If your new year’s resolution is to get fit enough to complete the classic 42km distance, one of our three detailed marathon training programs will get you in perfect shape to achieve that. Whether you’re a beginner who just wants to be able to finish the race or if you’re advanced enough to want to hit a specific, quick time, there’s a 14-week plan here for you – so pick the right one and get ready to destroy that 42km.
“Running a marathon is about consistent training,” says Martin Yelling, Lucozade Sport’s endurance consultant. As a man who has gathered athletic achievements such as completing 10km in under half an hour and qualifying for the World Ironman Triathlon Championships, Yelling knows distance training. “It isn’t made up of isolated runs or irregular workouts,” he says. “Instead it’s about following a plan that works with your lifestyle and gives you frequent and consistent training. The beginner’s three-times-a-week plan gives just enough of a routine for the busy runner to adapt to regular training without taking over your life. It also builds up to the long runs gradually so it’s not so much of a shock to the body.”
Choose from the three training plans on the following pages, and a set of questions every runner should ask themselves. But first, one Coach writer finds out the hard way if it’s possible to run the big race with just six weeks of training.
How to Train for a Marathon in Six Weeks
Running a marathon is a big deal. As anyone with a family member, friend, or even vague acquaintance who’s done one knows, it takes over lives, and turns even the most interesting person into someone who can only talk about running for the time they’re in training. And that training is endless. Dedicating four months of practising to four hours of effort one weekend in April seems to be the norm.
The training can be more daunting than the race itself, but does it have to be? If you could train for and complete a marathon in just six weeks without disaster, it would be a more attractive idea for many people who can’t face the prospect of committing months to running.
I set out to test the theory by running the Barcelona marathon after just six weeks of training. I was not a regular runner at the start, but as part of an active #CoachEffect lifestyle I was exercising a couple of times a week and in pretty good shape. So I wasn’t starting from scratch, I could run six miles comfortably enough, but I’d also never run a longer distance than around 10 miles.
RECOMMENDED: The World’s Best Marathons
The Training Plan
I aimed to slip in two shorter, faster runs during the working week, before longer runs on Sundays. Given the limited time available, I had to start fairly big with my first long run, opting for a half marathon.
This is probably a good barrier for determining whether the six-week marathon is feasible for you. If you can get through 13.1 miles at the end of the first week, the rest is doable. From there, I built up the long runs as follows:
- Week 1: 13.1 miles
- Week 2: 16.5 miles
- Week 3: 17 miles
- Week 4: 20 miles
- Week 5: Run aborted after one mile
- Week 6: The Marathon!
Aside from week five, when clearing out a loft left my lungs full of dust and I found myself unable to breathe and run at the same time, everything went broadly to plan.
10 Things Learned During Training
- Always stick to your eating plan, even if you don’t feel like you need to. If you do get to the stage when you’re desperate for fuel, it’s already too late.
- Track everything. You’ll want to keep an eye on your training times and distances. I used Strava and an Apple Watch.
- The smallest annoyance can drive you mad when it’s sustained over hours of running. Dress rehearsals for gear and nutrition are a must.
- Compression after long runs did seem to speed up recovery time in my calves. I didn’t actually use dedicated compression gear, just a pair of tight football socks.
- Going barefoot on hard floors exacerbated any tightness and niggles I felt after running. I kept a pair of trainers clean to use at home.
- Plan routes to loop back near your house at the midpoint for fluids. You’re not going to have to carry them on the day so no need to hamper yourself with a water bottle.
- Try and avoid routes involving repeated laps. It really is boring, and nothing helps rack up the miles without realising it like getting lost.
- Make a real point of planning something enjoyable on the non-running day of your weekend.
- Do everything you can to avoid getting ill. Eat healthily, and become a germaphobe. You can’t afford to lose training time.
- Always have a post-run plan. Don’t flop on the sofa and stew in your juices until unable to move. Have a protein-packed meal lined up to aid your recovery.
For the inside track on supplements, carb-loading and general diet tips, I spoke to Emma Barraclough, SiS senior sports nutritionist.
When do you need to take supplements for running?
If it’s a run under an hour then generally most people don’t bother with any fluid or energy during. Ideally have a snack a couple of hours before and be well-hydrated when you go out, then you should be fine.
After that, if you’re going for up to 90 minutes, you should think about having some fluid on the way round, and then over that 90-minute window you certainly benefit from having some extra energy in there.
Do I need to change my general diet during my training plan?
The recovery process continues on rest days. You maybe don’t need the level of carbohydrate in your diet from an energy point of view but protein intake is certainly key.
RECOMMENDED: High-Protein Foods
Think about your immune system and keeping an eye on injuries. Once you have a bit of time pressure if you start to lose sessions because you’re not feeling right, that’s a worry. Keep eating well after your longer runs. Good intake of fruit and veg. Just to help.
Is a pasta party the day before the race a good idea?
Yes. Obviously you don’t want to be over-eating but certainly in those 48 hours before the marathon you want to maximise your glycogen stores, so you’ve stored carbohydrates. It doesn’t have to be pasta, it could be any form of carbohydrate. Cereals, bread, jacket potatoes.
The race starts at 8:30, how early do I need to get up for breakfast?
Ideally you could eat breakfast two hours before. It doesn’t have to be a huge breakfast all at once. You can do something like the carbohydrate-only energy drink in the build up on the morning. That’s a good way to top your stores up and make sure you’re well hydrated, but it’s not a big load of food that’s going to be sat in your stomach. You can always use a bar or something like that as well. Just drip feed it in if you’re pushed for time.
