Running 26.2 miles is a monumental accomplishment, but most veterans agree that training for a marathon is the bigger challenge. The preparation leading up to race day requires substantial physical, mental, and emotional energy and a very determined spirit. However, an appropriate training plan combined with the following health tips helps ensure peak performance on race day.
This comprehensive marathon checklist serves as a complete guide on how to run a marathon, beyond putting one foot in front of the other. It includes everything from what to know before running to preparing for a marathon the day before.
Things to Do Before Running a Marathon
Going from couch potato to marathon finisher can be possible for anyone. But accomplishing this begins with the right mindset.
As with any health or fitness goal, it is always important to determine the “why.” In this case, why do you want to run a marathon? Do you want to push your body outside its comfort zone, impress a friend, or run a certain time? Or perhaps you think it will help you lose weight?
Whatever the reason, consider goals and intentions because these will ultimately propel you through the long, strenuous training cycle… Especially when motivation is running low. Pun intended!
After determining the “why” and hopefully sharing the intentions with a friend for accountability purposes, it is time to delve into the beast of training prep. This includes much more than the actual running plan because as will become evident shortly, training for a marathon infiltrates nearly every aspect of life in the four to six months leading up to a competition.
The Running Plan
Nowadays, many different marathon training plans exist and are usually divided into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. Beginner plans are typically intended for the first time marathoner and include three to five days of running per week. Intermediate plans, on the other hand, often include four to six days of running with intermittent speed workouts.
Advanced plans are very rigorous and designed for those looking to hit a certain time or qualify for a subsequent competition (like the Boston Marathon or Olympic trials, etc.). They often boast multiple speed workouts and more than one long run per week.
Beginner plans are best for those who:
- Have never run a marathon
- Do not have a prior running base
- Are prone to injuries
- Only have 3-4 days to dedicate to training
- Can regularly run 4-8 miles on non-long run days
- Want the longest run to be 16-20 miles
- Just want to finish the race
- Typically run above 12-minute miles
- Want to train for 4 months
Intermediate plans fare well for those who:
- Have run 1-5 marathons or many half marathons
- Regularly run a couple days a week prior to training
- Want to include some speed work (fartleks and tempo runs)
- Can dedicate 5-6 days to training per week
- Want the longest run to be 20 miles or more (usually up to 23)
- (Generally) want to finish the race under 4 hours and 30 minutes
- Typically run 9-12 minute miles easily
- Want to train for 4-5 months
Advanced plans are reserved for those who:
- Have run 2-5 marathons or many half marathons
- Have a solid running base prior to marathon training
- Want to include tough speedwork (Fartleks, long tempos, multiple mile repeats, workouts within long runs)
- Can dedicate 6-7 days of training per week (sometimes 13 days in a row)
- Want the longest run to be 24 miles
- Want to finish the race under 3 hours and 30 minutes
- Typically run under 8-minute mile pace easily
- Want to train for more than 5 months
The most important part of any training plan is to stay consistent and/or take the next best step – quite literally. Marathon training elicits many metabolic adaptations that thrive on regularity.
However, it is also important to prioritize rest and recovery during training to lower the risk of overtraining muscles or draining mental stamina. Thus, sticking to the training plan that incorporates these concepts is the best way to ensure readiness come race day.
Practice, Practice, Practice
In addition, practice anything and everything you anticipate doing on race day. Trying something new on race day, even if seemingly insignificant as drinking regular Gatorade rather than Powerade zero, can derail a marathoner.
Not only does training prepare leg muscles, it also readies the digestive system, foot joints, mental space, and so much more. Knowing the details of the race can help determine what aspects to practice during training.
While not exhaustive, below is a list of things to do/practice before race day, ideally during a long run to closely mimic marathon day.
- Train in the running shoes to be worn on race day
- Put deodorant or a slick stick on areas that typically chafe
- Wear comfortable, temperature appropriate clothing
- Eat the same pre-race meal and snacks and in-race nutrition including drinks (i.e. if the race will have regular Gatorade, practice drinking that during long runs, not propel or Powerade or G2, etc.)
- Holding/putting a phone somewhere if listening to music or for safety reasons
- Carrying anything you plan to hold (phone, fanny pack, running vest, sports beans/chews, other nutrition)
- Plan bathroom/pit stops if needed
- Running at race pace if aspiring to run a specific time
- Train on the same terrain (road, trail, mountains, hills, grass, gravel)
- If possible, train in the same outdoor conditions (altitude, temperature, humidity)
Good nutrition is a vital aspect of marathon training. Running already taxes the body and marathon training increases this tenfold. Thus, fueling for training runs and replenishing afterwards can mean the difference between suffering through training and hitting a PR on race day.
