Here at Outside, we always have marathons on the mind.
Here at Outside, we always have marathons on the mind. (Photo: ZamoraA/iStock)

Our Greatest Marathon Training Advice

This list of 26 tips contains our most essential and timeless pearls for how to run your fastest 26.2 yet

Here at Outside, we always have marathons on the mind.

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Here at Outside, we always have marathons on our minds, and we’ve given a lot of great tips and recommendations on how to conquer the distance. But now, we’ve put together a cheat sheet filled with our best advice to help you crush your next marathon, whether that means crossing the finish line for the first time or clocking a PR.

1. Create a Game Plan

“This may sound obvious, but I can say from recent personal experience that if you don’t have a plan of attack, it’s easy to get sidelined by doubt and start waffling. My plan makes me feel accountable—it’s right there in black and white.”

—April 2012

2. Your Life Will Revolve Around Running

Which means the people in your life need to be on board. “It’s really important to get your training in while making the fewest ripples in your household…You have to balance running with the other parts of your life. Get your kids and partner on board with a plan that works for you—and them.”

—April 2012

3. F*** the Haters

“I literally didn’t know how long a marathon was until I looked it up. Then I researched, on the internet, what a good marathon time was. There are all these running community chat rooms, and there was this consensus where anything under four hours is respectable, but there’s a whole lot of hate out there for people who run slower marathons, slower being anything over four hours. Then I realized that’s ridiculous. This challenge is so engaging that it’s enough if someone does it—regardless of what the time is. I felt like the world accepted that, although there is still this judgment in the community of pace-ists.”

—July 2017

4. Choose Your Race Wisely

If you’re a first-timer looking to just hit the finish line, or if your goal is to set a blistering PR, the course matters. “There’s no easy way to cover 26.2 miles on foot, but not all marathons are equally grueling. For first-timers, opting for a tame race is generally a smart move. Keen as you might be to jump into the deep end, starting your marathon career on a less difficult course is a good way to build confidence without wrecking your body. (There’s plenty of time to sign up for orgies of self-destruction like the Pikes Peak Marathon later on.)”

—April 2016

5. Prioritize the Long Runs

And this one comes from Kathryn Switzer, 70-year-old running legend and the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon: “Get the miles in. The difference between running a 10K and marathon is the difference between writing an article and a book. You’ve gotta get them miles in, but I wouldn’t worry for your first one about speed if your goal is really just to finish.”

—April 2017

6. Get Buzzed

“At crucial points in the race, caffeine can almost trick your body into feeling better than it should…Get caffeine, carbohydrates, and sugars via caffeinated gels during the race to help maintain energy. And, of course, drinking water or a sports drink and hitting all the hydration stations is also necessary.”

—March 2017

7. Skip the Touristing Until After Race Day

Although it’s especially hard for a race that you travel for, it’s crucial that you stay off your feet the day and night before a race. “Race organizers don’t make that easy by scheduling interesting expos and panel discussions the day before where you are on your feet, walking around, expending energy. Discipline yourself to keep that to a minimum, making a conscious effort to sit and rest, with your feet up as much as possible. Don’t squander the good work you’ve done during your taper in the last day or two.”

—August 2014

8. Relish Rest

“There are three training principles: specificity, overload, and rest. You must use them all. In other words, if you want to see results, you need to…include adequate amounts of rest and recovery to capitalize on improvements. As a general guideline, you shouldn’t stack more than two days of intense exercise together or work the same muscle group heavily two days in a row. If you don’t use the other days for recovery, your work might backfire and you won’t see the desired improvements.”

–July 2017

9. Nutrition Is Half the Battle

Just because you’re running a larger number of miles doesn’t mean you can treat your eating habits with reckless abandon. “Ask an elite athlete how nutrition factors into her performance, and she’ll likely tell you that it’s just as important as her training plan. In many cases, she may even call it the most important factor.”

—July 2017

10. This Is Not a Weight-Loss Regimen

Your body craves high-quality calories when you’re asking it to churn through 40- or 50-mile weeks, and your performance will certainly suffer if you don’t feed your body enough fuel. “When you start your training program, shift your focus to fueling your body to meet the increased performance demands, not on counting calories. If you use more energy, you have to take in more energy. If you perform poorly in workouts or are lethargic between workouts, you might not be taking in enough calories. You can run the numbers and see a calorie deficit, but when you exercise a lot and don’t get enough calories, metabolism slows to a crawl. You get the opposite of what you’re looking for.”

—August 2014

11. Show Your Feet Some Love

Strong feet don’t just make you faster. They also help stave off injuries. Weak feet don’t. “A 2014 study found that by increasing foot strength, athletes also improved their one-legged long jump, vertical jump, and 50-yard dash times. Last year, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers proposed a whole new paradigm: the foot-core system, which stresses intrinsic muscles like the abductor halluces and the flexor digitorum brevis, which have been largely ignored by clinicians.”

—December 2015

12. Learn to Fly

Work some speed workouts into your training, especially if you’re looking to PR. A true favorite is the negative-split long run. “You want to go 18 to 22 miles total, with the first half roughly one minute per mile slower than marathon race pace. Run the second half at your goal marathon pace.”

