Running a marathon can be a rewarding accomplishment, but it does require quite a bit of dedication and training. If you have decided to tackle all 26.2 miles, you will want to do it safely to lower your risk of injury. Here are some ways to optimize your marathon training plan to increase your chances of reaching the finish line successfully.
Running safety and training go hand in hand
As running can lead to injuries, it’s essential to adopt a safe marathon training plan. A 2021 review found that around 40% of runners experience some type of running-related injury, with knee or ankle injuries being the most common. While running is great exercise, it also puts quite a bit of repetitive strain on joints, bones, and tendons, so it's not surprising that injuries occur commonly.
But if you get hurt, this can stop your marathon training in its tracks. With the right marathon training plan, you can run safely and prevent some common injuries.
How do you start training for a marathon?
Marathon training involves slowly ramping up your mileage, typically over a period of 12 to 20 weeks. If you are a new runner, training may take longer. There are many marathon training plans available online to help you get started.
Plans often start with slowly building up the number of runs per week and gradually increasing the length of the runs. A well-rounded training program includes strength training and rest days to prevent overtraining and injury.
Build a strong foundation for your marathon training
Any marathon training involves building a solid foundation and increasing your existing stamina and strength. These are a few of the core principles for how to train for a marathon safely:
Develop a base mileage
A running base is a baseline of aerobic fitness you build upon as you ramp up your training. The exact number of miles can vary depending on the person, but most base training starts with 20-30 minutes of running three to four times per week. Doing this consistently for a few weeks can give you an understanding of your pace and how many miles you can cover during your runs.
The long run
Once you have established a baseline for your training, you can then start to add in longer runs. These can gradually ramp up over time, but the longest run you should do before your marathon is approximately three hours long and no more than 20 miles.
Some marathon training plans may involve interval training or tempo runs to help increase speed. Speed work can help reduce fatigue on event day and can help improve your form. It also increases your V02 max, which is a measure of aerobic fitness.
Focus on form
Running with proper form is the best way to prevent injury. While running, your posture should be upright with a lean forward at the ankles and keep your head up. Relax your arms and hold them at a 90-degree angle.
Consider a gait evaluation, which can help identify how you are landing on your feet while running. This can help prevent future injuries.
Rest and recovery
Rest days are a critical part of running safety and preventing injury. Training plans should include two to three rest days per week and a two-week taper period before the race. Also, focus on getting enough sleep while training, which can help prevent injury.
Incorporate other types of exercise besides running
Cross-training with other types of exercise is important for building strength and speed while reducing the risk of injury. A well-rounded training plan should include other activities such as strength training, stretching, swimming, or cycling to build endurance, reduce boredom, and prevent overuse injury.
The week before your marathon
The week before your marathon should not be an intense training week but should involve tapering your mileage before the race. Stay well hydrated and eat plenty of carbohydrates to ensure you have adequate energy stores.
Focus on getting plenty of rest and sleep leading up to your marathon. Often, the night before the race, many people don’t sleep well, so be sure to get enough rest the day or two before the race.
A few days before the race, prepare your gear and shoes, and check your clothing to ensure there are no issues or concerns. Pick up your race packet when it is available and read through any information provided. Then get ready to race!
Tips to staying safe during the race
Even if you have avoided injury during training, there are still a few race safety tips to consider. Wear an ID during the race, just in case. While racing, follow any signs or pathways as instructed by the race organizers. Be cautious of other runners and limit swerving between racers.
Have a hydration plan for race day and stick to it to avoid dehydration. If you feel dizzy or unwell, stop and get help. Always listen to your body to avoid getting injured on race day.
Common running injuries from marathon races
Typically, marathon training injuries happen in the feet, knees, or shins, particularly for new runners. Inflammation of the Achilles tendon and shin splints can be common as the body and muscles adjust to running.
As training progresses, hip pain and pain in the iliotibial (IT) band (between the thigh and knee) is more common. Stress fractures also become more likely.
While some soreness is common, pain should not become chronic during training. If you are in constant pain, it is best to seek an evaluation and treatment from a trained provider.
Marathon training FAQs
Here are a few frequently asked questions about marathon training.
How long does it take to run a marathon?
A marathon is 26.2 miles and takes an average of four hours and 30 minutes for men and four hours and 56 minutes for women. The time it takes can vary based on your athletic ability, with elite athletes finishing marathons in around two hours.
How long does it take to train for a marathon?
The time it takes to train for a marathon depends on your fitness level when you start training. Most training plans take between 12 to 20 weeks.
Why do my knees hurt when I run?
Runner's knee, called patellofemoral pain syndrome, can be caused by a structural defect in the knee, weak or tight muscles, incorrect shoes, or poor form while running. Training too much or other injuries can also cause knee pain.
Visit an urgent care for marathon injuries
If you are training for a marathon and get injured, our caring providers are here to help. Our centers offer evaluations for physical injuries, such as sprains and strains. We also have an extensive network of providers we can refer you to if further evaluation is needed.
Just walk in or save your spot online at any of our conveniently located centers. We are here 365 days a year, even on holidays, with extended hours to provide the care you need.
- Kakouris, N., Yener, N., & Fong, D. T. P. (2021). A systematic review of running-related musculoskeletal injuries in runners. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 10(5), 513–522.
- 25 rules of successful marathon training. (2021, July 15). Runner’s World. https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/marathon/a36969929/successful-marathon-training-rules/
- Carter, K. (2019, April 2). How far should your longest marathon training run be? Runner’s World. https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/marathon/a27015418/how-far-should-your-longest-marathon-training-run-be/
- Scribbans, T. D., Vecsey, S., Hankinson, P. B., Foster, W. S., & Gurd, B. J. (2016). The Effect of Training Intensity on VO2max in Young Healthy Adults: A Meta-Regression and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Exercise Science, 9(2), 230–247.
- Marathon Training: How to Prepare. (2023, August 10). Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-to-train-for-a-marathon/
- Gallo, R. A., Plakke, M., & Silvis, M. L. (2012). Common leg injuries of long-distance runners: anatomical and biomechanical approach. Sports Health, 4(6), 485–495.
- Andersen, J. J. (2019, July 16). The State of Running 2019. RunRepeat - Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running
- Ritterbeck, M. (2017, March 2). Marathon Training Plans: Everything to Know About Finding the Right One for You. Runner’s World. https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a19492479/marathon-training-plans/
- Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (Runner’s Knee). (2023, March 3). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/patellofemoral-pain-syndrome-runners-knee