How long’s a piece of string, you might ask? We are all individuals, and what suits one person won’t be right for the next. But certain principles apply to everyone.
Before you begin your specific marathon training plan, you must have a reasonable level of cardiovascular fitness.
This would typically mean that you regularly run for at least thirty minutes for three or four days a week. And an active lifestyle, including other aerobic activities such as swimming, cycling and walking is always a good starting point.
Targeting a race
So you’re ready to commit to that first marathon? When should you target a marathon race in order to give yourself enough time to prepare?
Again, it depends on you and your background fitness. If you aren’t very active at all and are building up from a low fitness level, then you need to look to the longer term, perhaps 12 months, and it would be wise to set some intermediate targets to complete shorter duration races, most typically over 5k, 10k, 10 miles and half-marathon. If you really are starting from a low level of activity, it is also strongly advised to get a medical check-up before launching into a serious marathon training schedule (or indeed any distance running program).
Once you have achieved a basic level of running fitness, which I suggest could be achieved by building up to running three or four times a week for a weekly total of at least two hours or 120 minutes, then your marathon training plan can begin in earnest. See my article on Building up to steady running for suggestions on how to get to this point.
A quick search of “12 week marathon training schedule”, “2 month marathon training plan” or even “train for the marathon in 6 weeks” will come up with plenty of results. Maybe these have worked for some, but I personally would be looking at a training period of at least 6 months, even if you are reasonably experienced at racing over distances such as ten miles and half-marathon. It is important to consider how long you would need to prepare if all went well, and then add a few weeks to allow for any injuries or illness. Runners everywhere will relate to the fear of losing fitness if they miss too much training, and this attitude can lead to poor decision making. Slight niggles are often ignored because the event is looming and the athlete feels that they are still some way from peak fitness.
However, if the timescale is less ambitious, then the athlete can feel confident of recovering any fitness losses from a break in training in the early stages, and an injury in the latter stages can be rested in the knowledge that they have a strong training background. That said, you want to have some immediacy to maintain the motivation, and all things considered, a 26 week marathon training schedule is perhaps a good compromise.
If you want a more thorough guide to marathon preparation, then the Hanson’s method is perhaps a good one to go for.