How to Run a Marathon When You’ve Never Run a Mile

The title of this article sounds crazy, right? Running a marathon when you have never run a mile? Well, not to come off over-confident or anything, but running a marathon is totally possible even if today, right now, you don’t consider yourself a runner.

How to Run a Marathon

As long as you invest enough time in the endeavor, you too can become a marathon runner. In this article, we’ve got six steps to run your first marathon even if you’ve never run a mile.

Step 1: Register for a Marathon You’re Excited About

race course

You know that feeling when you book a vacation and every day after you’re so excited for the vacation to happen? You need to have that same anticipation about your marathon.

While marathon options might be more limited given the current situation with coronavirus, many fall and 2021 spring races are still open for registration. When choosing a marathon, ask yourself the following questions to help you decide:

  • Do you want to travel to the marathon or run in your home town/city?
  • Do you want to run on trails or roads?
  • Do you want to run through the countryside or on city streets?

Answering these questions will help you narrow down the options. Check out race websites and look at course maps and photos. Imagine yourself on the course, maybe with friends and family cheering nearby.

If it doesn’t fill you with excitement and a splash of nerves, move on and keep clicking until you find the right one. Check Instagram and all social media for race reviews.

To find a marathon in the US, the website Running in the USA has a comprehensive list of the races being put on across the country this year into next year. It also has been updating race dates that have been postponed due to coronavirus.

Step 2: Give Yourself 16 Weeks or More to Train

running training program

As a new runner, you need to first adapt to the motion of running. What it feels like on your feet, how to move your arms, and how to run a mile without stopping after a few minutes. To do this, you’ll need a regular training schedule.

Most marathon training programs range from 12 to 20 weeks. The Run Experience app has a 16-week marathon training program that covers everything a beginner or advanced runner would need, from running mechanics to mobility, plus weeks of scheduled workouts. 

As a new runner, you should err on the side of giving yourself more time to train rather than less. The key is to find the sweet spot between feeling rushed to build endurance, and training so much that you burn out before race day

Remember too that a training plan is only as good as the runner implementing it. If you skip workouts or neglect any messages your body is communicating (like running through a sore hamstring or big blister), the plan is no longer serving you.

Step 3: Don’t Skip Long Runs & Speed Work

Your training program should build up your weekly mileage to around 50 miles total per week with about three to five runs each week. Along with easy training runs, you should incorporate one or two workouts with speed intervals, and one long run every week.

The long-distance run day is crucial to your success as a marathon runner. Even though your long run pace should be about a minute to two minutes slower than marathon pace, long runs train the body and mind to run for multiple hours at a time.

Even though your long runs will not cover a full marathon distance, use them to practice for race day.

Wake up early and eat breakfast a few hours before you start, and kick off your run at the same time your marathon race starts. Try out different energy gel packs or other easily-digestible carbs during your runs. 

On the hydration side of things, make sure to drink sports drinks or other hydration products throughout the run, around every two miles.

Aid stations at most marathons are about 2 miles apart, so this way you’ll mimic a race-day scenario.

To learn more about marathon fueling, we have a great beginner’s nutrition guide video:

To simulate race day even more, consider signing up for a half marathon. You can use the race as a way to get in a long run while also experiencing start line crowds and pre-race jitters.

Now for speed workouts. Some people love them and some hate them. But there’s no denying it: speed work makes you a faster, stronger runner. An added bonus? It makes your easy runs feel easier.

As a new runner, you don’t have to overload on speed work. Interval runs, which alternate between a harder, faster pace and a recovery jog, are easy ways to get in speed work and expand your aerobic capacity.

About six weeks into training, start to incorporate one interval run per week.

Get some more guidance on interval runs from Coach Holly in this 20-minute follow-along run or this 30-minute speed workout.

As you progress through your training, you also could do a tempo run once a week in addition to or instead of an interval workout. 

A tempo run means holding a sustainable, medium effort for a prolonged period of time, ranging from 15-minutes to as long as an hour. Here’s a video explaining exactly how to pace a tempo runs for marathon training:

Step 4: Train Your Mind With Mindset and Mantras

mental toughness

Seasoned marathoners will tell you finishing a marathon is largely a mental battle, both for the training and the race. As you train for your marathon, you will have doubts and lose motivation.

