How To Choose A Marathon Training Plan

An internet search of "marathon training plan" will yield endless and often overwhelming results. So how do you—a hopeful first-time marathon runner—choose a plan?

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Perhaps there was a ton of hesitation and months, or even years, of contemplation. Or maybe you registered on a total whim. Either way, you’ve decided to run your very first marathon. Congratulations! Only a small number of people ever choose to tackle such a feat.

Before you celebrate joining that small percentage of marathon runners, however, you’ve got to make it to the finish line.

Whether you’ve been running for years or are just getting started, you’ve probably realized already that a 26.2-mile race is something you really need to train for. But a search on the internet, or even a discussion with running friends, will reveal that there are hundreds of training plans available. So how do you pick one?

First, decide how much time you can commit to your training and then be realistic about your expectations. A number of plans claim that you can train with only a few days of running, and this can sound mighty appealing, especially to those of us short on time. But the reality is that these plans are often geared toward experienced runners cramming very difficult workouts into only a few days per week. If you know your time will be limited, look for a “just to finish” type of beginner training plan, where the goal is simply that, just to finish. These plans will typically provide the bare minimum training just to make sure you are prepared to cover the 26.2-mile distance.

Second, decide if you want to try a free training plan or invest in a running coach. A running coach may sound intimidating, but the level of interaction you have with the coach can depend on your needs. You can opt to pay a premium for a coach who will walk you through your training every step of the way. For a smaller fee you can have a coach help you design a custom training plan based on your goals and needs and then send you on your way. To find a certified running coach, check with your local running store or running group, or check out the Road Runners Club of America’s “Find a Coach” page to locate someone nearby.

There are certainly many generic free online training plans if that’s the route you want to take, but if you do, be sure to check your sources and confirm that they are legitimate. As we all know by now, anyone can publish anything on the internet. Just because a website, magazine, or blogger is at the top of the search results doesn’t necessarily mean that their marathon training plan is valid…or that the person who wrote it is even qualified to do so.

Looking for sources you can trust? Here are three popular, tried-and-true training plans for first-timers:

Jeff Galloway’s “Marathon to Finish” plan: This is the ultimate beginner-friendly training plan for people who are simply looking to cross that marathon finish line. Galloway, a former Olympic marathon runner, believes that run/walk intervals are essential for a strong marathon finish. His “Marathon to Finish” program encourages runners not to set a finishing time goal for their first marathon but instead to train at a level that will allow them to finish a marathon comfortably and safely. The training plan consists of two days of shorter distance runs, one day of walking, and one long run per week.

Hal Higdon Training Plans: Higdon is another former elite runner, writer, and running coach whose free training plans are incredibly popular. Higdon’s Novice 1 and Novice 2 marathon plans both offer a gradual, safe build that will most likely allow a runner to show up to their marathon well trained yet healthy and rested. While Higdon doesn’t discourage walking, it isn’t built into the plan like the Galloway method, so this may be a better option for those who feel confident and strong building up their long runs without walk breaks. If you are looking for even more options, Higdon offers numerous other plans for intermediate and advanced runners and even those looking to run a Boston Marathon qualifying time.

Jack Daniels Running Formula: Dr. Jack Daniels’ marathon training plans use your previous shorter distance race times to calculate current fitness levels and running ability and then provide specific training paces based on said levels. These paces can be determined using Daniels’ “VDOT” online calculator and applying those paces to your chosen marathon plan (there are a number available based on your goals). These training plans are ideal for more experienced runners who want to make the most of their training based on their current fitness levels and cross the finish line of their first marathon as fast as possible.

Whatever plan you decide to go with, be sure to keep your expectations realistic. It is very important to complete as many of the prescribed training runs as possible to ensure you make it to race day happy and healthy. Pick a plan that realistically fits in with your schedule and availability. Most importantly, make sure you remember to train. The journey to your first 26.2-mile finish is a long one, but it is absolutely worth it.

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