Close this search box.

Marathon training philosophy for novice runners

Marathon training season is here, and I’ve got a simple plan you can follow to prepare for your first half- or full-marathon race.
Marathon Training

Marathon training philosophy for the novice runner 

The 2020 and 2021 race seasons were awash with postponements and cancellations due to Covid-19. I’m not convinced we’re at a point where we’ll see a return to full capacity races in 2022, however, race event organizers everywhere are preparing for the season, regardless. So lace up your runners and dust off your race-day outfits because I’ve got a training philosophy for your first half- or full-marathon race that’s easy to follow if you’re training alone.

Before you throw yourself into marathon prep, be sure to check with your healthcare professional for the official okay. Any marathon training is grueling and you’ll want to be sure your health is up to the task. This plan is not a weightloss plan. In fact, you must fuel your body with enough dense nutritional calories to endure the mileage you’ll put on your body. You’ll burn as much as 1,200 calories in just one run, so before you start training for your marathon you first need to learn how to fuel for it.

If you’ve been sidelined for an injury, chances are you’re trying to recondition your body to endure a simple three-mile run. After an injury, it can be tough to get back into running shape to conquer those neighborhood runs, let alone for a half- or full-marathon distance. 

Our bodies have their own way of letting us know when it’s time for a rest. A non-life-threatening injury is just that. My injuries have included persistent hip flexor and IT band problems since the 2019 season, which I’ve finally overcome recently. I’m slowly getting my legs under me to accumulate the necessary miles for my weekly long runs. 

This basic training philosophy, along with some tips to keep you focused, will give you an edge on your first half- or full-marathon race. Apart from that, make sure you’re well rested, fueled, and healthy.

Tips for marathon race prep

Distance Tracker
I use my phone as well as my Apple Watch to track my activity, including my miles.

Before you start your journey, take this into consideration: time is crucial in every marathon training program. You’ll be spending a massive chunk of your free time running in any plan. Think about how much time your marathon preparation will take before you dig in.

Because the half- and full-marathon distances are considerable, the training schedule I propose is on a progression-run timetable. If you’re new to a distance longer than a 10K (6.22 miles), you’ll need at least 10-16 weeks to prepare for a half marathon. Similarly, if you’re new to the full-marathon distance, I suggest at least 18-23 weeks to train. 

You must give yourself enough time to add one mile per week to your long runs, ten to fifteen minutes per week to your tempo runs, and enough time for the tapering phase. That means you’ll be marathon training for nearly six months. So, pick a race date and count backwards to today to make sure you have enough time to train. 

You’ll need at least two pairs of good running shoes in which to train; I typically train with four pairs. I suggest you go to your local running store to find the perfect pair for your feet.

It’s important to train with the same type of gear you plan to use on race day. Same thing goes for any fuel gels you want to ingest on your run. In general, you want to make sure you train with all the products you want to use on race day. You don’t want any mid-race surprises. 

A distance tracker or running watch is also good to use for both training and race day. These serve as a guide to how far you’ve gone and how much farther you have to go. On race day, there might not be mile markers. Some race courses only provide markers every five, ten, fifteen, and so on kilometers along the course. Those will feel much farther apart as you go. I suggest you use a specialized running watch which can help you to pace yourself and keep track of your miles. See my post on fitness trackers for more information.

Cris at the Zoo Miami 5K race.
At the Zoo Miami 5K race.

To get over first-day jitters for a timed race, try racing in shorter-distance races. These are great races get you accustomed running in a pack with other runners. A 5K is great for this because it’s short and sweet, and not that many people run them. Marathons tend to bring all runners out of the woodwork.

Marathon training components

There are five major components to help you train for long-distance races, all of which are nonnegotiable. The first three components include the training runs: speed intervals/tempo runs, long runs, and recovery runs. The fourth component for a healthy and successful program is cross-training. The fifth is rest. Be sure to fit at least one rest day per week into your training! Two to three weeks before race day will be reserved for tapering. 

Training runs

The three essential training runs must be incorporated into your routine every single week. If you can’t complete at least three runs in one week, your stamina to complete the necessary mileage on long run days—not to mention on race day—will suffer. The order of the runs isn’t as important as the runs themselves. The pace of these four runs is what’s most important and that they are completed within a week.

