26.2 miles is a long way — but with a lot of hard work, commitment, and dedication, you can complete your very first marathon as a total beginner.

We spoke to top running coaches, an elite runner, and a dietitian to provide you with 8 tips for a successful first marathon. We highlight what to do — and what not to do — in training and on race day, from following a structured training plan to fueling your training with the right amount of carbs for optimal performance.

Follow a structured training plan

If you haven’t left your training until the last minute, we strongly suggest following a structured training plan.

By following a plan — ideally created by a running coach — you know you’re performing the proper sessions to help you toe the line in the best possible physical condition.

A structured marathon training plan should include a mix of runs, including:

  • Long runs (these will increase in duration/distance each week)
  • Easy and recovery runs 
  • Tempo and fartlek runs
  • Interval runs
  • Strength sessions (often neglected but very important to prevent injury)

Learn to run slow

One of the more difficult lessons for beginners to learn is the importance of running slow. You don't want to run fast in many of your training sessions, such as your weekly long run. “It sounds counterintuitive, but slow runs improve your cardiovascular and aerobic efficiency for strong running,” Alexa Duckworth-Briggs, certified running coach, tells STYRKR.

“Running slowly also helps train the body to primarily use fat as fuel, which can help prevent you from hitting the wall on race day.” But just how slow should you run? Your long runs are typically run at Zone 2 — this is approximately 65-75% of your maximum heart rate (MHR). 

You will want to run most of your long runs and easy runs at zone 2 (or even easier). If you feel like you’re running too slow, then chances are you’re doing it just right.

Of course, on race day, you won’t want to run as slowly as your long runs. You’ll still need to pace yourself, but those long, slow runs help build a solid aerobic base to help you go long.

Let your body rest

When starting out, take 2-3 rest days per week. You can use one of these days to perform strength exercises such as squats, walking lunges, planks, and deadlifts.

As you increase your distance and time spent running, your training plan may limit your rest days to 1-2 a week. And while your plan may instruct you to run more, if you feel any niggles or pains or extra fatigue, then it’s a good idea to cut back and add an extra rest day.

Furthermore, no matter what, always have at least one rest day per week when training for a marathon. That includes no strength training or cross training on this day. This helps reduce your risk of injury and ensures you can perform your best in all training sessions.

Get your nutrition in check

Sara Hayes, Founder, and Head Coach at Mindful Mile, says, “So many people find themselves tired, drained, and hungry (or nauseous) all of the time when they're marathon training, and they deal with it because they assume that is part of the experience. It's not and shouldn't be! If you're fueling appropriately, you won't feel like you need to lay on the couch all day after a long run.”

All too often, running nutrition is overlooked and not properly given the attention it deserves. Most runners fail to properly fuel their training and only fuel on/for race day.

Related: Why is hydration important in sport?

Hayes says, “It's important to increase calories, especially carbs, in general when you're marathon training. During long runs, you want to be sure that you're hydrating and fueling appropriately. I recommend consulting with a sports dietitian to develop a plan catered to your unique needs.” But a good place to start is: 

  • Drinking 500-700ml of water per hour of running (440ml minimum) — you can do this with a handheld water bottle, waist clip or hydration vest
  • 40g of carbs per hour (can be in the form of gels, sports drinks, gummy sweets, etc.) — research shows that taking 40-60g of carbs per hour will help maintain and improve endurance performance 
  • If you find that you're a salty sweater or in a warm, humid environment, you'll want to make sure you're getting enough salt in too. This can be through hydration tablets, electrolyte powders, such as the STL05, or gels/sports drinks with extra sodium

If you want to get your nutrition and hydration up to speed, then consult with a dietitian

Wear the right gear

You’ll need kit for both training and race day. For starters, you’ll need a pair of running shoes, a couple of pairs of shorts, and a few running tees. If you’re training in the winter (or the UK…), then a few thermals, tights, and long sleeves are a good idea as well.

"But what do you need for race day? Amanda Loudin, a certified running coach, who collaborated with Brooks, recommends the following items for first-time marathon success:"
  • Running shoes (make sure they are broken in but not worn out)
  • Race day clothing (check the forecast for race day)
  • Extra clothing (for before and after your race)
  • Nutrition (gels, solid foods, electrolyte tablets, etc.)
  • Accessories (pins, chafe balm, GPS running watch, gloves, etc.)

Warm up and cool down

26.2 miles is a long way, but an extra 5-10 minutes of light jogging before your race can help get the blood flowing to the muscles. It will also reduce your risk of injury, which includes pulling a muscle.

How you warm up and cool down will depend on how much space you have available. If possible, perform a very slow and controlled 5-10 minute jog followed by some dynamic stretches. You can also do a few strides. If you can’t jog to warm up because you have to be at the starting line, then dynamic stretches will do!

After your run, perform a few static stretches to support your recovery. If you have time — and the energy — you do a 5-minute jog/walk first.

It’s also good practice to warm up and cool down before more intense training sessions such as intervals, tempo runs, fartlek sessions, and anything above zone 2. This will reduce your injury risk and improve performance.

Settle into your pace

Elite runner, James Rodgers, emphasises the importance of settling into your pace once the gun sounds. He says, “On race day, factors such as the sound of the crowd, music on the course, rested legs, and being with other runners can cause even experienced runners to start too fast.

A GPS watch can help keep you on track and monitor your pace in training and during the race. If you are careful at the start, you may be able to run an even pace throughout or even get faster in the last half, which is far more likely to be both more enjoyable and give you a better result overall.

Even as a beginner, there are certain race day tactics you can be aware of to help you gain the best result possible. For example, try and settle in with a group of runners who are running at a similar pace as you or are aiming for a final time similar to yours.

Running in a group can help you battle headwinds and also provide a mental break from not needing to think about your pace constantly. It can also be a lot of fun running in a group, and you will be able to motivate each other to the finish.”

Reflect on your training 

Rodgers says, “Before you head to the start line for your marathon or the night before your race, reflect on your training; if you have it stored electronically or in a training journal, read through it and think about how far you have come during your training. This should fill you with confidence for your marathon race day.”

This is a practice you should get into the habit of, not only for race day but every week. Reflect every Sunday/Monday on the previous week’s training — note what went well, how your runs felt (do this after every session), and how energized/prepared you feel.

It’s okay to have the occasional bad run — it happens to the best of us. But do your best to note down why it was bad. Maybe you felt sick, perhaps you lacked energy and had a long day at work, and so on… the more notes you take, the easier it is to reflect.

And once you’ve finished your first marathon, reflect on that too! Most importantly, be proud of finishing — it’s no easy feat. and is certainly worth celebrating! 


How many months before a marathon should I start training?

Aim to start training 4-6 months before your marathon — typically, the sooner you can begin training, the better.

How do I avoid hitting the wall in a marathon?

Follow a pacing strategy and fuel yourself correctly to avoid hitting the wall. Aim to consume a minimum of 30-40g of carbohydrates per hour and plenty of water. You may also find it useful to take electrolytes.

What not to do when running a marathon?

Don’t start off too fast — it will come back to bite you. And hard. Stick to your pacing strategy and be patient. 26.2 miles is a long way, and a lot can happen, so control what you can!

How long does it take to go from a beginner to a marathon?

If you’re a total beginner, aim to dedicate a minimum of 4-6 months + to training to run a marathon. You may need longer, depending on your current fitness level.