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Can I run a marathon? A deep dive into what it takes!

The marathon, unlike the half marathon, takes more training time. Not only does a marathon require an increased training cycle but the sheer training is far more demanding on your body both physically and mentally. It’s a common question that runners eventually ask themselves, “can I run a marathon?” It’s a question I asked myself as soon as I completed my first half marathon.

Can I run a marathon? In order to answer this question, you need to look at several factors, including:

  1. Have you completed a half marathon? (not a requirement, but more of an assessment)
  2. Do you have the time to train for a marathon?
  3. Have you ever run long distances before?
  4. Do you have any sustained or limiting injuries?
  5. Are you in good health and able to run a marathon?

Depending on these answers, you’ll be able to assess how long you’ll need to train in order to finish a marathon race. You can adjust the length of your training schedule so that you can finish a  marathon race by walking or running. In order to determine what course to take, you need to dive deeper into the marathon assessment.

marathon assessment

Before you dive in and begin your half marathon training, you need to answer a couple of questions about yourself. By evaluating your current fitness level you can help prevent yourself from giving up because you started off way beyond your physical capabilities. Remember, that the number one reason why new runners give up is that they try to run too much or too fast too soon.

First things first, have you completed a half marathon race?

Why do we use the half marathon race as a benchmark for marathon running? Simply because the half marathon is the closest distance underneath the marathon. Using a 5K to assess your marathon potential is far less meaningful than using a half marathon to analyze your marathon potential.

Yes, I have run a half marathon but I’ve’ never run longer than 13.1 miles.

If you’ve recently run an entire half marathon race without walking, at any pace, you’re ready for a 20 to  24-week marathon training plan. An 18-week marathon training plan gives you the perfect amount of time to train for a marathon without overexerting yourself

Yes, I can run a half marathon AND I’ve run longer distances beyond 13.1 miles

If you’re no novice to long-distance running, then you can narrow the time span required to train by 2 to 6 weeks. A 16-week marathon training schedule is what you might want to experiment with. Yes, you can shorten this as well by another 2 weeks, but you need to have run at least 10-16 mile long runs within that last month a couple of times.

No, I have to walk some of the half marathon race.

So, you have to walk at some point during a half marathon but you run a good majority of the race. No problem. You could pull back about 2 weeks to train for 18 total weeks for a marathon race. The 18-week training schedule is nothing more than 2 extra weeks of base building to get your weekly volume up. The remaining 16 weeks is the same as the above mentioned 16-week  marathon training schedule.

Yes, I can complete a half marathon but it’s mainly walking.

Don’t sweat the fact that you can’t yet run a half marathon race or you don’t ever plan on running a marathon (you simply want to walk the marathon). You can still train for a marathon by walking the distance, however, you’re going to need to pay more attention to race closure time and the length of training for your marathon.

Although it will take you longer to complete your marathon race by walking it, you can still rest assured that you should be able to find a marathon race that stays open long enough for you to finish it.

For more detailed information on walking a marathon, check out these posts:

How long does it take to walk a marathon?

How long do marathons stay open for runners/walkers?

When should you start training for a half marathon?

To answer this question it depends on your current fitness level and volume of weekly running.

Weekly running volume should be at least 20 miles

Your aerobic running base during half marathon training doesn’t really need to be present in order to complete a half marathon. However, when it comes to the marathon, the lack of an aerobic base heading into an 18-week marathon training program could be detrimental and possibly lead to injury.

I’ve personally known runners that were brand new to running and enrolled in an 18-week marathon training program without any running knowledge or race experience. Guess what, they finished the marathon, but now they no longer run. The marathon and lack of pre-marathon training wiped out any bit of love for running. The key here is to take your time building up a weekly running routine to help increase your weekly running volume first. This may extend your total marathon training all the way from 30 to 35 weeks.

Current fitness level

I can’t state this important factor enough – don’t push yourself beyond your current fitness level – especially for your first marathon race. Why is this so important? When you push yourself beyond your capabilities to train for a marathon, such as doing too much speed work or training at an unprecedented race pace, you’re going to injure yourself. When you seriously injure yourself during a first marathon go, you’re far more likely to quit running altogether for something that was foolishly preventable.