How should I use gels?
In terms of what happens to your glycogen level, you don’t want to wait until it’s completely dropped off before you start taking some extra on board. You can only have so much carbohydrate per hour, about 60g. Ideally you want to set off, get into your running rhythm, then within half an hour take your first gel and keep repeating that every 20 to 30 minutes as you go through. So you get a nice steady energy delivery.
Another option is the caffeinated gel. Hitting the wall at 18-20 miles is the thing everybody dreads. Caffeine is about tricking your perception of that so using a gel around that time might be a good option.
If there was one word that sent shivers down my spine when talking about the marathon it was chafing. These supremely comfortable trunks completely removed any concerns about my nethers. £18, buy on runderwear.co.uk
Tribesports Running Top
This Tribesports shirt is lightweight, comfortable, moisture-wicking, and also has a label designed to be easily pulled out, leaving no trace of its scratchy, irritable presence. £26, buy on tribesports.com
Asics 2in1 Woven Shorts
These shorts have a tight inner layer, which provides welcome support for muscles and acts as another ally in the war against chafing. Other than that I didn’t notice them, which is all you really want. £35, buy on asics.co.uk
Karrimor Xlite Bumbag
I kept it classy with this bargain bumbag from Sports Direct. Most running shorts have tiny pockets, so the bumbag is just about your best option. There’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write. £5.25, buy on sportsdirect.com
Asics Gel-Nimbus 18
The chunky support reduces the risk of injury in an intense training programme, especially for heel-strikers with imperfect technique like myself. £145, buy on asics.co.uk
To get an idea of how to approach training and the race itself, I spoke to Kate Avery, Team NB elite athlete and two-time European cross-country silver medallist, and Nick McCormick, New Balance technical representative and London 2012 Olympian.
Are there any common training pitfalls to avoid?
Nick – The basic mistake that a lot people make is increasing the amount of training they’re doing too quickly, and then doing it all at the same pace. You’re better off dropping your distance down on one or two days a week, and running it a little quicker. A lot of people end up heel striking [landing on your heel when running] too much, doing too much slow running.
Kate – People think you shouldn’t do anything in the last week but you should still run. You can taper too much. If the race is on Sunday, maybe don’t do the long run on a Saturday, but I’d definitely say run the day before, even if you only do two or three miles.
How long before the race should I do my last long run?
Kate – Could you do it during the week, so like 10 days before?
Nick – You don’t want to leave anything too major in your legs, you’ll be sore for the race. 10 days.
How should I approach the race? I’m aiming for a time of 3:40.
Nick – The good thing about a lot of the marathons is they have pacers. When people do marathons,
they make the big mistake of thinking on the day they’re going to try and run at 7:30 pace, and actually you’re better off starting at 8:30 or 8:15 pace.
Kate – And picking it up, you’ll feel better.
Nick – It’s better mentally, when you get to the last three or four miles and you’re going past people. You’re better off overtaking than people going past you, because it’s quite demoralising. Start slow, and then finish fast.
Any tips for tackling the last few miles?
Nick – When you get to the last six miles, the people you’re running with have been the same people around you for the whole run. So they’ve become your colleagues, your comrades in arms.
Kate – No! They’re your competition, you want to beat them!
Nick – That’s what you see a lot of people doing, sprinting against each other at the end. Don’t be afraid of that, it’s not a threat, it keeps you going. Try and stay in a group. Just make sure you beat them.
I arrived in Catalunya in solid shape. There are a couple of activities widely recommended for the day before a marathon. The first is a short run, to ensure everything’s in order; the other is a pasta party. There is usually one laid on by the organisers, but after spending an hour in a queue for a bowl of tepid pasta, my advice would definitely be to find a nice restaurant instead.
Race morning arrived, and brought with it an insane amount of nerves. Like penalty shoot-outs, no training can prepare you for this aspect of the real deal. Everything became a worry – that I’d under-trained, eaten the wrong things, applied too little Vaseline to sensitive areas. To be fair I worry about that last one every day. What really helped was looking over the records of my training runs on my phone, and it was a surprisingly useful confidence boost.
From the off, I spied the flags of the 3:30 pacers and opted to nestle into the group just behind them. Running behind the pacers has both its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side you know exactly how fast you’re going and you always have a group of people to run with. The disadvantages are those people, as there will be jostling for position and a greater chance of stumbling in the scrum. You will make friends and enemies.
The toughest parts of the first 20 miles were undoubtedly a couple of long switchbacks, where every step in one direction has to be repeated in the other. Obviously you have to run 26 miles whatever road you cover, but going back on yourself is a drag.
I entered the final six miles with great trepidation, especially with regard to the fabled “Wall” – the sudden wave of fatigue feared by all runners. I felt every step more keenly and the kilometre markers seemed to take forever to come around. Every minor annoyance, such as someone cutting in front of me to grab a water bottle, became infuriating, so it was a relief when the lengthy home straight came around – the Avinguda del Paral·lel leading back to the Plaça d’Espanya.
Disregarding common sense, I kicked for home. With a bigger crowd near the finish and the imminent prospect of stopping powering me on, the last half-mile was as enjoyable as any in the run, and I crossed the line with a time of 3:29:17.
After limping through the end of race refreshments, I headed for home. A lack of foresight during my accommodation hunt had resulted in an apartment on the fifth floor with no elevator. Halfway up the 12 flights of stairs, I finally experienced the Wall.
By Nick Harris-Fry