How To Train for a Marathon

Figure 1I recently wrote this article, How To Train for a Marathon, for the Cardiology Patient Page in the journal Circulation and now that it is in publication I thought I’d share some major points from it here. In short, the ultimate goal of training for a marathon is not to start but to finish the 26.2 mile footrace. Consequently, although most training plans emphasize only one point (the logistics of mileage and training intensity), the necessary steps to complete a marathon require a focus on three goals: injury avoidance, physical training, and psychological preparation.

Run Without Risk: Unfortunately, to train for a marathon is to expose oneself to a high risk of injury. For example, the yearly incidence rate for running injuries  may be as high as 90% in individuals training for a marathon (1). Therefore, the first goal of marathon preparation is to avoid injury, while still training adequately. To avoid injury, runners need to be fully recovered from any and all injury or illness prior to running a marathon. Injury risk is also minimized by a training program that gradually increases distance and intensity.  Since injury rates increase beyond a weekly mileage of 40 miles/week, moderate mileage also reduces injury risk.  In addition, periods of hard marathon training increase an individual’s susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections. Strategies such as a well-balanced diet with ample fruits and vegetables and sufficient sleep will support the immune system in marathoners.

Train to Gain: The actual training program used by each runner will differ according to goals, lifestyle, physical capabilities, and previous experience. Regardless, marathon performance is improved in recreational runners who incorporate tempo and interval runs, more miles per week, and more days of running (2). Therefore, a successful training program will incorporate runs of various speeds and distances and also ideally be undertaken only after a runner has achieved a strong foundation of fitness and mileage.

Master the Mind: Finally, there are psychological challenges to running a marathon. Race day preparation is therefore also an important consideration, since for most runners, the distance of the marathon will be the longest they have ever run. Figure 2There are several cognitive strategies used by runners to successfully navigate a marathon. These include association (focusing on the body during the task), disassociation (detaching focus from the physical exertion), and positive self-talk. Evidence is equivocal as to which of these strategies is most effective (3) so runners may want to practice these techniques to experiment with effectiveness.

In conclusion, while there are widely publicized training programs for runners attempting a marathon, a successful marathon training program involves three components. The emphasis on avoiding injury, finding the right balance between training and overtraining, and addressing the psychological risks of long-distance racing will optimize a runner’s chances of both starting AND finishing a marathon.

  1. Fredericson M, Misra AK. Epidemiology and aetiology of marathon running injuries.Sports Med. 2007;37:437-9.
  2. Hamstra-Wright KL, Coumbe-Lilley JE, Kim H, McFarland JA, HuxelBliven KC. The influence of training and mental skills preparation on injury incidence and performance in marathon runners. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27:2828-35.
  3. Weinberg RS, Smith J, Jackson A, Gould D.Effect of association, dissociation and positive self-talk strategies on endurance performance. Can J Appl Sport Sci. 1984;9:25-32.

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