In this beginner’s guide to running your first marathon we cover everything from choosing the right race to training methods. You’ll also learn how to prepare the night before and what gear you’ll need. Continue reading below…
Thinking of running your first marathon? Your timing couldn’t be better! After logging thousands of miles over the past decade, I’ve consulted my running journals, reflected on my best and worst races, and compiled the information I wish had been available to me before running my first 26.2.
If you’re anything like me, the thought of running the length of 384.5 football fields makes you weak in the knees. Even now, after completing 15 marathons, 19 half marathons, and more than 50 shorter races, anxiety always sets in when I line up on race day.
If you’re a little (or a lot!) apprehensive about running your first marathon, the following information is sure to help you feel prepared and more confident. With that being said, some pre-race anxiety is completely normal. As author Neale Donald Walsch once said, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Keep in mind that the information in this guide is based on my personal experience and research. My hope is that you’ll find the info helpful and inspirational. I encourage you to check with your healthcare provider to ensure you are marathon-training ready.
Ready, set, let’s do this!
Training for Your First Marathon
The most important piece of advice I give first-time marathoners is to properly train. To ensure you’re prepared on race day, you’ll need several months of training.
Most marathon training plans for first-time marathoners include a training period of 16 to 24 weeks. Hal Higdon’s Novice 1 Program is an 18-week program that incorporates long runs, shorter runs, cross-training, and rest days weekly. I love Hal’s programs and have had particularly great success with his novice programs. Rather than purchasing the paid version, I print off the free training calendar and highlight each workout as I complete them.
Hal’s Novice Program is ideal for runners who are comfortable running at least 3 miles, 3 or more times per week. Week 1 includes a 6-mile long run, so if you are new to running, I’d recommend completing a couch to 5k program (at minimum) before starting a novice marathon training program. There are SO many couch to 5k options, many of which are 9-week programs. You can find couch to 5k apps for your phone, or you can print off a PDF calendar. There are even treadmill versions available.
One key piece of advice I wish someone had told me as a beginner runner: Listen to your body. There is absolutely nothing wrong with repeating a week of a training program or jumping ahead if you’re ready. When I started running, I diligently followed a couch to 5K program for 5 weeks, then one day, I turned off the app and just kept running. The vast majority of training programs don’t address individual circumstances. I was an athlete before becoming a runner, so 5 weeks into my couch to 5K training, I felt ready to begin training for my first half-marathon.
As your training runs increase in mileage, you’ll need more fuel before, during, and after each run and on race day. There are many gels, chews, and sports drinks on the market that are easy to consume while running. One of the best resources I’ve found on fueling for long runs is a comprehensive article published on the mapmyrun.com blog. You can find it here.
Signing Up for Your First Marathon
Many runners sign up for their first marathon as a source of motivation. Others wait until they are well into their training program to gauge their progress and determine when they’ll be ready to race. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my 10+ years of running is that running is just as much mental as it is a physical endeavour. I am anxious by nature, so signing up for a marathon that’s just 18 weeks out stresses me to the max. I want need some wiggle room in my training schedule, so I always give myself a few extra weeks of training because, let’s face it, life happens. I don’t think I’ve ever had a training cycle that has gone exactly as planned.
If you have never entered a race, I’d recommend running a 5K and/or a half-marathon before running your first marathon. I ran MANY 5Ks and a couple half-marathons before signing up for my first full marathon. Although every race is unique, it’s important (and fun!) to learn the ins and outs of racing before attempting 26.2 miles.
Even if a fellow runner has filled you in, or you have researched for hours online, nothing compares to the knowledge and excitement you’ll gain from participating in an actual race.
Choosing a Marathon
When people think of marathons, they often envision qualifying times and race lotteries, which can be downright intimidating. Rest assured that there are MANY beginner-friendly marathons all over the world. In fact, there are 717 scheduled marathons here in the U.S. alone in 2019. Check out runningintheusa.com for an interactive, up-to-date directory.
A few marathons known to be beginner-friendly include the San Francisco Marathon, the Newport Marathon in Newport, Rhode Island (which has no registration cap), and the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando, Florida (which features a relatively flat course and lots of fun entertainment throughout the course). If you don’t happen to live near a big city or the Magic Kingdom, no worries! The directory above allows you to search for upcoming races in your area.
Tracking Your Progress
If you’re anything like me, you’ll have moments of doubt during your training process. Even if you’ve never kept a diary or journal of any kind, I highly recommend logging your runs, especially during marathon training. Being able to look at your progress is extremely motivational and can help banish those doubtful moments.
