26 week marathon training plan

The objective: Complete a marathon race in your personal target time.

Start point:  Basic running fitness base evidenced by consistently running at least two hours per week over 3 or 4 training sessions.

Phase 1 (1- 9 weeks) :

Do a long run, a medium length run and two shorter runs, one of which should be done at a good tempo (perhaps your target marathon race pace) and the other would be a gentler recovery run. The “rest” days might include other activities such as walking, swimming or cycling.  You should plan to gradually increase the length of each run as you progress through this phase. It would also be a good idea, during the latter weeks, to do some competitive races, perhaps 5k or 10k road races, or cross-country events. Any race would replace the tempo run in the schedule, as that is effectively what it is.

Middlesborough Parkrun


Possible schedule progression during Phase 1

This, and those for the later phases, are example schedules and you should adapt these to your own needs. Consider, however, that the principle of training for periods of time rather than distance is applied, so stronger athletes will get more mileage from the same program. See my article Train for minutes not miles for the rationale behind this.

Week 1

45 mins steady run (long)

35 mins steady run (medium)

25 mins tempo run

30 mins recovery run

Week 9

90 mins steady run (long)

60 mins steady run (medium)

40 mins tempo run

45 mins recovery run

Phase 2 (10-14 weeks): 

Maintain the duration of runs from week 9, but introduce hill training in lieu of, alternately, the medium length run and the tempo run. Hill training is like interval training, but the intense efforts are uphill, which develops leg strength but at a moderate pace, thus reducing the chance of injury, especially muscle strains. Read my article on Hill training for more information. Aim to do a couple of races, up to no more than 10 miles, during this phase.

Hill training

Two week example schedule for phase 2:

Week 10

90 min steady run

50 min hill session

40 min tempo run

45 min recovery run

Week 11

90 min steady run

60 min steady run

50 min hill session

45 min recovery run

Phase 3 : (15 to 18 weeks):

  1. Increase the length of the long run, but only on alternate weeks. On the other weeks maintain the duration of week 9.
  2. Alternate the hill sessions with interval training. Be cautious when beginning intervals, ensuring that you gradually become accustomed to running at a faster pace, and do the sessions on a soft surface such as grass, sand or dirt-track.Interval training heart rate graph

(Diagram shows how the heart rate might alter during an interval session.)

Half marathon paceband

  1.   Add an extra recovery run every two weeks, perhaps between the tempo run and the interval session.
  2.    Target a half-marathon race at the end of this period.


Two week example schedule for phase 3:

Week 17

110 min steady run

45 min tempo run

40 min recovery run

8 x 5 mins intervals  with 2 mins jog recovery

45 min recovery run

Week 18

90 min steady run

60 min steady run

60 min hill session

45 min recovery run

Phase 4: (19-23 weeks)

Continue to build the long run every two weeks, and replace the hill session with pure intervals on the flat (unless you are doing a particularly hilly marathon!). A 10k, 10 mile or even a half-marathon race at some stage would be recommended.

Two week example schedule for phase 4:

Week 22

90 min steady run

10 x 5 mins intervals at just under race pace with 2 min jog recovery

60 min steady run

45 min recovery run

Week 23

150 min steady run

40 min recovery run

45 min tempo run

40 min recovery run

4 sets of (6 min 4min 2 min) with one min jog recovery within sets and two min between sets.

45 min recovery run

Phase 5: (24-26 weeks)Take it easy

The final straight. Here you should be focusing on winding down and ensuring that your muscles are fully recovered, allowing you to show the full benefit of all the training you have been doing. If you want a prep-race, do it at least two weeks before the main event.

Cut the mileage down to about 75% of the week 23 maximum on week 24, then drop this to 50 % and then 30% in the final two weeks. The key is to reduce the volume, but not the pace, as this should ensure you maintain a good stride length and tempo without building up fatigue, and ensuring that you arrive at the start line fresh as a daisy and raring to go!

Week 24

80 min steady run

8 x 5 mins intervals at just under race pace with 2 mins jog recovery

50 min steady run

40 min recovery run

Week 25

50 min steady run

30 min tempo run

2 sets of (6 min – 4min – 2 min) with one min jog recovery within sets and two min between sets.

