The Ultimate Guide: Training for a Marathon

training for a marathon

Tips for Running a Marathon

Running a marathon is one of the biggest achievements athletes aspire to. It is also intimidating to think of running 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers. My goal is to help you overcome this and run a new personal best time.

Running a marathon: Tips to get started

One of the most important things to keep in mind is the top athletes you see competing are nervous as well. I have been running for 27 years and started running marathons in 2002. I had run 51:53 for 10-miles but had never considered running a marathon.

It was 2002 and my first year in the US Army. My phone rang and the sports administrators at the United States Army World Class Athlete Program were on the other line. He asked if I wanted to run the 2002 New York City marathon. Of course, I said yes.

The trip was completely paid for and they put me up in the Plaza Hotel in downtown Manhattan. The catch was I was to be a part of an Armed Forces marathon that was running for Lung cancer research and we were to start in the last place.

Furthermore, we were not permitted to start the race until every runner had crossed the start line. So, I started in 32,189th and finished as the team’s top finisher in 257th place with a time of 2:43:36. The rest is history.

I was able to lower my personal best for the distance down to 2:19:35 in 2007. My goal with this post is to share some top strategies and tips I’ve learned to help you get the biggest return on your time investment.

Keep It Fun

One of the biggest mistakes runners of all ability levels make is they get too caught up with quick results. Furthermore, they second guess themselves when they don’t get the results they want as quickly as they desire.

The success traits and characteristics I have seen in the top Kenyan, American and European marathoners I have trained with is their belief in delayed gratification. These elite marathoners know that results in this sport do not occur overnight but may take several months, years, or even a decade.

They do not lose enthusiasm despite the setbacks they encounter. These athletes are already focused on their next race hours. So, remember the process and what you learn through training leading up to your next marathon is what counts.

How To Sustain Pace Longer

The best runners usually make running a marathon look easy for one big reason. They have trained at a higher anaerobic (without oxygen) effort than their competitors.

Your goal may be to break the 4-hour marathon, qualify for the Boston marathon or complete your first marathon. Whatever your goal is the name of the name when it comes to running the marathon is to sustain the pace and maintain running form throughout the race.

The best way to teach the body to sustain pace more efficiently is to train at, near, or far below your goal race pace.

The key to marathon success is teaching the body to clear lactic acid faster than it is building up in the bloodstream – Nathan Pennington

For example, if your goal is to run the marathon at a 10-minute mile pace you have to train in such a way to make that effort feel more manageable.

This means doing tempo runs at 10:30-45-mile pace, repeat miles on the track at 8:50 to 9:05 per repetition, or repeat 200m sprints at a 7:30 mile pace.

Extend The Distance of Your Long Runs

What I don’t know at this point is where you are currently in your marathon training build-up. One of the top recommendations I have to get stronger to run the marathon is to extend the distance of your long run. That being said, also be patient with yourself.

It takes approximately 21 days or 3 weeks for the body to adapt to any stress load you place upon it. Pace yourself gradually extend the amount of ground you are covering each week. They usually say to never increase your mileage by more than 10 percent each week.

My advice is to listen to your body. It never lies to you. If you feel you can go from doing a 10 miler one weekend to an 18-miler the next do so.

The Ultimate Guide to Running a Marathon TodayWhat you must keep in mind is your recovery. One of the weaknesses for many marathoners is they run too fast on their easy, recovery runs.

Remember, all the benefits of your hard training come within the rest, not the workout itself.

Extend The Pace Of Your Long Runs

This is one of the most important tips of this entire post. The reason I was able to lower my personal best from 2:43:36 to 2:19:35 was due to this one single step.

How does an athlete go from averaging 6:14 mile pace to 5:19 mile pace for 26.2 miles? Well, it is a combination of the tips I have shared with you up to this point. Patience, extending the distance of the long run and especially the pace at which you conduct your long run.

If you have a time-specific goal in mind such as breaking the 3-hour marathon you have to train at, near, or far below 6:52 mile pace. There are no shortcuts to success in this event.

I was able to make the jump in my athletic performance on account of running at a higher heart rate over a longer period of time.

If you are training for the marathon and want to drop significant amounts of time this is the bread and butter fundamental to follow.

That being said, this takes patience on the part of the athlete. You may be only able to run a mile or two at a faster pace in the middle of your long run early in your training build-up.

Train At 160 Beats Per Minute During Your Long Runs

Don’t be discouraged. This is great for your preparation and as you get fitter you can extend the duration and distance of the portion of your long run you are running at a faster pace.

My recommendation is to run your long runs at a heart rate of between 155 to 160 beats per minute. What this does is train the body at a higher anaerobic intensity rather than just running long and slow for a long period of time. Now, what I am not saying is to run long and far every weekend.

Remember, the benefits come within the rest so alternate one harder long run followed by an easier, relaxed long run the following week.

No human is limited – Eliud Kipchoge, marathon world-record holder (2:01:39)

This will allow the physiological benefits you are seeking to take place and give you time to recover.

These harder-paced long runs take a lot out of you so it is absolutely critical to pay attention to recovery.

Take Your Easy Days Easy

If the world’s top marathoners can run 9 t 10-minute mile pace on their easy days so can you. I’ve run 2:19 for the marathon and have no issues running at a 9-minute mile pace on my easy days. I always ran my long runs at a relaxed pace prior to arriving in the US Army World Class Athlete Program.

