How long does it take to train for a marathon?

The last 26.2 miles on race day is, for most marathon runners, the culmination of a long training plan which will have seen you cover hundreds of miles over many weeks. To make sure you run a safe, injury-free race, it’s essential to prepare correctly and give yourself the best chance of an enjoyable race. So, how long does it take to train for a marathon, and where should you start?

Here’s how long to train for a marathon

Most runners take between 16 and 20 weeks to train for a marathon. As you build up to the race, your heart, muscles and mind need to be conditioned for the exertion ahead, so following a strict training plan which gradually ups the ante and improves your fitness and stamina is very important. At the same time, the training plan also needs to give you enough time to recuperate and repair – with at least three rest days per week.

While 16–20 weeks is the general rule of thumb, some runners train for as little as 12 weeks and some take 24 weeks or more. Ultimately, it’s about putting together a training plan which is right for you.

Training for a marathon – variables to consider

There are a number of variables which will affect how long you need to prepare for your marathon:

  • Your existing fitness level If you’re already a regular runner, perhaps by doing a couple of hour-long runs per week plus other types of exercise, you may find it fairly easy to shift up to longer training runs. On the other hand, if you aren’t so fit, or are a little overweight, it’s wise to build up your fitness levels over a longer period of time.

  • Your tendency to injuries If you’ve got any old foot, joint or muscle injuries or other health conditions, it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor before taking on a marathon. This isn’t to say you can’t do one, but it is definitely a good idea to give yourself more time to build up and listen to your body.

    Even if you have no underlying injuries, there’s always a risk you could do yourself some kind of damage from over-exercising. Giving yourself a few extra weeks to build up your fitness is a smart idea in case you have to take a week or so off to recover at some point.

  • Your job and lifestyle If you have a fairly normal 9-to-5 job, fitting in your marathon plan around your lifestyle shouldn’t be too complicated. On the other hand, anyone whose job involves unpredictable hours and shift patterns could see a stricter training plan fall by the wayside. Giving yourself more time to build up – and avoid the stress of feeling underprepared – can help if your job or lifestyle gets in the way of training.

What’s involved in a standard marathon training plan?

Once you’ve figured out how long to train for a marathon, given your particular circumstances, you’ll be able to put together a training plan which suits your needs. Whether you squeeze it all into 12 weeks, 20 weeks or even more, every training plan involves the same fundamentals:

  • You gradually build up with shorter runs around 3 days per week
  • At least once per week (often a Sunday), you carry out incrementally longer runs, building up to somewhere between 16 and 20 miles
  • You mix in some conditioning activities, such as hill sprints and other kinds of circuits
  • You normally schedule 2–3 rest days per week, where you let your body recover and repair
  • It’s common to mix in other, non-impact exercises such as cross training, cycling, weights, swimming and yoga
  • In the final three weeks before the marathon itself, you ‘taper’, which involves reducing the amount of running, to help you rest

Consider shorter races too

If you’re keen to do a marathon but have relatively little long-distance running experience, it’s often a smart idea to start out with shorter runs. While marathons are fantastic experiences, it’s always a good idea to get a few 10k runs and half-marathons under your belt in order to test your limits and see if this is the thing for you. From there, it’s often a lot easier to shift up to full marathons as you’ll already have achieved a good level of fitness.

Knowing how long to train for a marathon is about knowing your own limits

While there are some standard marathon training plans out there, ultimately the amount of time you’ll need to train for a marathon depends entirely on you. If you’re completely confident and comfortable with long-distance running, a 12-week training plan might work out fine for you. On the other hand, if you’re less experienced or know you can’t commit to a really strict regime, choosing a longer plan will take the pressure off and means you can enjoy the experience more too.