Get a licensed medical professionals nod of approval

Take a physical examination at your doctor’s office and tell them your intentions of racing a marathon in the near future (5 or 6 months). While you can easily slip by without a physical examination for a half marathon race, I would suggest you don’t pass on getting a doctor’s nod of approval. This goes without saying, especially for anyone with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, or past history of running injuries.

Comfort zone vs discomfort zone

I’ll touch briefly on our comfort zone when it pertains to running. Your comfort zone is your current comfort within the sport of running. For example, if you’re comfortable running 5Ks but have never run long distances then your discomfort zone would be long-distance running. In order to grow as human beings both mentally and physically, we have to step out of our comfort zone and move towards our discomfort zone. It’s the same thing as a baby bird leaving the nest to go fly.

The path between the comfort zone and the discomfort zone is filled with forces and obstacles that want to push you back to the zone of comfort. Things that pull you back into your comfort zone could be:

  • Spouse
  • Running partner
  • The pain of pushing yourself
  • mental stubbornness
  • Ourself (probably the biggest factor)

You’ll experience growth, both mentally and physically, when you head down the path to start and finish a marathon race. In order to grow our ultimate goal is to continually change our comfort zone and move towards a new discomfort zone. That is the only way we grow.

Limiting beliefs

We all at one point in our life have formed some type of limiting beliefs. Limiting beliefs are thoughts that constrain us or hold us back in some way. Some of these limiting beliefs were instilled in us by our parents to help protect us from harm. Others were recklessly given to us without the other person realizing they could be doing harm. These generally are beliefs developed at younger ages that were learned or conveyed to us by ourselves or some other person. These are sometimes deeply rooted and tie back to self-identity and our abilities.

Limiting belief examples:

  • I’m not a runner – I can never run a marathon
  • I’m too overweight to finish a marathon
  • You’ll never be able to run (possibly told to you by a coach when you were young)

These limited beliefs surround us and to some point lock us into our own prison. The good news is we can break free from these beliefs and constraints. Two of these techniques are using affirmations and the idea of reframing (which goes way beyond the scope of this article). I will touch briefly on affirmations below

Choose the right running strategy for a marathon

Run-walk strategy

A run-walk strategy focuses on most of your locomotion being in the form of a runner. You run more than you walk.

Walk-run strategy

On the flip side, a walk-run strategy focuses on walking more than running. This is a great way to start your training for any type of running race such as a 5K, 10K, half marathon, or marathon.

Run strategy

This is what all of the beginning marathon runners strive for – to run a marathon with minimal walking involved. If you’re not able to run most of the marathon then revert back to the run-walk or walk-run strategy. It’s totally ok to walk during your marathon race. If you find yourself stuck in this loop of getting down about not being able to run a marathon, read this article I wrote about 6 things running coaches wish you would stop doing.

Also, check out this post on the mental side of running – Why is running so hard?

Are you physically able to finish a marathon?

This is a simple but sometimes purposefully overlooked question. Are you physically able to finish a marathon? This question is stating the obvious point that you need to be in decent health to finish a marathon. Do you have to be completely healthy? No. However, I’m not a medically licensed physician so I can’t determine whether you can or can’t complete a marathon race. Knowing this sounds cliche, you should go get a green light approval from a medically licensed physician. Beyond this initial question the next questions are:

How long can you run without becoming winded?

This is a good indicator of what your current fitness level is all else being equal (good health, good rest, good nutrition, no injuries, etc.) This is probably the best indicator of your current ability to complete a marathon. The good news is that if you do get winded just a couple of miles in and you’re in fair shape, then you can train yourself to not become winded so easily by following a 12-week half marathon training schedule. The more weekly base miles you run the better your overall aerobic endurance will become, and the easier your breathing will be.

Can you run an entire half marathon?

This question stems from the question from above. Again this comes down to an assessment of your current fitness level. You can train yourself to do this but it might take an extended period of time beyond a standard 18-week marathon training plan.

Do you have any past injuries that might prevent long-distance running?

