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How to best prepare for a marathon with a free 20-week plan

If you’re unsure how your training is progressing, or you feel ready but you haven’t yet planned out what race day will look like for you, Ian Scarott, a PT from PureGym Loughborough, has put together a handy set of tips and a free 20-week training plan, in addition to answering some of the most commonly asked questions from first time marathon runners.

Training for a marathon can be a long, intense process – and without the right support can feel very lonely too! Many individuals spend months training, and this can lead to lots of questions about progress and whether or not you’re ready for race day.

“Taking on something like a marathon can seem like a mountain to climb, but know this, all things are definitely possible. Be prepared to take responsibility for your own training and put in the consistent work required.

“If you can hit at least 80% of the runs in the plan, I would say you’ve given yourself the best chance to be successful; whether you goal is to simply complete the course (by running, walking or by wheelchair) or to finish in a particular time, perhaps even improving on a previous personal best.

“A marathon is technically a race, particularly for the professional runners who take part, but for many it’s seen as a personal challenge and a demanding goal to aspire towards.
Above all remember it is simply ‘just a race’ so relax and enjoy the process.”

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. It’s extremely important to prepare your body and your mind before taking part, 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?

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 timers, you should generally expect to spend around five to six months training for the big event.

What Is the Best Training Plan for a 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 to ensure that while strengthening your muscles, they’re also in the best shape possible to power you forward for the entirety of the run.

Ian’s Top Training Tips

Enjoy The Process

Running a marathon is 20 weeks of training, for one day of victory. That means the race is less than 1% of the total time spent! Training for a marathon is challenging, but make sure to take the time to enjoy the process and the progress you make in this journey.

Prioritise Rest

Rest is your number 1 priority through these 20 weeks. Training for a marathon places a huge demand on your body, and rest is essential for your body to repair itself and get stronger. Aim for 7-8 hours sleep every night, and keep your bed and waking times the same where possible.

It’s Okay to Miss a Run

Running is one part of your everyday life. There may be times during your training when other aspects of your life need to take priority, and that’s okay. Take a break and move on to the next session when you can. If you miss more than one week or two, you may need to adapt your plan to hit your goal within the 20 weeks.

Optimise Your Diet

A healthy diet can maximise your physical performance. Make sure you get enough calories and carbohydrates to fuel your training, protein to help repair and recover, and vitamins and minerals to support your overall health.

Adaptation Is Key

This plan is designed to get you marathon ready in 20 weeks, but it can be adapted to suit your current running level. You may want to modify the plan to be completed in less time or do it over a longer period.

Ian’s Most Frequently Asked Questions on Marathon Training

I am so tired, and/or everything aches! Should I keep going?

Nope. A rest day, or two or three is calling you! Sometimes less is more and I would say just take time off if required. Consider adjusting your training plan going forward, and potentially reflect on your overall set of individual circumstances to think about the additional load that comes from things like work, family life, enjoying friendships, and having other hobbies (if there is such a thing!)

Why does my pace change sometimes for the same types of runs? Sometimes I feel good in a speedwork or tempo session and hit the required RPE (rate of perceived exertion), but sometimes I just can’t get going – and the pace is never exactly correct?

This is common, and it is important to remember that quite simply, you are human! Pace and feeling in a session may not always add up and be consistent because of things like hydration levels, hormonal cycles, recovery levels, sleep, variations in nutrition in and outside of training, weather, temperature – the list goes on… This is where RPE, in my opinion, is superior to things like keeping an eagle eye on heart rate and pace; although these are good to keep an eye on to monitor general trends, especially if you are a more advanced athlete. If you are new to running, my advice is don’t worry and do the best you can with what you’ve got, in the moment you are in! That is good enough.

I’ve missed a week due to (insert reason here), should I just go onto the next week?

It really is an individual thing, and you’ll have to be the judge as to whether you think you are capable of doing this without over-exerting yourself!

I’ve missed a session, should I make sure to do this before the week is over?

Maybe… I would say it is important to not overload your muscles, and if you are inexperienced, not to do intense or multiple sessions back-to-back. Your body needs to recover, and you are better off missing a session and moving onto the next, meaning you’re able to run another day, than overdoing it and getting injured. Otherwise, you might potentially be out for longer, and even miss the race.

I have a niggle in my (insert muscle, tendon or joint here), should I carry on training?

From my non-medically trained running and coaching experience, my first response to any athlete is, is it a sharp pain or a pain that comes on slowly? If it is a sharp pain, stop immediately and see a qualified physiotherapist. The NHS now allows self-referral, which means you can access free support. We love the NHS! If it is a gradual pain that comes on slowly, then you may be able to train but it would suggest an imbalance, over-training or the start of a more serious injury. See a physiotherapist for a qualified medical assessment and use your own judgement here.

I yo-yo with motivation, is there anything you can advise to help me stay on track?

Absolutely, there are so many ways to stay on track with training – from joining a local running club to joining online running social media communities on channels such as Facebook & Strava. You can consider asking a friend, or group of friends, to keep you accountable or even put your training plan up on the fridge for your family to encourage you along. Maybe they could even join you on a run, or cycle alongside you if they aren’t running fans! You can also consider hiring a coach to help keep you motivated. One of the things I pride myself on is speaking with my athletes on a regular basis whether it is in person, via Zoom, WhatsApp, or carrier pigeon (kidding). A coach can genuinely be a big help and have the technical knowledge to help you adjust a generic comprehensive training plan like this one so it fits to your individual set of circumstances.

Training for a marathon can have ups and downs, but it’s important to listen to your body, consult experts where necessary, and above all enjoy it! Speak to a PureGym PT if you need extra advice, or take advantage of their £0 joining fee offer, to help you get on track.

Hopefully with these tips, all those months of hard work will pay off and you’ll be prepared in every way for the upcoming race. Good luck and have fun!

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