How to Train for a Marathon

Ever considered running a marathon? It's certainly not easy, but here are the first steps you need to take on the path to completing 26.2 miles.

More than a half-million runners crossed the finish line in more than 1,100 marathons across the country in 2013.

To complete the 26.2-mile course is an incredible personal odyssey. Whether it’s Boston Marathon’s Heartbreak Hill, the Queen City streets of the Anthem Manchester City Marathon or the rural charm of Bristol’s New Hampshire Marathon at Newfound Lake, each  journey begins with training.

“Running a marathon and just running in general is not always glitz and glamour,” says Madison’s Jim Johnson, an accomplished runner who finished fourth in last year’s Manchester race. “It may not always go the way you envision or want it to. It will be tough. From training to racing, it can be challenging and lonely at times. But it’s also very rewarding when you set the goal, put in the work and execute the plan.”

Preparing is personal. Those on the quest learn their physical and mental limitations like never before. Finishing is about dedication, discipline, sacrifice, miles, nutrition, weather and gear.

A big help is comfort from everything from your shoes to layering that shields and regulates against the temperature that will fluctuate over the miles.

“Getting that finisher’s medal and becoming a marathoner is a rewarding feeling and worth all the miles of pain and early mornings in the cold when you wish you were still in bed,” says Johnson. “You need to understand what it takes to get to that finish line. The important thing is to be patient and it will pay off in the end — after 26.2 miles comes and goes.”


Breakdown of a marathon field — 57 percent men, 43 percent women (2013).

Gear Box

No one shoe is best for all runners serving up a menu of foot sizes and strides. Sturdy, lean and cushioned, the Adidas Supernova + ($120) has a giving rubber outsole for gripping New Hampshire’s myriad road conditions. Classic and lightweight, Patagonia Strider 7-inch Shorts ($49) offer comfort and breathability plus a pocket for a key. Mountain Hardwear’s affordable Wicked Lite Short Sleeve T ($35) keeps you cool and is quick-drying.

Jim Johnson of Madison

Expert Advice with Jim Johnson

Madison’s Jim Johnson runs. The 30-something software engineer competes as a trail runner, snowshoe racer, marathoner and more. A member of the Central Mass Striders and White Mountain Milers, he’s run several marathons including Boston.

Let’s say I’m a recreational runner competing in 5K events and now have my sights set on a marathon. How do I get started training? There is no magic answer for the amount of miles you need to run to be able to finish a marathon versus a 5K, but the best answer I can give you is definitely more. Everyone is different and responds differently to various levels of training. Some people can finish a marathon with 40 miles per week, no problem, and other people run 80-plus miles per week when training for a marathon.

Do I have to run 26 miles during training? Definitely not. Few people actually run that many miles when training for a marathon. Elite marathoners I have run with, along with various teammates and other runners I know, typically run 20 miles for their long run, give or take. That’s a good magic number. If you can get to 20, then you should be able to survive that last 10K in the race.

Should I do this by myself or do it with friends, a club or training group? I definitely feel that running with other people who are training for the same race or have the same or similar goals is a huge help. If you can find a partner or a local training group or club that you can meet up with for your workouts or runs, it will be much easier for you to get through the additional training that is required for a marathon over the other traditional distances. In a group you can work together, push each other and keep each other honest.

How do you make the time to train? The last couple years for me have been a challenge, I will admit. I have two young kids at home now so I have to make time whenever I can.  Sometimes in the morning, sometimes late in the day after work, sometimes at lunch. The important thing is to try to schedule your days and make sure you can find time. Sometimes that may mean going out later than you normally would or getting up earlier than you normally would. If you can’t find an hour at least, in your day to exercise or train, you are too busy!

What kind of knee pain and cramps can I expect? That is entirely dependent on the person, but you should come to the realization that extending the amount of time you are running and pushing yourself, out to 20-plus miles, is usually going to come with some discomfort and pain in the race. Typically, a very common occurrence may be cramping in your hamstrings and calf muscles, deep into the race. I find that obviously being well-hydrated before the race and drinking water during the marathon, definitely helps prevent or prolong any cramping. Taking any type of salt tabs or electrolytes will also help keep the cramping at bay.

Should I run during inclement weather or if I’m feeling a cold or something? If you are run down or sick, it may be in your best interest to rest, hydrate and recover before pushing your body. Listen to your body and make sure you are well enough to get out the door. If it doesn’t endanger your safety, the weather shouldn’t be a factor.

What’s the wall people talk about during a race? The wall — which I’ve hit many times in various distances — is that point in the race where your pace significantly slows, things start to hurt, cramping may begin to happen in tired muscles and you may really start to feel your energy level drop all of the sudden. It’s essentially the point in the race, where your body starts to really hate you and it starts giving you some subtle hints that you should stop soon.

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