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How Much Harder is a Full Marathon vs. a Half Marathon

Amanda Wendorff

Once you've mastered the basics of run training, participated in a few 5k and 10k races, and even trained for and raced a half marathon, you'll more than likely have some curiosity about the full marathon distance. With national and international attention regularly turning to huge events like the Boston Marathon and the New York Marathon, which attract tens of thousands of people and weave right through large cities, the marathon is truly where legends are made.

Many athletes using our MOTTIV training app have completed full distance marathons around the world!

But what exactly does it take to train for and race a marathon? How much more of a commitment is the training compared to the half marathon, and physically, how much more does it take? We'll tackle these questions in this article, touching specifically on the following topics:

  • Whether anyone can do a marathon
  • How the full marathon differs from the half marathon in terms of distance and time
  • Aspects of performance that need more attention when you're training for a marathon, such as nutrition and recovery
  • The unique physiological and psychological challenges of the marathon
  • How the training for a half marathon and a full marathon differs
MOTTIV app user Sean Marcy unleashes as he crosses the finish line of a very dirty and rainy race in Nanaimo, BC, Canada.

Can Anyone Train For a Marathon?

Training for a marathon is a big step up from a half marathon, but with the right preparation, mindset, and dedication, it's definitely achievable. A full marathon tests not just your physical endurance over 26.2 miles but also your mental stamina and commitment to a consistent, rigorous training regimen.

While the idea may seem daunting, we believe that just about anyone who is motivated can run a marathon with the proper training. It won't happen overnight; marathon training may require making some temporary adjustments to your life, such as limiting your weekend social activities so that you are able to complete your long training runs... potentially tweaking your diet to optimize performance and recovery... and spending time preparing mentally for the challenges ahead. And, it may take you months of run training before you are even ready to start a dedicated marathon training program.

But if you're motivated and dedicated, you'll find the process of preparing for your first marathon is incredibly fulfilling. You'll push your limits, discover what you're truly capable of, and be changed forever.

What are the Major Differences Between the Half Marathon and the Full Marathon?

Many runners aspire to achieve the goal of stepping up from a half marathon to a full marathon. Understanding the key differences in training, mental strategy, and physical endurance will help you make a successful transition.

The Full Marathon Race Distance

The most apparent difference is the race distance. A full marathon race covers 26.2 miles, or 42 kilometers, exactly twice as long as a half marathon.

However, while it's double the distance, this does not mean that a marathon is twice as hard as a half marathon. Through training for a half marathon, you'll learn and perfect many of the basics of marathon training, like pacing your long runs, fueling your body with the right nutrition, and mentally tackling hours of activity. With marathon training, you'll take that foundation and improve upon it by training the body to preserve energy so that it can last even longer.

The marathon distance does present some unique challenges, which we'll discuss below. The stakes are a bit higher if you make errors with pacing or fueling. But if you've successfully run a half marathon and have the motivation and time to train a bit more, you should find the marathon to be very manageable.

MOTTIV app user Shannon Cazavillan using a local track to do a training session as part of her race preparation.

How Long a Marathon Takes

For most amateur runners, completing a marathon will take anywhere from 3 to 6 hours, depending on pace, conditions on the course, and personal stamina. Elite and professional runners may dip under the 3-hour barrier, but this usually requires several years of training and progression.

Being on your feet for this many hours tests not just your physical endurance but also your mental resolve to keep pushing through fatigue and discomfort. The longer distance also requires careful pacing and energy management. You'll need a well-rehearsed strategy for nutrition and hydration to maintain steady energy levels and prevent fatigue late in the race. All of this can be practiced meticulously in training so that when you stand on the start line, you'll be confident that you know exactly what to do to be successful.

The Importance of Fueling

While important in all running distances, effective nutrition and hydration become crucial for successful marathon running. Over such a long distance, your body needs a continuous supply of carbohydrates and fluids to perform optimally. Unlike shorter races, where you might rely on pre-race fuel to get you to the finish line, a marathon requires you to replenish energy on the go.

Practicing your fueling strategy during long training runs is a key part of marathon training. The practice helps you figure out what types of food and drink your body can handle while running and allows you to refine the timing of your fueling to avoid an energy crash happening before you reach the finish line.

MOTTIV app user Rebecca Foat likes to wear a hydration vest during her long training runs in the heat, to make sure she doesn't become dehydrated.

Hitting the Wall

If you've talked to a marathoner for any amount of time, you've probably heard about "hitting the wall." Technically, hitting the wall refers to a physiological turning point that some athletes experience when running a full marathon —it's when your body runs out of glycogen, making every step feel impossibly hard. For those runners who have hit the wall, it usually happens around mile 20, turning the last 6.2 miles into a formidable mental and physical challenge.

