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How to train for a marathon in 26 steps

Training, fuel, hydration, gear -- get up to speed on marathon basics.

Male crossing the finish line at a marathon.

There's no doubt that training for, and running, a marathon is sucky at times. But you get to feel like this when you finish.

Getty Images

When ultrarunner Jamie King ran her first marathon, mile 19 brought tears and feelings of utter defeat. But instead of maintaining that negative headspace for the rest of the race, King flipped a switch when she realized how close she was to the finish line. 

"As soon as that realization set in -- that the finish line was within reach -- my adrenaline took over, my mood improved and I was able to run again," King tells CNET. 

So she finished, and then went on to run many more marathons and even ultramarathons. The point is: Running long distances can really, really suck, but with a bit of grit and a grip on your perspective, anyone -- even complete novices -- can power through a full marathon.

If you've been keen on the idea of running a marathon but aren't sure where to start, begin with this 26-step guide and you, too, can have the 26.2 sticker in the rearview window of your car. 

Read more: The absolute beginner's guide to running for fitness

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Step 1. Make the commitment

Don't just say you're going to run a marathon. Anyone can say that. Really, truly commit to it -- and actually sign up for a race. If you didn't know, race registrations are expensive (and things get more costly if you're traveling), so it'll be way harder to back out once you sign up. Register even if you don't have anyone to run with. You can find an accountability buddy later, or run solo and revel in your bad-assery. 

When choosing your race, make sure to look for events that don't require prior qualifying times. As this is your first marathon, you won't be eligible for a race that does require one.

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Sign up for a race several months in the future to motivate you to start training.

San Francisco Marathon

Step 2. Be honest with yourself about your fitness level

If you've never run a marathon before, don't expect that you can just go run a marathon -- 26.2 miles is a long distance even for people who have some running experience. Running a marathon underprepared and undertrained usually ends with pain and misery, so be honest about how much time you'll need to train, even if you're not proud of your current fitness level.

On the flip side, don't let the distance scare you. As King puts it, "Anyone can run a marathon if they want to. With a little heart, determination and some training, it's possible for anyone, even the novice runner, to run a marathon."

Read more: How to run your first Spartan Race

Step 3. Decide how long you need to train

A typical marathon training plan ranges from 12 to 26 weeks (three to six months), give or take a few weeks depending on each runner's fitness level. If you have little to no running experience, you'll want to stay on the higher end of that range, allowing yourself at least 18 weeks (four months) to train. This will allow you to get familiar with different types of runs and still leave time for cross-training and rest days for a well-rounded training program. If you want to be really safe, go with six months.

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The right pair of running shoes goes a long way.

Ned Frisk/Getty Images

Step 4. Invest in a good pair of running shoes

A good pair of running shoes is key to a good race. You can start and finish your training cycle in the same pair of shoes, though some marathoners like to replace their shoes at the halfway point. If you're training for more than four months, you may want to replace yours midway. The biggest thing is to avoid replacing your running shoes too soon before your race -- and definitely not the night before your race, unless you want 27 blisters and eight toenails.

Read more: How to pick the best running shoes for your feet

Step 5. And sweat-wicking workout clothes

Make sure you have breathable, moisture-wicking workout clothes to keep you cool and comfy during your runs. You don't have to buy anything expensive, but you should at least invest in some basic nylon, polyester or spandex clothes so you don't end up wishing you could rip your cotton sweat-soaked T-shirt off. If you'll be training in snowy or icy weather, get an athletic outerwear layer and anti-slip covers for your shoes, if necessary.

Read more: How to wash smelly workout clothes

Step 6. And anti-chafe products

One more item for your marathon must-have list: anti-chafing products. You can use a stick, ointment or powder, but use something, because when your mileage gets longer and the weather gets warmer, your skin will need it. Every runner chafes differently, but most people can expect roughness around the armpits and inner thighs -- one small anti-chafe stick (such as Body Glide) can save you a lot of discomfort.

