How to Go From Zero to Marathon in Six Months

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Running a marathon is an undertaking that, in this coach's opinion, should not be taken lightly. Whether your goal is simply to finish well with a view toward future marathons, or to chase a significant personal best and qualify for Boston, preparing for this event requires planning and vision.

This article will discuss a long-term approach toward a marathon build-up. This process is targeted at two types of runners:

  • Those who have been removed from the sport due to injury or a prolonged rest period of six months or more (i.e. an honest self-assessment reveals that you're out of shape)
  • Those who are relatively new to the sport and have been running for less than a year.

These types of runners will need to adapt this or a similar long-term approach toward running a successful marathon.

As a side note, I believe a marathon is not the best target event for new runners. I am fully aware that "bucket-listers" occupy a place in our sport; however, creating long-term passion for long-distance running is tougher when so many are targeting the longest and most brutal running event as their first-ever race goals. Can folks with little running experience "finish" a marathon with eight, 10 or 12 weeks of training? Certainly. But why not take 5 to 6 months and do it better, regardless of your goals? If you are not deterred by my shot across the proverbial running bow, then let's continue.

First 1 to 3 Months

If you are beginning your marathon program already in poor or less-than-ideal shape, then your "introductory phase" of aerobic development should be an extended period of at least 10 to 12 weeks. In fact, for runners at this level of fitness, this opening period cannot be overdone. The more time runners spend on healthy aerobic development, the better because this ramp-up period is, in the words of the late British coach Harry Wilson, the "training-to-train period" of a build-up. Training to race can and will come later.

Below is a sample build-up week. This period focuses on weeks of gradual adaptation.

Sample Week 1 to 6

  • Sunday: Run easy for 45 to 50 minutes. This run should be a very controlled time-on-your-feet (i.e. conversational pace) effort. Following the run, add an additional 35 to 40 minutes of brisk walking, or another form of non-running exercise (swimming, stationary biking, elliptical)
  • Monday: rest day (no running); optional cross-training, such as swimming or pool running
  • Tuesday: Run easy for 35 to 40 at a conversational pace.
  • Wednesday: Run for 30 minutes with an additional 30 to 35 minutes of cross-training.
  • Thursday: off; complete rest
  • Friday: Run easy for 35 to 40 at a conversational pace.
  • Saturday: cross-train day; complete 45 to 55 minutes of swimming, cycling or walking

As you can see in this introductory period, there's no true long run, and cross-training supplements the running you complete during this time. While not running specific, exercise such as swimming, stationary bike spinning and even walking will make the transition to higher volume training—necessary for a quality marathon experience—more seamless.

MORE: Four Valuable Marathon Lessons

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