With running injuries, you need to be cautious when running longer distances for extended periods of time. Also, you don’t want to push yourself too much during your harder workouts. You’ll have to find the right balance and talk with a sports rehab professional about what he bests recommends that you do when it comes to running and exercise. My goal as a coach is to help new runners become injury-free race finishers. If you’re injury-free hopefully you can and will sustain a life of running.

Are you mentally able to finish a marathon?

Just as much as a marathon requires physical fitness demands, the mind will need to be positioned in the correct state so that you’re not fighting yourself both physically and mentally. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how well we’ve trained our minds. Sometimes the mind will win no matter what. The goal is to beat your mind most of the time when it comes to running.

For help with the mental side of running check out – You vs. You – Who will win?

Running affirmations

One way to start training the brain to fortify your running mindset is to begin with a simple trick called affirmations. Affirmations are simple positive beliefs about yourself or a subject that helps you implant that seed into your head. For instance, you could use these as affirmations:

  • I’m a runner
  • I’m training to run a marathon in 18 weeks
  • I can run a marathon (stop asking if you can – say you can)
  • I’ll finish my marathon in time (keep your finish time realistic)

Mantras to keep you going

Mantras keep you going when the tough gets tough and the miles get longer and longer. Mantras are nothing more than short bits of verbiage that you tell yourself over and over to finish a run. Examples of mantras:

  • I’m strong, I’ll finish the race (repeated)
  • Run hard, run fast, finish the race (repeated)
  • Stay strong, hang in there (repeated)

Mantras are good to help your mind stay focused and interrupt a negative thought pattern so that your mind can change direction.

Running mindset

Training for a 5K is fairly simple when it comes to the physical and mental demands required to make this happen. When you step into longer distances races, there are more requirements that are interjected. You’ll need to strengthen your mind for longer distances, build lots of base miles during your 3-month training, and stick to a training plan to see you through to the marathon finish line. I believe this all starts with reframing your identity as a runner. If you already know that you’re a runner continue if not check out both of these articles I wrote about the Running Mindset and the Runner’s Identity.

Don’t forget to ask for help if you need it

Smartphone

Running with your smartphone and earbuds/headphones is a great way to help you improve your running. There are so many apps that you can download to your smartphone that can help you with keeping pace, interval training, tempo training, as well as keeping you motivated by listening to your playlist. If you want to run with your smartphone but can’t stand holding it in your hand I’ve researched four different products that are top of the line when it comes to storing your smartphone while running.

Paced runners

Many marathon races will be coupled with bigger marathon races. Some of them might have pacers as well. Pacers are usually volunteer racers that run the race at a specific pace. They will normally hold a sign that states the finish time that they are going to hold for the entire race. Pacers are usually set anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes apart.  for instances, 1:45, 2:00, 2:15, 2:30, 2:45, 3:00, etc. Pacers are a great reassurance on race day to help you hold you to your goal finish time.

For a detailed post about the pros and cons of pacers checkout:

What is a Pacer and should I follow one on my next big race?

Do you have a support system?

Do you run with a partner or a running club? Both of these support systems can give you great support when you need it. They can offer someone to run with during your longer runs. They can also provide coaching and advice from an outside perspective. Running clubs and running partners are also perfect for accountability. Sometimes we all need an extra push out the door to get our legs up and running.

Stage your marathon race for extra help on race day?

Do you like eating a small peanut butter and jelly sandwich on your long runs but don’t want to carry it. Have your friends stand at specific points of your race for instance. Have someone at mile marker number 4 holding an ice-cold sports drink. At mile number 12 you can have your peanut butter and jelly sandwich waiting for you. At mile 16 you can have a gu energy packet and 8 oz water awaiting your arrival.

Things to know before running a marathon

You should know that deciding that you want to run a marathon means that you have embarked on a journey. Even the race itself is an odyssey in itself. The race might take you up to six hours to complete, but time seems to pass differently.

You will learn more about yourself in the 4 to 6 hours that you have during countless days of training.

So, here are a few key points to remember before your first marathon.