My log of choice is the Believe Training Journal by running pros Lauren Fleshman and Roisin McGettigan-Dumas. The book includes weekly spreads to track your progress, a dedicated page for goal-setting, a pace chart, an annual calendar, plus workout recommendations, tips for mental toughness, and a slew of additional informational gems.
Gearing Up for Race Day
Although running isn’t insanely expensive compared to other sports, races can be pricy. Marathon entry fees can set you back up to $300, although smaller community marathons may charge as little as $20. If you want to run a marathon, you should definitely consider running the marathon for a worthy charitable cause.
Marathons around the world host tens of thousands of runners who choose to make their marathon experience more meaningful by running on behalf of a charity. Every year thousands of runners enter the London Marathon via a guaranteed charity entry. Whichever marathon you are interested in running, you can register online to run on behalf of an official charity.
You will need moisture-wicking, weather-appropriate clothing and comfortable, supportive running shoes. I also highly recommend picking up a running pouch belt and wireless headphones (if you plan to listen to music). I like to have water on-hand at all times, so for longer runs and races, I often use a hydration running belt that comes with two water bottles. The majority of marathons have aid stations set up along the course with water and/or sports drinks available to runners.
Don’t Skimp on Shoes
There’s no getting around it… You’ll need to invest in a good pair of running shoes. If at all possible, try out a variety of shoes at a store that specializes in running shoes. The staff will help you choose the right pair of shoes for your specific feet and needs. They’ll measure your feet, and they may perform a gait analysis on a treadmill.
I recommend shoe shopping in the late afternoon or evening, as feet tend to swell throughout the day—and they’ll most-certainly swell on race day.
You’ll want to log at least 50 miles in your new shoes before race day. Through my research, I’ve found that the “sweet spot” is anywhere from 50 to 150 miles. After 150 miles, running shoes begin to lose cushioning and support, both of which are essential on race day.
Additional note on footwear:
When trying on running shoes, wear the same type of socks you plan to wear for the marathon. Running shoe specialty shops sell socks designed for running, and typically have socks on-hand for customers to try. I prefer Balega socks, which I wear almost exclusively.
I learned a valuable lesson after making the last minute decision to wear my son’s knee-high baseball socks instead of my running socks in an effort to look “cute” for my first half-marathon. About a mile into the race, I could feel blisters forming on both feet, and by the end of the race, I was miserable. I will never prioritized cute over comfort for a race again!
I always wear my race day outfit for at least one test run to ensure there is no chafing, discomfort, etc. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll want to add 20 degrees to the expected temperature on race day, and dress accordingly. So, if the temperature at race time is supposed to be 70 degrees, you’ll actually want to wear an outfit you’d be comfortable in if it were 90 degrees outside. Runnersworld.com has a super cool interactive tool that will help you dress for race day depending on the temperature, weather conditions, wind, time of day, and the intensity you plan to run. It’s amazing—and completely free!
Most races start early in the day, and race day jitters may cause you to forget essential items at home, so be sure to lay everything out the night before the race. I use a race day checklist similar to the one below:
Marathon Packing Checklist
|o Running shoes
o Running socks (avoid cotton)
o Running shorts, cropped pants, or tights
o Sports bra
o Moisture-wicking tank or tee
o For cold temperatures: Jacket and/or arm warmers
o Throwaway gear (long sleeve shirt, pants, hat, and/or gloves you don’t mind ditching before the race. These items are typically donated to charity)
o Bag to hold gear
o Bib (filled out) & safety pins
o Timing chip
o Race information (address, directions, start time, etc.)
o Driver’s license or other identification
o Cash (bills are best)
o Running belt
|o Water bottles (filled)
o GPS watch
o Lip balm (preferably with sunscreen)
o Medications, including pain reliever
o Fuel (gel, chews, candy, etc.)
o Hair ties/hat/visor
o Post-race outfit to change into
o Post-race food and drinks
o For cold temperatures: A blanket, coat, hat, and gloves
o Anti-chafing stick or Vaseline
o Shoes and socks to change into
o Wet wipes
o Cellphone charger
The Night Before the Race
If you’re nervous in the days leading up to your marathon, you are certainly not alone! I experience a roller coaster of emotions before any big race, especially the day before. On the eve of a big race, I do the following:
- Check the weather forecast and plug the details into Runner’s World’s What to Wear Tracker.