The good news is that you have a lot of control over whether you hit the wall. Fueling your body sufficiently throughout the marathon, as well as training it over many weeks of training to run efficiently, can help to ensure that you do not run out of glycogen.

But still, most runners find that the last 10k of the marathon is very challenging. No matter how long you have spent training and preparing for your race, by the time you've covered 20 miles on foot, you'll almost definitely be dealing with a lot of fatigue. Preparing to push past this point involves honing some effective mental strategies, like setting small, manageable goals and using mantras to help you stay focused.

Dealing with the last few miles is one of the most unique marathon experiences out there.

The Physiological and Psychological Challenges of the Marathon

Let's turn a little to the science - what are the unique physical and mental challenges of the marathon distance that make it such a formidable goal?

Physiological Challenges of Marathon Running

Marathon running can be very demanding on the body, posing various physiological challenges beyond those posed by shorter distances, such as the half marathon, 5k, or 10k.

  • Muscular Endurance and Fatigue: The marathon significantly tests muscular endurance. Muscles must be conditioned to last the distance and recover quickly. This is achieved through a training regime that includes progressive long runs that gradually extend your muscles' ability to withstand stress, together with good recovery strategies, like massage and foam rolling, that build muscle resilience.
  • Glycogen Management and Metabolic Challenges: Management of your body's energy sources, particularly carbohydrates, is critical in marathoning. The average runner burns about 100 calories per mile, or 2,600 calories, throughout the marathon. When it comes to carbohydrates, one of the body's preferred sources of fuel, your body can generally only store 1,800 to 2,000 calories. Even assuming you start the race with your glycogen stores topped up, that's not enough to get you through the race!

The solution to this problem is twofold: You need to train your body to use not just glycogen/carbohydrates for fuel but also to rely on your fat stores. You also need to be ready to feed the body more carbohydrates as you go.

In shorter distances, you may be able to get away with just relying on your body's stored carbohydrates for energy, but in the marathon, you'll find yourself experiencing an unhappy bonk if you don't get it right. So, like anything, you need practice with fueling!

  • Hydration and Electrolyte Balance: Depending on a few factors, like your sweat rate and the weather, you may be able to complete a half marathon or shorter race without taking in a lot of fluids. This is not the case with the marathon!

Over the 26.2 mile distance, staying hydrated and maintaining electrolyte balance is vital not just for your performance but also for your health. Staying well-hydrated is essential. This involves not only drinking fluids regularly but also supplementing with electrolytes, which are lost through sweat. Training runs should mimic race conditions as closely as possible to fine-tune your hydration strategy.

Psychological Challenges

Stepping up to the marathon distance involves more than just dealing with physical challenges. The marathon also is a workout for your brain. Marathon runners need to prepare for several hours of mental engagement, dealing with pain, and controlling emotions. Specifically, training for and racing a marathon will likely challenge you to deal with the following:

Mental Fatigue: Keeping focused for hours is a significant challenge. Mental fatigue can lead to a loss of concentration and diminished performance. Strategies such as dividing the race into smaller segments, focusing on breathing techniques, or even engaging with fellow runners can help maintain mental clarity.

Pain Management: As the miles add up, so does the discomfort. Developing coping mechanisms during training is essential. These can include focusing intensely on your music, the scenery, or the rhythm of your footsteps and reminding yourself of your motivation for running the marathon.

Emotional Control: Emotional ups and downs are common during a marathon. Excitement, anxiety, happiness, and even despair can all surface during those 26.2 miles. Maintaining emotional stability is key to running a consistent race. Techniques like positive self-talk, visualization, and setting incremental goals can be very effective.

How Do Training Plans Change from the Half Marathon to Full Marathon Distance?

Training for a full marathon requires a notable increase in both volume and intensity compared to half marathon training. The adaptations your body needs to go through for the full 26.2 miles are significant, and the training load reflects this. Here's a detailed breakdown of what changes in the transition from half to full marathon training:

More Frequent Training

When you commit to full marathon training, you'll likely find that your training frequency will increase. This is necessary to condition your body to withstand the rigors of running for several hours and to enhance your ability to recover between workouts. While many half marathoners can finish in a respectable time with as few as three days of exercise per week, most marathon training plans recommend up to five or even six days of training, including strength, mobility, and cross-training. This increased frequency helps build the aerobic base necessary for endurance running while also allowing you to build strength and durability.