30 min recovery run

Week 26

40 min steady run

20 min tempo run or 4 x 5mins intervals with 2 min jog recovery

30 min recovery run

26.2 mile race (Don’t forget this!)









So what’s stopping you?

I hope you have found the above suggestions of interest, and are keen to target a marathon and carry out an appropriate training plan.  Whatever the details of your final training schedule, please listen to your body and be prepared to ease off when it is telling you to to slow down or stop.

Good luck!

Can you avoid hitting the wall?

Teaching your body to burn fat more effectively can go a long way to helping you to avoid hitting the dreaded wall during a marathon, or at least reduce its impact.

So what precisely is the marathon wall,  what processes give rise to it and most importantly what can we do about it?

Glycogen vs Fat

When we exercise, we use two main energy stores; glycogen (carbohydrate) and fat.  At any stage during exercise, we need to use a combination of these sources.

Glycogen is stored in your muscles and liver, and is rapidly and readily converted into glucose to fuel respiration, the chemical reaction that releases energy for life and which is summarised below.

The respiration equation

However, the liver and muscles can only store a limited amount of glycogen, so in an event like the marathon, it is likely to run out unless replenished.  This typically occurs around the 18 to 20 mile mark and leads to the effects that we marathon-collapse.jpgassociate with hitting the wall (ie. weakness, disorientation, blurred vision and generally feeling pretty dreadful).  The photo on the right shows the famous but distressing sight of the British athlete Jim Peters, then the world marathon record holder, trying in vain to reach the finish line in the 1954 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver.  He was 17 minutes ahead of the field and ten minutes ahead of his own world record schedule with less than 400 metres to go, but his exhaustion was so great that he just could not make it to the finish unaided.  Peters retired from racing that day and recognised that he could have died, a point that we should all consider if we hit the wall this badly (or become in any way seriously distressed during the race).  Remember there are always other races on other days.

Fat is stored in a variety of locations and provides a longer lasting supply of energy, though it is released more slowly. However, the metabolic pathways involved mean that fat cannot be efficiently burnt without some glycogen, so when the glycogen runs out you can’t effectively access the fat stores.  This then leads the body, in its desperation, to utilise a third, emergency energy source – protein.

This is bad news for the athlete because the skeletal muscle cells that you are hoping to power you to the line are being sacrificed as an (inefficient) energy source. So it’s no surprise that things start to go awry at this stage.  A key part of the solution to this problem is to find a way of teaching your body to burn a higher proportion of fat during the earlier phases of the race, and therefore better preserve the limited glycogen supplies.


So how do you train your body to burn more fat? 

The ratio of fat to carbohydrate (from glycogen) burning is related to the speed or intensity of the exercise and it is no surprise to find that the slower burning, longer lasting energy store (ie. fat) is utilised more during long slow runs. Therefore, one of the key training benefits of completing long runs at a comfortable pace is linked to the development of fat burning efficiency.  Slow and steady really does win the race!


The graph below illustrates  how the proportion of fat burnt increases (and carbohydrate use reduces) as the intensity of exercise reduces.


What else can you do to delay the onset of the wall?

Nutrition, throughout your training programme, in the last couple of weeks before the race and during the race itself are clearly key factors in helping the athlete to reduce the impact or even avoid the wall altogether.

Questions to ask might include:

Do I need to do anything special other than maintain a normal balanced diet, as perhaps typified by the “Eatwell plate” on the right?

Is there an ideal ratio of carbohydrate to protein in my diet during the main training period?

Should I alter my diet in the days leading up to the race (eg. carb loading)?

Should I use energy gels or other fast absorbing food sources, such as ripe bananas, during the race?

These and other questions will be discussed in the articles  Marathon diet plan – training phase and Carb loading before the marathon.



Busy life? Try the extended warm down

Ideally, I like to spread my training out over 4 to 6  days of the week, but practicalities can dictate otherwise.

When I am trying to introduce more intense work such as intervals, hills or sustained tempo runs, whilst also building up the mileage, it can be a squeeze.  The extended warm down can be a solution to this, effectively giving ‘two sessions for the price of one’.  Here’s an example.

