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How to start training if you want to run a marathon

Woman running a marathon
An expert has revealed how to train for a marathon even if you're not an avid runner. (Getty Images)

This year’s London Marathon was arguably one of the best we’ve seen in recent history. Along with it being Sir Mo Farah’s final marathon, Kenya’s Kelvin Kiptum won the men’s elite race with the second fastest ever recorded marathon time, and the Netherland’s Sifan Hassan made an incredible comeback to win the women’s race.

It’s not hard to feel inspired when watching runners cross the finish line of a marathon, and with 48,000 runners taking part in this year’s race, it may have spurred you on to consider applying for next year.

With the 2024 London Marathon ballot closing on April 28, 2023, there’s still time to enter – and plenty of time to train – for next year’s marathon, even if you’ve never been a runner before.

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To help come up with a training plan, we spoke to a personal trainer about how to train for a marathon, and how to build up your training in the months and weeks leading up to race day.

It is possible to train for a marathon even if you’re not an avid runner

“Training for a marathon as a beginner runner is a huge challenge, but it is completely doable,” Alice Williams, personal trainer at OriGym says.

“If you’re currently active and do other types of exercise training, you will simply need to start incorporating running into your exercise routine. Then, you can start a set marathon training programme.

“But if you’re new to exercise and fitness in general, you should work on building up your strength and cardiovascular endurance before even starting marathon training.”

Williams says that by doing this, it will form a good base and can also help to minimise your risk of injury.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2023/04/23: Thousands of runners pass across Tower Bridge during London Marathon 2023. (Photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A record 48,000 people took part in the London Marathon in 2023. (Getty Images)

When to start training for a marathon

So, when should you start training for a marathon then? Williams says it all depends on your current running and fitness level.

“If you’re already a regular long-distance runner, you might be able to refine your training towards a marathon in as little as one month,” she adds. “But if you’re starting as a beginner runner, you will need at least five to six months training, or even more!”

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How to build up your training for a marathon

If you are new to running or new to long-distance running, you should give yourself at least six months to train for a marathon.

Six months ahead

“Six months before a marathon, you should be aiming for three runs a week of varying levels and lengths,” Williams says.

“For example, an ‘easy pace’ 3km run, an interval 5km run and a long and slow 10km run. You should also incorporate other types of training such as strength and conditioning, as well as an ‘active rest day’ such as yoga or pilates.

“As the months go on, simply increase the distance of the runs.”

If you’re new to running, it’s a good idea to build up your fitness level before embarking on longer runs.

Apps such as the NHS's Couch to 5K programme could be a good option, and it would be a good idea to start this as soon as possible if you think a marathon may be on your horizon, as this will help you work up to a 5km race and you can build on your endurance from there.

Runner - photo taken in Chelyabinsk, Russia
Training for a marathon should ideally begin about six months ahead of the race. (Getty Images)

One month ahead

Williams says that you should be aiming for the 20-mile mark when you get to one month before your marathon.

“You should also increase the intensity of your interval and sprint training to build up your cardiovascular endurance,” Williams advises.

One week ahead

While you may be tempted to amp up your training in the week leading up to your marathon, Williams says you should actually be “tapering off” your training at this stage.

“This means not running more than 10 miles. This ensures that your body is well-rested and prepared for the big day, as well as avoiding any chance of injury,” she adds.

Other exercises to do to help train for a marathon

As well as running, Williams suggests adding strength training such as weight-lifting into your routine.

“This will help build strength, particularly if you focus on your lower body muscles. However, make sure not to lift too heavy so that your legs are too sore to run,” Williams explains.

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“Other cardio exercises are also a great complement to marathon training, such as swimming, cycling or rowing. This will help build your stamina and cardiovascular endurance for your marathon.

“You should also include yoga and pilates in your marathon training program. This will help with your muscle mobility and flexibility, reducing the risk of injury. Yoga in particular will also help you control and regulate the breath, so you can breathe more comfortably when running your marathon.”

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