Your Full Marathon Training Plan - 20 Weeks
If you've decided this is your year for taking on the challenge of the marathon, you'll need to make sure you plan your training effectively. This guide is here to help you prepare for this exhilarating event, and includes an example 20 week marathon plan to get your started.
What is a marathon?
A marathon is a road running race that covers a demanding distance of 26.2 miles (42.2km), usually undertaken in one go. Marathon events take place throughout the year, all across the U.K., as well as in most countries across the globe. The event is technically a race, particularly for the professional runners who take part, but for many runners it’s seen as a personal challenge and a demanding goal to aspire towards. Some participants take part with a goal of simply completing the course, whether that’s by running, walking or by wheelchair, while others focus on finishing in a particular time, perhaps even improving on their last marathon time.
In recent times many marathon events have been cancelled, but that hasn’t stopped enthusiastic runners from continuing their training and running their own marathons. Even without the official events, there are many ways to challenge yourself, and you can still enjoy all the benefits that come from running a marathon.
Why is training for a marathon important?
Running 26.2 miles is no walk in the park, and even some of the fittest runners find it to be an intense challenge. This event will take its toll both physically and mentally, so it’s extremely important to prepare your body and your mind before taking part. Your muscular, cardiovascular and energy systems need to be built up over time so they’re in the best position for running continuously for (on average) four to five hours straight. Proper preparation means you’re less likely to experience injury or exhaustion, and your body will take less time to recover afterwards.
How long does it take to train for a marathon?
This very much depends on your starting fitness and ability levels - if you’re a complete running newbie, then you’re best starting with training for 5k and 10k events, and even considering a half marathon before you jump straight to the full marathon. For first time marathoners, you should generally expect to spend around five to six months training for the big event. This may seem like a long time, but as mentioned above, it’s vital to take the time to gradually strengthen and prepare your body for such a long-distance run. We’ve set out a 20 week marathon plan below, but you’ll need that running experience before getting started.
What is the best training plan for a marathon?
There are a host of different types of training plans available to suit different fitness levels, time frames and objectives, so finding the perfect one for you starts with working out what you want from your marathon.
A good rule of thumb for marathon training is to run three times a week, including one long run a week that builds up over the months. You should also include a couple of days set aside for strength or functional training and at least two rest days to recover (which could include some gentle yoga or stretching to work on your flexibility and mobility). This will ensure that while you’re building up your running ability, you’ll also be strengthening your muscles so they’re in the best shape possible to power you forward for the entirety of the run.
Also, when the weather is bad, you might be tempted to do all of your training on a treadmill, but it’s worth factoring in plenty of outdoor runs so you can acclimatise to the different types of conditions you might face on the day. Running inside can be very different to running against the wind, through rain, or in hot sunshine, so ideally you’ll want to have a good idea of what to expect should you face any extreme weather on the day.
Likewise, think about the route your planned marathon will be taking. If, for example, there are hills or different types of terrain on your marathon route - then try to factor these into your training plan, so your body can get used to tackling different gradients and ground types.
Before getting started, make sure to read our ‘what to know about training for a marathon guide’ - it includes tips to ensure your health, preparation and diet are working in your favour.
Training to boost your marathon performance
For those looking to improve speed and beat a previous marathon time, you’ll want to integrate tempo runs (also known as threshold runs). These are runs where you boost your speed or energy output, pushing yourself harder to improve your body’s capabilities. One way to do this is to set your running tempo to around 80-90% of your maximum heart rate - which is where your lactate threshold usually falls. This will be much faster than the pace you run the actual marathon, but is a great way to enhance your fitness levels. It works by helping to boost your lactate threshold and helps your body to become more efficient at clearing the by-products of lactate production which cause fatigue.
The free PureGym 20 week marathon training plan
Our 20 week marathon training plan is targeted at first time marathon runners but also assumes you are already able to run 10km. If you’re not at that fitness level yet, we suggest checking out our guides to training for a 5k or running a 10k before picking up with this plan. Likewise, a safe starting point could also be our 13 week half marathon training plan, before you immediately start on a full marathon.
Runs are split between:
- Easy runs (Mondays) - keep at a relaxed pace throughout
- How you like (Wednesdays) - choose if you’d like to incorporate a few minutes of faster paced running, or make this a tempo run - or just stick to an easy run if that’s working best for you
- Long runs (Saturdays) - longer distance-based runs that will build up to a maximum of 20 miles, with some ‘shorter’ long runs to allow for recovery
We’ve also recommended two ‘workout’ sessions each week. Use this time to focus on building strength - through activities like functional training or strength training (check out our guide to learn more about strength training for runners) - or for low impact cardio like cross training, that won’t put too much additional pressure on your joints and knees.
As always, don’t forget to warm up before each training session (a brisk 5 - 10 minute walk, or some dynamic stretches can do the trick here) and to cool down afterwards (ideally some static stretches to promote blood flow, reduce stiffness and boost your flexibility).
And finally, we’ve included two rest days each week. These are very important - don’t be tempted to skip these. You need to allow your joints time to recover and your muscles time to heal and strengthen. If you still want to stay active on these days, maybe consider some yoga or light stretching to work on your flexibility or mobility without impacting on your overall recovery. Find out more about rest days with our ‘why rest days are important’ article.
Need to work on your leg strength, functional fitness or core for your next running event? Why not book in a session with a Personal Trainer at PureGym? These can be in-person or virtual if gyms aren't open. From ultra trail challenges to shorter races they can put together a plan to improve your pace and help you get over the finish line. Or visit our online running hub for more inspiration.