How to train for a marathon no matter how fit you are

man's feet running
Prepare for the race of your life

If you’re planning a marathon, you’re on the road to becoming part of a select proportion of the global population – 0.01 per cent, to be exact. But that doesn’t mean running one is exclusive to the lycra-clad minority. With the right planning, training and dogged determination anyone can have a go. Here’s what you need to know if you’re gearing up to train for the race of your life.

Skip to: 

Which marathon should I choose to run?

The London Marathon is special, with incredible atmospheric and historic appeal, but it’s notoriously tricky to get a place and is far from the only one to consider. All marathons are 26.2 miles, so if you’re a beginner, you might want to choose what seasoned runners call an “easy” marathon – one with a flat and paved course. While the Brighton Marathon is one of the most popular (and mostly flat) UK spring races, the Greater Manchester Marathon is known as the flattest and fastest UK option. The under-the-radar Abingdon Marathon is one of the oldest in the UK and also has a flat route – great for new runners and for those who are keen to beat their personal bests.

Start of the London Marathon, 2023
Start of the London Marathon, 2023 - Heathcliff O'Malley/The Telegraph

Around Europe, try the Berlin and Frankfurt marathons in Germany, or the Amsterdam Marathon in the Netherlands. More recently, the Valencia and Seville marathons in Spain have grown in appeal. For a great beginner list, visit It’s worth doing your research to ensure it’s a route you’ll enjoy (atmospheric, well populated, flat, historic… whatever piques your interest), as this will pay dividends when things get tough.


How long does it take to train for a marathon?

“You need 16-to-18 weeks of training,” says Richard Pickering, a UK Athletics qualified endurance coach. “And if you’re starting from nothing, I think you need closer to six months.” This may sound like a long time to dedicate to one event but a structured plan will help you develop the strength, endurance and aerobic capacity to run longer distances. Not to mention work wonders for your overall health.

“Anyone can run a marathon if they are willing to put in the hard work,’ says Cory Wharton-Malcolm, Apple Fitness+ Trainer and author of All You Need Is Rhythm & Grit . “As long as you give yourself enough time and enough grace, you can accomplish anything.’

Ready to get running? Read on.

Five steps to preparing for a marathon

1. Follow a training plan and increase mileage gradually

“Even if it’s a simple plan, and that plan is to run X times per week or run X miles per week, it’s beneficial to have something guiding you,’ says Wharton-Malcolm. ‘It’s happened to me, without that guidance, you may overtrain causing yourself an injury that could have been avoided. And if you’re injured, you’re far less likely to fall in love with running.”

For authoritative plans online, see marathon event websites (try the Adidas Manchester Marathon or the TCS London Marathon websites) or from a chosen charity such as the British Heart Foundation. Most will consist of the key training sessions: speed work (spurts of fast running with stationary or active rest periods), tempo runs (running at a sustained “comfortably uncomfortable” pace), and long-distance slogs.

Most marathon plans will abide by the 10 per cent rule, in that they won’t increase the total run time or distance by more than 10 per cent each week – something that will reduce your risk of injury.

2. Practise long runs slowly

Long runs are your bread-and-butter sessions. They prepare your body to tolerate the distance by boosting endurance, and give you the strength to stay upright for hours. Intimidating as this sounds, the best pace for these runs is a joyously slow, conversational speed.

“People may think they need to do their marathon pace in long runs,” says Pickering, “but it’s good to run slowly because it educates the body to burn fat as fuel. This teaches it to use a bit of fat as well as glycogen when it goes faster on race day, and that extends your energy window so that you’re less likely to hit the ‘wall’.”

The caveat: running slowly means you’re going to be out for a while. With the average training plan peaking at 20 miles, you could be running for many hours. “When I did lots of long runs, I had a number of tools: listening to music, audio-guided runs, apps or audio books,” says Wharton-Malcom. “I used to run lots of routes, explore cities… You can also do long runs with friends or colleagues, or get a train somewhere and run back so it’s not the same boring route.”

3. Do regular speed work

Speed work may sound like the reserve of marathon aficionados, but it’s good for new long-distance runners too. “I think people misunderstand speed work,” says Wharton-Malcom. “The presumption is that the moment you add ‘speed’ to training, you have to run like Usain Bolt, but all ‘speed’ means is faster than the speed you’d normally be running. So if you go out for a 20-minute run, at the end of the first nine minutes, run a little faster for a minute, then at the end of the second nine minutes, run a little faster for a minute.”

Small injections of pace are a great way for novices to reap the benefits. “The idea is to find the sweet spot between ‘Ah, I can only hold on to this for 10 seconds’ and ‘I can hold on to this for 30-to-60 seconds’,” he adds.

It is important to practise at different speeds
It is important to practise at different speeds - Sergey Mironov/Getty

Hill sprints are great for increasing speed. Try finding a loop with an incline that takes 30 seconds to ascend, then run it continuously for two to three lots of 10 minutes with a 90-second standing rest.

Interval work is also a speed-booster. Try three lots of three minutes at tempo pace with a 90-second standing rest. “The recovery [between intervals] is when you get your breath back and your body recirculates lactate [a by-product of intense exercise, which ultimately slows bodies down],” explains Pickering, “and this means you’re able to do more than you otherwise would.”

4. Run at marathon-pace sometimes

Every now and then, throw in some running at your chosen race pace. “You need to get used to a bit of marathon pace,” says Pickering, “but I wouldn’t put it into your programme religiously.”

Some runners like to practise marathon pace in a “build-up” race, typically a half-marathon. “It can give people confidence,” says Pickering. “Your half-marathon should be six-to-seven weeks prior to the main event, and have a strategy to ensure you’re not racing it because you need to treat it as a training run.”

