Running in the 'Meda: Training time

Running in the 'Meda: Training time

Marty Beene

The author happily completing the California International Marathon in 2004, after a 16-week training program. Photo courtesy of Marty Beene.

How long does it take to train for a marathon? A half marathon? A 5k?

The answer is, of course, it depends. But on what?

Mostly, the length of time needed to train for any given event depends on where your fitness is right now. People who have never run a step in their lives can train to complete a marathon, but it will take much longer to prepare than for someone who already runs regularly.

The answer for the longer races is simpler than you might think. When I am asked to develop training plans for half marathons and marathons, I usually think in terms of three to five months (12 to 20 weeks). But in each case, the runner must be at a certain level of fitness.

For example, let's say someone wants to be able to complete a marathon. For marathons, you can get by with a longest training run of about 20 miles. In order to build up one's mileage enough to run that far, the longest run of each week should only be about 10 percent longer than in the previous week.

A third training principle is that you should generally train in a four-week cycle, where you build for three weeks, then ease off for one. Doing the math backwards down from 20 miles using these principles (and knowing you should leave two to three weeks between your 20-miler and the marathon) means a training plan may stretch to as long as 26 weeks for a complete beginner.

For a half marathon, a long training run of about 10 miles should be enough to enable you to complete the distance. Using the same principals as above, it's only about a 16-week training duration for that same beginner.

Shorter distances, especially the ever-popular 5k (just over three miles), have a wider range of necessary training periods. Some people might be able to go out without any training and run that far the first day, while others might need several weeks to reach that level. I will usually start a beginner with a plan using 12 weeks of training, but then either speed up or stretch out that person's program depending on how they handle the first few weeks.

For the longer distances, people who are already doing some running would not need the full training durations described above. Based on those plans, a person already able to run five miles comfortably could probably shave the marathon training time down to about 20 weeks or the half marathon training time down to about 10 weeks. If a person's standard long run of a week is already around eight miles, those numbers could come down to about 16 and eight (or even as little as four weeks for the half).

I do think every runner should try at least one marathon. I don't like that distance much for myself, but the marathon distance is a fairly extraordinary thing for a human being to do, so it's pretty cool in that regard. I'm definitely glad I did the three that I completed. Half marathons, on the other hand, are an ideal long-distance running goal. You definitely have to put in a significant training effort, but that distance is not nearly as hard on a body as the marathon. You can be back to normal running within just a few days, and you can do several of them each year if you choose.

What are you waiting for?

Marty Beene, a USA Track & Field certified coach, is owner of Be The Runner; he coaches adults from beginners to veterans individually and in groups. Marty can be reached at marty@BeTheRunner.com.