The pace is measured by the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. This scale is used to measure your perceived intensity for a physical activity. From one to ten—one being a minimum RPE effort or a slow jog and ten being the maximum RPE effort or an all out sprint. Speed intervals should fall toward the higher end of the RPE scale. Tempo runs should stay consistently between an effort of seven and eight. This is a hard exertion but certainly not a sprint. Long runs should peak at an effort of about four to six, and recovery runs should be a slow and steady pace of about two to three on the RPE scale. 

If you’re not an elite runner, your race-day marathon pace should be somewhere around four or five on the RPE scale. It should feel comfortable, but you won’t be able to carry on much of a conversation. You’re working toward a pace that’s comfortable enough to endure for a few hours.

To find out what your goal pace should be on race day, first be realistic about the amount of time you want to spend running in one stretch. As of 2021, no one has completed an official marathon in less than two hours. In fact, elite athlete Eliud Kipchoge ran the fastest marathon recorded in 2:01:39, with a pace of 4:38.4 per mile. Given that, if you’re not interested in running for more than two hours at a time, I suggest you sign up for a half marathon instead.

Consider running one mile as fast as you can to calculate your pace-per-mile. This technique will help you decipher what your goal marathon pace should be. With proper training, newcomers to running can expect to complete a full marathon in less than five hours and a half marathon in about two and a half hours, using an average pace of 10-11 minutes per mile.

Speed intervals, high impact interval training (HIIT), and tempo runs

My running week starts on Mondays with speed or tempo runs, running every other day to give my hips, legs, and feet time to recover. I alternate speed intervals and tempo runs on Mondays. So the first and third Mondays of the month I do speed intervals, cross-training, and end with five to ten minutes of stretching. Second and fourth Mondays are for tempo runs and light cross-training such as barre or pilates.

Speed interval runs

Speed Runs
100- and 250-meter sprints

Speed intervals are spurts of intense runs at a short distance; sprints. They are repeated at least five to ten times within a period of about 20-30 minutes. These runs are also referred to as HIIT runs. The high-intensity effort of these runs should be progressive through to the last interval. By the last interval, your pace should evolve into an all out sprint, or a ten on the RPE scale.

Start your speed work with an effort of no less than seven on the scale. The intervals should last between 30 and 60 seconds or go for a distance ranging from 100-250 and 300-450 meters. Increase the effort from seven to eight RPE. The last three intervals should be at an effort of eight, nine, and ten respectively.

Alternate speedwork distances. Start with a distance of 100-250 meters. The next speed day, try a 300- to 450-meter distance.

Speed intervals will prepare your mind and body to work hard during endurance runs like the tempo run. Endurance will enable you to add a mile every week until you reach the race-day mileage without enervating the leg muscles.

Tempo runs

Tempo runs are an excellent way to shake out the lactic acid build up in the legs and increase circulation. I go on a 45- to 60-minute tempo run. Try to sustain a faster-than-average pace for the duration of the run. It should not be a sprint, however. Tempo runs improve your mind and body’s ability to push past your comfort zone at longer distances. It should be comfortably uncomfortable at seven to eight on the RPE scale.

The distance for your tempo run is less relevant than the pace because you’re trying to endure a quick pace for at least 45 minutes. Once you get used to running a 45-minute tempo run, you can increase your time from 45 to 50 to 60 minutes. The distance should be anywhere from four to six miles, depending on your pace.

Long runs

Long runs are a grueling but necessary evil. I run mine on Wednesdays or Thursdays, depending on how fatigued my legs are. I’ve found that, if you’re new to any kind of marathon training, the best way to tackle the long run is to settle on a very slow pace; an effort of three to four on the RPE scale. This is especially useful for new runners or those who don’t usually race long distances.

Full-marathon training philosophy doesn’t require incorporating all 26.2 miles in your training routine. Most programs I’ve researched progressively add miles until 20-22 miles are reached. Half-marathon race training, however, should incorporate the entire 13.1-mile distance. 

At the end of a long run, it’s best to keep your legs moving for at least a few minutes with a brisk walk. This keeps blood flowing. Sitting or inactivity after a long run can result in lactic acid buildup in your leg muscles; that’s the throbbing or sometimes burning feeling in your thigh and calf muscles. I suggest taking a cool-down class, or if you’re running outdoors, consider a five-minute brisk walk.