  •         Have no expectations. Goals are ok, but take every mile as it comes and enjoy the ride.
  •         Have a checklist and make sure that you checked everything on it before you start
  •         Make sure that you know what you have to do in case there is an emergency. There is usually a phone number in your starter kit. Have it handy and use it if you must.
  •         Be aware of where you are in the race.
  •         Socializing is encouraged, and you should do it as much as possible. This can be the beginning of great friendships.
  •         Hydrate and eat small amounts of foods that are offered at checkpoints. Do it even if you don’t think that you need to.

So again as runners, we ask ourselves, should I train for a marathon?

As you read this you are probably becoming more and more enthusiastic about running a marathon.

Although I am happy for you and I encourage enthusiasm, which is what brought me here in the first place, I also encourage proper training.

Running a marathon without training usually leads to a serious muscular injury that ends up keeping a person in bed and needing medication and at least an osteopath. This will also lead to a less than pleasant experience and it would be a shame since running is truly enjoyable.

Before any type of race, you should follow a training program that is created for your needs and for the particular race that you want to run.

When Do I Know I’m Ready to Run a Marathon?

Most runners aim to train for an average of four months before race day and peak at a weekly volume of 30-50 miles (48-80.5 kilometers)

However, each individual is different and you may feel ready sooner or later than the average.

I started considering running a marathon after I ran my 12 miles in my 12-week half marathon training plan. After my half marathon race, I immediately continued training for 8 more weeks to complete my first marathon. I don’t recommend other runners try this method unless you take your half marathon race easily and don’t run all out. If you run an all-out half marathon race then you will need to take at least a week off before you can start training for a full marathon. If you don’t take off time from running you can risk possible sustained injuries.

The take-home message is that you should train and take long runs to see how you handle them. But you will only truly know if you are ready for a marathon after the race.

 Marathon Training Tips

The best way to train for a marathon is by being consistent and avoiding procrastination.

Here are some marathon training tips that I wished someone told me before I started training for my first marathon:.

  •         Start by planning things out and by training every other day.
  •         At first don’t look at the mileage, run for a certain amount of time. E.g. 30 minutes/day
  •         It’s Ok to run, walk and then run some more.
  •         Insert one long run every week.
  •         After you have formed a habit and your lungs don’t hate you anymore, you can start looking at the mileage and change your goals from minutes to miles/day.
  •         Having a training buddy is great, but training alone can give you time to think and plan your day, so choose wisely.

 Why Marathon Training Is Different

Training for a marathon gives you perspective. We live in a world where most people sit down and don’t move too much. We even have apps that count our steps because we know that we don’t move enough. How ironic is that?

Training for a marathon trains your body and your mind at the same time. You will have a lot of time inside your head, which isn’t always pleasant because having too much time to think brings your problems from the back of your head in front of your eyes.

Nevertheless, this will help you address some issues. It’s a form of solo therapy. The best news is that it’s free.

Furthermore, training for a marathon tests your physical limits, as does the race. Thus, it builds character and will power because you really can’t do it without improving these traits.

Before running a marathon you should know that it does become addictive. So, keep in mind the fact that you will probably want to do this for a long time. This is not a bad thing, but you will end up rearranging your priorities and dragging your friends and family along with you.

All in all, even if you will run just one race, you will still reap the benefits that come along with training for a marathon and you will become healthier.

Complete vs Compete

Knowing which type of runner you are and what your marathon race goal is will make your marathon training go a whole lot smoother. Even if you’re a competitive racer and you’ve never run a marathon before, I would have you consider simply to make an easily obtainable goal and aim to simply complete the race. After you’ve got your first marathon notched off and on your belt, you can then proceed to full marathon competitions. You’ll learn so much from your first race that you will be able to crush your next marathon attempt.

What’s next?

Hopefully, I’ve helped you answer the question, “Can I run a marathon?” As long as you don’t let yourself be constrained about the ability to run or walk a marathon. Stick to a training plan within your capabilities and you can make it to the finish line.

Coach Scott is a published author and RRCA certified running coach (Level 2). He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 14th half marathon race. 

 To sign up for a FREE half marathon training schedule, log sheet, and pace predictor CLICK HERE.

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Can I run a marathon? A deep dive into what it takes!
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12-Week Half Marathon Training Plan based on your current fitness level!