Whether you’re dreaming of running your first marathon or you have some under your belt but you’re essentially starting again from scratch, I’m genuinely so happy you’re here.
I’m a big believer in the power of having big goals to chase, but I’m an even bigger believer that in order to get where we want to go, you have to make a plan! So you’re here, you took a big first step in that you’ve started your research for the right training plan for you.
I hope this is it! But if not, know I still commend you for your determination to make this truly life-changing commitment to train for a marathon.
Choosing a Couch to Marathon Schedule
This page is titled Couch to Marathon because it’s meant to be for someone who is metaphorically coming to training straight off the couch. From inactive, out of shape, maybe even a little slothful, to training, to chasing a dream, to becoming a marathoner.
I will provide plans for three different durations: 12 weeks, 6 months, and 1 year. These are tiered as such to give you options depending on your current fitness, mindset, and race options.
If you haven’t run a step in decades, don’t you worry, we’re going to get you across that finish line, but I might ask that you commit to the 1 year training program.
If you are a relatively active person, i.e. maybe you ride your bike to work or you like to do crossfit or walk daily with your dog, but you haven’t done much running at all, I’d probably recommend going with the 6 month training plan.
Now, if you’ve been putting in some good running miles, maybe you’ve run a few 10k or half marathon races, and you’re feeling ready to bump it up the marathon, then you’re probably ready to tackle it with the 12 week plan.
Let’s set you up for success right from the get go and lock into the correct program. But only you can make that choice! So choose wisely and then select a marathon accordingly.
Pick Your Goal Marathon Race and Plan Backwards
A quick note on race selection: not all marathons are created equal. Really think about what you want. Do you want a big city marathon with crowds lining the course? Do you want a much quieter low-key marathon where you can casually park your car next to the start area?
Do you want a course that is as flat as a pancake or do you like a little undulation in terrain to spice things up? Sometimes it helps to draw on some sentimental connection. Did your Dad run a marathon once? Maybe following in his footsteps would motivate you to stick with your training.
Or maybe you’re all about qualifying for the Boston Marathon; be sure your race is a qualifier! Lastly, please consider the weather you’ll be training in. Remember that any spring race will have you doing the bulk of your training in winter months. Lots to consider so again, choose wisely!
Couch to Marathon Training Plans & Free PDF Printables
Couch to Marathon (12 Week Plan)
Ready to get to work? Hope so, because in this 12-week plan we’re going to be jumping right into the “fun” stuff. Each week will include a long run, an interval or tempo day, a few easy run / cross-training days, and one rest day.
That’s the formula. I will increase your weekly training volume by about 10% each week, for three weeks, then drop it down for a recovery week, and repeat that cycle two more times. We’ll work hard, push our limits, but listen to our bodies, and get you to the start line as fit as we can on a pretty tight timeline.
For some people, 12 weeks is the perfect duration. It’s long enough to get in really good shape, but not so long that you’ll lose interest or motivation along the way. It’s GO TIME!
Couch to Marathon (6 Month Plan)
Sounds like an eternity, right? Well, we’re actually looking at just 26 weeks of training so we have to get moving fairly quickly, especially if you’re brand new to the running game.
Here, we’ll spend a few months getting our feet under us, logging lots of walking and running miles, but without specific training workouts such as intervals, tempo runs, or hill sprints. I will start to pepper you with those once we’re within 16 weeks of the race.
I’d love it if you could also register for a half marathon about 6 weeks out from the race, but if you can’t, I’ll schedule a race-simulation day as a trial run.
You’ll have plenty of time with this plan but remember, if an injury or life circumstance derails you for a few weeks here and there, this six month time frame can go quickly!
Couch to Marathon (1 Year Plan)
Okay, this plan is all about staying healthy, avoiding injury and maintaining motivation. We’ll give you lots of time to get acclimated to the workload, slowly build up your strength and endurance, avoid excessive mental and physical stress, and get you ready to tackle the marathon.
For this plan, we’re going to split the year up into four parts: 2 months base building, 4 month half marathon training block, 2 month base building, 4 month marathon training block. While these are separate phases, they are all integrated into the singular goal of helping you complete a marathon.
