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First marathon training plan: a 12-week guide to help you get to the start line – and beyond!

Runners at the starting line
Follow our first marathon training plan and you'll soon be ready to take your place on the start line (Image credit: Getty)

Whether you dream of a fast finish or just want to get round, running your first marathon is an incredible achievement that will be stamped into your memory forever. So make it as brilliant as you can with this first marathon training plan, a 12-week guide to help you get the most from your debut over 26.2 miles. 

This first marathon training plan is designed for those ready to go from half marathon to marathon with a 5-hour time in mind. 

What if I want to do a trail marathon?

Road Running in the Countryside

Look for an easier, flatter route if you want to tackle a trail marathon (Image credit: Getty)

On trails, depending on the ascent and terrain, marathon times can massively vary – pick a flattish route with easy ground for your first and this plan will also work for you. For anything more involved, see the 5k-50k trail training plans in my book here (opens in new tab).

What if I’m a complete beginner runner?

The best way to get ready for this 12-week first marathon training plan from scratch is to take a full year starting with Couch to 5k, then parkruns until you are enjoying running regularly three times a week for 30-60 minutes. Then add in a long, slow run every week which gradually increases in distance to build up to a 10k, then half marathon. If you are still enjoying your running then, you are ready to follow this 12-week first marathon training plan. 

Woman running on bridge

You're ready for this first marathon training plan when you're able to take on a half marathon  (Image credit: Getty)

1. Pick your race

Of course you don’t have to sign up for a race at all, you can train up to do the marathon distance of 26.2 miles in your own local area or a trail route of your own design, however for maximum motivation, picking a race that inspires you (or maybe even scares you!) is a fantastic way to make your first marathon goal happen. 

For your first, don’t be afraid to think beyond the usual packed, often oversubscribed city marathons that you may not get into for a couple of years. Think lower key for your first – instead of Boston, New York or London, think Manchester, Edinburgh or Brighton. Or you might prefer an off-road marathon. Pick one to look forward to and the training will be a joy. 

Marathon runners

Select your first marathon carefully and consider going for a lower key event (Image credit: Getty)

2. Get the right gear

You deserve to feel good about yourself when you’re running so if your gear is old and tired or you’ve changed size, treat yourself to a new, bouncy pair of trainers (or trail running shoes), a well-fitting, sweat-wicking top or at least a decent, comfy sports bra

Women running together on remote trail

Face your first marathon training plan with some good, new kit (Image credit: Getty)

3. Follow this 12-week first marathon training plan

You don’t have to be a slave to this plan – there will be days or even weeks when you are too busy, ill or tired. Listen to your body and if it’s really telling you to rest, skip a session and go for a walk or do yoga instead, or even just get an early night.

• The sessions explained

The sessions are labeled 1-4 because you can move them around to fit whichever days suit you. If you do a hard run with intense efforts, give yourself a rest day afterwards. 

• Train specific to your marathon race route

If your marathon is on roads, train on roads. If it’s on trails, train as much as you can on similar terrain. If it’s hilly, you guessed it, find some hills on your training routes! Replicate the race route as much as you can in your training.

• Rest days

Any day you aren’t doing sessions 1-4 is a rest day. This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything though – active recovery like walking, yoga, easy cycling, chasing after the kids is all fine for a rest day. 

• Recovery week

Every three weeks you should have an easier week to recover from a week of harder training. The weeks go easy, medium, hard until just before the race where you get longer to recover just before the race – this is called tapering

• Pace

Easy chatting pace is what the majority of your training runs should be done at. Most self-coached runners fall into the trap of running ‘sort of hardish’ all the time, when to progress most efficiently (according to all the top coaches) you must run at an easy pace 80% of the time and a flat out effort 20% of the time; nothing in between. 

Hard pace should be a flat out effort at a pace where you could only gasp the answers if you had to chat. Don’t worry there are only a few of these efforts each week! Do them with friends and enjoy sprinting like you’re a kid again.