- Get my race outfit/shoes/gear ready. I even pin my bib to my shirt the night before (unless I’m picking it up the morning of the race).
- Pack all of my necessities and check them off my list (see table above).
- Make sure my running playlist is ready to go.
- Fill my water bottles.
- Set a meeting place with fellow runners or friends and family for after the race.
The day has finally come! You’ve trained hard for this. Your body is ready, and your mind is ready. Set your alarm early, and gear up for one of the most amazing experiences of your life!
The Morning of the Race
I have a race day morning ritual, which helps me focus on the tasks at hand and alleviates some of my anxiety:
- Check the weather forecast one last time.
- Charge my phone (If it’s not fully charged, I charge it in the car on the way to the race).
- Pack any refrigerated fuel and my water bottles.
- Eat a light breakfast: 3 to 4 hours before race time, I eat a bagel with peanut butter and a banana. I also drink a cup of coffee.
- Don’t introduce any new foods on race day. In the weeks leading up to the race, experiment with small pre-race meals. Make sure you’re hydrated, but don’t drink large amounts of water.
- I’ll be honest, the last thing I want to do on race day is eat, but I know it’s important to fuel pre-race, so I’ve made this part of my race day morning ritual.
- Don’t panic. Pre-race jitters are real. I’ve found meditation and deep breathing to be helpful. It’s also helpful to have a loved one on standby who can talk me through any pre-race panic.
Before the Race
Once you get to the race location, use the restroom, then warm up with a brisk walk followed by a light jog. Take a few minutes to stretch your hamstrings, hip flexors, and quads.
During the Race
Don’t start off too fast. If you take off like a bat out of hell, you’ll wear out quickly and struggle to complete the race. You should be able to carry on a conversation, so strive for an easy pace. Your body will help guide you. I tend to pick up the pace around the halfway mark. If the stars align and I’m in my zone, I speed things up even more for the last mile. There is nothing quite like giving it your all while crossing the finish line.
Even if the weather is perfect, and you’re well-trained, fueled, and rested, keep in mind that, despite near-perfect circumstances, our bodies aren’t always up to running 26.2 miles. Walking during the race is completely okay and perfectly normal! Listen to your body and, most importantly, don’t beat yourself up for walking or taking a break.
After the Race
Your first instinct may be to sit or lie down after running for several hours, but your body needs to ease back into its pre-marathon routine. Continue to walk at an easy pace, hydrate, eat a small snack, and celebrate your victory! You’ll want to continue eating balanced meals and snacks throughout the day, and don’t forget to hydrate. Your body will be craving calories. Bring on the carbohydrates!
Share Your Experience and Reflect on Your Race
Get photos with your medal, and don’t forget to snap some pics with your race friends and/or loved ones! I highly recommend posting a proud post-race selfie with your medal on social media.
Professional race photos are usually ridiculously priced. If possible, purchase them anyway! This is your first marathon, after all. I’ve never regretted splurging on race photos. I also keep any memorabilia from each race, including my bib.
Once you’re home and able to reflect on the experience, write down your thoughts in your training journal. These notes may be helpful for future training cycles and races, and they’ll help you remember details from a whirlwind day!
Soak, Elevate, and Sleep
You can help decrease any inflammation in your legs by wearing compression socks or tights, or soaking your legs in cold water or an ice bath. Set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes. It will also help to elevate your legs above your heart for 15 to 20 minutes.
Your body may be craving a nap after the race. Don’t fight it! Just don’t go to bed dehydrated or hungry. During sleep, the body will begin to recover and repair itself. If you can squeeze in a 90-minute nap, your body will have the chance to fall into deep sleep, which is especially restorative.
The Next Day
While rest and recovery is important, I recommend taking a short, easy walk or doing some cross-training the day after the race. Gentle activity can help stiffness and soreness. Aside from a recovery walk the day after a marathon, I generally take a few days off from exercise altogether, except for light stretching each day. I also schedule a massage a week or so after the race.
Remember, you’ve not only completed a marathon, but an intense marathon training program. Thank your body by easing back into running. I’m usually able to start running a week or 2 after a marathon. Always listen to your body, and if you have any persistent aches or pains, see a doctor before easing back into running.
You Did It!
You’ve officially completed your first marathon! Whether it was an amazing experience or a difficult one (or both!), you’ve proven that following a training plan, putting in the work, and believing in yourself can lead to major life accomplishments. Only 0.5% of people in the U.S. have run a marathon. In other words, your achievement is rare—and impressive!
Congratulations on becoming a marathoner!