How to Choose a Marathon
The first step in starting your marathon journey is choosing a marathon! There are hundreds of marathons held every year all over the world, from the “Big Five” (Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London and New York City) to smaller, local events held just about everywhere. We suggest considering the following factors when selecting your race:
The standard amount of time needed to prepare for a marathon usually falls around sixteen weeks, assuming a good base level of fitness. Can you train for a marathon in six weeks? It’s possible, but it probably won’t be much fun—and you’ll run the risk of injury by compressing your time frame. To feel prepared and strong on race day, it’s ideal to choose a marathon that you’ll have at least four months to train for.
Entrants must qualify for many of the “big five” marathons, among others. This serves to limit field sizes, and typically makes a marathon faster and more competitive. For example, the qualifying time for men 35 to 39 in the 2019 Boston Marathon was 3:10:00—which means logging at least a 7:15 mile pace for the duration of the race. For some runners, the qualification factor makes a race more attractive, but for others (especially newer marathoners), it might be best to choose a marathon without qualification requirements for a more relaxed atmosphere.
Location is important when it comes to a marathon. Terrain and climate can vastly change the character of a race, and travel (while fun) can create logistical challenges. Will you be bringing your family and friends with you for support? Is the terrain of the race similar to the terrain you’ll have access to for training? Will your marathon be a hot race or a cold one? Will altitude be a factor? All of these are important questions to ask yourself when choosing your marathon.
Some races see thousands of entrants while others attract a couple hundred. It’s your choice whether you want a smaller, more intimate race, or prefer to join a sea of runners.
Don’t forget, you’ll have 26.2 miles to contemplate why you’re running this marathon. It helps if the race has some personal meaning to you! If you need a good place to start, these are world-renowned marathoner and coach Hal Higdon’s top ten favorite marathons.
Do you have the time?
Preparing for a marathon is a serious undertaking. You’ll be building your mileage to about 50 miles per week, and you’ll need time to focus on nutrition, recovery, and potentially even travel to runnable routes. If you’re also juggling work and family obligations, you may need to do some prioritizing to get your training completed.
Of course, most marathoners deal with logistical challenges, and many still run blazing-fast times. A tight schedule doesn’t necessarily spell disaster for your marathon dreams, but it’s wise to take an objective look at the time you have available and be realistic about the demands of training.
Setting Marathon Goals
Every successful endeavor begins with a goal, and how you go about setting that goal can play a big part in whether or not you reach it. Below you’ll find some strategies for deciding what will make your marathon successful to you.
Coach Carrie McCusker recommends visualizing how success will feel to you, then setting both externally and internally measurable goals. External goals are the quantifiable, outcome-oriented goals most of us are familiar with, and could include things like a specific finishing time, a place on the podium, or a goal pace.
Internal goals are a little less glamorous but no less important—McCusker calls them “process” goals, and they have more to do with your mental and emotional state en-route to your external goals. Examples of internal goals could be to stay positive through the race, to be more resilient when the unexpected occurs, or to listen more carefully to your nutritional needs.
Once you’ve set your goals in both categories (and ideally written them down somewhere!), you’ll need a road map to reach them. This guide is a good start, but it’s likely you’ll want more detail for your day-to-day training. Many athletes will reach out to a coach at this point to guide them through the process and hold them accountable. There are also marathon training plans offered online (including in the TrainingPeaks store) for runners of all levels.
Marathon Training Gear
Luckily, running is a relatively inexpensive and simple sport to get into. Here are some quick notes on the gear you’ll need to run a marathon:
Shoes are the most important piece of gear in your running kit, and you’ll want to spend money on a good pair. If you haven’t already, go to your local running shop and get a gait analysis to determine which shoe is best for your stride, and remember, more cushioning isn’t always better. The shoe that works best for you will depend on your particular physiology and stride—and you’ll be spending a lot of time together so you’ll want to be happy with them!
It’s also a good idea to get more than one pair of running shoes, so you can cycle them based on mileage (you’ll want to replace your shoes every 200 to 400 miles). When one pair is on its way out, you can be breaking in the next pair to ensure you don’t end up on the start line in a pair of brand new running shoes!
As you get into multi-hour runs with extended mileage, you’ll need a system to bring fuel and water with you. A hydration waist belt can store 1-2 standard bottles, but can bounce while running, especially when fully loaded. A handheld bottle is another option, and some handles include a pouch for nutrition or a credit card as well. One bottle may not be enough for a longer run. A well-fitted hydration vest is a good, low-bounce option for when you need to carry food, extra water, and even layers with you. But it can be somewhat bulky depending on the design and brand you choose. Whichever system you go with, make sure you test it thoroughly before race day.
Clothing for running is relatively straightforward. Choose pieces that are light and breathable, and that you feel comfortable and happy wearing. Again, you’ll be spending many miles together, so make sure you have support where you need it and ventilation where it counts! For cold weather running, remember you’ll be generating a lot of heat once you get moving. You might be surprised how light you can layer even when it feels cold outside!
Wear your sunscreen, get a hat, and find a pair of sunglasses that won’t bounce or slide off your face. You’ll be more comfortable on long runs, and you’ll recover better if you’re not dealing with a sunburn!
It’s your choice how you and your coach choose to use data, but we recommend at least training with heart rate. You’ll be able to use this single metric to gauge your training stress, measure progress, and even figure out when you’re getting sick before the first symptoms hit. Some wrist-based heart rate monitors don’t even require a chest strap!
You can take your tracking to the next level with GPS data, which will give you your distance, pace, elevation, and other valuable metrics to track your progress.
Ready to get running? Head to the next section to learn the fundamentals of marathon training.