Marathons have become increasingly popular in recent years, and for good reason – completing one can be an incredible accomplishment and a testament to your physical and mental endurance.
However, training for a marathon can be daunting, especially for new runners. That’s where our exclusive, free-to-download 20 week marathon training plan comes in.
I’m Alastair, one of the founders of Trail & Kale. I ran my first marathon over 10 years ago and have since gone on to run many marathons and ultramarathons all over the world.
I’m constantly inspired by the thousands of people who change their lives by taking up running and the challenge of their first marathon, and excited to share this exclusive ‘Couch to Marathon’ training plan with you!
This 20-week marathon training plan is designed to take you from a new runner to a marathon finisher, with a gradual buildup of mileage and intensity.
We’ve taken extra care to make this plan as easy to follow and structured as possible.
Our plans are tried, tested and proven by ourselves and our running community and will get you to race day and over that finish line with a smile on your face and a huge sense of pride and accomplishment!
What’s in this 20-week marathon training plan
- Who this 20 Week Couch to Marathon plan is for
- Overview of our Couch to Marathon training plan
- How to prepare for your first marathon
- Advice to optimize performance, improve post-run recovery and prevent injuries
- Tips for race day success
- Our FREE downloadable Couch to Marathon training plan pdf (printable)
- COMPANION GUIDE for the 20-week training plan
With this guide, you’ll have all the tools you need to start your marathon journey and achieve your goal of crossing the finish line.
Who this 20 Week Couch to Marathon plan is for
Active non-runners: If you are already an active person who does some other exercise and has a level of existing fitness but doesn’t run regularly, then you may find that you can jump into this 5 month Couch To Marathon training plan with no additional preparation.
If you used to run, but haven’t for a while: If you’re coming back from a break in running, but have that past experience, you should find this 20-week plan to be a great fit for your running comeback and first marathon goal!
If your break has been a long time and you need help building up to running 30 minutes at a time, consider doing our 8-week Ultimate Couch to 5k Training Plan first, before moving on to this 20-week marathon training plan.
If you are not currently a runner and have not run before: if this sounds like you, you may have a little more preparation to do, which starts with building up to running up to around 30 minutes at a time (around a 5k in distance, or 3.3 miles).
This will allow you to work your way up to that baseline and ensure you’re physically prepared before coming back to this marathon plan.
For our 8-week new runner training program that will guide you from being a non-runner to running your first 30 minutes (5k) non-stop, visit our Ultimate Couch to 5k Training Plan.
If you’re a more experienced runner and none of these situations sound like where you’re at in your run training right now, then head back over to our marathon training plan database and choose one of our other plans that fits your experience level and goals, from beginner through to expert!
For example, our 16-Week or 12-Week marathon training plan may be a better fit for you.
If you’re interested in running 5k, 10k, a half marathon or even your first ultramarathon then head over to our training plans homepage after reading this post.
Overview of our 20-Week Couch to Marathon training plan
This training plan is designed to help you train to be able to run a marathon distance.
It assumes that you have no specific time goal, you may find that for parts of your race, you adopt a run-walk technique (more on that later) and the target is to cross the finish line happy and injury-free!
Of course, if you’d like to set a time goal for yourself then by all means, do it! It can really help to focus your training to have an approximate time in mind.
This chart should help you predict what your potential marathon time could be:
To learn more about marathon pace ranges and estimated marathon finish times to give you an idea of how much time it may take you to run a marathon, head over to our marathon training plans overview, which includes pace charts and information on average finish times for male and female runners.
How the plan is structured
This is a 20-week marathon training plan: the ultimate training guide for new runners.
As with our other marathon training schedules, the plan is structured so that you do several runs a week, of different durations and intensities. In this marathon training plan, you’ll do 4 runs a week.
At the end of each week, your training plan will include a ‘long run’. The long run is an important one because this is the training run that will teach your body and mind to run slightly longer durations (and distances) each week, as you build up the strength and confidence to run the full marathon distance.
This ‘couch to marathon’ training plan also includes rest days and core or strength training. These are also important components for your overall strength and recovery.
Heart rate zone training
All of our marathon training plans take advantage of the benefits of using heart rate zone training as a highly effective way to plan, monitor and track running effort levels and performance over time.
Heart rate training is personalized to you, based on your individual heart rate, and provides ranges for you to train within, called ‘zones’.
Read our easy-to-follow guide to heart rate zone training to learn how to work out your heart rate zones and how to track your heart rate when you’re running.
About the run-walk method
The run-walk method is a great approach to training for a marathon, especially for beginners who may not have a lot of running experience.
We use it for certain runs in our training plans for new runners for distances from 5k to ultramarathons.
With this method, you’ll alternate between running and walking at regular intervals during your training runs, rather than trying to run the entire distance from the start.