Furthermore, it wasn’t until I started being coached by a Boston Marathon champion that running higher intensity long runs became my routine. We focused on running at or near 160 beats per minute because it was just below the anaerobic threshold effort. I chose to give this method a try.

I went from conducting my long runs at about 55 percent of my maximum heart rate to around 85 to 88 percent effort. The result? A 21-minute improvement on my previous marathon personal best. Lastly, get some racing flats on your feet when planning your faster-paced long runs.

You don’t always want heavy trainers on your feet especially when running at faster efforts. This will help you as well with confidence in seeing your splits quicken.

Why Training at Your Anaerobic Threshold Is Important For Marathon Success

Your anaerobic threshold is the point at which lactic acid begins to build up in your bloodstream. The body is always producing lactic acid.

The reason we don’t notice it is the levels are far too low for muscle functioning to break down. You want to train at or far below their anaerobic threshold.

Teach the body to clear lactic acid faster than it is building up in the bloodstream – Nathan Pennington

One of my top recommendations is to purchase a heart rate monitor. This takes the focus off of mile or kilometer splits. I didn’t start using heart rate monitors until 1996.

My collegiate coach, Jack Hazen, introduced me to this style of training. The below-listed training zones ate where you want to focus on preparing for your future races.

Heart Rate Training Zones

  • Easy pace – 130 to 150 beats per minute
  • Moderate – 150-160 beats per minute
  • Anaerobic Threshold – 167 to 174 beats per minute
  • Aerobic Capacity (sprinting) – 175 beats per minute or higher

Furthermore, you race your marathons near or right at your anaerobic threshold. Dr. Joe Vigil, one of the world’s top coaches and world-renowned exercise physiologist states we run our marathons right around 167 to 174 beats per minute.

So, learning to train at or close to this effort is critical to perform at a higher level over the marathon distance. Be very patient when doing “AT” runs.

These workouts are extremely challenging. We all have to start off at short durations early on in our fitness build-up with these types of workouts. I usually start off my marathon build-ups running between 3 to 4 miles at an anaerobic threshold effort and extend to around 10 to 16 miles later on.

The important thing to keep in mind is to allow time for the body to adapt to this workout. It takes several weeks and months to see significant changes occur.

Focus On Hydration

A huge mistake many marathoners make is not taking in enough fluid and ingesting sufficient calories during their race. The marathon is not a 1 mile on the track or a 5K. It is 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers.

So, much more is required to keep the body functioning at its highest capacity throughout the duration of the race. This is a mistake I paid for in the past as well. Fortunately, I was able to correct this and made massive improvements because of it.

What I recommend you start practicing is drinking more fluid during your long runs. Remember, you want to simulate marathon conditions in practice.

Training should always be the hardest part of your preparation. The race should be the easy part. – Nathan Pennington

What I continue to do in my own marathon preparation is set to water bottles out every 3 miles along my long run route.

Drink versus Sipping

Practice drinking rather than sipping. The problem for many marathoners is they don’t take in enough fluids and calories and run out of energy in the race. Furthermore, they may be on their goal race pace for 18 to 20 miles but then slow down in the later miles.

The trick is to burn fat at a race pace and conserve carbohydrates. The body only has about 1800 calories of carbohydrate stored at any given time. We burn between 100 to 120 calories per mile. When do most marathoners hit the so-called “wall”?

You guessed it. Mile 18 or thereabouts. So, start practicing taking in more calories and fluid during your long runs in training.

Do Training Far Below Your Goal Marathon Race Pace

Remember, it is important not to just train at or near your goal marathon race pace, but much faster than you plan to race at. This is training at your aerobic capacity or around 175 beats per minute or higher.

Obviously, none of us can run for very long at these intensities. The focus of these forms of workouts is to recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers.

The more fast-twitch muscle fibers we can recruit the more economical (efficient) we will run. Common examples of aerobic capacity workouts I was doing prior to breaking the sub-2:20:00 marathon barrier are as follows:

    • 6x 1 mile in 4:45 to 4:50 (at 6,400ft elevation)
    • 8x1K in 2:53 to 3:05 with 300m jog recovery
    • 16x200m in 28 to 34 seconds with 100m jog recovery
    • 12x400m in 62 to 66 seconds with 90 seconds rest recovery

The Ultimate Guide to Running a Marathon Try It

Pre-Race Planning

Below are a few of my top recommendations leading up to the marathon.

1. Focus on eating plenty of carbs, fruits, and vegetables the week prior to the race

Remember, it is more important to have eaten the correct foods and carbo-load the week prior to rather than what you eat and ingest the night before.

There isn’t much you can do the night before the race but there is much you can do the week prior to.

2. Pack your travel kit with everything you need ahead of time

One of the worst mistakes you can make is to realize you left some of your gear back home the night before your big race. Focus on getting your things in order the week of the race rather than the night before.

3. Don’t worry

Let your competitors do that. It is natural to be a bit nervous the night before or the morning of your marathon. That being said, don’t be too stressed or overly concerned.

Remember, take confidence in the hard work you have done in training. If you have prepared adequately in training then there is no need to be worried.

You will look to your left and right and see far too many runners around you far too tense. Your job is to be the opposite. 


Relax, smile, and think about all the preparation you have made for this event.

I hope the post has been informative and helps you drop significant time in your upcoming marathon event. 

Nathan Pennington is a 2:19 marathoner and former member of the US Army World Class Athlete Program. He is the founder of rundreamachieve, a website devoted to helping beginner to elite-level runners reach their personal fitness and racing goals.
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The Ultimate Guide: Training for a Marathon