Running on the Verrazano Bridge

Training for a First Marathon

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An old friend who is a 13.1 runner is thinking about training for her first marathon and sent me a note asking for advice: “Do you have any training programs that you particularly like/recommend? Any sage advice for someone who has never gone beyond 13.1?”

When asking a runner for advice, the answers are never simple (and always long-winded).

NYC Marathon
Ryan Hall helped inspire thousands of runners . . .

Training for a First Marathon

Training Plans

I’ve seen more and more posts in my Facebook newsfeed from friends who are doing Couch-to-5Ks (which is awesome). My point in mentioning this is not to prove I have old and out of shape friends on Facebook rather, when they post links to the training plans they are following, they are all linking to different programs. There are millions of training plans out there!

But which is the right one to follow? I’ve used one program for all of my long run training (13.1 and 26.2), Hal Higdon. Hal offers free plans at different levels and has gotten me to the finish line of every race I’ve signed up for.

It’s important to follow whatever training plan you choose to the best of your ability. My best races have been those in which I’ve run at least three shorter runs during the week and one or more long runs on the weekend. My PR race included speed work and cross training on the bike (not only good for running endurance, but super fun as well). I know of no one who has followed any training program to a “T,” and that’s okay – if you know that going in, you won’t beat yourself up for it later.

NYC Marathon
The Verrazano Bridge at the start of the NYC Marathon

“Sage Advice”

  • Find a training plan you like, follow it as best you can and make sure you get in at least one 18-20 mile run before you taper. I know it sounds daunting, but I promise, there will be a point in your training where 18 miles is no longer intimidating.
  • Don’t do your long runs at marathon pace. You should run at least 30 seconds slower than your planned race pace. While this sounds counterintuitive, trust that it works. On race day, you should never underestimate the adrenaline you get from other racers around you and the crowds cheering you on.
  • Walking is okay; you’re not there to win. In fact, you should PLAN to walk. Chances are that you’re going to feel like walking at some point during the race and if you plan to walk, it makes it easier to start running again when you feel like you HAVE to walk. I will sometimes walk through every other water table if I’m having a bad race.
  • Lastly, make a really good music mix that inspires you. I make my mix a few weeks before each race and fine tune them, changing out songs or the order all the way up until race day. And when you’re in the race, don’t listen to the music so loud that you can’t hear the crowd cheering you on.

Now that I’ve thought about it a little more, I would add the following:

  • Eat before you’re hungry. It took me a long time to figure out how to run a marathon without bonking half way through. I tried all different brands of bars, blocks and all of the other easily digestible, high-calorie snacks. I’ve settled on GU Energy Gel. I like something I don’t need to chew. The Chocolate GU tastes like frosting to me, and when I knock them back with water, I barely even know I’ve eaten anything. I eat one every six miles for the first 18 and carry a few extra with me as I eat them as needed every two to four miles between 18 and 26.
  • Drink before you’re thirsty. Strategies on hydration change based on the weather. Case and point, the 2012 Boston Marathon where I was worried about over-hydrating (which can be just as detrimental to a race as under-hydrating). As a rule, I usually plan on hitting every other water station and alternating between water and whatever sports drink they are serving (assuming water stations are every two miles).

There’s a TON more that first time runners need to know before embarking on their first long race, but the learning is all part of the training we do.


  1. Thanks for all your sage advice! I plan on following Hal's program and can't wait to get started training… and what I mean by that is that I am completely terrified!!

  2. I'm following Hal's novice 2 for my planned June 22nd marathon so I'm just getting in to the very long runs. Thanks for the tips about NOT running them at marathon pace. This is my biggest problem…wanting to run fast. I'll fix that this month for sure.

  3. Not to sound like a pig, but I think it helps to run near someone attractive, as long as he or she keeps running and doesn't slow down.

  4. The biggest thing we've found is making sure to build a solid base, especially for first timers. Too often you fail to have enough weekly mileage and your aerobic capacity isn't strong enough to complete a marathon without feeling like death.

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