This allows you to build endurance gradually, reduces the risk of injury and fatigue, and can help you avoid ‘hitting the wall’ during your marathon race.
By alternating between running and walking, you can give your muscles a chance to recover and recharge, allowing you to run more efficiently for longer periods of time.
How to prepare for your first marathon
Check your fitness level
Be honest with yourself about your current fitness level, and consult your doctor if you feel it’s necessary before you start doing any run training.
As mentioned above, if you’re completely new to cardio exercise such as running, then it is worth investing the extra 8 weeks in gradually building yourself up to running 30 minutes non-stop, using our Couch to 5k program, before starting this Couch to Marathon plan.
Gather the gear you need to run comfortably
There are some essential items of running gear you’ll need before getting started on your marathon training routine.
To ensure you have the right gear, we’ve put together a comprehensive set of running gear buyer’s guides based on our extensive experience of testing and reviewing running shoes, apparel and accessories!
Here are the essential items you’ll need for your marathon training and race day, plus a few optional items you may need, depending on when and where you run:
- A quality pair of running shoes
- Running socks
- Running tights or shorts
- For women, a running-appropriate sports bra
- A running tee or vest
- A running watch with a wrist-worn heart rate monitor
- A waterproof running jacket
- Running sunglasses
- A running hat
Optional items to also consider for running in the cold are warm running gloves, an insulated winter running hat and a warm baselayer such as a merino wool tee.
For running in the dark then a good running headlamp is essential and a reflective running vest is a good idea, too.
Find time in your schedule to fit training in
One of the most important things to remember when starting this training process is that dedicated, consistent training will get you to the marathon finish line.
It’s therefore important to review our free training plan, together with your personal schedule and plan out when would be the best days and times to fit in your run and strength training over the next 20 weeks.
Many people find it beneficial to do their runs in the early morning, so it’s done for the day before you get stuck into everything else you have to do in the day, like work. If you don’t consider yourself an early bird, read our guide to becoming a morning runner for some tips.
Otherwise, running at night is a popular choice for people who have a safe place to do their run training, so if you plan to do this plan your training routes in advance, and bring enough warm clothes, reflective gear, and a headlamp to keep you comfortable and help ensure you can be seen (and see where you’re running!).
Lunchtime is another great time to fit in a 20-40 minute training run, or one of your scheduled core or strength training sessions.
Make healthy lifestyle changes
Training for a marathon is not just about running, or even just the combination of running and other training that’s listed on our free training plan pdf below.
What you do when you’re not running is just as important as when you are running. You can really help make training easier and more enjoyable by taking steps to develop a healthier lifestyle, which can include:
- changing your diet to eating more whole foods and less processed foods, salt, and sugar
- reducing your alcohol intake
- creating a good environment for sleep and ensuring you get enough of it!
Making lifestyle changes in these areas will be very rewarding in terms of how much higher your energy levels are (important for this type of endurance training), how much better you feel, and, for many people, the weight loss that comes with the combination of dietary changes and increased amounts of exercise.
Advice to optimize performance, improve post-run recovery and prevent injuries
This advice for before, during, and after your training runs will help you make the most out of every single run you do while training for your marathon race.
Before your run: Readiness, fuel, and dynamic stretching
Be prepared – get your running shoes, clothes, watch and accessories together in advance – especially if you plan to get up early to run!
Eat before your run – this is especially important before your weekly long runs once they get to an hour or longer, to ensure you have high enough energy levels to sustain running for extended periods.
Dynamic stretching – is super important as part of your 5-10 minute pre-run warm up. There’s a video demonstration of our recommended pre-run dynamic stretches in our post on stretches for runners.
During your run: Technique, heart rate monitoring, and nutrition
Develop good running technique – this includes checking in with yourself as you run to ensure you’re working on efficient breathing, running form and cadence while you move.
Monitor your heart rate – our marathon training plans are most effective for runners who are able to track and monitor their heart rate.
This is a fundamental of heart rate zone training, which is personalized to take into consideration your own heart rate data so you can ensure you’re running with the right intensity for each training run.
Nutrition as you run – I recommend taking water with you for every run, except, perhaps, those shorter runs in cold weather. You can carry water in a running belt or hydration pack.
Take the time to learn about what to eat while running, which is a consideration for long runs of more than one hour in duration. Energy gels and chews are a popular and convenient option.
After your run: Static stretching, recovery and injury prevention
Static stretching – don’t forget to do some good static stretching after you finish each run. It will really help with flexibility and reduce post-run soreness. These are our favorite static stretches.
Post-run recovery shake – a good quality plant-based protein shake will make a huge difference in reducing post-run soreness and helping your body recover after an intense endurance effort or strength training. I suggest having one after every run that lasts over an hour.
