How to train for your first marathon : Life Kit A running coach and athlete with a background in exercise science shares tips on building your mileage and finishing your first race injury-free.

Yes, you can run a marathon! Here's how to start training

Yes, you can run a marathon! Here's how to start training

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
NPR journalist, podcast host and marathon-runner Emily Kwong demonstrates running to show how she trains for a marathon.
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

For the longest time, I thought only certain people could run a marathon.

Skinny people. Athletic people. Bulky men. I am none of these things.

But last year, I became a marathoner. My two feet carried me 26.2 miles at the Baltimore Running Festival, as well as dozens of miles in marathon training, across months of slow-and-steady effort. The process of preparing for a marathon taught me lessons for the rest of my life. And actually running one? Changed it.

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During my marathon, I saw all kinds of people running and wheelchair racing, putting their training to the test before cheering crowds and volunteers who kept the oranges replenished. Seeing humanity come together – striving for something physically difficult but not impossible – was truly powerful. And I'm here to say: If you have the desire to experience this for yourself, you can.

"If you have the will and the ability to train, most people can run a marathon," says Laura Norris, a certified running coach with a background in exercise science.

Norris has trained over 200 runners, from first-timers to Boston Qualifiers to ultrarunners. Her ethical ethos is to coach her runners as people first, and runners second.

"I'm never going to be the coach who really pushes an athlete super hard in a single training cycle," she says. "And maybe they have a lot of breakthroughs, but then they are burnt out or they're injured, or they have low energy availability and overtraining. I never want that to happen to anyone."

Together, Norris and I have mapped out a means for you first-time marathoners to build your mileage and finish your race injury-free. Read on for tips on how to safely, efficiently train for a marathon, or listen to the episode at the top of the page.

Emily demonstrates a typical run through the city. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Emily demonstrates a typical run through the city.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Build your running foundation (and your leg muscles) through base training

Start with six to 12 weeks of base training. Investment in base training gives your lungs and legs a solid foundation on which to build. Norris says this can also reduce your risk for injury, allowing your body to transform slowly and steadily. (For more on the science behind this transformation, listen to the podcast at the top of the page.)

The goal is to get comfortable running three to four times a week, with your longest run being roughly 5 or 6 miles. Pushing yourself too far too fast could result in injuries, so make sure to take your time: you can start by running 1 or 1.5 miles and build up week after week.

And remember that it's okay to walk! The run-walk-run method, taking walk breaks during your run to pace yourself, works really well for some people. This method is how I got off the couch and started running as an adult myself.

A photograph of Emily and her sister Amanda Kwong running a marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival in 2021, surrounded by Emily's trusty running shoes, energy gel chews, a medical ID bracelet and her crab medal from the marathon. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

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Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

A photograph of Emily and her sister Amanda Kwong running a marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival in 2021, surrounded by Emily's trusty running shoes, energy gel chews, a medical ID bracelet and her crab medal from the marathon.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Commit to a race and come up with a registration plan

Don't let the word "race" alarm you! While some are competing against other runners or their personal records, you can work with your own mission statement. For my first marathon, I had a simple goal: FINISH with a smile and no injuries.

A lot of marathons take place in the fall, so you're just in time to decide if this is something you want to commit to. Depending on how much you run now, it can take about four to six months to train.

Scope out a local marathon in your state, or maybe a destination marathon in a place you'd like to travel to. Do your research now, and come up with a registration plan: some marathons fill up quickly, while some rely on a lottery entry.

Choose a training plan that's safe, sustainable and motivating

Once you've completed your base training, look for a training program that lasts about four months, or 14 to 16 weeks. Week-to-week, the plan should guide you to increase the mileage of your long run (which we will explain below) by no more than 10 to 15% a week.

Norris suggests prioritizing three things in order to train for your marathon safely:

1. Look for a plan where the majority of your runs are at an easy pace.

"This means running at this effort that you can carry on a conversation at," says Norris – a pace at which you should be able to get through "at least a couple sentences without having to stop and gasp for breath." This might mean using walk intervals to maintain this level of effort.

As you increase your mileage, your body becomes more efficient at producing energy through a series of physical adaptations that occur during low-intensity training. Your body is transforming, and that takes time.

