First-Time Marathon Training Program

by S. Scott Zimmerman

Here's a training program for those who just want to finish a marathon, rather than those experienced runners who want to race a marathon. It assumes that you want to peak at 40 miles per week of running.

The Plan

  1. Determine your marathon time goal. For example, your goal might be 4:00 or 4:30. If you've run a shorter road race in the past, go to the Race Predictor calculator section of MarathonGuide.com and type your 5K, 10K, or other race time to predict a reasonable marathon time. If you haven't run a road race, you might want to run a time trial on your own. Just run a measured course of, say, 5 miles, and keep track of how long the run takes you. You should push yourself during the time trial to obtain the best possible time. Then go to the Race Predictor calculator, put in the distance of your time trial, and obtain a reasonable marathon time goal. Feel free to adjust the goal to a faster time if you feel confident or to a slower time if you want to play it safe. For your first marathon, you should err on the side of being too slow than trying to run too fast.
  2. Determine your PMP (projected marathon pace), i.e., the minutes:seconds per mile (or per km) that you have to run to achieve your goal. To determine your PMP, go to the Pace/Time/Distance Calculator of MarathonGuide.com, enter your projected marathon time (in hours, minutes, and seconds), enter the marathon distance (26.2 miles), and click Calculate. For example, the PMP for a 4:30 marathon is a 10:18 pace (6:24 per km).
  3. Gradually work up to a base of 25 miles per week (mpw) (40 km per week). During the build-up, on one day each week, do a 3M (3-mile or 5K) tempo run at PMP. You need to be at about 25 mpw (40 km/wk) before starting the training schedule below.
  4. Sixteen weeks before the marathon, start the suggested training program below. The schedule starts at week 16 and goes to week 1. The last day of week 1 is your target marathon.
  5. The schedule is set up to do your speed work (tempo runs) on Tuesday, long run on Saturday, and rest day on Sunday, but you can change the days around so they fit your schedule better. (For example, if you do your long run on Sunday, shift everything one day later in the week.)
  6. Run most of the distance of your long runs at PMP + 1:00 to 1:30 (in km, PMP + 0:40 to 0:55). For example, in miles, if your PMP is 10:18 (to achieve a 4:30 marathon), your long-run pace should be 10:18 + 1:00 = 11:18 pace to 10:18 + 1:30 = 11:48 pace. In kilometers, if your PMP is 6:24 per km (to achieve a 4:30 marathon), your long-run pace should be 6:24 + 40 = 7:04 pace to 10:18 + 55 = 11:13 pace.  These numbers are only approximate; don't feel that you have to always stay exactly within that range.
  7. During the last 3-4 miles (5 to 7 km) of each long run, increase your speed to PMP. This will train your body to go at marathon pace when you're tired.
  8. If you find that the calculated pace of your long training runs is too fast or too slow for you, adjust your PMP accordingly.
  9. In the table, the pace of the tempo runs (speed work) is specified as PMP - 20 (or in km, PMP - 12). For example, if your PMP is 10:18, you should do your tempo runs at about 9:58 (or in km, 6:12).
  10. On the speed work day, the total mileage includes 1/2 mile slow running (warm up) before the tempo run and 1/2 mile of slow running (cool down) after the tempo run.
  11. One day a week you should do hill work. This means that you should pick a course with at least one long hill or several short hills for that training run. The more hilly your planned marathon, the more hill work you should do. (For example, many Utahns run the St. George Marathon as their first marathon. St. George has several uphill stretches and long downhill stretches. Those training for St. George should do some uphill and lots of downhill running as part of their training program.)
  12. The training schedule below has built-in flexibility. Don't hesitate cutting way back a week here and there if you feel the tired, if you're having aches and pains, if you're injured, or if you're ill.
  13. If you run a 5K, 10K, or other short race during the 16-week training program, move the long run to another day, cancel the scheduled speed work, add another day of rest, and make other adjustments as necessary to properly prepare for and recover from the race.
  14. If you want to substitute cross training (biking, swimming, etc.) for some of the running, do so on the light (3 to 5-mile) days or on the rest days.
  15. If you have the time and interest, you might want to consider weight lifting (strength training) to supplement your running (see my Weight Lifting for Runners). I like to lift two or three days per week, emphasizing low weights and high repetitions. (If you want to get buff, and don't care so much about your marathon time, emphasize high weights and low repetitions.) During the taper of weeks 3 to 1, omit the weight lifting all together.

The Training Chart

The Speed Workout pace assumes that your PMP is in min:sec per mile rather than per km. If you run using kilometers, multiply the number of seconds by 0.62. For example, PMP - 0:15 should be converted to PMP - 0:09 because 15 x 0.62 is approximately 9.

      Speed  

Hills

 

 Long

  Speed Workout
Week Sun Mon Tue Wed Thur Fri

Sat

TOTAL Intervals/Pace
base 0 5 4 3 5 0 8 25 3M tempo, PMP
16 0 5 4 3 5 0 10 27 3M tempo, PMP-0:15
15 0 5 4 5 6 0 10 30 3M tempo, PMP-0:20
14 0 4 4 3 3 0 12 26 3M tempo, PMP-0:20
13 0 5 5 3 5 0 12 30 4M tempo, PMP-0:15
12 0 5 5 4 5 0 14 33 4M tempo, PMP-0:20
11 0 4 5 4 5 0 12 30 4M tempo, PMP-0:20
10 0 4 6 3 5 0 15 33 5M tempo PMP-0:15
9 0 5 6 5 5 0 18 36 5M tempo PMP-0:20
8 0 4 6 3 5 0 15 33 5M tempo PMP-0:20
7 0 5 7 3 3 0 18 36 6M tempo, PMP-0:15
6 0 5 5 5 5 0 20 40 4M tempo, PMP-0:25
5 0 5 9 5 3 0 18 40 8M tempo, PMP-0:15
4 0 5 7 5 3 0 20 40 6M tempo, PMP-0:25
3 0 5 9 5 5 0 12 36 8M tempo, PMP-0:20
2 0 5 6 5 4 0 10 30 5M tempo, PMP-0:15
1 0 3 5 3 0 0

26.2 (marathon)

27 3M tempo, PMP
black = endurance run (PMP+1:00 to 1:30)
blue = speed work
green = hills (at least part of run; few hills on days of hard speedwork)

Comments of questions? E-mail me at scott@zimtech.org