Once you’ve taken the plunge and signed up to run a marathon, it’s important to organise your training plan as quickly as possible. Both body and mind are challenged in the hours required to travel 42.2km on foot but if you arrive at the start line prepared, it can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences.

You need to make sure you pick the right training plan for your target – and fortunately there are all kinds of marathon plans available. We enlisted James Heptonstall, captain of Adidas Runners London, to provide some advice on picking and adhering to a training plan – and to create three manageable plans based on different targets and levels of experience.

JUMP TO: Beginner Plan | Intermediate Plan | Advanced Plan

How do you know what marathon time you should aim for?

“If it’s your first ever marathon it’s best to get an idea as you progress through the training of what pace you can sustain on your longer runs, then extrapolate from that. So if you can maintain 6min/km on long runs, you are likely to sustain that for the full marathon distance, and you’d be looking at 4hr 13min.

“If you have run a marathon or even a half marathon before you should have a feel for what is achievable. Look at kilometre pacing tables to see what you would have to do to hit a target time.”

Why is it important to do different kind of runs in training?

“Rather than just putting in distance, variety in training – be it interval, easy pace or hills – keeps it enjoyable. It also will make you a better runner: as you are pushing yourself more in intervals and hill sessions, you will improve your lactate threshold and aerobic capacity, making you more comfortable running at a faster pace.”

How do I fit all this running in around other commitments?

“Fitting in the sessions is always difficult with work and other commitments, plus the lack of light in the winter months. For most people, Saturday and Sunday provide the most time to get that long run in. Other, shorter sessions can be done Monday to Friday, either in the morning or at lunchtime if your work has shower/changing facilities, and then after work.

“You can even turn your commute into a training session by running rather than driving or taking public transport. The key is planning: work out the logistics and put the sessions in a diary. Then make sure you are prepared, so prep food and keep running kit at work to make sure the sessions are always easy to do and not stressful.”

How important is warming up before each session?

“Your runs should be preceded by an active warm-up, which involves things like skips, side skips, high knees, heel flicks, dynamic stretches and gentle strides. For the core sessions in these plans, try and do five to ten minutes of cycling, running or rowing beforehand, then warm down with a five-minute jog.”

Do I need to do anything on rest days?

“Rest days must be adhered to, but they can include active recovery, such as 20 minutes of easy swimming or cycling. Or try a five-minute ice bath followed by hot shower held over your legs for 30 seconds. Also, try to use a foam roller after running sessions and, if your budget allows, have weekly massages.

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“To keep yourself in tip-top shape, it’s also a good idea to do some static stretching for 20 minutes each day. On training days, make sure you do that after the run or core sessions.”

You can choose from Heptonstall’s three training plans (beginner, intermediate and advanced) on the following pages.

However, before you head on to choose a training plan, it’s worth taking a moment to review our marathon checklist, below, which contains the questions every runner should ask of themselves when preparing for the big day.

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Marathon Training Checklist

Is your training programme working for you?

Starting a training plan is one thing, but finishing it takes a certain amount of dedication, plus flexibility, says Nick Anderson, a Saucony ambassador and England Athletics “flying coach” (part of a programme that sends top coaches to work directly with local clubs). “The real key to any plan is tailoring it to fit with your life, fitness and own personal goals,” he says.

“Don’t try to play catch-up or build too quickly if training was missed,” says Anderson. “Instead, be consistent and progressive and make sure your long run is building by ten to 15 minutes most weeks. Don’t worry about marathon pace feeling a little quick early on – there is time for that to fall into place.”

Of course, combative weather and short, cold winter days can make just getting out of the door the hardest test. “To help stay motivated try and run with others, mix up the sessions or try completing some of your shorter sessions on a treadmill in the gym. Try to build your running into your day rather than trying to fit your day around running,” says Maxinutrition nutritionist Gareth Nicholas.

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What are you doing besides running to get in shape?

If you’re new to running, you may not have realised that efficient, injury-free runners don’t get that way simply by running. A strong core and stabilising muscles around your joints require conditioning. “Exercises like strength training and yoga or Pilates can all be beneficial supplements to add into your training plan,” says Nicholas.

