The key to successful marathon training is progression and patience. You have to be in it for the long haul - a minimum 4 months - and that from a base of reasonable fitness. Even then you're probably doing no more than enough to get you round the 26.2 miles.
For a comfortable enjoyable experience a potential marathon runner might be someone who finishes a 10K - maybe they've run two or three - and thinks "I enjoyed that - I want to push myself further". Training for the 10K has meant going out three or four times a week and building a reasonable base of fitness. Your total weekly training might have been 15-20 miles, possibly a little bit more.
That's not a bad place from which to begin your marathon campaign, so if you've completed a race in the first couple of months of the year or started a fitness regime as a New Year's resolution the chances are you will have the capability to cross the finish line by October.
The other vital ingredient that you have is time; that and the opportunity to train through the spring and summer months. If you recognise the picture we're painting - and many of the finishers at the Garstang, Chernobyl, Meltham (Huddersfield), Southport MadDog Seaside or Blackburn Winter Warmer 10Ks in early 2012 will find it familiar - then what are you waiting for?
Step 1 is get a plan and if you're beginning from a 15-20 mile base you should be able to build up that mileage to a 45-50 mile peak in September. 10% progression is the classic formula - ie if you've been running 20 miles, you can take it up in weekly stages to 22 then 24 miles. Combine that with regular consolidation/recovery weeks - maybe one in every four weeks - taking your mileage down by 10% before reverting back to your previous highest total. Sticking to 10% progression and building in regular consolidation will maximise your chances of a smooth advance.
Of course, quantity is only one half of the equation, the other is quality. For an effective training programme you don't run every mile at the same intensity, you create a complementary mix of sessions, that works on different aspects of your fitness.
The steady run
The fundamental session is the steady run, ideal for building an aerobic base. You're having to work but not so much that you can't talk - well in short sentences anyway! Plan to do one of these each week. Approx 6 miles in the early stages building up to 8/9 miles.
The long run
Building block two is the long run, a weekend date for most of us. This develops stamina and it should be run at a fairly slow pace; try not to crank it up on these runs even if you're feeling good after 4 or 5 miles, remember you've got other demanding sessions coming up. Add a mile or two each week to your long run; try to enjoy these runs - focus on your stride patterns and breathing - and aim to settle into a nice relaxed rhythm. The Long Run shouldn't exceed a third of your weekly total so over a 4/5 month period you might progress from 7/8 miles to around 20.
You should include an interval training session in your programme. This is a tough one, demanding a high level of effort. 800 metre repeats is a classic session for marathon interval training. This is a fast workout that will improve your neuromuscular conditioning, speed and power. Build up over a 4 to 6 week period from 6 to 12 repetitions running 800 metre repeats at 5K pace. Plan your session so that your final rep is run at the same pace as your first and also that you maintain your goal time from week to week. This means that the first (let's say 3 minute 30 second) effort on Week 1 seems easy but the 12th rep on Week 5 has you working very hard.
Vary your interval session. Initially you might think about out and back on flat ground - run out easily for 40 minutes then come back in a quicker time. 38 minutes on week 1, 36 minutes - week 2, 34 minutes - week 3, 33 minutes - week 4, 32 minutes - week 5. This teaches you to husband your energy resources and also to run steadily when you're tired.
After 40 out /faster back you might graduate to the 800 metre reps mentioned earlier and finally there are various other regimes that will finish off your training.
The recovery run
Another important part of your training is the recovery run, schedule it so that it follows either your tough interval session or your long run (especially later in the programme). Runners moving to 5 or 6 days training are advised to have two recovery runs. A recovery run is characterised by a very modest effort where you are able to have an ordinary conversation, possibly the occasional walk. The recovery run provides an excellent opportunity for an extended stretching session, usually post-run. You're warm after running but not tired so able to concentrate on the full range of exercises.
Other interesting runs
Finally you might want to extend your main diet of steady run, long run, interval session and recovery run(s) with hill runs (good for building strength in your legs), threshold runs and marathon pace running - all have their purposes and provide additional dimensions to your running fitness.
Check out full some of our week-by-week training programmes