"Keeping [most, if not all of your runs] easy also lowers your risk of injury," Norris adds.

My training plan, which my sister created, had me running four times a week, including a long run on Saturdays. Most training plans will have you complete a long run one day a week, and shorter runs the rest of the week to build strength.

Doing most of these runs at an easy pace can keep your training sustainable, making your relationship to your training program a positive one. Completing the run instills confidence, and confidence is what will carry you across the finish line on race day. The adage "life is a marathon, not a sprint" applies!

2. Incorporate strength training into your plan.

It's common for runners to have biomechanical irregularities, where one part or one side of their body is stronger than the other. "Running is a very highly repetitive motion. If you have muscle weaknesses, you're probably going to get injured," says Norris.

Strength training "brings everything into balance, and it decreases your injury risk," she says. "It also is shown repeatedly by research to improve your running economy, which simply means that you need less oxygen to produce energy at the same pace, so you're running more efficiently."

Another form of "strength training" I found effective? Letting your friends and family know about your marathon dream. My sister, a 10-time marathoner, was my running coach and kept me company on some of the long runs. Friends sent me virtual cheers during the race to keep my spirits high. Crossing that finish line would not have been possible without my community behind me.

3. Fuel your body properly.

In a race, a lot of runners hit a wall around mile 18 or 20, when their bodies run out of glycogen. To avoid that, Norris says, fuel is key.

"Glycogen is stored carbohydrates in your muscles. And when you run out of glycogen, your body can't support that energy production as well, and it shifts to just using fatty acids. But that's a slower process, so you literally are forced to slow down," says Norris. "That's why we have all these gels and chews and sports drinks on the market. They're there for a reason."

Don't just lean on those gels and chews during your marathon though – take them when you're training, especially during your long runs. Taking supplements, and consuming 30 to 50 grams of carbs per hour, will help prevent your body from breaking down your muscles for energy.

Get your Rs: Rest, Recovery and the Right Gear

You don't need much besides shoes to start running. But having some accessories can make training for a marathon a lot easier. Here are some of Emily's go-tos: cold weather gear (like a warm hat), reflective accessories so you're visible to drivers, water bottle or hydration pack, a good sports bra, something to help with chafing and accessories to help you roll out your muscles. Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

You don't need much besides shoes to start running. But having some accessories can make training for a marathon a lot easier. Here are some of Emily's go-tos: cold weather gear (like a warm hat), reflective accessories so you're visible to drivers, water bottle or hydration pack, a good sports bra, something to help with chafing and accessories to help you roll out your muscles.

Photo Illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR

Norris has all of her athletes take at least one rest day per week – two, if they're especially injury-prone.

Taking a rest day means not running or working out at all, so no biking, no lifting weights or cross-training. Stretch instead (and you should be stretching every day anyway)!

Norris says walks are okay, but the goal is muscle recovery. "You want to let your body, your muscles and your heart repair that day so that you can keep training and be fully recovered going into your next block of training."

Running a marathon is an investment of time and money. If you're going to spend your hard-earned dollars somewhere, it's worth investing in an excellent pair of running shoes. As Norris says, "it's much cheaper to buy a new pair of shoes than to go visit a physical therapist."

Other running gear Norris and I recommend:

  • Hydration vests can be super helpful on hot days, your long runs, and during the marathon itself. Note: Some races don't allow you to wear them! Check the rules!
  • Gels, chews, or another form of carbohydrate-rich fuel.
  • Good running socks to help you avoid blisters and protect your toenails.
  • Sunscreen and maybe a visor. Protect your skin and eyes! 
  • An excellent running bra and clothes that wick moisture away.
  • An anti-chafing balm. (If you know, you know.)
  • A personal safety device. In the past, I've run with my medical information on a bracelet and a personal safety app, settings activated on my phone. 
  • For after your run, a protein shake and some yummy self-massage tools to roll out your muscles.

On race day, trust your training and savor the moment

Invite your friends and family, in-person or virtually, and trust your training. Marvel at your strength and determination as you cross that finish line with your head held high. You got this.


The podcast portion of this story was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with fact-checking support from Katie Sypher.

We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

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Correction March 4, 2022

A previous version of the podcast audio stated that zinc oxide in sunscreen can keep you cool. We deleted this as we were unable to find conclusive studies to support it.