Step 7. Commit to a training plan

Once you have your commitment, your shoes and your workout clothes, you can hit the pavement. Decide what kind of workouts or runs you'll do on which days, and do everything in your power to stick to them. You can get a good marathon training plan in two main ways: You can work with a professional personal trainer or running coach, or find a suitable one online. 

Nike offers a free marathon training plan that can be modified to suit your current running pace (and shift with you as you get faster). Runner's World offers multiple free training plans for marathon runners of all levels. Verywell Fit offers yet another free training program with a helpful pace calculator.

Step 8. But don't ignore warning signs

There's a difference between hurting and being hurt. Hurting means you're training hard. That's good, and you should keep going. Being hurt, on the other hand, is not good, and you should stop. Learn to recognize the differences between soreness and injury, and listen to your body when it's telling you that it's hurt. Pushing through real pain -- not typical exercise-induced burning and aching -- can result in a serious injury and preclude you from running your marathon.

Step 9. Log all of your runs, good and bad

Run-tracking apps are your friend. Pick your favorite one and log every run -- including speed workouts, long runs and shorter ones too. Not only will this help you get a grip on your average pace, but it will show you how different conditions (such as wind, hills and heat) affect your running performance. Also, seeing that you've run 50 miles in one week is a great feeling and you should relish that data. 

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A running app can help you keep track of all different types of training runs.

Running by Daily Burn/App Store

Step 10. Don't forget about cross-training

One of the most important parts of running a marathon is not running. Counterintuitive? Maybe. But you need to build strength in your muscles just as much as you need to build strength in your heart and lungs. Cardio endurance and muscular endurance intertwine closely and spending some time in the weight room will do you a lot of good. 

Step 11. And definitely don't forget about recovery

Your muscles will throb. Your joints will ache. Give yourself at least some semblance of comfort by soothing your muscles after workouts. Stretch, foam roll, use a heating pad, jump into a cryo chamber, slip into some compression boots or punch your muscles with a massage gun: The options are endless, so there's really no excuse not to recover.

Step 12. Learn how and when to fuel your body

Should you eat before you run? After? When you're training for a marathon, probably both. Study up on the basics of exercise nutrition to get the most out of your workouts and avoid symptoms such as lightheadedness and nausea, which can occur when you don't eat enough before working out. A basic rule of thumb: carbs and fat before a workout, carbs and protein after. 

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Soothe sore muscles with a massage gun or a foam roller.

Angela Lang/CNET

Step 13. Remember why you're doing this

We are on step 13 -- halfway through this list. Halfway through your marathon training, you might feel like quitting. Actually, it's highly likely that you'll want to quit several times throughout your training plan, because training for a marathon is just plain hard. 

Help yourself out with a reason that's bigger than getting fit or accomplishing a milestone -- something that, when you think of it, will inspire you to keep going. For example, some marathoners like to dedicate their miles to friends and family, and they wouldn't want to let down the people who are special to them. 

Step 14. Drink more water (and then some more)

I cannot -- repeat, cannot -- stress this enough: stay hydrated. Dehydration can sneak up on you with symptoms that you may not pin to dehydration: Minor headaches, irritability, sleep issues, chapped lips, dizziness and lightheadedness can all mean you're dehydrated. Look out for these signs (and the telltale sign of dark-colored urine) and guzzle some H2O.

It can be tricky to get enough water during long runs, but you can stay hydrated by: 

  • Wearing a hydration backpack or vest
  • Using a handheld water flask with a hand strap
  • Wearing a bottle belt
  • Pick a route where you can stop at a drinking fountain
  • Plan your route so that you can circle back to your porch or car a few times and stash a mini aid station (like a cooler with water and sunscreen) that you can stop at. 

Read more: How to tell if you're dehydrated in the winter 

Step 15. Embrace that you'll need more sleep, and let yourself have it

Marathon training can and will be a shock to your system if you have little to no experience with running. At first, you'll certainly feel physically and probably mentally exhausted. Your body needs time to repair itself, which it does primarily during sleep.

Step 16. Reschedule -- don't cancel

If you miss a run or workout, don't beat yourself up. Marathon training is a microcosm of life: stuff happens. You'll get home late from work or battle a cold or run into childcare problems. When life gets in the way of your training plan, allow for flexibility -- but not resignation. 