Staying focused on your long runs

The long run helps you focus on the task at hand: finishing the marathon on race day. Your mind can be your most fervent supporter or your most pessimistic adversary. To get you through all the miles you’ll be running, your mind must be aligned with your goals. If it’s not, you’ll have a mutiny of body parts before you finish your long run, or worse, it’ll happen on race day.

I go on guided runs to get my mind focused on my goal of finishing the day’s run. There are a number of apps available providing entertaining guidance. I use the Peloton digital and the Nike Run Club apps. Both provide timed guidance with enthusiastic running coaches that include background music. Peloton provides more choices for coaches, music genre, and timing than NRC, but they’re both equally inspiring.

Listen to an audiobook or a curated music playlist to stay focused. I created an upbeat, encouraging playlist for myself that starts off with the song that plays during the explosion of the Great Sept of Baelor in Game of Thrones and includes artists like Pitpull, Demi Lovato, Ricky Martin, and JLo. 

The point is for your brain to focus on something other than the constant drumming of your feet pounding the pavement. Your runs should be interesting, but if you’re able to focus your thoughts on something positive during these long runs, by all means, go for it. Some elite athletes don’t use anything at all to distract them from the run itself. Their focus is consistent and usually on attaining perfect splits.

Recovery run

When I say you will welcome the recovery run with arms wide open, I’m not being facetious. You’ve just completed two difficult runs, and your body will need the recovery run to keep the blood circulating. Your recovery runs also help boost your lungs’ aerobic capacity.

This run should be a slow and easy run. Begin with three miles. Once you’ve built your distance tolerance to about six or seven miles, you can increase your recovery run mileage by a quarter mile each week. My recovery runs are half the distance of my long run for that week.


Cross-training is important in a balanced marathon training program. For me, it’s any kind of activity that will help my hips get strong enough to cover numerous miles. It’s also essential for keeping the less-utilized leg muscles in shape and avoiding injury.

As I mentioned before I have issues with my hips. My problem is primarily focused on the iliotibial tract (IT band), the thick bunch of fibers that run from the outer hips down toward the knee. It’s an issue that often develops from a lack of cross-training.

Running mostly engages the quad, hamstring, and calf muscles because humans usually move in a forward direction. Lateral leg exercises help to strengthen the lateral leg muscles. Those muscles must work together with the anterior and posterior muscles to run efficiently. 

Barre, pilates, core strength training, and yoga are excellent routines to incorporate on your cross-training days as well on active rest days. These routines strengthen the lateral leg muscles that don’t often get used during running.

As I mentioned before, cross-training is an essential component for marathon training.  If you don’t find a way to incorporate side-to-side resistance training, you risk injury. I’ve learned this last bit the hard way. Before, I only included light weight training into my running routine because I’d been more focused on improving my times than improving my form. 

I’ve since balanced my training with enough focus on lateral movement in my cross-training routine. Consistent lateral leg exercises strengthen the fast-twitch muscle fibers on the outside of the legs to improve running form. A great example of this is when soccer players run lateral running drills during practice to stay between their goal and an advancing opposing player without losing sight of the ball.

Adding weight-bearing exercise to your training is also beneficial. I combine deadlifts with sumo squats, burpees, side and curtsy lunges, speed skaters, and carioca running drills (lateral shuffle) in my cross-training. They are easy movements to do outdoors and take about 10-15 minutes to complete. I also incorporate cross-training workouts on my speed interval day since it’s my shortest run. Except for my long run days, I usually don’t spend more than an hour and a half on my workouts.

Rest Days

Rest days are key to avoid injuries, recover from intense workouts, and prevent mental burnout. The body needs time to recover and repair itself from all the training you put it through during the week. What I do on my rest days always depends on the kind of week I’ve had, how many miles I’ve covered, and how much stress cross-training has put on my muscles. 

There are two types of rest days: active and inactive. Active rest is low impact exercises like walking, swimming, stretching, or an easy, low intensity cycling class. These activities keep your heart rate going without putting undue stress on muscle fiber, giving it time to mend.

Inactive rest days are just that. After an especially intense week of running and cross-training, it might be a good idea to take the next day off and do nothing. A full day’s rest gives your muscle fiber time to repair the micro-tears that come from running. Runners training for a full marathon should think about including an inactive rest day in their training. It’s the best way to re-energize your mind and body for the next high intensity workout.

