Low Stress Training Plan for First Marathon

The purpose of this training plan is to help you master the marathon distance, that is, master the stress of the distance. The plan does not include speed training, because I think the stress of speed should not be part of your first marathon. Think of the plan as a series of enjoyable training runs that get progressively longer until you feel comfortable with the marathon distance. The plan uses the 10% and heavy/light rules as its basis for increases in the weekly distance.


To begin the plan, you should be "fit" as a runner.

  • You should be capable of completing a half-marathon
  • Your weekly long run should be about 12 miles
  • If you're running less than 12 miles, consider using the half-marathon plan to prepare for this plan.
  • If you're not ready for half-marathon training, here is a plan to bring you up to the point where you can do that training
  • Read my marathon page to get the "big picture" of training for a marathon
  • Read my marathon stress page to better understand the impact on your body of running a marathon


Total time. The plan requires 13 weeks for training for a marathon. This time is used for making small increases in distance, smaller jumps in distance after the fall back weeks, higher weekly mileage, and additional weeks of approximately 45 miles per week. The additional weeks are to help your body adjust to the long distance, thus avoiding possible damage to your heart, and they are a key factor to running a pain-free race.

Number of days per week. The plan is set for six days of running per week. The plan can be easily modified for three or four days of running per week by eliminating days. However, to have a successful experience, try to maintain 45 miles per week. It is important to reach that figure before you run your marathon. That figure can be reached with either five or six days of running per week. Be aware that reducing the number of running days will increase the stress on your body.

Length of runs. The plan has you running three different lengths of runs: one long run, one medium run, and four rest or recovery runs. Some runners run more than one long run or more than one medium run, but doing that puts significantly more stress on your body.

Increases in distance. The increases in the miles per run are based on the assumption that you can handle 10% increases in your weekly distance. Some runners can't do that and will need to allow additional time to let their bodies adjust to the increased stress. During the week, listen to your body to see how you feel after that day's training. If you feel tired, dragged out, or have excessive soreness, allow another week at that same or reduced level. When you return to the scheduled increases, don't try to catch up; just continue from where you are. If your tiredness continues, consider reducing your increases in subsequent weeks.

Substituting cross-training for light runs. The purpose of a light run is to give your body more time for recovery from the previous heavy run. You may want to substitute light cross-training for some of the light runs.

Fall-back weeks. After three weeks of increases, the next week is a fall-back week of reduced mileage; that week is followed by a recovery week of the mileage you were running before the reduction. This recovery week is to give your body extra rest. The fall-back weeks are denoted by FB.

Comfortable pace. Run at a comfortable pace, especially during the light weeks. Your first marathon is not the race for setting a new personal best! Choose a pace that will allow you to talk to a running buddy (or to yourself) and to feel fine at the end of each run.

Walking breaks. It is suggested that as you train, and later as you run your race, take short walking breaks of 1 - 3 minutes every mile (2 km) during your runs. Walking uses muscles differently than running, thus giving your running muscles a rest, and the breaks help you to be invigorated and avoid slowing down during the last part of the run. Walk at a comfortable, restful pace. During the race do your walking breaks while passing the water tables. If you can do the shorter rest runs without stopping or slowing down much or being overly tired, you can omit the breaks during those runs, although you can do them if you want. If you're running hills, high temperatures, or high humidity, take walking breaks more often.

Using the plan. The charts give distance in miles (kilometers). The kilometers are rounded to be whole numbers.

1st Goal: Increase distance to a long run of 15 miles (24 km) and 45 miles (72 km) per week

Week 1 4 (6) 5 (8) 9 (14) 4 (6) 5 (8) 13 (21) off 40 (64)
Week 2
4 (6) 5 (8) 9 (14) 5 (8) 5 (8) 14 (23) off 42 (68)
Week 3
5 (8) 5 (8) 10 (16) 5 (8) 5 (8) 15 (24) off 45 (72)
Week 4 FB
4 (6) 5 (8) 9 (14) 5 (8) 5 (8) 13 (21) off 41 (66)
Week 5
5 (8) 5 (8) 10 (16) 5 (8) 5 (8) 15 (24) off 45 (72)

Slowly increase your long run to 15 miles (24 km). The distances in Week 5 will be your new base, and they
will give you 45 miles (72 km) per week.

2nd Goal: Maintain a long run of 14-16 miles (23-26 km) and approximately 45 miles (72 km) per week for 4 additional weeks (or more)
Research by sports scientists shows that runners who don't train enough for their marathon may suffer cardiac problems after the race. The following is from The Boston Globe.

Among marathon runners, the biggest cardiac risk seems to arise in people who train the least. People who worked up to a marathon by running at least 45 miles a week for at least three to four months ''were golden. They didn't get into any trouble at all," said [Dr. Malissa] Wood. ''If they trained less than 35 miles a week, they were in big trouble."