The body needs time to adapt and absorb training, so these cycles are essential to arrive at fitness levels that will carry you 26.2 miles.
Workout Terms Defined
This is an easy jog, not a walk. The idea is to keep the blood pumping while also letting your body cooldown, helping you recover and clear out the lactic acid in your legs so you can run the next day with minimal discomfort.
Absolutely any aerobic activity that elevates the heart rate and makes you sweat. Think nordic skiing, mountain biking, lap swimming, stand-up paddle boarding, boxing, parkour, chopping wood, yoga, etc. Even a vigorous game of ping-pong can count if you’re really zipping around the table. But no beer-pong. No yo-yoing. No leisurely mall walking with lattes in hand.
Comfortable, enjoyable, anything goes. You should be running but don’t stress about the pace or effort. Just get out there, enjoy the run, listen to the birds, don’t be afraid to stop and take in the views.
Repetitions at a fast pace. Think 75-80% of maximum effort. You should be breathing hard throughout, unable to comfortably maintain a conversation, but not so hard that you won’t be able to recover and feel okay for the next rep.
What do you do before a big work presentation? You practice! You run through the whole thing from start to finish to get your mind synced up with the material, see how long the presentation actually is, and work out the nerves.
We want to do the same thing for your marathon. We’ll use one run to go through the motions: eat the foods you intend to eat on race day, wear the same clothes and shoes, consume the same fuel as the race will have, everything. We don’t want any surprises on race day!
(1) Rest days. These are days without a planned exercise, but that doesn’t mean you have to lay in bed all day. Feel free to do whatever you’d normally do, and if that includes a hike or a walk with the dog, that’s great!
(2) Rest between intervals. Slow jog or walk. I honestly prefer to walk but if you feel like trotting around in circles, go for it!
This exercise takes you through all the phases of your stride, from walking to jogging to running to nearly sprinting. Using 100 meters total, the length of a football field, you can start with a walk and then ratchet it up every 10-20 meters to the next speed until you reach about 90-95% of your maximum speed for the final 10-20 meters.
Smooth and efficient, consciously try to make your arm swing and leg movement clean and concise. Full recovery between each rep.
Faster than your average run pace. Think 60-70% of maximum effort. You need to be able to settle into a rhythm here and find a breathing rate that is sustainable for the duration of the tempo run.
If you are feeling gassed a quarter of the way in, definitely dial it back a hair, and then try to settle back into a rhythm at the new pace. These sessions should be hard. You should really be working during the final third. Make these count!
These are as they sound. Full gas for :30 seconds going uphill. Even a curved bridge or slight rise will do. If you live on a cornfield, doing these on flat ground is fine, but just be careful to not strain too hard during the first 5-10 seconds. Regardless of terrain, focus on form, nice long arm swing, lift those knees, enjoy the lung burn. Full recovery between reps.
Intermix walking and running based on feel. It could be alternating every minute or every five minutes or if you’re just starting out, create your own interval like five minutes walk followed by one minute run, then repeat. Manage your effort. These should be easy efforts with the purpose of building a little bit of cardio fitness and establishing a workout routine.
Easy jog to loosen up the body, making your muscles more elastic so they’re primed for the workout. You should be sweating by the end of your warmup so make sure it’s quick enough to feel warm and ready to roll.
Cross Training and Rest for the Marathoner
Hiring a professional running coach can cost anywhere from $100 to $400+ a month. One of the most important things that coaches do is tell you when you’re being—frankly—stupid. I know, I know, I tell my kids not to say that word but when you’re training for a marathon, it’s easy to be stupid.
Like when you have an 18 mile long run on tap for Saturday but you get the flu on Friday and nary an hour has gone by without you visiting the john, and yet you still try to get that 18 mile run in! Not smart! Don’t do that! You need to rest and get better! Please, for the love of God, get in bed!
This is a free training plan and I won’t be able to be there for you when you’re making questionable choices so I’ll try to explain a few of the biggest pitfalls to help you along your way.
