A friend asked me how long it takes to train for a marathon. She was interested in running a marathon, but felt limited by how much time she should commit towards training for the marathon and so she wanted to know how long does it take to train for a marathon. I found this question very interesting – especially since I roughly needed 12 weeks myself to be ready for my first marathon. Here is how I would answer that original question: It depends!
There is no answer that will work for everyone about marathon training. The time required to train for a marathon really depends on the current fitness level of the person asking the question. But not only does it depend on the fitness level, it also depends on the overall running experience one has. We could add the time goal as an additional factor as well, but for now I will leave this out as it carries less weight for the first time marathoner.
Fitness Level & Running Experience
If you have been a couch potato you will not turn into a runner overnight. Your body has to adjust and “learn” the running part and by that I mean it has to learn how to absorb the constant pounding and pressure that comes from running on a hard surface. Believe it or not, but your muscles and joints will have to work overtime until they adjust to the sudden increase in running. Also, your muscle growth is limited by effort and time and if your leg muscles (as well as core and back) are under-developed it will take time for your muscle mass to grow and there is no healthy shortcut. Muscle growth is one thing, but your aerobic situation has to adjust as well. By that I mean that your lungs and your heart have to adjust as well and again – there is no healthy shortcut. Time and persistence in working out is the only solution.
If you are not a runner at the moment and want to run a marathon I would say you need at least 6 months of training, but preferably you want to give yourself even more time. While it can be done faster, I would see an increased risk of injury heading your way. A friend of mine was trying to get marathon ready in about 4 months and she was not a runner – she ended up being injured several times during her training and in the end she downgraded her race to the half marathon because she simply was not ready for the marathon distance.
Getting fit for a marathon does include more than running. You will also need to strengthen your core and your back muscles as that is a critical part for being able to run long. Otherwise your running form will suffer and that in return will affect your running in a negative way. You will tire out faster and you know what that means. You will run slower and less efficient and eventually hit the infamous wall. So, your overall fitness level is important. I did not even factor in any overweight situation or unhealthy lifestyles. The time mentioned above will increase accordingly if one of those applies to you.
It will definitely help if you are a fit person because you have been doing other type of sports, but there is no shortcut in building up mileage.
I already provided you with a rough estimate of how long it might take to train for a marathon. Let’s go into more detail about this. Training for a marathon is a mix of shorter and longer runs. Your training will consist of shorter runs that are usually done on weekdays and then on weekends you will do the required long runs. The shorter runs will most likely be between 3-8 miles and the time commitment for those will probably average between 50 and 75 minutes. Personally I am able to do my shorter runs in about an hour and I average between 6 and 7 miles for those. Your long runs will – depending on your training plan – go up to about 20 miles and depending on your speed this could take up to four hours. If it takes you more than four hours for your long run I recommend to split them up into shorter distance runs done on consecutive days. As an example, instead of running 20 miles in 5 hours on one run, do two 12 mile runs on consecutive days. The trainings-effect is almost the same and it helps you to build up stamina so that you can tackle long runs as one single run again. Another reason for this recommendation is that the recovery time from a 5+ hour long run is significantly longer compared to the recovery from two shorter runs. Usually you will run your long runs on weekend days and so you could split the long run into individual runs on Saturday and Sunday and then use Monday for recovery.
You will also need to plan for cross-training so that you can work your core and back muscles. You can split up the cross-training into shorter, daily sessions or some longer sessions done 2-3 times per week. I actually do a bootcamp style workout 4-5 times per week when training for a marathon and 5-6 times a week when I am not training for a marathon. This includes strength training and it is a full body workout. It includes workouts for my core and back by default and I do not pay attention to this part anymore as I know my training and workouts will cover it anyway. It can be pretty taxing doing the extra workouts on top of your running, so you need to listen to your body and plan for enough rest, too. If you are training for your very first marathon I recommend to go easy on yourself and stick to the normal running schedule and some add-on sessions for the cross-training.
As mentioned earlier it might take you 6-9 months to get ready for your first marathon. This will mean a big time commitment for quite some time. You need to make sure you have the support from your family or partner before you start. Lay out a plan and explain why you are doing this and how much you would appreciate their support. If you plan for a 9 month journey, I would split the training into blocks of 3 months each. The first 3 months build up some solid base mileage of about 20-25 miles per week (5 run of 5 miles each will do) and add the cross-training as well. This will get you adjusted to running slowly and in a safe way to avoid injury. The cross-training also makes you ready for the longer runs. When you reach the end of the first 3 month block, start increasing your weekly mileage by adding some longer runs. Expand your running slowly from (example) 5 miles max to 10 miles. Try to increase your mileage from 20-25 miles per week to 30-35 miles per week. As an example, run 5 days with 5 miles each and then add a 10-12 mile run on the weekend. You can see how your time commitment will increase right there, but it will give you an idea how to map things out for the entire 9 month period.
I wrote a sample marathon training plan and you can find it here. I will create a couple more version to accommodate the needs of people who never ran a marathon before. So, make sure to check back frequently.