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How Hard Is It To Run a Marathon?

Amanda Wendorff

If you're considering tackling a marathon, you might be wondering what it takes to be ready to race 26.2 miles. Competing in a marathon is a significant challenge that requires not just physical stamina but also a solid plan for training and preparation. However, it is also a very doable and exciting goal for a beginner runner. This article will give a glimpse of just what is involved with training for and racing a marathon, offering you the key insights and strategies needed to approach your race at that distance confidently.

In this article, we'll discuss a few things that are important to know, including:

  • The basics of a marathon, including its distance and what races involve
  • The time commitment needed to train for a marathon adequately
  • The first steps towards preparing for a marathon
  • How to build a good endurance base
  • When to start a marathon training program, and why a training program is beneficial
  • What race day is really like

If you're contemplating a marathon for the first time, you've come to the right place. We'll teach you everything you need to ensure the successful completion of your race.

MOTTIV app user Kathy Humml from Germany, does some run training on a weekend trip to the Scottish Highlands!

Getting Started: Can You Run a Marathon?

What Does a Marathon Entail?

A marathon is a 42 kilometer (or 26.2 mile) running race. Most marathon race courses are on closed roads or bike paths, and the number of participants can range from a couple hundred runners to several thousand.

For most beginner runners, a marathon will take between 4 and 5.5 hours and can incorporate a combination of running and walking. For example, many runners will cover 26.2 miles by adopting a run/ walk pattern, such as running a mile and then briskly walking for a minute.

Running a marathon is a great goal, especially for a beginner runner, but it is definitely a challenge. Covering 26.2 miles on foot is no small feat, and training for your first marathon requires months of preparation, determination, and a solid training plan. But if you are up for the challenge of running the marathon distance, you will find that it is a tremendously rewarding experience.

How Much Time Will Marathon Training Take?

Training for a marathon is a commitment, and the amount of time it will take you to be ready to run a marathon will depend on a few factors, including:

  • Your beginning fitness: The starting point of your fitness journey matters in determining how much time you'll need to prepare for a marathon. If you're already active and can comfortably run or jog for 30 to 45 minutes, you have a solid foundation to build upon. This baseline fitness level suggests that your body is accustomed to regular exercise, making it easier to ramp up the intensity and duration of your workouts without a significant risk of injury. This can shorten the preparation time needed before you're ready to complete a marathon. Similarly, if you've never run before or haven't run in a long time, it will take you a lot longer to build the endurance necessary actually to be able to focus on marathon training.
  • Your experience with running and endurance sports: If you have experience competing in endurance sports such as cycling or swimming or have done some running but just haven't raced before, it will likely take you less time to build up to running 26.2 miles. If you have a background in these activities, you likely have a more developed aerobic base, better muscle endurance, and a mental edge that comes from understanding how to push through discomfort. This experience allows for a more aggressive training plan, possibly shortening the time needed to prepare for a marathon, and can help you set more ambitious race day goals.
  • Your goals for the race: The time it will take you to train for a marathon also depends on your goals. If your goal is simply to finish the race, your training will focus on gradually increasing your mileage to comfortably cover the 26.2 miles without as much emphasis on speed. Conversely, if you want to run for speed or compete, you're going to be running more. You'll need more training time to incorporate more targeted workouts like speed intervals, tempo runs, and hill repeats, and to develop your speed and stamina through longer runs.

Whether you're running a marathon for the first time or are a more experienced, avid runner aiming to run your fastest marathon, we generally suggest using an 18-week training plan for a marathon. However, before even starting those 18 weeks of training,  you should be able to run for at least 30- 45 minutes with minimal stopping. If you're not there yet, it's best to give yourself plenty of time to build a good base of endurance first.

If you want a more specific idea of how long you will need to prepare for a marathon in light of your specific goals and background, try this calculator:

How Many Hours a Week Will Marathon Training Take?

The hours each week devoted to marathon training will vary for each runner, but you should plan for at least 7 to 8 hours a week to be devoted to training at the peak of your marathon training.

There are many marathon training plans available, but the plans in our app have been specifically designed by expert coaches with the understanding that life is busy and finding a balance is key. To accommodate this, we suggest running 3 to 5 times a week, with one of those runs being a long run that can last up to 3 hours and 15 minutes.