Yesterday, having been unable to train for two days due to having very long working  hours, I decided to do a thirty minute tempo run.  As usual, I did ten minutes easy running as warm up before beginning my more intense effort.  However, on completing the thirty minutes at a higher tempo, I continued running at an easy pace for a further forty minutes, giving a total of eighty minutes running, which equates to a decent endurance session.  I noticed during the ‘warm down’ that my legs initially felt fairly heavy, as one might expect after a relatively hard effort, but after about ten minutes this feeling disappeared and my running felt as easy as if I had been running at this speed for the whole session.   Which perhaps suggests that the extended warm down might actually be more effective at clearing any lactic acid in the muscles, in comparison to a more standard warm down of say ten minutes.  Today I went out for a 45 minute easy run and felt fine, with no obvious carry over fatigue or stiffness from yesterday’s session, which perhaps provides further evidence for the effectiveness of the ‘two for the price of one’ session in terms of recovery.  It’s as if the two elements complement each other.  The faster work makes the steady running seem easy, at least psychologically, whilst the sustained period of slower running more effectively clears the muscles of lactic acid.

First marathon target time setting

If you have trained for and completed a half-marathon then you can work out your target time in a number of ways:

  • Double your half-marathon time and add 10-15 mins.
  • Add 30-45 seconds per mile to your half-marathon pace
  • Multiply your half-marathon time by 2.1.


I prefer the last method.  Here is an example using the x 2.1 method:

Kelly has a half marathon best of 1hr 45 minutes

Convert this into just minutes:  60 + 45 = 105 minutes

Multiply by 2.1  =  210 + 10.5  =  220.5 minutes

So Kelly could realistically aim to complete the marathon in 3 hours 40.5 mins or 3hours 40 minutes 30 seconds.

To calculate the target pace, go back to the 220.5 minutes version of the target time and divide it by 26.2 to get the target pace per mile.  Calculator needed here!

ie.  220.5/26.2   =  8.416 minutes per mile

But what is 0.416 of a minute in seconds?

0.416 x 60 = 25 seconds

So if Kelly can arrive at the start line as well prepared for the marathon as they had been for their half-marathon best performance, then they should be aiming for even 8 minutes 25 second miles. However, the marathon can be a cruel event, and if you agree with the concept of discretion being the better part of valour, then perhaps 8 minutes 30 second miles might be a safer bet for Kelly in the early stages (especially as the numbers are nicer!).  This would only equate to two extra minutes over the whole distance, and this could easily be clawed back in the second half of the race if it turned out to be too conservative.

My running story

Many runners have completed multiple marathons, but to me it represents a huge personal challenge.

I want to complete the distance, but I also want to be able do it  in under three and a half hours, which is a fairly conservative target given my one and only half marathon time of 1 hour 33 minutes.  In other words, I don’t just want to do it, I want to do it well.  I am guessing that I am not alone in this ambition and that there are others like me who are contemplating attempting their first marathon some years after what would normally be considered their physical prime. My First Marathon will provide a centre for information links and shared ideas, including topics such as training methods and schedules, long term and pre-race diet, footwear and other kit, injury treatment and prevention, and psychological approach.


What surfaces should I train on?

Marathon races are mostly run on roads, or tarmac, but does this mean that you should do the majority of your training on this surface?  The answer, in my view, is absolutely not!

Tarmac and concrete are unnaturally hard surfaces, leading to higher reaction forces acting up through your feet, to your ankles, knees, hips and back on every foot strike, leading to greater injury risk.

Running on grass

Training on a more forgiving surface such as grass, sand, trail or country footpath will reduce the impact and therefore the likelihood of falling victim to a running overuse injury. The uneven nature of off-road terrain also places higher demands on your muscles, particularly related to the need to maintain balance, and running on such surfaces requires and develops greater core strength.  It might be argued that running on uneven ground is more likely to lead to injuries, but as long as you gradually accustom yourself to the terrain, perhaps by walking or slow jogging, then the increased strength and balance gained should outweigh any risk.

Jogging on the beach

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do some training on the road, and in practice you will probably have to negotiate some tarmac to get to the cross-country trails, or in the winter months you may have to train after dark, which generally means you have no choice.  And in the weeks leading up to your target race, it is important to do some road work to get used to the rhythm that you are looking for on the day.  But overall, I strongly believe that, where possible, you should be running on grass, trails or sand for the bulk of your training.

trail running

Train for minutes, not miles

stopwatch running                     10 km

It can be more practical and psychologically beneficial to focus on the duration rather than the distance covered during a training session .