—July 2017

13. Focus on Feel

Although this nugget comes from racing great Joan Benoit Samuelson, we can all learn a little something from her ode to running by feel rather than clocking a rigid page no matter what. “I’m certainly not running at the level that I once was, nor am I training at that level. I do what I can reasonably do. I don’t have any rhyme or reason to my training except to run the way I feel on that particular day. If I feel good, I run hard; if I don’t, I run easy. I just try to keep things simple. [Same goes] in a race. If I feel like I can go out hard, I’ll go out hard.”

—May 2017

14. Find Your Race-Day Ally

That person who will listen to your “fussing about optimizing sleep, hydration, and fueling habits,” get up early and eat breakfast with you before the race, bring all the most embarrassing signs to cheer, plan a post-race brunch and bash, and “brag about you on social media.”

—April 2017

15. Get Swole

“When I first heard that training to squat more than my body weight would help me improve as an endurance athlete, I wasn’t sure I could pick up a 30-pound dumbbell. In my mind, weight lifting was a thing for protein-guzzling meatheads who use words like swole. I’m a five-two, 108-pound runner. Hill repeats are the closest I’ve come to strength training. And like most endurance athletes—and most women—I was terrified of two things: getting bulky and getting hurt…Training to increase my squat strength broke me down to a place where I didn’t have a choice [but to take time off]. Then it built me up stronger.”

—September 2016

16. Train Your Gut Like You Do Your Legs

“While GI distress is common—especially in runners—it’s also highly individual, both in how it presents and in how severely you suffer…[But] you don’t have to be at the mercy of your intestines. You can, at least to some degree, train your gut like you train your glutes and your lungs. Getting it right, however, takes time, work, and possibly some unpleasant experimentation.”

—March 2017

17. Pound Fluids and Carbs Earlier Than You Want To

“Attempting to play catch-up later in the race is a dangerous and mostly doomed proposition. For one, you process sugar and food poorly near the end of a race. Also, as you tire, you forget to fuel properly later in the race. Don’t get to the point of being hungry or thirsty. Load on the front end.”

—August 2014

18. Buy and Replace Two Pairs of Shoes

“Even if you have a pair that you absolutely love, the muscles in your feet get used to cushioning in certain places, and when you use a different shoe, you help balance out any weaknesses you might have in a certain place. Over the long haul, training in different shoes may even reduce risk of injury since you won’t always be placing the same level of stress on the same parts of your foot…[Also,] shoes are not immortal. The typical lifespan of a shoe is between 300 and 600 miles, but they’ll start to feel a little different after about 200 miles.” Replace them.

—April 2016

19. Running Is a Whole-Body Sport

Treat it as such to prevent injury and protect yourself against overuse breakdowns. “The posterior chain—mainly your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back—has gained a reputation as the oft-neglected muscle group that’s responsible for many problems in the lower half of the body, such as IT band, Achilles, and knee or hip issues. While that’s true, putting in extra work to strengthen only your backside neglects other muscles groups like the quads, creating more imbalances. Strengthening your entire body is important for both treating and preventing injury.”

—October 2017

20. Don’t Cram

“A big part of racing is showing up rested and ready. That begins about a week out with the taper. You want to keep running, including your fast surges, but do fewer miles every day. Most important, don’t try to test yourself or put in an extra-hard or extra-long workout to get ready—it takes about eight days for training to affect the body, so you’ll just tire yourself out.”

—August 2017

21. Book a Massage

Schedule one for 24 hours within running to help flush muscles and repair the damage you’ve done. Plus, it feels pretty damn good.

—April 2017

22. Shake It Out

“The standout stat here is that, among marathon runners, 70 percent of sub-3:00 finishers go for an easy run the day before the race. This supports the value of the shakeout run—that is, an easy jog the day before your event. The idea is that you ‘shake out’ prerace nerves and keep your muscles loose. The numbers indicate that this practice is more common among faster runners—perhaps because slower counterparts are less experienced and more worried about detracting from their race-day performance. As the data reveals, they shouldn’t be: The whole point of a shakeout is that it should be short and very easy. Done right, it won’t be detrimental, and it might actually make you run better.”

—September 2016

23. Pack Your Bag Ahead of Time

Don’t leave anything to chance on the morning of the race as you rush out the door in dawn’s darkness. “This kit is where function meets superstition—both equally important for endurance athletes—and where you stash everything you’ll need before the start and after the finish.”

—July 2017

24. Skip the Spaghetti

Or at least the double serving on the night before the race. “Your body can’t process and store energy from additional food. Most of these calories will just be eliminated, and those that aren’t will just expand your waistline, not your energy stores. Instead, eat a regular-size meal rich in complex carbs, protein, and healthy fats, such as pasta with garlic sauce or a salmon fillet.”

—September 2011

25. Have Your Head on a Swivel

Sure, it will help you dodge nearby runners and water cups gone wild, but it will also force you to take in what it is that you’re doing when you race. “It’s the fact that you’re running through one of the most spectacular urban landscapes on earth. I was counting as I was running up Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn: That’s a seven-lane street that’s entirely empty except for runners. When you’re out there on a car-free street, it’s like nothing else. It’s a special experience. And crossing the bridges, too. When you’re out in the middle, you look at the scenery, and it really takes your breath away.”

—November 2015

26. Enjoy Each Race Like It’s Your Last

“Boston was my only real race goal from last year to this year. When you start to have only one big goal in a year, it starts to feel like a long time to stretch, and you realize you don’t have that many years left to do it.”

—April 2017

Lead Photo: ZamoraA/iStock