How Far is a Marathon and Should You Try to Run One?

There’s a joke that goes “How do you know if someone has run a marathon? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” 

Sarcasm aside, it’s kind of true. Most runners, no matter the distance, want to share their love of the sport with everyone. Considering the amount of time a marathon runner invests in their training and preparing for race day, it’s no wonder. Sometimes it annoys people, and other times it inspires them.

Answering Your Marathon Questions

If you find yourself in the inspired group but you aren’t even sure how many miles are in a marathon or how you’d go about finding the right one for you, we’ve got you covered. 

Learn about why the marathon is the exact distance it is and the different types of marathon races out there. We’ll point out some considerations before you decide to train for one, too. 

How Many Miles Are In A Marathon?

If you’ve gotten into the world of running, you’ve possibly heard the story of how the marathon race came to be. If not, then here’s your ( super short) history lesson. 

The marathon distance comes from ancient Greece. The story goes that a Greek messenger, Pheidippides, ran from the city of Marathon to the capital of Athens to declare a battle victory over the Persians. After covering the approximately 25-mile distance, Pheidippides shouted “Niki!” (victory!), then promptly fell over dead. Talk about making an entrance. 

In 1896, the founders of the modern Olympics were searching for an event that would celebrate the ancient Greek culture. They landed on the idea of a marathon run. It would be held in Athens and cover 40 kilometers, or just under 25 miles. From that first event until 1908, the marathon distance varied slightly each year as the location changed. In 1921, the distance was officially standardized to 42.1 kilometers, or 26.2 miles, and hasn’t changed since. 

A Marathon For Every Type Of Runner

If you’ve seen pictures of a marathon, chances are it was one of packed streets and runners elbow to elbow. While this is a common race scene, it’s not the only one. No matter what type of runner you are, you’re sure to find a marathon in the location, size, and time of year that you’re looking for.

different types of marathon racesHere are some common classifications of marathon races:

  • Road: Most marathons are held on the road. They might take place in a big city, such as the San Francisco Marathon with 27,500 runners, or they might have a smaller field like the Missoula Marathon with only 1,750 runners. Guaranteed you’ll be able to find a road marathon to suit your fancy!
  • Trail: These races can be held alongside rivers, through deserts, or in urban or rural parks and woods. Some trail marathons might be flat, while others are vicious in their terrain. Whatever you want your trail marathon experience to be, you’ll find it! 
  • Walk: If you’re not interested in running a full marathon, then walking one might be the answer for you! You can choose from a marathon that’s designed to be walked (US Freedom Walk Festival or Disney marathon events are very walker-friendly). Or, you can choose a marathon with generous cutoff times (at least 6 hours) and walk it.
  • Relay: This is another great option for beginner runners, your first marathon, or runners who want to have an interactive twist to their race. In a relay marathon, you’ll have a team of runners, anywhere from 2-4 people, who each run a portion of the marathon distance

The World Marathon Majors

As you can see, there is a race for every runner. It’s probably fair to say that you can find a marathon race in every large city, or at least within a short drive.

But if your marathon dreams are bigger than your local scene, there’s a race series called the World Marathon Majors that is worthy of anyone’s bucket list. The series is consists of six of the biggest and most highly regarded marathons in the world, including:

Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City

Some of those races are particularly interesting, such as the Boston Marathon. This race is considered to be one of the most prestigious in the United States. Elite runners come here to shine and put on the speed, and regular runners step up the starting line to challenge themselves and set personal speed records. Even our very own Coach Morgan has a story to share about her road to Boston:

Other races, such as the Berlin Marathon, have courses that travel past culturally and historically significant locations. That can be great motivation not only through the weeks of your marathon training plan, but also on race day. Having spectated the Athens Marathon, I can say that there’s a special feeling when you’re at a race with historical significance, even if it’s not on the list for the Marathon Majors. 