Two runners arrive at a training session.  Athlete A can run seven minute mile pace quite comfortably at this stage, whilst Athlete B currently trains at about ten minute mile pace.  The coach sends them out for a six mile run and suggests they each run at about 80% effort.  They set off and Athlete A duly arrives back at the base having worked moderately hard for a little over forty minutes, whilst Athlete B returns after working at the same intensity for an hour.  Have they had the same workout?  Not really.

Instead, if the coach had asked them to each to run for, say, fifty minutes at 80% effort, then we could expect a similar training effect and recovery time.  Of course, if athlete B wants to complete a marathon, then they will eventually have to cover over 26 miles, but they can work towards this gradually, perhaps taking in 5k, 10k, 10 mile and half-marathon races before going for the big one.  And at any stage they can say, you know what, I don’t think that the marathon is for me at the moment and I think I’ll stick with races up to, say, 10 miles for now.

Psychologically, I believe that running for a set time is usually easier to handle.  It doesn’t matter how strong you feel on a particular day, as there is no reason why the workout should be any easier or tougher providing you just aim to put in a given level of effort for a specific time.  When you feel dreadful, you might not cover as much ground as you would otherwise, but if you have taken on board the principle of running for a set time, then that won’t matter to you.  And when you say to yourself  ‘When is this going to end?’ you simply reply to yourself ‘in exactly 32 minutes and 25 seconds’.  If your mental arithmatic isn’t that great, wait until your stopwatch comes up to a round number such as 5:00, 10:00 or 15:00 minutes before asking this question.

Running for at time and fat burning

There can be little doubt that running is one of the best ways of losing weight and getting rid of body fat, even in comparison to other excellent aerobic activities such as cycling and swimming.  But training your body to burn fat is also important for performance, especially in very long events such as marathons and ultra-marathons.  This is Dorando Pietri wallbecause our natural fat stores provide us with a more efficient and longer lasting energy source.  So if you can train your body to be a more effective fat burner, you should be able to maintain your energy levels for longer on the big day and hopefully avoid hitting the dreaded marathon ‘wall’ (right).

So how can we become better fat burners?

Diet clearly has a part to play in fat burning,  and I will be looking into this in later posts, but the way you train is probably the most important factor.  The good news is that fat burning capacity is best developed by running slowly and well within your capacity.    The less good news is that you need do this for prolonged periods of time to really benefit, though if you enjoy being out running then that is not actually a bad thing at all!  This is more likely to be the case if you can run with a training partner or in  a group, with the obvious social benefits making the whole thing fly by. And natural pace control is available, since an inability to talk comfortably means you are going too fast.

Social run

How do I plan a route for a time?

Treadmill runningIts easy to run for a fixed time on a treadmill, or doing laps around the local park, but most of us prefer to do our steady runs around a single long circuit, preferably in pleasant countryside.  A bit of trial and error is required here, but you’ll soon get a feel for how long it usually takes for you to get around a particular circuit.  I always take my wrist stopwatch on my runs,  but make sure you avoid the temptation to treat each run as a time trial.  You can always run around the block a couple of times if you arrive home early, or walk the last bit if the route takes longer than you had planned.  Try not to be too OCD about it, but its important that you gradually increase the amount of time you spend running, so try to ensure that you stick fairly close to your plan on each training session.


How long to train for the marathon?

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.

Cyclist and walker

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?

Calendar 2019/2020

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 runningWoman jogging 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.

Adopt the pace of nature

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.

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About John

I am 53 years old and have just signed up to do my first marathon, next spring. My running background goes back to my youth, where I trained and competed in track events, mostly over 800m and 1500m, in the summer, and cross-country in the winter, and did a few road races over 5 miles and 10K in my early twenties. Running took a bit of a back seat until I reached my mid-forties, when I began to  train a little more regularly (about three times a week) and take part in the occasional race.  I progressed to doing a handful of 10K races, before doing my first 10 mile and half-marathon races last year. It seems that my endurance has increased with age as my speed has waned, so the next logical step is to go the full 26.2 miles.  I have a degree in sport science and have always been interested how athletes , especially middle and long distance runners, achieve peak performance.