Week Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Weekly
Week 6
5 (8) 5 (8) 10 (16) 5 (8) 5 (8) 15 (24) off 45 (72)
Week 7
4 (6) 5 (8) 10 (16) 5 (8) 5 (8) 15 (24) off 44 (71)
Week 8
5 (8) 5 (8) 10 (16) 5 (8) 5 (8) 16 (26) off 46 (74)
Week 9 FB
5 (8) 4 (6) 9 (14) 5 (8) 5 (8) 14 (23) off 42 (68)

3rd Goal: Increase your long run to 20 (32 km) miles and 50 (80 km) miles per week

Beginning at 7 weeks before your marathon, lengthen your long run to 20 miles (32 km). The 7 weeks will give you time to reach 20 miles and do a three-week taper. In addition, Consider adding three or four more weeks to your training so you can increase your long run to 21 miles (34 km) and then to 22 miles (35 km). If you go to 22 miles (35 km), take four weeks for your taper. However, if you hit the wall during this phase of your training, stop and focus on getting more energy into your cells via carbo loading and taking gels or sports drinks while you run, and on increasing your VO2max. You want your training to take you to the wall, but you don't want to try to go through the wall, because that is when the impact of the marathon hits your body.

Week 105 (8)4 (6)10 (16)5 (8)5 (8)16 (26)off45 (72)
Week 115 (8)5 (8)10 (16)5 (8)5 (8)16 (26)off46 (74)
Week 125 (8)5 (8)10 (16)5 (8)5 (8)18 (29)off48 (77)
Week 135 (8)5 (8)10 (16)5 (8)5 (8)20 (32)off50 (80)

The 20 miler (32 km) gives you a 50 mile (80 km) week, your peak distance for your marathon training. It's important that the 20-miler (32 km) occurs three weeks before your race. That three weeks is your taper to give your body additional rest before the race. If the 20-miler (32 km) occurs before that, you may lose some of the effect of the peak distance when you run the marathon. If it occurs later than that, you may not be fully recovered from your training when you run the marathon. During the taper you will recover from the 20 miler (32 km), and you will rest for the race.

During the last 3 - 4 miles (5 - 6 km) of the race, you can skip the walking breaks if you feel fine and haven't slowed down much. After you finish the race, walk around for a few minutes before you sit down to help keep blood from pooling in your feet.

Last Goal: Take a month to Recover.

Congratulations, marathoner! After the marathon, take a week or more off to help your body start its recovery. During that time, don't just sit & watch TV. Be active by walking, swimming, biking, etc, but do those activities in moderation. When you feel ready to run, do a reverse taper to return to your pre-race mileage. Begin with short distances at a slow, easy pace to help your body continue its recovery. On the first day that you run, do 1/4 to 1/2 mile (1 km). Add a little distance each time you run. By the end of the first week you might be up to something like 1 1/2 mile (2.4 km). By the end of a month, you'll probably be close to your normal weekly distance. Listen to your body during this time and avoid pushing yourself to do longer distances and faster paces. Let your body dictate how often you increase.


Mark said...

I love your website. It has helped me out a lot. Very nice training plan. Have you seen the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST) program? It builds up the miles a little quick, but I like the cross-training instead of rest runs for a low stress training plan.

Anonymous said...

Poor planning, basics suggest buliding up weekly long run to around race distance and similarly with weekly mileage, I don't see anything like this on your site.

But whatever, each to their own and ones mind-set is even more important than ones physical training

Allen said...

Hi Anon,

My page on Weekly Distance gives suggested distances for common races. However, to make the suggestions more noticeable, I've created a new page called Long and Medium Runs. This page discusses the stress of distance running and recommends two or three heavy runs per week plus rest runs or light cross training. This page also repeats the suggestions for the length of long runs.

Anonymous said...

I adore your recommendations! As a 46 y.o. 3:15:00 marathoner, your advice is sound. Amen. Too many young guns and critics of conservative training methods end up truly injuring themselves, for months! I have found solid distance running with gradual increase and taper, a LITTLE speed work and rest/cross training are the best combo for a fun, safe and PR marathon. Do not forget...Enjoy the training, almost more the fun than the actual race:-)

Anonymous said...

Nice. Thanks.

I ran my first 1/2 this weekend in Daytona. Very cool and exiting run. Just not too sure how to get to a longer dx but i'll try your schedule and see.

Allen said...

Hi Anon, congrats on your first half! That is a big accomplishment. My marathon plan starts at 13 miles and takes you up to 20 miles. In addition, the plan has a medium run which starts at 9 miles, and the rest of the runs are rest runs at 5-6 miles. Having completed the half, you're long run is at 13, but your other runs might not be quite as high as they should be. So, if necessary, work on the other runs to bring them up to the starting distances, but keep running 12-13 miles for your long run. Then, begin the marathon plan.

