So you signed up for Sunday’s New York City marathon. Way too late to be reading this in that case. But whether as a bet, bucket-list item, or impulse decision you’re now regretting, you have a marathon date looming on the calendar, you’ll need to train.
Runners on the whole are an annoying lot and they’ll take any chance they get to tell you how to train for a marathon (or boringly recount every mile of every race they’ve ever run). Which is why I’m here to … tell you how to train for a marathon.
I’m not going to lecture you on what each workout should look like or what kind of shoes you should buy. I’ll leave that to the corny running magazines. We’re here to talk big picture—the long run, recovery, and how to not shit yourself come race day.
Don’t let the shoe companies’ soft focus black-and-white ads fool you. Running is not rocket science. Yes, it’s hard. But if you stay consistent with your training, eat right, do a little yoga, and don’t get hammered the night before the big day, you won’t ride the hurt bus for 26.2 miles. You’ll still suffer, though. That’s the whole point.
You don’t need a coach. Big Running might want you to think otherwise, but unless you’re gunning for an Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier—in which case, why are you reading this?—you do not have to shell out loot for a coach. There are great resources online and none is better than coaching legend Hal Higdon. He offers simple, straightforward, and free training programs, from novice to advanced, that will give you the proper outline of an 18-week training program (though plenty of runners can get by on 12 to 16 weeks of training).
Your training program is not gospel. It’s an outline—that’s it. You’ll miss workouts. “Your training is always in pencil. One workout doesn’t make a marathon,” former American Olympic marathoner Mark Coogan says. “A meeting comes up on the day of a hard workout, it’s not a big deal if you miss one workout. You just don’t want to miss every single session.” It sounds stupid simple, but Coogan is right: don’t feel bad about missing a workout because you got held late at work, but don’t let that become a regular thing.
Remember: you can run when you travel. I’m always That Guy at a wedding or bachelor party who is out for a massively hungover run to sweat out the High Lifes. If you pack your shoes, you’ll guilt yourself into running. That goes for work trips, too.
The granddaddy of them all! This is the bedrock of marathon training. It is, as its name suggests, a Very Long Run. You’ll do this every weekend. Typically starting around 8-12 miles, depending on your running history, and gradually working up to 20. It’s okay to run slow. Your pace should be significantly slower for 18 miles than it is for seven. You should be able to hold a conversation without wheezing. And while the conventional wisdom has always held up the 20-miler as the gold standard of marathoning, you should worry more about time on your feet. So, if you’re running your long runs at 9:30-to-10-minute mile pace, you’re better off aiming for three hours. A three-hour run is going to prepare your body for a marathon—especially if you’re training through the thick of summer’s brutal heat.
“You don’t have to run 20 miles to run a marathon,” Coogan says. “I don’t think the 4:30 guy needs to do three or four 20-milers getting ready to run for a charity in the New York marathon. Having all the support and the crowds on race day, you get a huge boost from that.”
A note about running slow: one thing I have found prepares me best for race day is finishing my long runs at goal marathon pace. (Or, if I’m really feeling it, faster.) So that means winding up the pace the last 6-8 miles of a 20-mile run. The single most important part of marathon running is being comfortable being uncomfortable. And pushing the pace at the end of the long run gets you acclimated to the rigors of holding your pace—whether that’s a 7:15 or 9-minute mile—on tired legs.
Marathoners train anywhere from 35 to 120 miles a week. Every runner is different. Some people can get by on less mileage. Some are masochists who love the hours of weekly pounding. But one thing is constant: You have to run fast! Not in the actual marathon, but once or twice a week during training. You can join your local track club for weeknight track workouts. Or you can try the equally beloved and dreaded Tempo Run. There are lots of scientific ways to quantify the tempo run—lactate threshold, your 10k pace, heart rate—but we won’t bore you with that here.
The Tempo Run should be hard and fast, and you should not be able to hold a conversation while doing it. (Though you should be able to mutter “This fucking sucks” under your breath.) Depending on your program, you’ll top out around 60 minutes for a tempo run. But that number is deceiving. You’ll run 10-15 minutes easy to warm up, around 40 minutes hard—and this, again, is an inexact science, if one lap around your favorite park is 34 minutes that is perfectly fine—and then a 10-minute cooldown. These workouts are insanely difficult but they’ll improve your fitness drastically and the runner’s high will have you coming back for more.
Join a team. Run with a friend from work. Having a pal to talk to makes the miles go by easier. I enlist my fast friends to tag along for my tempo runs. It’s nice to have a rabbit and they seem to enjoy the company on their easy days. In 2014, an old teammate from high school who lives in another city signed up for the same fall marathon I was running. We never ran together, but we traded tips, commiserated about workouts, and G-chatted about epic fuck ups (went out too fast!) on long runs in the heat. He wasn’t physically with me on the roads, but it was nice to have a long distance training partner (he smoked me by 45 minutes on race day).
There are days when you are going to be sore or tired of running (or both). That’s to be expected. But there will also be days where you hurt. Stay home. There’s no sense in squeezing in seven miles on a tight hip flexor. And your marathon time won’t improve by two minutes because you ran five miles after you rolled your ankle while playing beer-league softball. It’s more important to show up to the start line healthy than to nail every single workout.
Running has a long history of people pooping when they don’t want to. This is easily avoidable. During your training, figure out what foods work for you. I like to gorge on sweet potatoes, some sort of lean protein (fish, roasted chicken, flank steak), and brown rice the night before a long run. I go for oatmeal or a salt bagel with peanut butter before a 20-miler. Don’t spend 16 weeks eating white bread for breakfast and then have oatmeal on race day—you’ll be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Same goes for what you eat during your ‘thon. You can’t run four hours without replenishing some calories in your body. I eat those disgusting gels they sell at local running stores (Gu’s salted caramel and sea salt chocolate are my favorite)—they’re loaded with sugar, carbohydrates, and, if you want it, caffeine. But you don’t have to go for gels. Some runners love whole foods: bananas, pretzels, boiled potatoes. I’ve also seen a dude straight up eat a Snickers during a marathon. Do what works for you—just be sure to test it before race day.
It’s not just nutrition. Shoes, socks, singlet, sunglasses. Test that shit out before race day! The last thing you want is your butt to chafe 10 miles into the big day because your new shorts don’t fit right.
Yoga, foam roller, massage, old fashioned static stretching. You have to take care of yourself or else you’ll be one tight ball of ligaments and limbs when you toe the line. That goes for sleep, too. “Sleep is one of the most important components of marathon training,” Coogan says. “If you’re not sleeping and getting a little bit of rest, you’re body is going to dig a hole.” You’re obviously not going to have the time to nap every day like NBA players who are athletes for a living. But aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night.
The best part about running is the cold beer at the finish line. When you’re running 45 miles a week you’re bound to be hungry, but you’ve got to watch what you eat. I’m not saying count calories or obsess over your weight. Eat a cheeseburger! Just not every night. It’s easy to eat a ton when you’re training for a marathon, but you don’t need all of it. If you cut back on drinking beer the month leading up to your race, you’d be surprised how much weight you’ll drop. Five pounds is a lot to carry 26.2 miles—imagine if you had a grocery bag loaded with apples in your hands the whole time—and if you cut out the booze in the lead up, not only will you be lighter come race day, the beer will be that much better with a big-ass medal hanging around your neck.
Or you could just run a half marathon instead!
This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated ahead of the Nov 3 New York City marathon.