How Novice and Intermediate Runners Should Train For a Marathon

Thinking about running your first marathon? A recent study investigates the best way for novice and intermediate runners to train for a marathon without getting injured.

Much like weight training, your cardio performance will be affected by numerous training variables, including volume, frequency, and speed. Even mental preparation plays a role in your performance. With so many factors to adjust, it can be a daunting task for someone new to a sport to know how to train and, even more importantly, how to perform well without hurting themselves.

One of the goals I get a lot of questions about as a coach is how to prepare for a marathon. Hundreds of thousands of people finish marathons every year, and many of them are first timers or casual runners who have gotten a few marathons under their belts and now want to take their performance to the next level. But pushing the pace and doing it injury-free for novice or intermediate runners is a topic in greater need of study. Researchers this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research took a look at the best way for non-elite runners to train for a marathon.

I can guarantee anyone who has considered running a marathon has wondered how the average person in their position trains and what works best. To cover this topic, we would need to know the number of miles a successful marathoner runs and how many times per week. Knowing these two factors alone for beginning runners would be a huge asset.

There are different goals to each running workout. The standard run is easy and lengthy, but many runners also include a long run that focuses mostly on getting a lot of miles into a single run. There are also faster runs, such as intervals of sprints and rests, and tempo runs, which are speedier runs close to race pace.

Mental skills have more to do with getting out onto the road and putting in your work. Mental skills help overcome obstacles to your training and improve your commitment to the goal. They may also help you deal with emotions and other mental factors that can influence both your training and your final goal on marathon day.

The key part to this study, however, was not only how these variables affect performance, but also how often runners get injuries. It’s all well and good if you can run a marathon like lightning, but if you can’t even start the marathon because you’re injured, then there’s no point to it.

So let’s get down to the results. Volume correlated to performance. Both mileage per week and number of days run per week made the runners faster, although increasing the latter probably worked just by boosting the former. Those running 41 to fifty miles per week in pre-training ran 32% faster than those who ran less than twenty miles, which is a huge difference. The bulk of this mileage was devoted to slower, longer runs. Runners who incorporated intervals and tempo runs ran faster as well, and those who put in a lot of mileage while also incorporating tempos and intervals were the fastest of all.

Only tempo runs correlated to injuries, and this correlation was strongest in the first six weeks of training. However, the tempo runs also made the athletes faster, so the injuries were probably due to running too fast too soon. After the initial six weeks, the correlation ceased. Mental skills had no effect on performance or injuries. This might be because the mental skills tested have a more significant effect on elite athletes. Also, the participants of this study were not trained to use mental skills, but merely assessed at the start of this study.

The bottom line is simple. More weekly mileage will help your performance. Somewhere around 25% to 30% of that mileage should be at faster than normal training speeds for the best results, but only once you’re well conditioned for running.


1. Karrie Hamstra-Wright, et. al., “The influence of training and mental skills preparation on injury incidence and performance in marathon runners,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(10), 2013.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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