Get plenty of rest and sleep – another proven way to help recover quicker, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and that on rest days, you truly do rest! Our guide on how to sleep better is full of tips that should help!
Tips for race day success
Here are our top tips for marathon race day success! Bookmark this post and come back to it as you approach race day:
A few days before
- Eat and drink particularly clean, remembering to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated
- Connect with any friends and family who will be coming out to support and spectate at the race. Agree on what mile marker or landmark they’ll be near, and if they’ll be on the left or right of the barriers! They may want to make a funny or motivating sign for you, too!
- Plan where you’ll go for post-race celebrations. Perhaps a bar or nice restaurant near the finish line? If necessary, make a reservation.
The night before
- Prepare your gear. Gather your shoes, clothes, running watch (make sure it’s charged) accessories, water, nutrition, race bib and safety pins
- Prepare your drop bag. If you need to, put essentials in the drop bag and put it by your running shoes so it’s ready to grab and go the next morning and you don’t forget it. Items you’ll want in here may include your phone, a warm layer, a snack and a change of shirt.
- Set your alarm.
- Prepare your breakfast.
- Check the weather forecast.
- Plan your route and timing to get to the start line. If applicable, know where you’ll park and allow plenty of time for parking and walking to the start area, including a visit to the restroom and to drop off your drop-bag at the designated location.
- Know your start time and what wave you’re running in.
- Have a nice early evening meal and get an early night!
Race day morning
- Eat a good breakfast around 2 hours before the race start. My post on what to eat before running explains the food I prefer to eat and recommend as an energy-filled pre-race meal.
- Leave for the start line with plenty of time to park, drop your drop-bag, walk to the starting corrals, and find a porta-potty to use the bathroom in. Remember there will be thousands of other people there so prepare for queues to park and use the bathroom, which will add to the time!
Running your first marathon
- Stay calm at the start. It can be an intense experience waiting to start, with so many other runners around you, but take a deep breath, calm your heart rate, and soak up the fun atmosphere! You’ve put in the work, you’re ready! Remember all the hard work and sacrifices you’ve made to get to that start line, so don’t forget to enjoy yourself!
- Smile as much as possible. I mean it! You probably won’t have a choice, given how wonderful the atmosphere is when the route is lined with people who came out to cheer you on. Be sure to smile at those photographers – you’ll want a souvenir photo, after all 🙂
- Stop your watch! If you’re wearing a running watch, remember to stop it when you’ve crossed the line so you have your race time saved.
Our FREE downloadable 20 Week Marathon Training Plan pdf (printable)
Companion guide for the 20-week training plan
Our 20-week training plan is designed to be simple to follow and prioritizes running consistency and the importance of your weekend long run to train yourself to be able to run the full marathon distance.
It also includes milestones for the first 10k of your training program, and the first half marathon distance, which is 12 weeks into the 20 week plan.
If you’d like to, it could be a good idea to find a local half marathon race to sign up for that weekend, rather than doing it as another regular long run near home.
A half marathon race should be a fun day out, as well as a good opportunity to get some experience of what to expect from running with thousands of other runners on marathon race day!
Train using heart rate zones
Effort levels for each run are specified based on ensuring you’re running in target heart rate zones 2 and 3, which you’ll monitor using a running watch that tracks your heart rate.
Read our heart rate training post to learn how to calculate your personalized heart rate zones.
You can also use this training plan without specifically using heart rate zones and tracking your heart rate, but you’ll need to gauge your effort level based on your perceived effort, rather than using heart rate data.
Warm up and cool down
Before every run, spend at least 5 minutes doing a warm up, which should include dynamic stretching.
After every run, spend 5 minutes cooling down until your heart rate is back comfortably in Zone 1. Then spend at least another 5 minutes doing some static stretches to help reduce soreness and promote flexibility and range of motion.
Our guide to stretches for runners lists our favorite dynamic and static stretches to help take out the guesswork for you.
Core and strength exercises
Thursday is your training plan’s ‘core and strength’ day. This session should be around 30-45 minutes long, and focus on core stability and overall strength training, which you can do using your bodyweight and little or no additional weights or gear.
I suggest doing circuits of the following exercises into your core and strength sessions for an all-round core and strength session. Do around 90 seconds on each, and repeat the circuit three times:
- Bodyweight squats
- Bicycle abs
- Fire hydrants
- Side planks
- Glute bridges
Monday and Saturday are your rest days.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do some activity, though, but take those days off from running. Depending on how you feel, you could do some yoga, breathwork, stretching, light cross-training (such as riding an indoor bicycle) or take a hike.
I’m excited for you to embark on your first marathon training journey and hope you find our couch to marathon training program to be an easy-to-follow and enjoyable companion along the way!