If you’re sick, don’t exercise. It’s not going to help you and it’ll only extend your illness and the amount of sub-par training. One caveat is lingering cold symptoms.
You know when you cross over the hump and are getting better rapidly, so I won’t say that you need to be 100% symptom-free, because I’ve had coughs that last 4-6 weeks but otherwise I’m fine. As a general rule, you should be well into the recovery phase with only very minor symptoms remaining.
Days Off Due to Injury:
If you have pain in your body while running that makes you limp or wince, don’t run. Shocker, right? I wish I didn’t have to say that but some people get so committed to a plan, so obsessed with making fitness gains, that they’ll run on a broken ankle until they literally collapse onto some poor person’s lawn.
If I’m experiencing any sort of pain while running, especially if it’s getting worse throughout a run, I take two days off from running, then evaluate the pain. During those two days, I’ll likely cross-train, trying to simulate whatever the running workout was but in the pool or on the bike.
And then rinse and repeat, test out the injury and if the pain is still present, I take another two days off, maybe three this time.
The mind can get injured too. The last thing I want is for you to be constantly stressed by the training plan, and fight it, and fight it, until one day you just throw in the towel and walk away from your marathon goal.
If you are feeling super depleted and you are starting to fantasize about dousing your running shoes with lighter fluid and torching them under a full moon, you need to skip your workout that day, maybe the next one too, and cut the third one in half, and then latch back onto the program and check in with yourself from there.
Race Day! How to Survive Your First Marathon
While each marathon will have its unique challenges, I’ve distilled some recommendations that are generally applicable to just about everyone. You’ve done so much training leading up to this day, I’d hate to see your marathon experience get spoiled due to something silly or preventable. Let’s dig in.
Know Your Race Day Logistics
Read the logistics on the marathon’s website and arrive at least 1.5 hours before the start time. I know this might sound excessive, but trust me, you can drive by the starting area the night before and see a peaceful serene environment and then on race morning, you’d think a zombie apocalypse was tearing through town.
It is hectic, chaotic, disorienting, anxiety-inducing, all the adjectives. Of course, if you know the event has 25 registrants, you don’t have to worry too much, but if this is even a mid-size event with 300+ runners, arrive way early, secure your parking spot, sacrifice a little sleep to make sure you get to the start line without a frantic mad-dash. Stay in zen mode.
Budget Time for the Porta-Potty Line
Relatedly, you’re going to want to budget time to hit the porta-potties well in advance of start time. Every race director seems to select a different amount of portable poo units. Most skimp and all the runners hate them for it.
Five porta-potties for 500 runners… are you serious?! Needless to say, expect a significant line and get in that line early so that, again, it’s not 10 minutes to start time and you’re 50th in line with eyes bulging like a distressed cow.
Study the Terrain, Aid Stations and Course Map
Study the course map and the aid station locations. You want to know the terrain, trust me. If you know a hill is coming, your mind will be ready for it, anticipating it, but if you’re surprised by a hill, it may crush you.
You may get half way up it, assume a supine position, and roll back down the hill to await rescue. And the aid stations are important because their spacing will dictate how many supplemental calories you’ll want to carry. In my opinion, always always always carry more calories than you think you’ll consume.
The extra few ounces of weight are nothing compared to a potential bonk if you are under-fueled. After all your long runs in training, you should roughly know how many calories your body needs, but because of the added intensity on race day, budget in an extra couple hundred per hour of running.
Don’t go out too hard. In running parlance, this means to not run the early miles too fast. If you speak with an old wizened runner, their sage advice for the marathon is typically that the marathon has two halves, the first 20 miles and the final 6.2.
Or alternatively, the marathon STARTS at mile 20. And to a large extent, it’s true. The marathon gets real at mile 20. You have to plan on hitting some sort of wall, whether mental or physical.
It might hit earlier or it might hit a little later, but I can pretty much guarantee that at some point late in the race you’re going to go from very confident and feeling fairly good to sort of scared that you’re not going to finish.
So be smart, hydrate, eat all your calories, and keep your effort restrained early on so that you can really give it your all towards the end when you have nothing to lose.