By preparing your mind as well as your body during your training program, you’ll have a much better chance of crossing the finish line exhilarated rather than feeling like you gave up.

Two methods many runners find helpful for preparing mentally are mindset work and mantras. Mindset work can be done with meditation, journaling, or simply working at being more aware of your surroundings and internal and external sensations as you run. 

Mantras are another way to help you push through tough runs. When you need to dig deep and fight to keep going, use your mantra to block out other, more debilitating thoughts. Repeat it over and over again as you run.

Only you can decide on a mantra that resonates with you, but here are some ideas:

  • This is okay. I am okay.
  • Light and smooth.
  • Forward is forward.
  • One foot in front of the other.

Check out the mindset training program on our app has a mindset training program to learn more about how to strengthen your emotional fitness and resilience.

Step 5: Go Farther with Cross-Training and Strength Training

strength training

To handle the higher mileage of a marathon runner as a new runner, you need to take care of your body when you’re not running just as much as when you’re running. Cross-training and strength training are two ways you can help your body handle the impact of marathon training.

Cross-training is any low-impact aerobic exercise that keeps your heart rate at a medium level for an extended period of time, similar to that of an easy run.

Biking, ellipticaling, swimming, and aqua jogging are all great cross-training options. Depending on your body and capabilities, you can cross-train as many as three times a week while training for your marathon.

On days you aren’t running, fit in a strength training workout. The key for a marathon strength training workout is to keep your foundation strong – think core, hips and glutes – so you can make it through all the miles. 

You don’t have to go super heavy on the weights, either, though you certainly can. Just make sure you consistently do one or two strength workouts a week with just your body weight or a light dumbbell. 

If you’re still feeling skeptical about the notion of a marathon runner weight-lifting, watch our 3-part series on weight-lifting for marathon runners. It covers weight lifting myths, the pros and cons, and what specific lifts to do.

To get you started, here’s part one:

Step 6: Learn How to Recover Intelligently 

foam roll

The last piece of training advice you need for running a marathon when you’ve never run before is learning how not to run. Let’s explain what we mean.

Learning how to properly do post-run recovery and rest days is extremely important for marathon training. Without rest and recovery, your body can’t properly absorb all the neuromuscular and cardiovascular changes you’re making with training. 

These are the three factors you should focus on for smart marathon training recovery:

  1. Sleep

Never underestimate how much sleep plays into marathon training and race day performance. Because sleep deficits build up over time, even skimping on a couple of hours each week can build up to massive fatigue. 

On the weekends, fit in more snooze time with naps. And throughout training, make going to bed early a priority. It’s not fun, but it will make you recover so much faster from runs and workouts.

  1. Foam Roll

Foam rolling massages the fascia, which is the network of connective tissue that covers your muscles and organs. As you become a runner and build new muscle, the fascia hardens and can form small knots that make your muscles less pliable, which can lead to tight muscles, soreness, and future injury.

Aim to foam roll at least once a week for 30 minutes on your rest day. However, the more you can do it, the better. It’s pretty hard to overdo it when it comes to foam rolling during marathon training

But to make your foam rolling effective, don’t continually move up and down on the roller like you’re rolling bread dough.

Go slowly and maintain pressure on the muscle’s tight spots, holding the position for 30 seconds or longer. To further increase the release, gently rock left to right on the tight spot.

Here’s Coach Holly with some rest day tips and a foam rolling routine you can do anywhere:

  1. Dynamic and Static Stretching

Dynamic stretching means stretching with short, one to two-second holds for a set number of repetitions. Unlike static stretching, when you hold a stretch for a longer period to lengthen the muscle, dynamic stretching moves the muscle through lengthening and shortening motions back-to-back, which helps increase range of motion by opening up the joints. 

Dynamic stretching is best for things like warm-ups, and static stretches are great for cool-downs, when the muscles have already been worked and are tighter.

Try this dynamic warm-up routine either before a run, and this static stretching routine after a run. 

The Bottom Line

Training for a marathon is a tough but rewarding process. Even if you’ve never run a mile before, don’t let that stop you from starting the journey!

For more information on marathon training as a beginner, download our free comprehensive marathon training guide and check out our marathon tips playlist on YouTube.

If you want a comprehensive 16-week plan that will get you across the finish line healthy and stronger than when you started, download our app for our full marathon training program, weekly workouts, and our out-of-this-world virtual running community.