5. Schedule in rest and recovery

Of course, no training plan is complete without some R&R. Rest days give your body a chance to adapt to the stresses you’ve put it through and can provide a mental break. “Active recovery” is a swanky term for taking lighter exercise such as an easy run, long walk, gentle swim, some yoga – crucial because you don’t want to do two hard sessions back-to-back. “A long run would count as a hard day, so if your long run is on Sunday, you could do an easy run such as 30-40 minutes at a conversational pace on a Monday, but don’t do anything fast until Tuesday,” says Pickering.

What about recovery tools?

Foam rollers, massage guns, ice baths – the list is long. Pickering says to keep it simple: “I would encourage foam rolling [relieving muscle tension by rolling over a foam tube] or sports massage, and they’re kind of the same thing.”

And Wharton-Malcom swears by the restorative power of a good rest: “From personal experience, sleep is our secret weapon and it’s so underrated. Getting your eight-hours-plus per night, taking power naps during the day… you can do so well with just sleeping a bit more.”

Race day

How to perform your best on race day – what to eat

“The marathon is going to be relying on carbohydrate loading [such as spaghetti, mashed potato, rice pudding], which should take place one-to-three days before an event,” explains performance nutritionist Matt Lovell. Other choices might include: root vegetables (carrots, beetroot), breads or  low-fat yoghurts.

Porridge or rice pudding can be a great source of carb loading before a long-distance run
Porridge or rice pudding can be a great source of carb loading before a long-distance run - Garcia Fotografia

“On the day, the main goal is to keep your blood glucose as stable as possible by filling up any liver glycogen.” Which means eating a breakfast rich in slow-release carbohydrates, such as porridge, then taking on board isotonic drinks, like Lucozade Sport or coconut water, and energy gels roughly every 30-45 minutes.

How to stay focused

Even with the right fuel in your body, the going will get tough. But when you feel like you can’t do any more, there is surprisingly more in the tank than you realise.

“Sports scientists used to think we eat food, it turns into fuel within our body and, when we use it up, we stop and fall over with exhaustion,” says performance psychologist Dr Josephine Perry. “Then they did muscle biopsies to understand that, when we feel totally exhausted, we actually still have about 30 per cent energy left in the muscles.”

How do you tap into that magic 30 per cent? By staying motivated – and this ultimately comes down to finding a motivational mantra that reminds you of your goal and reason for running.

“Motivational mantras are incredibly personal – you can’t steal somebody else’s because it sounds good; it has to talk to you,’ explains Dr Perry, author of The Ten Pillars of Success. “Adults will often have their children as part of their motivational mantra – they want to make them proud, to be a good role model. If you’re doing it for a charity, it might be that.” Write your motivational mantra on your energy gel, drinks bottle or hand. “It doesn’t just need to come from you,” adds Dr Perry. “I love getting athletes’ friends and family to write messages to stick on their nutrition, so every time they take a gel out of their pocket, they’ve got a message from someone who loves them.” Perry is supporting the Threshold Sports’ Ultra 50:50 campaign, encouraging female participation in endurance running events.

Smile every mile, concludes Dr Perry: “Research shows that when you smile it reduces your perception of effort, so you’re basically tricking your brain into thinking that what you’re doing isn’t as difficult as it is.”

One thing is for sure, you’re going to be on a high for a while. “What happens for most people is they run the race and, for most of the race, they say ‘I’m never doing this again,’ says Wharton-Malcom. “Then the following morning, they think, ‘OK, what’s next?’”

What clothes should you wear for a marathon?

What you wear can also make a difference. Look for clothing made with moisture-wicking fabrics that will move sweat away from the skin, keeping you dry and comfortable. An anti-chafe stick such as Body Glide Anti-Chafe Balm is a worthy investment, or simply try some Vaseline, as it will stop any areas of the skin that might rub (under the arms, between the thighs) from getting irritated. Seamless running socks, like those from Smartwool, can also help to reduce rubbing and the risk of blisters.

Post-race recovery

What to eat and drink

Before you revel in your achievement, eat and drink something. Lovell says recovery fuel is vital: “Getting carbohydrates back into the body after a marathon is crucial. It’s a forgiving time for having lots of calories from carbohydrates and proteins, maybe as a recovery shake or a light meal such as a banana and a protein yoghurt.”

Have a drink of water with a hydration tablet or electrolyte powder to replenish fluid and electrolyte salts (magnesium, potassium, sodium) lost through sweat.

“You can have a glass of red later if you want, but your priority is to rehydrate with salts first, then focus on carbohydrate replenishment, then have some protein, and then other specialist items such as anti-inflammatories.” Choose anti-inflammatory compounds such as omega 3 and curcumin from turmeric, which you can get as a supplement, to help reduce excessive inflammation and allow for better muscle rebuilding.

Tart cherry juice – rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and naturally occurring melatonin – could also be useful, with the latest research reporting that it can reduce muscle pain after a long-distance race and improve both sleep quantity and quality by five-to-six per cent. “And anything that improves blood flow such as beetroot juice, which is a good vasodilator, will help with endurance and recovery,” adds Lovell. Precision Hydration tablets are very good for heavy sweaters.

Any other other good products to help with recovery?

The post-run recovery market is a saturated one, but there are a few products worth trying. Magnesium – from lotions and bath flakes to oil sprays drinks and supplements – relaxes muscles and can prevent muscle cramps, as well as aiding recovery-boosting sleep.

Compression socks boost blood flow and therefore the removal of waste products from hardworking muscles, and have been shown to improve recovery when worn in the 48 hours after a marathon. Arnica has anti-inflammatory properties that can help speed up the healing process after a long run, and can be used as an arnica balm or soak.