Run Your First Marathon: The Training Plan

October 23, 2018

You’re never too old to conquer 26.2 miles. Here are the exact steps to take.

Run First Marathon
If you’ve ever had the feeling that you’re “too old” to run a marathon, it’s time to reconsider.

Just last year, 66-year-old Glen Avery became the oldest runner to complete the World Marathon Challenge, in which participants run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. He started running at age 51.

Meanwhile, the oldest woman ever to have run a marathon is Harriette Thompson, who was 91 years old when she crossed the finish line. She was also a two-time cancer survivor who started pounding the pavement when she was 76 years old.

What’s your excuse again?

Running has huge health benefits, no matter what your age or fitness level, says D. Harrison Youmans, M.D., a sports medicine physician with the Orlando Health Orthopedic Institute Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Group.

For example, in a 21-year study of people age 50 and older, those who ran regularly experienced better health and a higher quality of life than those who didn’t have a running habit. They lived longer too: After 19 years, only 15 percent of the runners had died versus 34 percent of the non-runners.

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You don’t need to run marathons to reap running’s benefits, of course, but setting big goals can help you create a long-term habit, says Layne Nordquist, C.P.T., a master trainer with VASA Fitness in Denver. Nordquist explains that signing up for a marathon might be your source of motivation, but it’s the training that will forever change you, inside and out.

So, where to begin? Here’s your four-step plan.

Step #1: Get Cleared for Takeoff

“You should consider seeing your primary care physician or cardiologist prior to beginning any new exercise regimen,” recommends Dr. Youmans. This is especially important for anyone who hasn’t been to the doctor in a while, he adds, or anyone who has a health condition like high blood pressure or diabetes.

Depending on your exercise history, your doctor may test your blood pressure, perform lab work, or do a resting electrocardiogram or cardiac stress test to make sure your heart muscle gets enough oxygen during exercise.

“Newly diagnosed or uncontrolled medical problems should be treated before beginning a training program,” Dr. Youmans says. Once you get the go-ahead to exercise—at the level you want—it’s full steam ahead.

Step #2: Assess Your Gait

Sure, you can literally just walk out the front door and start running. But that thinking is why so many runners have nagging injuries.

Dr. Youmans recommends getting an evaluation from a physical therapist who specializes in running to make sure your gait (the way you stride when you run or walk) and form are on point. It’s easy to “get away with” poor form when you’re running shorter distances, he says, but as mileage increases, any issues will become more apparent.

A physical therapist will also be able to recommend the best sneaker type for your body. He or she may refer you to a specialty running store that can analyze your foot type and gait pattern to find you the best fit, Dr. Youmans says.

Last, you may want a registered dietitian on your running team. Many gyms have dietitians on staff who will be happy to discuss the basics of running nutrition with you. “Nutrition is one of the biggest recovery tools,” Nordquist says. Take advantage of it.

Step #3: Embrace the 10 Percent Rule

When your goal is a marathon, it can be difficult to start by training for a half-marathon, 10K, or 5K. But that’s exactly what you need to do if 26.2 miles is your ultimate goal, says Dr. Youmans.

“It’s relatively easy to train your cardiovascular system to do a few hours of low-intensity aerobic activity,” he says. “But it takes much longer for the bones, muscles, and tendons to adapt to the amount of use that a marathon requires.”

Nordquist agrees, recalling all of the tendonitis and injuries that plagued him as he trained for his first marathon. He recommends increasing your total weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent per week. That means it could easily take you 24 weeks—or more—to build up to a marathon, depending on what your current mileage looks like.

“Progress to a 5K, 10K, and then a half-marathon,” he says. “When you get to a half, say, ‘Let’s see if I can do a marathon distance this year.’ Your marathon event might be a year and a half out, and that’s okay.”

After conquering a half-marathon, you should budget at least 12 more weeks of training for yourself to get ready for your first full. Keep increasing distances with the 10 percent rule until your reach a long run of about 20 miles, Nordquist says. When you can comfortably hit 20 miles, you’re ready to go.

Step #4: Lift Weights Too

Running shouldn’t be the only kind of exercise you do to prepare. Strength training is critical for readying the entire musculoskeletal system for a marathon—both in terms of injury prevention and performance enhancement.

Aim for two days of strength training per week on the same day you run. It doesn’t have to be an hour-long session. Focusing on compound weight-bearing exercises such squats, lunges, and deadlifts will help you get in more work in less time, and also target the same muscles you rely on running long distances. Core, single-leg, and even upper-body exercises are also important.

To program total-body workouts, Nordquist recommends choosing one move from each category, then performing three sets of eight to 12 reps of each exercise. Order the exercises to alternate between upper- and lower-body work. Nordquist offers an example plan:

Lower body (knee dominant): squats, split squats, lunges, step-ups
Lower body (hip dominant): deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, hip thrusts
Upper-body (push): chest presses, pushups, shoulder presses
Upper-body (pull): rows, pull-downs, face-pulls
Core: planks, dead bugs, anti-rotations, carries

Your 24-Week Marathon Training Plan:

Whatever your current running ability, this scalable marathon training plan will fit your body’s needs. Each week, increase the time or distance of workouts up to 10 percent as you’re able. With every workout, be sure to take time to foam roll, stretch, and warm up—all prime your body for progressive workouts and reduce your risk of injury.

Marathon Chart

Monday: Perform a run that feels “easy” to you in terms of both distance and intensity. You should be able to carry on a conversation during the run. Build up to runs of 5 or 6 miles.

Tuesday: Get in some high-intensity interval training by running multiple ½-mile runs at your goal race pace. Start by running ½ mile at 85 to 90 percent of your max heart rate (220 minus your age), recover until your heart rate is at 60 to 65 percent of you max heart rate, and then repeat.

Complete four intervals to start, increasing the number to build up to workouts of 45 to 90 minutes. Follow runs with total-body strength training. Be sure to prioritize large, compound movements such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, bench presses, and single-leg work.

Wednesday: This will be your weekly middle-distance run. Aim for a moderate pace and build up to 10 miles.

Thursday: Perform intervals like you did on Tuesday, but each should be 1 mile instead of ½ mile long. Start with three intervals and increase speed and number of repeats until the workout lasts 45 to 90 minutes. Again, follow the runs up with total-body strength training.

Friday: Recover. Take the day completely off, or focus on active recovery through gentle activities such as yoga, walking, and foam rolling.

Saturday: Here’s where you build the capacity to handle 26.2 miles of hard work. Start with distances that are double those of your “easy” Monday runs, working your way up to 20 miles about three weeks before your marathon.

In the three weeks before your marathon, you will “taper,” drastically reducing your miles by half or more and the speed at which you run them so that you can go into race-day feeling fresh.

Sunday: Recover. Take the day completely off, or focus on active recovery through gentle activities such as yoga, walking, and foam rolling.

Note: Please consult your physician before beginning a physical activity program to make sure it’s safe for you.

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