21 Training Tricks to Finish the Marathon on Your Bucket List

Updated: Jan. 06, 2021

Even beginners can complete the ultimate running challenge.


Set your goals early

Months before you hope to be marathon-ready, pick a race that seems realistic for your fitness level and looks fun. Lock in your goal by figuring out hotels and transportation. “Set your goal early,” says Hal Higdon, author of Run Fast. “Once that goal is set, everything can spin off of there.” (Related: These “dream big” quotes will help remind you why you started training.)


Make your goals realistic

Accept the fact that if you’re a beginning runner, you won’t be able to get in shape in time for a marathon just 10 weeks away. “Realize the magnitude of your goal, and set yourself up for success,” says Jenny Hadfield, MA, CPT, running and fitness coach and author of Marathoning for Mortals. Consider starting with a 5K or 10K to get a sense of what races are like, then set out for 26.2 miles when you have that solid base. Here are tips to start exercising when you’re overweight.

iStock/Todor Tsvetkov

Don’t go from zero to 60 (or even zero to six)

If you run regularly, you might be able to jump right in to a marathon-training program. But if you’re a novice, work yourself up to a base line before setting your sights on those 26.2 miles. “In my program, the first week for a novice is six miles on Sunday,” says Higdon. “If you’ve never run a mile in your life, that’s going to be tough.”


Walk part of the distance

If you find you’re too tired to run the whole mileage you’d planned for a long run, don’t turn back just yet. Finishing your route at a walking pace will reap the same endurance benefits. “Even walking the whole distance of a long run will give you all the endurance of that long run,” says Jeff Galloway, U.S. Olympian and coach to more than half a million marathoners. “It’s a good way to stay in the game and avoid overdoing it.” (Related: This is what your exercise style predicts about your health.)


Be willing to put in the time

A marathon is no small task, and training will require you to leave your schedule open for long runs and other workouts. “Marathon training is like adding a huge project that will last six months,” says Hadfield. “Be aware of the time commitment.” Read these exercise hacks that make your workout less of a chore.


If you miss a day, keep going

At some point, life will inevitably get in the way of your training schedule, but don’t stress if you have to miss a workout. “A lost day is a lost day. It’s not a good idea to make it up,” says Higdon. Just continue with your program as normal—your body will make up for the lost time through the rest of your runs. Learn the secrets of women who work out every day.


Find a mantra

When you’re running—especially long distances—your mind defaults to its subconscious “ancient monkey brain,” which can process repetitive behavior faster than your conscious brain, says Galloway. But here’s the catch: That ancient part of your brain interprets the exhaustion, heat, and fatigue you feel when working out as a red flag, and it starts nagging you to give up. “If a human is building up stress and the hormones are released to make them feel miserable, they’ll reduce speed or quit so the stress from exercise goes away,” says Galloway. “The problem is, we want to finish that marathon and those long runs that build us up.” Come up with mantra that’s inspiring (“I am strong”) or funny (“Shut up, monkey brain”) to tap back into your conscious brain and revive your motivation. Look to these motivating quotes from Olympic athletes for inspiration.


Surround yourself with other runners

Signing up for a running club could help keep your eyes on the prize while training. Plus, one tied to a community running store will probably be able to get you in touch with coaches and physical trainers if you’re running into trouble. “Those long runs can be lonely,” says Hadfield. “It’s a great way to build in accountability and keep up the motivation.” (Related: Here are tricks for helping your partner lose weight.)


Leave days for recovery

Days off, whether you spend them relaxing or cross-training, give your muscles time to recover, which will actually make them stronger in the long run (pardon the pun). “People have a lot of misconceptions about running. They think if three days a week is good, then four, five, or six is better,” says Galloway. “That’s not the case in marathoning. It breaks people down, and they don’t get to the marathon because they’re training too hard.”

iStock/Jacob Ammentorp Lund

Stick with light cross training

Allow yourself some days of pure rest, but do gentle aerobic exercises like cycling, swimming, or walking during other days off from running. Just make sure you don’t push yourself too hard or you could put yourself at risk of injury. “If you do cross train, don’t do a hard workout—you want an easy workout,” says Higdon. “It’s a rest day in disguise because you’re using other muscles and not stressing them.” (Related: These common exercise moves actually work against you.)


Get one running outfit

No need to invest in a wardrobe full of expensive running clothes, but do get your hands on one head-to-toe outfit that you feel good in during long runs. Your best bets are compression tights or shorts, and a technical top, which is made of breathable synthetic material. “Cotton doesn’t wick moisture away from skin,” says Hadfield. “Technical fabric pulls sweat away from the skin and evaporates more readily.” If you’re a woman, you’ll also need a sports bra that will support you mile after mile.

iStock/Predrag Vuckovic

Ask the pros when shoe shopping

Go to a specialty running store for a new pair of sneakers, and ask a salesman for advice about which pair will support you best. If you’re a novice runner, you’ll probably need to go with a bigger pair than you’d think. “Feet swell, particularly for people who have not exercised before and haven’t developed the cardio ability to pump fluids from the bottom of the body up to be recirculated,” says Higdon. Don’t miss these shoe mistakes that hurt your feet.


