's sport. Most elite marathoners don't run their PRs until they're in their late 20s and even early 30s. (Remember Carlos Lopes won the 1984 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles at the age of 38.) Besides being physically demanding, the marathon requires a mental toughness that most young runners haven't yet developed. Most young people under the age of 21 haven't learned that patience is a virtue. It takes patience to train for and patience to run the marathon; you'll appreciate the event more if you wait until you're both physically and mentally ready.
  • Have you had a recent physical if you're over 40? Even if you've been running 25 miles a week for the past year or so, it's just common sense to have a physical before beginning marathon training. (You're probably due for a physical anyway.)
  • Have you run at least two or more races in the past year? A marathon shouldn't be your first race. Even if you know you won't be finishing any faster than five hours or six hours, you still need to have some familiarity, and feel fairly comfortable with, race protocol: porta-potty etiquette, pinning your number correctly, lining up in the right place, drinking at aid stations etc.
  • Do you have the time to commit to the training? Anyone who has run a marathon will probably agree that actually running the race is easy, provided you've done the training. The training is the hard part. Make sure you have support from your family, co-workers and friends. And if you're in the midst of a lifestyle change: getting married, starting a new job, beginning graduate school etc., consider putting off the marathon training for awhile.

The Training Schedule: How Many Weeks or Months?

A good marathon-training plan consists of several cycles

  • Base training
  • Mileage building
  • Strength building
  • Speed-work
  • Tapering
  • Post-race recovery

The length of each cycle depends on several factors

  • How many years you've been running.
  • Your total average mileage during the six months leading up to the beginning of training.
  • Your propensity for injury (if you get injured easily, you may want to build up to less mileage and may want to avoid too many weeks of building strength through hill training).
  • Your expected finishing time (if you plan on running in four hours or more, you may not need to do as much speed-work).
  • Your age (runners over the age of 40 may want to do less mileage and less speed-work).
  • The total length of the training schedule. The longer the cycle, the longer the taper. For example, if you trained a total of sixteen weeks (four months) you might taper two weeks but if you trained a total of twenty weeks (five months) you should taper three weeks.

Keep in mind that your base training cycle is critical, you're better off erring on the side of caution and running two more weeks of base mileage than trying to rush through it and adding mileage when your body isn't ready.

At minimum your marathon training schedule should be sixteen weeks (four months), maximum no more than twenty-four weeks (four months.) Remember that the taper weeks count in the total.

Important Aspects of Marathon Training

Two very important aspects of marathon training are:

  1. Training by heart rate (preferably using a heart rate monitor)
  2. Following the hard/easy day and hard/easy week principle

Heart Rate Training

If you've never used a heart rate monitor in training, now's a good time to try one. A heart rate monitor can't do your long runs for you, but it can make your long runs work to your advantage by keeping you in the right training zone. Running long runs too fast and running "recovery" runs too fast is one of the most common mistakes people make when they're marathon training.

If your long run is too fast, you'll over-stress your ligaments, tendons and bones, which may lead to injury. Conversely, if your recovery runs are too fast, your body won't get any much-needed rest, which may also lead to an injury.

Invest in a heart rate monitor and wear it every time you run. I like to say that the monitor will "keep you honest". You can't be dishonest with yourself when you're wearing the monitor because your heart rate will tell you exactly what you're doing. It does no good to try and convince yourself that you're running a slow 10:30 minute per mile recovery run. If you're really running 8:45 (NOT a recovery run), your heart will let you know!

The Hard/Easy Training Principle

Adhering to the hard/easy training philosophy can make the difference between finishing the marathon and not finishing; avoiding injury and getting injured mid-way through the training schedule; running your goal time and barely finishing. Every hard day must be followed by an easy day. What's hard?

  • A hard run is a speed-work out of any type: intervals, fartlek, tempo, lactate threshold.
  • A hard run is also a long run. Long is relative, based on your average daily mileage. For instance, if you're averaging 5 miles a day during the week, a long weekend run would be 8 to 10 miles. If your average daily mileage is 8 miles, a long run would be 15+

The easy days that follow hard workouts should be short and slow. If you did a long Saturday run of 8, you should follow with a very slow 4 miles on Sunday. How slow is slow? Jogging pace, a pace that is comfortable enough that you can carry on a conversation easily, without becoming the least bit out of breath. Use your heart rate monitor to assess how slowly you're running!

Although hard/easy days may work well for younger adults, masters (over 40) runners may find that they need more rest. A more appropriate training schedule for an older runner might be:

Day 1 Easy
Day 2 Easy
Day 3 Hard
Day 4 Easy
Day 5 Off
Day 6 Hard
Day 7 Easy

Besides running hard/easy days, you should also run hard/easy weeks. Training for a marathon puts demands on your body. Your body can adapt to these demands or new stresses provided you allow it to adapt in phases. Perhaps you may have seen a marathon-training schedule that advises runners to bump up their mileage and the length of their long run sequentially every week:

Week 1 30 miles (long run of 10)
Week 2 35 miles (long run of 11)
Week 3 40 miles (long run of 12)
Week 4 45 miles (long run of 14)
Week 5 50 miles (long run of 16)
Week 6 55 miles (long run of 18)
Week 7 55 miles (long run of 20)
Week 8 60 miles (long run of 22)

It's a sure bet that by week five our hapless would-be-marathoner is going to be exhausted, maybe suffering from a cold or other upper respiratory distress and nursing a injury. You must allow your body to adapt to stress incrementally. Add a few miles to your total weekly mileage and your long run, and then maintain that mileage level for a week or even two weeks to allow your body to adapt to the new stress level before you ratchet up the stress level again. A much better training schedule than the one above would be:

Week 1 30 miles (long run of 8)
Week 2 33 miles (long run of 10)
Week 3 30 miles (long run of 8)
Week 4 35 miles (long run of 11)
Week 5 33 miles (long run of 10)
Week 6 40 miles (long run of 12)
Week 7 35 miles (long run of 10)
Week 8 40 miles (long run of 14)

It may take this runner a little longer to get to those all-important 18-20 miles runs, but chances are that he or she will remain uninjured throughout the training and will arrive at the start line marathon morning feeling ready to run.

You'll notice that the above training schedule is based on a hard/easy week pattern, one week hard followed by an easy week. Depending on your past running experience, age and propensity for injury you may want to change that to a two weeks hard, one week easy schedule. If you can handle two hard weeks in a row, go for it! Just don't get caught in the trap of increasing mileage week after week without giving your body a rest.

Choosing which Marathon to Run

You've got hundreds of marathons to choose from, how do you know which marathon is best for you? Here are some guidelines that will help you make a choice.

  • Timing is a critical factor when choosing a marathon. If you have five months to train, you'll obviously look for a marathon that is at least five months out.
  • Keep it close to home. Particularly if you're running your first marathon, it's a good idea to stay as close to home as possible. You'll want the support of family and friends cheering you on and running a marathon in or very near your hometown allows you to train on the course so there won't be any surprises come race day!
  • If this will be your first marathon, avoid races with unusual topography, such as courses that are point-to-point and downhill the entire way or run entirely on dirt paths. Once you've become more adept at running marathons you can try a funkier course.

Setting Goals

It's important when training for a marathon to have a goal. If this will be your first attempt at the marathon distance your goal may be just to finish. That's a reasonable goal, although you may want to add these caveats. You not only want to finish, but you want to finish without getting injured and you want to finish knowing in your heart that you'll run another one sometime in the future. It's important that your goals be both attainable and reasonable. Don't set goals that you'll never achieve, you'll become disheartened and may not want to run another marathon. And make sure your goals are in line with the amount of time you have to train, your past experience and your age.

If you're running your second or third marathon, you might want to try setting three goals:

  1. "I'll be happy with this" goal, which might be running one or two minutes faster than your previous race.
  2. "I'll be even happier with this, but not disappointed if I don't do it" goal, which could be running five to ten minutes faster than your previous race.
  3. "Wow! I'm thrilled, this was my dream" goal, which could be anywhere from a fifteen to thirty minute PR.

Keep things in Perspective

Running a marathon is a tremendous, often life-changing experience. People have credited marathons for lifting them out of deep psychological depressions; giving them the strength to get out of abusive relationships; helping them cope with the death of a loved one; even making it possible for them to deal with addictions to drugs or alcohol. It's important however to keep the marathon experience in perspective. Marathon running is a test of strength and mental fortitude as well as physical conditioning but don't let it take over your life. Remember that a well-balanced life is a healthy life. Running four marathons a year doesn't necessarily mean that you'll feel four times better than if you ran only one. Focus on quality, not quantity and keep in mind that if you couldn't quite get in the marathon training this year, there's always next year!

About the Author:

Claudia Piepenburg has been running for 21 years and is the current editor for Peak Run Performance. She holds or has held state age-group records in Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia. In 1990, she was ranked 18th fastest masters woman in the world and 8th fastest masters woman in the U.S. in 1990 and 1991. She competed in the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials, was 20th woman overall in the 1987 Boston Marathon and women's winner of the 1986 Virginia Beach Marathon. If you have questions or comments for Claudia, she can be reached at


Want more running information from Claudia? Check out the RunToday archive exclusively at Road Runner Sports

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