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Neglect this area of your training and you’re storing up trouble. “Typically, February and March are the heaviest months of training for an April marathon, but it’s also the time when lots of runners also pick up injuries,” says Richard Nerurkar, ex-Olympic marathon runner and author of Marathon Running: From Beginner To Elite.

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To prevent injury, there are key bodyweight moves that you can do, including one-legged squats, press-ups and pull-ups, but everyone has individual biomechanics so you should also get a running strength MOT from a strength and conditioning expert or physio and get them to recommend some exercises to you. “A good physio should be able to identify weakness through a serious of key tests,” says Anderson.

Have you considered cross-training to burn fat and increase fitness?

Cross-training – training for several sports, not getting on the cross-trainer at the gym – can give you a respite from running-specific fatigue while boosting aerobic fitness and burning fat, but only with the right sport.

“Sports such as tennis and football are better avoided in your build-up to reduce the risk of injury from lateral movement [tennis] or physical contact [football]. By contrast, swimming and cycling could usefully supplement your training and provide a break from running,” says Nerurkar.

Have you optimised your diet to support your training and recovery after?

Running is only part of the story of getting fitter. What you do to fuel your training and, more importantly, recover will determine the progress you make. Nicholas has the basic recipe: “A general diet for running should be predominantly carbohydrate-based at approximately 60%, with 15-20% being protein and 20-25% coming from fat.” That’s the fundamentals, but what about the recovery phase? “The aim should be to help return the body back to pre-exercise levels. Replenish your energy stores, rehydrate and repair damaged muscle tissue,” says Nicholas.

You’ll also need to fuel your training if your run goes over one hour. “Consume in excess of a gram of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight per hour.” Then, after exercise, refuel with carbs and 15-20g of protein. “Do this within 60 minutes of running and drink approximately 150% of the water lost as sweat during running.” Work this out by weighing yourself after running.

Are you staying well hydrated?

Getting dehydrated can punish your performance, so make sure you follow three quick rules: “First, aim to be hydrated before you start and drink at least half a 500ml sports or water bottle,” says Nicholas. “Second, drink a quarter of an average sports or water bottle every 10-15 minutes as you run. Third, aim to maintain a body water loss of less than 2%.”

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Have you identified the pre-marathon races you need to enter?

“Part of the confidence of racing well comes from knowing you have developed a pre-race routine,” says Nerurkar. But don’t think you absolutely have to tick off all the distances up to marathon before the big one arrives. “I would advise a ParkRun once a month and even a cross-country race or two until perhaps the final six to eight weeks,” says Anderson. “Sharpening up in the final few weeks with a 5km, 10km or similar is ideal because this will keep you in touch with pace and keep the VO2 engine tuned making you a stronger runner on marathon race day.”

Are you feeling under-confident?

Being a long-distance runner can be a lonely experience and it’s easy to lose confidence if you’re isolated. “Surrounding yourself as a runner with other positive and happy runners really helps. Training and then racing in a successful training group also builds confidence – you transfer the training mindset and belief into racing with the same people,” says Anderson.

Are you struggling with the discipline?

The endless cycle of train, recover, repeat can start to feel a bit like, well, a treadmill. “Take a break! Motivation is all-important. But so as not to lose fitness, spend part of your break considering how you could replace your usual training routine, either with an alternative form of exercise, or finding new training venues and running partners,” says Nerurkar.

“It doesn’t all have to be long, steady running,” adds Nicholas. “Try adding some hill reps, or go run in different locations. A change of scenery can keep your running interesting.”

Do you keep getting colds?

The chances are if you have a light cold, you may try to run through it – this can be dangerous. “During heavy training, the body’s immune system is temporarily suppressed, especially immediately after exercise where there is an ‘open window’ for infection,” says Nicholas. “Running when ill or not fully recovered could just add further complications – unfortunately, time off running is the only real practical remedy.” You might lose a little bit of fitness, but a few days off can leave you fully recovered and bouncing back strongly. 

NEXT: Beginner Marathon Training Plan