Two of the keys to running without injury are to follow the 10% and heavy/light rules. My plans are based on that. Or, as my friend Bruce says, baby steps, baby steps. Read my pages on Marathons and the stress of marathons to get ideas.

You don't have to follow my plan exactly. Consider it as a basic plan, and then modify it according to your body. You might be able to progress faster towards 20, or you may want to progress slower. In addition to reaching 20 miles, you want to reach a weekly distance of 45 miles. This is more important than most people realize. The last 6 miles of the marathon is much more difficult and stressful for your body than the first 20 miles, and running at least 45 miles per week helps your body to adjust to the stress of the marathon.

Good luck in your training. Enjoy it, and don't be in a hurry to run a marathon. I ran for 6 or 7 years before my first marathon. By the time I ran it, and another one three months later, I was used to the distance, although I still hit the wall at about 20 miles, and I had a great time in the race. Two days later I was back on the roads, running half a mile the first day.

Check back in, once in a while, and let us know how it is going for you.

Kelsey said...

Hello! I've recently become very interested in possibly running a marathon. Where I live they have an annual marathon, half-marathon, 5k, etc. that is a little bit after April 21 (not sure when the actualy race date is, April 21 is when you can pick up the information packets). I'm currently a junior in highschool, female, 16 1/2 years old, and I have been running cross country since the 6th grade (this is my 6th year running) and I am also a gymnast and compete on a competitive team (since around kindergarten). I have done pretty much every common sport you can think of throughout my life, so I am really active as you can see! haha. My friends and I always talk about whether we will run a marathon one day and we're all usually kinda iffy on whether we want to or not. In high school we run a 5k, and I usually finish between 21:30 and 23:00 min, depending on the course.(this year hasn't been my best year, we got a new coach and lets just say, some people just aren't meant to coach!)We had our league meet last saturday and I finished at 22:11, which I felt was pretty good personally considering there were some very strong winds during the entire race that made you feel like you were barely moving! The most recorded distance that I have ran is 10-13 miles when we would run for 2 hours straight at the end of our junior high season to raise money for charity.(in junior high we ran 2 miles, and I usually finished between 13:00-14:00 min) I will be 17 years old when this marathon will take place, and I wanted to know if I am too inexperienced and/or too young to train and do a marathon. Your advice and thoughts/opinion would be greatly appreciated! Thank you very much!

Allen said...

Hi Kelsey,

Congratulations on your achievements in running! You've done well! You've been running for 6 years, and I think a marathon is a good goal for you. Here are my suggestions.

1. Always keep in mind that you aren't competing against others in running a marathon. You are only competing with yourself.

2. Be aware that the marathon distance of 26.2 is a new experience for you. The last 6 miles of the race is more difficult than the first 20 miles. See my article on the Stress of a Marathon and The Effect of Marathons On Our Bodies.

3. For your first marathon, plan to finish the distance with no thought about how fast you'll run it. If need be, take walking breaks during your marathon.

4. You have a long way to go in getting ready for a marathon. My suggestion is to run a half-marathon in April 2012 (your Junior year of school) and a marathon in April 2013 (your Senior year of school). Being a marathoner when you graduate will be a great achievement! This will give you plenty of time to train for the marathon distance, and, trust me, you'll need that time. Plan on running the half and full marathons with no pain and no injury. Make both races a fun and exciting experience. Sure, you could finish a marathon in April 2012, but you'd have a greater risk of injury and the experience probably would be painful to you.

5. Remember that written training plans aren't sunk in concrete. They should be modified on a weekly basis, depending on how your body is responding to your running.

6. Always remember that if you experience pain that is more than the minor pain most runners suffer for a day or two, getting rid of that pain becomes your first priority. Modify your plan to give you time to get rid of the pain (extra rest, extra stretching, etc.).

If you continue with your cross country running, put that first and your half and full marathon training second. To compete in cross country, you have to train to be fast. To finish half and full marathons, speed is not important - you train to finish the distance. Thus, the goals of cross country and recreational distance running are opposite, and you'll have to find ways to merge them together.

What ever you do, good luck! Check back with me (my personal blog is oldmanrunning.org) from time to time and update me on your progress.

Anonymous said...

The plan is solid enough, i've found aything prety works to get you through a marathon so long as the long runs build up and you complete the plan.

However, this plan goes to the 20 mile lsr then stops and simply says now taper, if this is aimed at a novice then there should be detailed instructions on how to taper, as it's arguably the most important part of the traing.

Allen said...

Thanks, Anon, for your comment about tapering. I agree with you. I have a separate page on tapering, and I added a link to that page to this page and to the corresponding page for half-marathons.