A super simple marathon training plan

Photo by Capstone Events on Unsplash

This is a super simple training plan that I used when I trained for my first marathon. Obviously, the same plan can be adapted to a half marathon, 10k, or whatever. I won’t share the whole training plan, just the basic information so you get the idea. I used an app for my training — unfortunately, I can’t recall the name. I’m sure there are a ton of different ones out there that you can use. In my opinion, apps are good for keeping you accountable as you see what workouts you’ve done and what you should do next.

Make a plan

Pick a race you want to do and count the weeks between the race and the current date. There’s your timeline. Next, assess your current base fitness. Have you been running at all? Or are you starting from scratch? Based on those two variables, you’ll know how much you should increase your training each week.

For my first race, I had 16 weeks (which I think it’s a pretty common number to go by, without doing any research) to train. So that’s the number I’m going to use here.

I did three runs every week — they consisted of one long run, one tempo run, and one interval run. Let’s go through them:

Long runs

I set my base at 20 minutes. The goal was that my longest run should be 3 hours long, so the math was pretty simple: 16*10 = 160 minutes added to the base fitness which was 20 minutes = 180 minutes. So each week my run should increase by 10 minutes*, starting from 20 minutes. So the first week 20 minutes, the second week 30 minutes, etc. Please note that this increase might be a bit too much for some people in the beginning, but I knew that I could run for one hour when I started out but I wanted a soft start.

*with my current knowledge, I would adjust this slightly. The weekly increase shouldn’t be more than 10%. As mentioned, I started out “below” my fitness level, so this worked out pretty well for me — but for others, I would suggest making smaller increases at the beginning and bigger increases as you progress. So e.g. starting out at 3 minutes weekly increase in the beginning and progressing up to 20 minutes towards the end.

Plan your runs in time instead of distance. And if you have a heart-rate monitor, use it. This way, you will only focus on the time and heart rate and not the distance. The pace for the run should be really slow, at zone 2 heart rate. You should be able to keep a conversation during the run. The reason is that this way you will not overtrain and you will recover better. If you set out to run 10km and only focus on the distance, you might increase the speed at the end to get finish the run as soon as possible. We’ve all been there. And by focusing on pace, your heart rate might be a lot higher than it should be. There are a lot of things that affect your heart rate, so the pace-to-heart rate ratio will not always be the same. So by tracking the time and heart rate, you will make sure you stay on track (as 10 minutes is still 10 minutes, no matter the pace).

Why should the longest run be 3 hours? That was something I researched, and around 3 hours was what I mostly saw. I would say it was just “ok” for me, 3 hours and 20 minutes would probably have been better. I was running at around a 6 min/km pace, so in 3 hours I was running around 30 kilometers. My goal for the race was under 4 hours. So 3 hours got my legs used to running longer distances but left the excitement for the actual race. That would have been gone if I ran the marathon distance in training.

Tempo runs

There are many fancy and technical descriptions and instructions for tempo runs around the Internet, but I’ll keep it really simple here. Basically, tempo runs are shorter runs focusing on pace. The tempo pace should be fast, but not as fast as sprints. You should be able to keep the pace for at least 20 minutes. The heart rate should be around 85 to 90% of your maximum heart rate.

Let’s take an example (with some rounded numbers): like me, you want to finish the marathon in under 4 hours — that’s a 6min/km pace. Your pace on your long runs is currently at 6.30 min/km. Then your tempo run pace should be at 6min/km and a bit under. The duration of the run should roughly be about half of your long run. So if your long run is 2 hours long, your tempo run should be around 1 hour.

I’ve come across two different ways of structuring your tempo run:

  1. Slowly increase the pace throughout the run. Let’s take the numbers from the above example: you start out by running 20 minutes at an easy pace, the next 20 minutes at e.g. 6.15min/km pace, and the final 20 minutes at 5.50min/km pace.
  2. You mix between easy and tempo, e.g.: 10 min easy, 10 min at 6.10min/km, 5 min easy, 10 min at 6min/km, 5 min easy, 5 min at 5.45min/km, etc.

Keep in mind that these are just example paces, the goal with the tempo runs is to run hard but comfortably — you shouldn’t be sprinting.

Interval runs

Interval runs are short, maximum-effort runs. Personally, I usually do any of these:
1. Track sprints. This could be as easy as: 2 x 800m, 2 x 400m, 4 x 200m.
2. Hill sprints. Run up a hill X times or for X minutes.
3. Sprints during an easy run. E.g. a 30-minute easy run where I run as fast as possible for one minute every 5 minutes.

So, shorter distances as fast as possible and rest between sets. And remember to keep these workouts short.

Things to think about

  • Now, a few years and a lot of gained experience later, I would change those workouts to one long easy run, one tempo/interval run (change weekly between the two), and one “normal” easy run.
  • If you want to run four times instead of three, I suggest you add an easy and short “recovery” run. It will help you recover but still improve your base fitness.
  • Leg strength training will benefit you, but be aware of when and how you’re training. I suggest that you don’t lift super-heavy, and not the same day as you’re running (at least not before).
  • Experiment with different fuels, like energy gels/drinks, on your runs. Your stomach might not like them, and better to realize that when training and not during the race.

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Andreas Westerlund

Andreas Westerlund

Endurance athlete, digital nomad, nerd. Just a normal guy trying to figure out fitness, business, and life. https://www.andreaswesterlund.com