Running your first marathon

There's nothing like running your first marathon, but to run it, you'll need to think about your training.


By Tom Denniss


One of the biggest decisions for many runners, new and old alike, is whether to run a marathon. For most runners, it represents the pinnacle among running challenges. Some new runners will take on the challenge almost immediately. Others will run for years or decades before deciding it’s finally time for a marathon. For those runners who do take the plunge, a more focused and disciplined approach to training will be necessary. However, if your training is done correctly, and if you run the event properly, there is no reason why you should have a bad marathon experience.

The most important initial question you need to answer is “what time am I going to aim for?” The time you expect to run will strongly define your training requirements, as well as the probability of you successfully reaching your goal. If you are realistic in this regard, you’ll make your marathon campaign much more attainable, not to mention more enjoyable.

If you are conservative in your expectations, desiring little more than to finish the marathon distance comfortably, then your training need not be overly intense. One’s current level of fitness and recent training regime will define the ‘starting point’ of a marathon campaign.

The most important training consideration for such a runner is distance. Run as often and as far as is practical for your particular circumstances.

While it’s the weekly long run that is usually stressed, overall mileage also goes a long way toward a successful outcome. Increase your long run by about 10% each week, preferably plateauing at around 35 km per week. But don’t be afraid to push past this distance in training, as doing so will provide you with a lot of confidence.

If the weekly long run feels daunting, try slowing it down. Over these sorts of distances, everyone has a ‘cruising’ pace at which they should feel comfortable. For the rest of the week, just do as much running as you can manage, within reason. If you’re feeling chronically tired, have an easy week. A rest day before the weekly long run isn’t a bad idea either.

If, however, you are more ambitious about your marathon aims, then your preparation will be somewhat different. Running a marathon at the fastest pace you are capable of is very challenging, requiring a much more dedicated level of training.

While the weekly long run is retained, you will need to do it at a faster pace – though generally about 20% slower than your intended marathon pace.

And, ideally, two fast days should be incorporated mid-week. One of these should entail a session of long intervals, such as 6 x 1 km or 4 x 1 mile, at a pace about 10% faster than you expect to run your marathon. You should also include a session of tempo running – for example, 10 km at your expected marathon pace, or 5 km a little faster than marathon pace.

The reality is, if one is to maintain a given pace over a distance as long as a marathon, it’s vital that you run at that pace a couple of times each week. Be careful, though. While the faster you run the fitter you’ll get, you must also balance this against the likelihood of injury. Overdoing the speed and distance is a dangerous combination – be very aware and monitor yourself daily.

The recommendations provided here are quite general. Each runner is different and a more tailored and modified training regime can and should be developed on a case by case basis.

However, the basic core of the advice remains –increasing the weekly long run and overall mileage for those aiming at a comfortable finish, and a faster weekly long run and a couple of speed sessions for those contemplating reaching their full potential.

The final, and crucial, piece of advice for running a marathon is this – DON’T start too fast. You will do much better to start a little conservatively and increase your pace during the second half of the race. If you start too fast your performance will suffer – and so will you. Poor initial pacing is at the core of all marathon horror stories. Don’t let yourself become one of these stories.

Tom Denniss is an Australian athlete, scientist, and entrepreneur. He has a PhD in Mathematics and Oceanography, has invented a technology to convert the energy in ocean waves into electricity, founded a company to commercialise that technology, has played professional rugby league, and was a finalist in the 2014 Australian of the Year Award. In 2013 he set a new world record for the Fastest Circumnavigation of the Earth on Foot. Tom lives in Sydney, Australia. A former professional musician, he has played to audiences in eight countries. He has written various articles for newspapers, magazines, and journals, as well as a book about his run around the world, titled The World At My Feet. You can read more of Tom's work here.

Main Photo Credit: ChiccoDodiFC/; Second Photo Credit: baranq/; Third Photo Credit: Maridav/; Fourth Photo Credit: Pavel1964/