Prepare for the SUCK
Maybe you’re at mile 17 and you’ve got a limp because your IT band is tightening up and you know that at mile 19 the race passes by your parked car. You start fantasizing about quitting and making a B-line for the nearest brewery.
You need to block those thoughts with the armor you’ve built for yourself. First, reflect on your training and how much work and effort you put in. Next, recite your mantras. I recommend having at least three one-liners ready to go.
Are you getting fit to be a good example for your kids? Is running an act of worship? Are you getting sober? Create a phrase that triggers the original intention for why you wanted to do this whole crazy thing in the first place. Say it, sing it, scream it, over and over and over.
Is 40 miles a week enough for marathon training?
Definitely! You can even get by with less! The important part is that it’s apportioned throughout your week appropriately. I always recommend a weekly long run for anyone running a marathon. Your body needs to get used to pounding pavement for long periods of time.
There’s really no way around this. Accompany your long run with a bunch of shorter runs of varying intensity throughout your week and you’ll be fine come marathon day.
Can I run a marathon if I can run 10 miles?
If 10 miles is the longest run you do before your marathon, I believe you can get through it, but it might be a sufferfest. And there may be a lot of walking! But it really depends on your starting point and what sort of general fitness you have coming in.
If you regularly do century rides on your gravel bike or swim across large bodies of water, then yes, you could probably run a marathon without doing much running-specific training, but those are the outliers. Ideally, I like to see at least a 18-20 mile run in the bank before attempting to run a marathon.
How many hours of sleep before a marathon?
During the week leading up to your race, try to get good sleep. Set yourself up for success by skipping the Netflix binge sessions or going out on the town, but don’t stress too much about it. And definitely don’t worry if you don’t sleep well the night before the race.
Almost nobody does. I slept maybe 30 minutes the night before my best 50 mile race. They say your sleep two and three nights before the race are far more important than the night before.
Is a 12 minute mile good for a marathon?
Depends on who you are! We all have different backgrounds, physiologies, genetics, body types, etc. A 12 minute mile will earn you a 5h 14m marathon and I’d say that’s pretty darn good!
Personally, I tell people to focus on getting the most out of themselves and don’t worry so much about what anyone else is doing or what somebody else might think is fast or not. You do you! Challenge yourself and do your best. If you do that, the numbers don’t really matter.
Can you run 3 times a week for a marathon?
You’d be amazed at what can be done off three days of running a week! Is 4 days better? Probably. Is 5, 6, 7 days better? Maybe. It depends on the person. Generally speaking, I like my runners to run 5-6 days a week, but not everyone.
Especially if a runner is prone to injury or burnout. If that’s the case, I always recommend a healthy dose of strength work and cross-training to supplement a relatively light weekly run volume.
My Closing Thoughts
If you made it to the end of this article, then I think you have enough fire burning inside of you to run a marathon. And I hope you do it! While there are a lot of people who run marathons, don’t be deceived, it’s still a tiny tiny fraction of the population.
Google tells me .01 percent. So 1 in 10,000 humans will complete a marathon. It’s a big achievement!
“I really regret running that marathon,” said no one, ever.
I hope you found this article and the training plan helpful on your journey. Remember to make it your own, be kind to yourself, get after it, and raise those hands high when you cross that finish line!
More Free Training Plans:
Couch to 50k Training Plan (8, 12 and 20 Weeks Out)
100 Mile Run Training Plan (FREE Printable)
How To Prepare for a 50-Mile Run (Free Training Plan)
Free 12 Week Beginner 10k Training Plan
Couch to 5K Training Plan (Free PDF Printable)
Chase Parnell is a USATF Level 1 certified running coach and spent many years as an online and high school cross country and track coach. You can find his writing in Trail Runner and Ultrarunning Magazine. He lives in Bend, Oregon with his wife Nikki and three young kids. As a lifelong runner with over 50 marathons and ultramarathons under his belt, he has learned the art and science of running by experience, sometimes the hard way. He is most proud of completing Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 100 mile trail race in the Alps, or his 2:35 marathon personal best that he is intent on lowering to sub-2:30 before Father Time crushes his dreams.