Skipping one run makes it easier to skip another and another. So reschedule -- don't cancel. This is why you leave rest days in your schedule, so you can shuffle when stuff happens.  

Step 17. Embrace the suckiness of it all 

According to King, the best approach to a marathon is knowing that it's going to be hard and that it's going to challenge you. 

"The best thing to do is to embrace the fact that it will probably suck at some point so that when it does suck, you can manage the low and come back out on the other side," she says. "And just remember, at the end of the day, it's simply one foot in front of the other."

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You'll reach plenty of points in your training where it's going to suck to run, but keep pressing on.

Getty Images

Step 18. Get used to waking up -- and running -- early

Most marathons start between 6 and 8 a.m. If you're not a morning person, you might want to make an effort to become one, at least for marathon training. Bodies take time to adjust to new schedules, so it's not a good idea to exercise at night for six months and then all of a sudden make your body run 26.2 miles at 7 a.m.

Step 19. Elect someone to drive you home

Trust in this: You will not want to, and might not be able to, drive home or back to your hotel after your first marathon. It's best to enlist a friend or family member ahead of time.

Step 20. Do a dress rehearsal

The last thing you want on race day is to get to mile 10 and realize you've developed a blister the size of Canada because your sock shimmied down your heel. Do a trial run wearing everything you plan to wear on race day, down to the underwear. You don't need to run the full 26.2 miles for your dress rehearsal, but at least get into the double digits. Dedicate a long run day to this. 

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Whatever gear you're using at the end of your training is what you should be using on race day.

Getty Images

Step 21. Don't change anything the night before race day

You might feel tempted to load up on supplements or superfoods the night before your race, but stick to your usual diet and routine. All the supplements in the world won't help if you haven't been balancing your macronutrients and consuming enough vitamins and minerals over the course of your training plan. Stick to what your body knows: It's not worth waking up with surprise bowel problems. 

Step 22. Arrive at the race destination early

If you're traveling and lodging somewhere for your race, get there at least the night before. This gives you time to get used to your surroundings, pick up your race day packet and avoid any potential mishaps that could make you miss your race, such as a flat tire. 

On race day, arrive at the starting line at least an hour early. First-time marathon runners may be surprised at how early everyone arrives at the grounds. This leaves time for warming up, stretching, last-minute bathroom breaks and finding a spot at the start line.

Step 23. Don't let adrenaline get the best of you

Race day will feel exciting and nerve-wracking all at once. You'll have a ton of adrenaline pumping through your body and you might feel super amped up, ready to speed through the starting line. Don't do that. If you go out the gate too fast, you'll burn out and risk not finishing your marathon. Even though your usual pace might feel slow in the beginning, stick with it. 

Step 24. Try to stick to your training pace

Over the course of your training plan, you should've developed an average mile pace during long runs. Try to stick to this pace for the entirety of the race: It won't shock your body and it'll give you 26.2 miniature goals to meet throughout your marathon.

Step 25. Don't overdo food and fluids during the race

Don't completely avoid the aid stations during your race, but don't get too tempted by them, either. You can't always tell what's in a drink or energy gel at an aid station, and it's best not to upset your stomach. Safe bets include sliced fruit, water and electrolyte drinks. Don't hesitate to ask a volunteer what's in the drinks. 

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Use the water stations wisely.

Boston Globe/Getty Images

Step 26. Rehydrate, recover, rest (and celebrate!)

Once you cross the finish line, it's time for the three R's. 

First, rehydrate: You lost fluid during your four-ish hours on the road, and you need to replenish. 

Then, recover: As much as you want to collapse into the grass underneath the shade of the chocolate milk tent, try to stay on your feet. Plopping down and sitting still after your first marathon is a recipe for muscle cramps and stiffness. Try to keep walking around and do some light stretching. 

Finally, rest and celebrate. Reward yourself with a well-deserved treat, drink, massage, nap, pool party -- whatever will revive you and commemorate your first marathon.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.