I might climb on the Peloton bike for a 20-minute, low impact ride, take slow flow yoga class, or do absolutely nothing on my rest day. It all depends on how you feel.

Tapering phase

Tapering comes at the end of your training. For shorter races like the 5K and 10K, tapering your runs doesn’t typically produce added value. Tapering, or shortening your training distance as you get closer to your race date, is more beneficial to a runner racing in distances of a half marathon or more.

The shorter the race, the shorter the phase for tapering. A half marathon will require about two weeks of shorter long runs, and three weeks for a full marathon. The benefits of tapering increase with longer races. In the tapering phase, you should also ease the load on your cross-training workouts.

The purpose of tapering is to get to the startline well rested, recovered, and ready to achieve your goals for your race.

Useful apps for distance training

There are countless training apps that complement running. At last check on the Apple App Store, there are more than enough distance training apps from which to choose. One noteworthy app is Footpath, which maps out your running route, including distances and turn-by-turn directions. I’ve yet to use it, but noticed it when researching this article. The apps I like using are described below.

Nike Training

Nike has a companion app, Nike Training Club, which compliments the Nike Run Club. Both apps are free to use and can be a great starting point for those new to long-distance running. Nike Run Club has changed through the years, offering less distance training for free. In 2017, they offered training for all distances, even 5Ks. Today, Nike only offers a get-back-into-running plan and a half-marathon plan. Along with Nike Run Club, you’ll need to download the training app because run club incorporates cross-training directly from the Nike Training Club app. I haven’t found a better app combo yet. Nike Run Club is fully compatible with the Apple Watch, which also lets you change your display to fit your preferences.

Apple Fitness+

Apple Fitness+ has a tiered-price subscription plan. It can be activated as a stand-alone app or as part of the Apple One bundle. Since I use all things Apple, including cloud computing and music, I subscribe to the Apple One Premier plan that includes all six Apple services. Apple Fitness+ has a smorgasbord of training options, and new this year is the Time to Run guided runs with their fitness instructors guiding you on a run through their hometown. These runs are neat because the instructors share photos of the destination on your Apple Watch.

Apple Fitness+ integrates seamlessly with all other Apple products. The catch is that it only works if you own an Apple Watch. But if you buy one, Apple offers a three-month free trial of Apple Fitness+; you get one month free if you already own an Apple Watch. My favorite experience with the fitness app is on the Apple TV. Along with the larger screen, the Apple Fitness+ shows your stats prominently on the top left of the TV screen, so you never have to take your eyes off your instructor.

Peloton Digital

Peloton offers an array of cross-training workouts and curated programs on their digital app to get you going. For a nominal monthly digital subscription fee, you can get a well-rounded workout without buying any of their expensive equipment. This is great if you’re on a budget or if you already have access to gym equipment like a spin bike or a treadmill. 

They even offer a three-part full-marathon training program, complete with cross-training workouts that include strength training geared for runners. Each program is six weeks long, so you’ll be training with them over an 18-week period.

I started training on the Peloton digital app with an iPad and an old Schwinn Spin Bike. I loved the workout I got with the app so much that I bought a second-hand bike. If only I had space in my house and the extra cash in my pocket for the Tread—it looks amazing! But with a price tag starting at $2,495, I’ll stick to getting my running from the great outdoors and jumping on the Bike+ for everything else. 

One annoying drawback with my Peloton bike, though, is that the Apple Watch will pick up the bike for cycling classes only. It won’t pick up bike bootcamp or any of the other workouts when using the bike as I had hoped. The other class types will work with the Apple Watch from the digital app on the iPhone. 

Along with their considerable digital content, Peloton has just added boxing to their repertoire. Boxing is a phenomenal option as an add-on to your cross-training workouts. Not only does it get you moving from side to side, it’s also an excellent cardio exercise if you want an active rest day.

Good luck on your training and subsequent races, and be sure to check out my posts on training apps and reviews on running shoes and fitness trackers. I’m in the middle of my own half-marathon training. I plan to run the Miami Marathon on February 6 and the 305 Half Marathon on March 6.

I’ll also be on the lookout for more local, short-distance races before the summer cuts my outdoor running in half. If you have any suggestions for local races I can join, please comment below.

You can follow my training progress on Instagram and on Peloton at @crisascunce.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Sign up for Updates!

Get author event invites, updates, and news on upcoming novels!