Women running across a bridge, taking

Keep the pace easy so you're able to chat, for 80% of your training (Image credit: Getty)

• Interval efforts

Some short, fast sprint efforts to get your body used to faster running. You can do these efforts up a hill or on a flat section, whichever you prefer depending on what you need for your marathon race route. Warm up by running 1-2 miles at an easy chatting pace. Run fast and hard for 60 seconds either up a runnable hill or along a long, flat section. Pause and note or mark where you got to, then jog back down, recovering on the way. Once your heart has stopped beating out of your ribcage and your breathing has returned to almost normal, repeat the effort, aiming to run as far as your mark each time – so avoid over-egging it on your first rep!

Read more in our guide to interval training for runners.

• Build up slowly

This easy run at a chatting pace will build you up to the marathon distance nice and slowly by a mile or two each week. It only goes up to 21 rather than 26 miles because the adrenaline of race day, cumulative fitness and rest week before the marathon will give you the strength and energy you need to run a further 5 miles. This is the best way to train without overtraining and injury.

• Cross training

This is down as Bonus session 4 because it's for weeks when you feel especially energetic or have time. This cross training is not a fourth run so as to reduce the impact on your joints and boost your cardio (heart and lung strength) using different muscles, and varying training to keep it interesting. Strength work, a core workout, swimming, cycling, dancing, roller blading, rock climbing, whatever inspires you.

12-week first marathon training plan
WeekTypeSession 1Session 2Session 3Bonus session 4
1EasyEasy run 5k/3miles mins chatting paceInterval efforts 3 x 60 secsLong run 38km/10 miles chatting paceCross-train 30 mins easy chatting pace
2MediumEasy run 7.5k/4.5miles mins chatting paceInterval efforts 4 x 60 secsLong run 38km/11 miles chatting paceCross-train 45 mins easy chatting pace
3HardEasy run 10k/6miles chatting paceInterval efforts 5 x 60 secsLong run 19km/12 miles chatting paceCross-train 60 mins easy chatting pace
4EasyEasy run 5k/3miles chatting paceEasy run 30 mins chatting paceLong run 21km/13 miles chatting paceCross-train 30 mins easy chatting pace
5MediumEasy run 7.5k/4.5miles chatting paceInterval efforts 6 x 60 secsLong run 23km/14 miles chatting paceCross-train 45 mins easy chatting pace
6HardEasy run 10k/6miles chatting paceInterval efforts 7 x 60 secsLong run 24km/15 miles chatting paceCross-train 60 mins easy chatting pace
7EasyEasy run 5k/3miles chatting paceEasy run 30 mins chatting paceLong run 27km/17 miles chatting paceCross-train 30 mins easy chatting pace
8MediumEasy run 7.5k/4.5miles chatting paceInterval efforts 8 x 60 secsLong run 31km/19 miles chatting paceCross-train 45 mins easy chatting pace
9HardEasy run 5k/3miles chatting paceInterval efforts 9 x 60 secsLong run 34km/21 miles chatting paceCross-train 60 mins easy chatting pace
10MediumEasy run 7.5k/4.5miles chatting paceInterval efforts 10 x 60 secsLong run 27km/17 miles chatting paceCross-train 45 mins easy chatting pace
11EasyEasy run 5k/3miles chatting paceEasy run 5k/3miles chatting paceLong run 16km/10 miles chatting paceCross-train 30 mins easy chatting pace
12RaceEasy run 5k/3miles chatting paceEasy WALK 5k/3miles chatting paceMARATHON!

The co-founder and former editor of Trail Running magazine, Claire now runs the YouTube channel Wild Ginger Running, creating films packed with trail- and ultra-running content. An award-winning journalist, writing for outdoor and adventure sports magazines and websites, her first book The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running 5k to 50k is out in January 2021. Claire also speaks and presents at events and races.