In addition to the running schedule, our plans emphasize the importance of strength training and mobility work. These components are crucial for a well-rounded training regimen, offering benefits that extend far beyond the running path.

Given the above, the total weekly time commitment for your marathon training could range from approximately 5 to 9 hours, depending on the intensity of your runs, the length of your strength training sessions, and how much time you dedicate to mobility work.

Can I Run a Marathon As My First Race?

Yes, you can compete in a marathon as your first running race. However, we'd generally suggest trying out a shorter distance, like a 5k, 10k, or half marathon, first, or at least including a shorter race within your marathon training. Running a  5k or 10k before trying out the longer races can build your confidence, give you a feeling for what a race environment is like, and provide opportunities to practice pacing and fueling.

If you're interested in preparing for a 5k or 10k, you can find training plans for those distances in our app.

Building Your Foundation: First Steps in Marathon Training

Build The Base

Before even starting focused marathon training, it's important to build a strong base.

To do this, start running slowly, gradually building mileage each week. For most new runners, it is best to start with a run-walk plan to build endurance without overtaxing your body. Keep all your running easy and at a pace where you can hold a conversation. Over time, build up the time you run without stopping and increase your overall run time each week.

Don't forget that gradually increasing mileage and allowing for ample rest days are essential in building that base. Many running coaches advise you not to increase your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent each week. Take it slow and give your body time to adapt to running.

Use a Structured Training Plan

Once you've been running multiple times a week for a while and can run 30 to 45 minutes without stopping, it's a good idea to start a structured marathon training plan. Many good plans are available, and our MOTTIV app features training programs designed by expert coaches tailored to your fitness level.

A good, beginner-friendly training plan will help prepare you for the physical and mental demands of running 26.2 miles in a way that is time-efficient, smart, and balanced. Most good plans will include a variety of types of runs, including long runs focused on endurance, interval runs to improve speed and running economy, and sometimes hill repetitions to build strength. Many will also incorporate strength and mobility work.

Following a structured training plan will not only reduce your risk of injury by ensuring a reasonable build, but it will also give you the confidence come race day that you've done all that you need to do to successfully run your first marathon to the best of your ability.

Prepare a Hydration and Nutrition Strategy

A big part of successfully training for a marathon is developing an effective nutrition strategy that can be used both during your race and training sessions, and in the time before and after.  Training for and racing a marathon requires a tremendous amount of energy, and taking in something like a sports gel or some sports drink during your race will help you avoid running out of energy or depleting your glycogen stores.

Similarly, taking in the right amount of fluids and electrolytes, especially on hot days, will prevent the negative effects of dehydration. Early in your training cycle, start to think about and practice your fueling strategy. Also, take a look at your daily nutrition and consider whether it's optimized to fuel your body through training. Create healthy habits and practice them frequently.

For more on effective fueling before and during a marathon, please refer to these articles talking about carb loading before a marathon and fuelling for race day.

What to Expect on Race Day

So far, we've discussed the demands of training for a marathon, but what about the actual race day? What should you expect, and how difficult is it?

From the start line to the finish line, race day is an exhilarating experience, whether you are a first-time racer or an experienced runner. There's no doubt you'll feel a mix of nerves and excitement as you set out to complete your first marathon.

If you've trained properly leading up to the event, set a reasonable finish time goal,  and pace yourself well, you may find that for most of the marathon, it doesn't feel any more difficult than your long training runs. In fact, it may feel easier than your training, as you'll likely be energized by other runners and spectators and feel motivated and rested. In the early miles of the race, you may feel like you could run much faster than you ever did throughout your training. Be careful to follow your plan, and don't get over-excited by the whole experience!

Of course, the final miles of a marathon will feel very hard. But if you can keep a positive mindset, dig deep, and keep pushing, soon enough, you'll be celebrating at the finish line.

Wrap Up

Whether racing a marathon is on your bucket list or you're just a little curious about whether you're capable of completing the distance, hopefully, this article has given you a glimpse of what it takes to race 26.2 miles.   Running a marathon is an achievable goal with the right preparation. By building a strong foundation, following a structured training plan, and preparing mentally and physically for race day, you'll not only run 26.2 miles successfully but also discover what you're truly capable of.

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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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