Luckily, eating to train for a marathon is not too different from common healthy eating recommendations. Generally speaking, one should prioritize:
- High-quality carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
- Lean protein like poultry, grass fed red meat, fish, beans and legumes and
- Antiinflammatory fats like unrefined olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, and hummus
Consuming these foods will properly fuel long runs, decrease systemic inflammation, and bolster cellular health. Do this and the body will happily carry you through the strenuous 26.2 miles.
Is carb loading during the week leading up to race day necessary? It depends. Some people swear by carb loading, while others do not change their eating habits and still perform very well. Overall, carb loading is controversial and there are plenty of benefits and pitfalls.
As has been mentioned, try this out before the week of the race for best results. Practicing this during the week of a training long run, ideally at least a month before the actual race, can help determine if it would be worthwhile for you. All in all, if eating a nutrient-dense diet, the body will run well whether carb loaded or not.
Additional nutrition tips specifically catered to marathon training include:
- Eat enough calories to supply training runs and daily activities
- Drink 1/2 your body weight in ounces of water every day
- Add beetroot to recovery shakes and/or smoothies
- Consume at least 175-200 grams of carbohydrate per day (more is fine)
- Drink an electrolyte mixture after long runs and use high-quality salt like Pink Himalayan on food
- Omit fat and dairy from pre-run meals/snacks and eat a carb to protein ratio of 4:1(if eating beforehand)
- Drink about 60 mg of caffeine before long runs (if desired)
- Include some of the following antiinflammatory and hormone-balancing herbs/supplements: ashwagandha, cinnamon, ginger, maca root, ginseng, Rhodiola
- Avoid alcohol and other dehydrating beverages, especially during the week leading up to the race
An often forgotten aspect of training is sleep and getting enough (7-9 hours) quality sleep is absolutely crucial for recovery. Not getting enough sleep increases inflammation, risk of injury and mental burnout, all of which can make training bleak.
Many people find they need more sleep than usual when training for something as tough as a marathon. Now, this can be hard to achieve since training can suck up a lot of time, but it is certainly a worthwhile investment if possible.
Prioritize sleep by creating a night time routine that winds down the body and mind. Drinking tea or another calming drink, turning off electronics hours before bedtime, setting bedtime alarms, and using blue light blockers can help with this pursuit.
And while training runs are the single best way to adequately prepare for a race, sometimes, prioritizing sleep is as or more important. When irritability, extremely low motivation, anxiety or depression hit, those are signals that the body needs a rest.
Skipping a few runs to catch extra zzz’s is okay, as long as it does not become a habit. Keep in mind that the best quality training plans already naturally incorporate deload weeks to account for necessary rejuvenation.
As a last fun tip: The sleep two nights before a long run or race day are more important than the night before! Do not fret if shut-eye seems nearly impossible the evening before race day. That is completely normal, and although not ideal, the body will upregulate adrenaline to carry you through the race.
The Week of the Marathon
The week leading up to marathon race day can be nerve racking. The hard physical training is complete and anticipation is rampant. But it is critical to optimize nutrition and sleep, prioritize recovery and rest days, keep legs loose, and plan and prepare for race day.
Get in a good headspace and generally reduce stress to decrease systemic inflammation and enhance mental and emotional energy. Saying positive affirmations and hanging them around the home, journaling, meditating, talking to loved ones and other rejuvenating practices can help achieve a positive, uplifting mindset. This is also a good time to recall your “why” and reflect on the feeling of achieving goals.
This is definitely not the time to try hard workouts or “make up” for missed training. Keep legs loose by following the training plan and/or taking short walks, swimming and doing household chores. Also be sure to stretch and generally loosen muscles every day. Really, no need to go overboard as that can actually increase risk of injury.
Additionally, make a checklist of everything you will need for race day. Not all of these items are necessary, but the following serves as a comprehensive, potential list. Pick and choose which items will best suit your experience, but remember not to try anything not already practiced during training.
- Shoes and socks
- Bib and safety pins and/or shoe timer
- Clothes and clothes to wear before the race begins
- Pre-race nutrition
- In-race nutrition (gels, sports beans, raisins, etc.)
- Fanny pack or phone holder and phone or music player
- Hydration (small water bottle) and/or electrolyte packs
- Plastic bag (for a phone if it is raining)
- Visor/hat/headband and/or extra hair tie
- Sports tape
- Personal medical equipment (epi pen, diabetes bracelet, etc.)
- A good attitude
Completing a marathon is a beasty pursuit but also very rewarding. It undoubtedly requires ample physical and mental preparation that extends beyond training runs, but when properly executed leads to a great experience.
Choosing an appropriate training plan based on a variety of factors, prioritizing nutrient dense foods, and getting enough sleep sets anyone desiring to run a marathon up for success. Preparing for race day with checklists during the week beforehand can ease stress and worry and make for a terrific race.
Most importantly, do not try anything new come race day. Likewise, keep a positive attitude throughout the entire experience!