What It Takes To Train For A Marathon

If you’re feeling inspired to become a marathoner, here are a few points to keep in mind before diving in:

Pre-Training
  • It’s a good idea to run another race before tackling a full marathon. A lot of marathoners would say it’s helpful to run a half marathon as your “warm-up” race. This gives you practice for following a training plan, toeing the starting line, and dealing with race day jitters.
  • That being said, there’s nothing like the “go big or go home” approach and making the marathon your first race. Just be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to build up slowly to avoid injuries and having to drop out before you even start!
  • Whether the marathon is your first race or you have a warm-up race planned, build up a decent running base so you’re able to run for about 45 minutes at a time.
  • Expect to train for 4-5 months specifically for your race (add weeks if you need to build a base).
  • It’ll cost you anywhere from $50-$200 to register, depending on your race. Smaller races are less expensive, and the bigger, better-known races will cost you more. 
  • Some races only have lottery registrations, so you may or may not get in the first time you try. Have a backup race in mind!
During Training
  • Be prepared to spend a couple of hours of every weekend getting in your long runs.
  • Even though you’re running longer distances, you’ll still want to include some speed workouts to keep your pace up. 
  • Strength training will help prevent injuries and help your body take the impact of all the training miles. Check out this video on why marathon runners should lift weights. 
  • Rest days are important to let your body recover, reflect on your past week’s training, and gear up for the next week’s schedule.
  • Speaking of rest and recovery, don’t forget to give your feet some loving attention to counter the impact of increased mileage:

Other Race Distances

Some runners live and breathe for the marathon distance. But it’s not the only race distance out there! From a speedy 5k to a multi-day 200-mile trek, there are plenty of other distances to check out. 

graph showing race distances 5k-ultra

5k (3.1 miles)

By far one of the most popular race distances in the United States, the 5k is a doable race for any fitness level. From chasing speed records to having fun at a themed race, a 5k is a great way to get familiar with lining up at the starting line

10k (6.2 miles)

Though the 10k distance doesn’t get as much attention as the other race distances, this is a great opportunity to test your endurance. This is also usually the shortest distance you can find on a trail course, so you can see if off-roading is right for you. 

Half Marathon (13.1 miles)

Another popular distance, the half marathon is perfect to try out a longer distance without committing to a full marathon training program. Just like the 5k, there is a half marathon to suit every runner—beachside, through a vineyard, up a mountain, and more!

Ultra Marathon:

This umbrella category is for any race over the standard marathon 26.2. Just how many miles you would run depends on which ultra you choose.

  • 50k (31 miles): This is the gateway race distance to longer races. There are a great many 50k races held in the United States each year, and they run the gamut from point-to-point to loops to out-and-backs. Elite runners can cover the distance in as little as five hours, while back of the pack runners may need up to 10 hours. 
  • 50 mile: Considered by some to be the first “real” ultra distance, a 50-mile race will most likely take place on trails and require anywhere from seven to 14 hours to run. 
  • 100k (62 miles): With a finish time between 10 and 16 hours, this race will test your running chops. It often serves as a qualifier for the next race distance so you can prove you’ve got what it takes to be on the trail for even longer. 
  • 100 mile: Considered the ultimate feather in any ultra runner’s cap, the 100-mile distance can be completed on the track, road, or most commonly, the trail. The US hosts the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run every August and draws a huge crowd of aspiring runners, spectators, and support crews. These runners will spend 24-36 hours on the course. 
  • 200+ mile: Believe it or not, ultramarathons of 200 or more miles are becoming more and more popular with trail runners. Talk about a suffer-fest! These events take anywhere from 60 to 100 hours. The Bigfoot 200 and the Tahoe 200 are both popular races of this distance. 

Just like the types of marathons, the types of races out there are diverse!

Next Steps

Lots to think about, right? Well, what if I told you that all of the planning and work had already been taken care of in our mobile app? I mean, you still have to work hard in your training, but we’ve got a full, 16-week marathon training program ready for you.

Let us be your virtual running coach. Weekly mileage, strength training sessions, and mobility drills will set you up with balanced and effective training.  You’ll also get an active online community with our coaches and other members, so you’re sure to find the support you need through your training. Maybe you’ll even see another member at a future marathon race!