Varied Workouts

Depending on your half marathon training plan, you may have trained using predominantly one speed. Marathon training, on the other hand, tends to have more variety of intensity. Your training will include a mix of long runs, interval workouts, tempo runs, and recovery runs. At MOTTIV, we also strongly believe in the need for good strength and mobility work, so you'll see that in your marathon plan as well.

More Mileage / Longer Long Runs

Generally, the weekly mileage for marathon training should exceed that of half marathon training. This increased mileage is critical for building the endurance necessary to complete a marathon, because it helps your muscles, joints, and tendons to adapt to the demands of long distance running.

Most of the overall increase in mileage will come from increasingly lengthy long runs. Long runs are the cornerstone of any marathon training program. They are the workouts that best simulate the demands of the race itself and are the best opportunity for you to build physical stamina while also practicing pacing, nutrition, and hydration strategies for race day.

While half marathoners might peak with a 12-14 mile long run, most marathon training plans will have you build to 18 to 20 miles as your longest run. These runs should be done at a comfortable, conversational pace, which helps develop fat utilization as a primary energy source, which is crucial for marathon running.

More Emphasis on Strength

Strength training is important for all runners but even more critical for marathoners, as a strong body is needed to improve running efficiency, promote durability, and prevent injury. Our MOTTIV marathon training plans incorporate full-body strength work, including core work, as well as flexibility and mobility work that can prevent muscle imbalances and common running injuries.

You should incorporate at least two strength training sessions per week into your marathon training plan and consider these as important as your run sessions.

How Much More Dedication Does It Take To Complete a Successful Marathon?

A successful marathon requires a holistic approach to training that encompasses meticulous physical preparation, strategic nutrition planning, comprehensive psychological conditioning, and thorough recovery practices. Most marathoners find that during their training block, they need to devote a lot of time not just to running, but to doing the things before and after their runs that will let them train in the most effective way possible.

There are a few areas that are always important but become more critical when moving from the half marathon to the marathon:


With the increased training involved in preparing for a marathon, there needs to be an increased focus on recovery, as well. Specifically, it's important to pay attention to a few key lifestyle features:

  • Adequate Sleep: Getting good and plentiful sleep is by far the best way to recover from marathon training. Your marathon training will be much more effective if you're able to get plenty of high-quality sleep every night.
  • Rest Days: In addition to all the training, you also need rest days incorporated into your schedule to allow your body to recover and prevent injuries by giving muscles time to rebuild stronger. As your mileage increases, it becomes more and more essential that those rest days are truly devoted to rest and not used as days to catch up on all your chores and socializing!
  • Recovery Modalities: Along with sleep and rest days, incorporating some recovery modalities, like foam rolling, massage, or cold therapy, can enhance your ability to run well day after day

Proper Day-to-Day Nutrition

A well-balanced diet is crucial for both training and race day. Carbohydrates are key for keeping energy balanced, while protein supports muscle repair and recovery. Healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables all play a role in keeping the body healthy and functioning well when you're asking a lot from it. Hydration is also critical, especially on race day, to maintain performance and prevent dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

Successful marathon training involves some planning ahead when it comes to nutrition. You need to make sure that you're eating not only enough food but the right kinds of foods to keep you healthy.

Training Logistics

Marathoning is all about details, and for that reason, you can expect to spend more time planning for and preparing for your key training days. When training for a shorter event, like a 5k or 10k, often you can just go out and run without much forethought. Long runs in a marathon training plan, in contrast, always require some planning. From choosing a good route to purchasing and assembling nutrition to selecting running clothes that will be appropriate for any weather you may encounter, the preparation for a long run or key workout can be extensive.

Wrap Up

Stepping up to a full marathon from a half marathon is a challenging but immensely rewarding journey. It requires more than just additional mileage; it demands comprehensive preparation that covers extensive physical training, strategic nutritional adjustments, psychological readiness, and disciplined recovery practices.

Preparing for and completing a marathon showcases not just physical endurance but mental toughness and emotional resilience. The key is consistent, dedicated preparation. Embrace the challenge, respect the distance, and enjoy every step of your marathon journey. Reaching the finish line will feel like one of the greatest accomplishments of your life

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Amanda Wendorff

| Author

Amanda Wendorff is a professional triathlete, focusing on the 70.3 and 140.6 Ironman distances. In the last several years she’s competed in multiple gravel bike races. Top Achievements: Top 3 Ironman Ireland and Ironman 70.3 Coquimbo, Multiple time top-5 finisher, 3rd Overall at Moran 166 Gravel Race in Michigan, Age group podium at Gravel Worlds, Big Sugar, and Ned Gravel in first year of gravel racing.

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