Thinking about a marathon? Start here.

September 15, 2023 Swedish Health Team


 In this article:

  • Avoiding injury is key to marathon training and getting yourself to the starting line on race day.

  • A marathon training plan should be customized to your fitness level and your goals, and it should be flexible so you can adjust as you go.

  • Training for a marathon can prepare you for a lifetime of running, and it’s important to keep your long-term fitness goals in mind throughout the process.

Are you feeling inspired to run a marathon? Whether you’re a seasoned runner or just starting, training for a marathon is a fantastic way to improve your fitness level, boost your mood and connect with other like-minded individuals — and getting started is easier than you might think. We spoke with Physiatrist and sports medicine specialist Alexander Lloyd, M.D., to get his advice on how to train — from the first time you lace up your running shoes to the days and weeks after the race.

10 tips to get you through race day and beyond

Deciding to run a marathon is your first step toward the finish line. Your next step is building an effective and informed strategy to keep you motivated and moving toward your goal. Here are Dr. Lloyd’s top tips to get you closer to that exhilarating runner’s high, the thrill of race-day excitement and the incredible sense of confidence that finishing a marathon can bring.

1. Pace yourself

Running a marathon is an ambitious goal, but for inexperienced runners, it’s important to approach marathon training with smaller, achievable targets. Give yourself enough time to train (over the course of at least six months) and gradually build up your distance and intensity to give your body the opportunity to adapt and avoid overexertion.

“Setting short-term goals like running a 5K or a half marathon first can make it easier for your body to adapt appropriately and help you reach that longer-term goal of the marathon,” says Dr. Lloyd. “It is possible to go from couch to marathon, but you need to give your body the time it needs to train and adapt.”

2. Get enough rest

When starting a new running routine, you must schedule adequate time to rest and recover.

“If you are training for your first marathon, your body is attempting something it has never done before,” says Dr. Lloyd. “Often, new runners worry about their mileage or that they are not running enough, but they also need to think about intentionally setting aside days for rest.”

Dr. Lloyd adds that the repeated stress of continuing activity before your body fully recovers can make you more susceptible to serious injuries.

3. Prioritize nutrition

A balanced and nutritious diet of high-quality foods like fruits, vegetables and protein will support your marathon training goals.

“To run a marathon, you’ve got to be well-fueled and well-hydrated,” says Dr. Lloyd. “Make sure you get plenty of healthy calories and drink water or a sports drink immediately after a training session.”

One way to make sure you are getting the nutrients your body needs to train for a marathon is to eat three meals a day, along with two to four snacks that include complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats. Drink water throughout the day and follow the latest recommendations for how much water to drink.

4. Listen to your body

For both new runners and ambitious, seasoned runners, it can be challenging to tell the difference between normal discomfort and abnormal pain. If something doesn’t feel right, take a step back and give yourself a day or two before running again. The next time you run, the discomfort should be gone. If the pain persists, consider consulting a health care professional to ensure it’s safe to continue running.

“When pain persists despite taking a break or backing down on your training, it is worth talking to your provider to ensure that what you’re experiencing is within the normal realm of running aches and pains and doesn’t need additional care,” says Dr. Lloyd.

5. Fine-tune your goals

Experienced runners often have specific goals in mind. Maybe they’re running one marathon to qualify for another or training for a bucket-list marathon they’ve always wanted to run. But sometimes, you may need to adjust your goals to prevent injury and maintain overall well-being.

“Sometimes short-term goals need to be adjusted for your overall long-term health and longevity as a runner,” says Dr. Lloyd. “That might mean not quite getting the amount of training that you want or not being able to complete a race that you were hoping to complete.”

“Whether it’s an injury that you’re dealing with or a lot of stress in your life that’s preventing you from reaching your initial goals, learning how to adjust will protect your health and help you run more marathons in the future.”

6. Practice self-care

Runners often develop certain routines and rituals around rest and recovery that can help the body rebuild and get ready for the next run. Incorporate post-run activities that improve mobility and flexibility, like stretching, self-massage and foam rolling. Embrace what works for you.

Dr. Lloyd adds that sleep is also essential to self-care while training for a marathon.

“High-quality sleep is fundamental to recovery,” he says. “Make sure you’re giving yourself enough time at night to get the sleep you need to feel refreshed in the morning.”

7. Celebrate the race

After completing a significant race or achieving a milestone, take the time to celebrate and enjoy yourself. Don’t worry too much about immediate recovery protocols; instead, focus on doing things you enjoyed that you gave up during training.

“Take a few moments to enjoy what it feels like to be done with the race and to be around friends or family who may have come to support you,” says Dr. Lloyd. “Decompress, relax and have fun.”

Runners, especially first-time marathoners, should expect to feel sore the week after a marathon.

“It is normal to feel beat up after a marathon — you’ve just done a huge thing with your body,” says Dr. Lloyd. “Try not to compare yourself to more experienced runners; they are feeling it, too. They just know what to anticipate after the race.”

8. Work with a coach

Hiring a marathon coach can be invaluable if you’re serious about running and want personalized guidance. They can help you create a tailored training program based on your goals and offer advice on nutrition, recovery and race strategy.

“Having a coach to help you navigate the training process can be helpful, especially if you’re just getting into running and want to do a lot more of it,” says Lloyd. “Fortunately, there are a lot of different training programs, coaches and clubs out there to fit just about anyone’s preferences, whether you want to work with someone in person or online. Just ensure they have experience working with runners like you and feel comfortable customizing the plan to fit your unique needs.”

9. Stay focused on your why

Marathon training is a long process, and maintaining motivation can sometimes be challenging. It can help to identify and even write down why you want to complete a marathon. Some examples might include improved health and fitness or social or emotional motivations.

Revisiting your reasons why during training can help you push through training slumps and challenging days and give you ongoing inspiration to get out and run. And remember, you don’t always have to complete a race to reach those goals. Training alone might help improve your health, for example, even if something keeps you from making it to race day.

10. Set realistic next steps after race day

Once you have one marathon under your belt, what’s next? Dr. Lloyd advises that runners assess their current fitness level and the time of year to set realistic short-term and long-term goals after the marathon. Consider whether you can tackle a shorter race without much additional training, if you need time to recover, or if you’re ready to design a new training plan for future events.

“If I just ran a marathon, maybe I’m in good enough shape to run a 10K or a half marathon without having to do much more work,” says Dr. Lloyd. “But if I’m running a late-season marathon, it might be my last race of the year and recovering from a busy season or planning for the upcoming year is probably more important than squeezing in an unplanned race.”

Learn more and find a provider who can help you train

Running is a journey that requires patience, dedication and smart decision-making. The experts at Swedish Sports, Spine and Musculoskeletal Medicine can help you.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. For urgent, walk-in or after-hours care, visit one of Swedish Urgent Care facilities. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

After his family’s tragedy, a Swedish caregiver logs miles to save lives

Tips from a Swedish sports doc to help you train like a pro athlete

Gym rat or weekend warrior? Here’s some advice for sports injury prevention.

That twinge is telling you something. Don’t ignore back pain.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

Follow us on FacebookInstagram and X

Previous Article
Understanding polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
Understanding polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)

Learn what a reproductive health expert at Swedish has to say about polycystic ovary syndrome — a metabolic...

Next Article
New residency program addresses OB/GYN shortage
New residency program addresses OB/GYN shortage

With a groundbreaking program at Swedish, first-year residents are leading change in their field.