Layer up

If you’ll be running in temperatures 40 degrees or lower, dress in layers that you can peel off as your body warms up. Start with a microfiber short- or long-sleeve T-shirt as a base, then pull on another long-sleeve shirt or two overtop. “It’s not a great idea in wintertime to wear a lot of thick layers, because it lowers flexibility,” says Galloway. “Thinner layers you can tie around your waist.” Here’s how to trick your body into feeling warmer in cold temps.

iStock/Eva Katalin Kondoros

Prepare yourself for the weather

If you’ll be traveling for your race, keep in mind that the climate could be different from your hometown. For instance, you’ll sweat more in Florida in January for Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend than you would while training in the Midwest. During the second half of your training program, hop on the treadmill for half of your runs, or sign up for hot yoga on rest days to body accustomed to the hotter temps. “The body gets used to sweating and cooling itself,” says Hadfield. “Hot yoga is great training the day after a long run as long as you keep the intensity lower. It gives you flexibility and mobility after the stiffness of a long run.” Here’s a 5-minute yoga routine you can do anywhere.


Cool down before you head out

Hopping into a cold shower after a run might sound like sweet relief on a hot day, but getting wet before you head out could help too. Sweat cools you down when it evaporates off your skin, and you can mimic that before the sweat drops appear. “Pour water over your head and have it soak into your shirt,” says Galloway. “As you move forward when running, it provides an evaporating effect to keep you cooler than you would be otherwise.” Check out these other tricks to stay cool in the summer.


Keep track of your calories

Especially if you’re just starting running, keep a food log during the first couple of weeks that you’re training to get a sense of your diet. Using an app will make it easy to keep track of how many calories you eat, as well as the breakdown of carbs, protein, and fat. “Awareness is key,” says Hadfield “Folks usually are overeating because they overestimate how many calories they burn, or are undereating because they’re trying to lose weight.” Gauge how you feel during your runs, and adjust your diet as necessary. Here’s what else you need to know before starting a new diet.


Pay attention to what you eat the day before

The day before your long run, make sure to down eight 8-ounce glasses of water over the course of the day, says Galloway. Eat as normal in the morning, but pay attention to your diet starting at lunchtime. “After noon the day before a long run or marathon, avoid overeating, use common sense, and avoid foods that could be problematic,” says Galloway. Steer clear of foods like bran muffins, fried foods, and large amounts of any food—even healthy ones like salad.


Carbo-load your diet

Stay away from fad diets like low-fat, high-fat, or low-carb diets, which won’t fuel an endurance runner. A good rule of thumb for a healthy diet, whether you’re an athlete or not, is to aim for a food intake of 55 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent fat, and 15 percent protein, says Higdon. “The best fuel is carbohydrates, which can be found in healthy fruits and vegetables—it doesn’t have to be spaghetti,” he says. “The pasta party the night before a marathon is as much ceremonial as anything.” Don’t fall for these carb myths that could wreck your health.


Keep eating patterns consistent

Plan out what you plan to eat before your final marathon, and test run it through training so you can figure out what works best for your body. Lock down how long you should eat before you run so you don’t have tummy troubles, and pick bland foods that will be accessible come race day, like oatmeal or a bagel. “Work on the timing of a meal before your long run, and repeat that for race weekend,” says Hadfield. “You’ll have a few nerves, but all those decisions will be made, so you’ll be more comfortable going in.” (Related: Here’s why eating late at night could make you fat.)

iStock/Sasa Nikolic

Don’t push yourself too hard

No matter how much you want to hit a certain time or keep up with your usual pace, give yourself to permission to slow down. Your safety is more important than any training goal. “A big surprise beginners have is when they get out there to run on a hot day and suffer a lot more and often slow down a great deal,” says Galloway. “There are more medical issues on hot days, and I’ll tell you it’s dangerous to push yourself too hard in any physical activity, but particularly distance running.” Slow your pace, and walk more during long runs so you don’t overheat. (Do you have chest pain when running? Here’s what it could mean.)


Change your gait downhill

Signed up for a hilly course for race day? Stick with a flat course during long runs to focus on endurance, but spend an hour on hills during another one of your weekly runs, says Galloway. When you’re at a steep stretch, keep your feet low, your steps light, and your strides short so you don’t overextend your feet, legs, and hips. Take a zigzag path, which is easier on your body.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest