Marathon Training: 10 Rules of Engagement

marathon rules

There are plenty of factors to consider as you plan ahead for your marathon training. But sticking to these ten “rules of engagement” will help you to be more consistent with your training, and to get the most from your race day…

1. Build gradually

It’s vital to avoid any sudden increase in your training load. The first week of your training plan shouldn’t be a radical change from what you can already do. From there, build gradually.

Think of endurance training having as three key corners:

  1. Volume: Overall training volume (distance) per week.
  2. Distance: How far you can run in one session.
  3. Intensity: Intensive training, including hill reps and faster running.

Crucially, if you try to increase more than one of these three corners significantly at the same time, you put yourself at a much higher risk of injury. A rule of thumb is to add a maximum of 10-15% per week in terms of extra distance, but bear in mind that if you have also increased your intensity at the same time then it’s best not to add too much distance or volume in the same week.

2. Training is more than just the running

There are essential components to training for a marathon, beyond running, which are not optional if you want to run your best and avoid injury! These include

  • Strength work: a critical component to your training. Strength work will help you to run more comfortably and faster, and to reduce your injury risk. It is overlooked or neglected by so many runners – don’t make the mistake of being among them.
  • Warm up and cool down: these should be part of every session, particularly if you are doing any running that is more intense than usual. These help to prepare the body for exercise or promote repair afterwards, and to reduce injury risk.
  • Stretching: an important part of increasing your range of movement. The best time to stretch is when you’re warm, after every training session. Avoid doing static stretches before you run (dynamic stretches are fine any time).

3. Long runs are your priority

In terms of weekly training, prioritise your long run. Make sure you give yourself the best chance of completing these runs reliably, and avoid missing them.

It’s worth looking ahead in your training schedule for weeks when your long run might be difficult to fit in… maybe you have a holiday, or a friend’s wedding, or family commitments. Plan around these and work out how you’ll fit your training in when it comes to a trickier week.

See our long run top tips article on getting the most from these.

4. It’s not all about comfort – but that’s ok!

Marathon training and racing is going to involve a little discomfort.

Sometimes that’s physical – when you’re tired or a bit sore. Sometimes it’s psychological – when you need to push yourself towards an option that isn’t the easiest choice, like training on a dark, rainy night when you’d rather be on the sofa watching telly.

marathon rules
But guess what? You CAN do this, and not just that but also you will feel really good about yourself when you DO!

And you are training yourself to be more resilient, which is an important part of the challenge.

5. Less can be more

Yes, marathon training and race day are about pushing yourself. However, there are other times when you may need to cut back a little and make sensible choices.

If you have a concern about a potential injury, or if you’re ill or feeling run-down, it may well be better to give yourself a rest for a couple of days… even a week if necessary. It’s better to do this than to end up forced to pull out.

And related to this…

6. Don’t try to catch up

If you miss training sessions, or if you need a few days off, don’t try to “catch up” by cramming in more running in the following week. Let any missed sessions go, and just keep going with the sessions that are in your plan (assuming you are well enough or not nursing an injury – give yourself enough time to recover).

If you have an injury worry that has continued for more than a week, try to keep your aerobic fitness levels up through other training like swimming if possible.

7. Your attitude is half the job

What happens inside your head is vital for your training. Keeping yourself positive will make a huge difference to your perception of your running, to your motivation to challenge yourself. This will help you tick off all your training sessions successfully, and give you a sense of progress.

Psychology also plays a huge part in the marathon itself. When you get to 20 miles into the race, what will you be telling yourself? What positive messages can you draw on? Thinking about this in advance can be really helpful.

To do this, here are a few tips:

  • Work out what motivates you, and use it. Spend time thinking about what’s driving you, and how you will bring that to mind in training and on race day when things get tough.
  • Try using mantras or mental strategies like counting, or breaking the distance down into manageable chunks.
  • Keep your thoughts positive – if you catch yourself straying into negative ideas about not feeling good, try to switch your thoughts back to something more positive or distract yourself with rhythms like using mantras.
  • For some extra tips, check out our article on mental strategies for long runs.

8. You need to plan – for training and for race day

Planning and being well organised are important for staying on track.

Take a look at your training plan and work out if there are any weeks or dates where fitting in your training will be tricky, then work out what you’ll do about those. How will you fit in your long run when you have a busy weekend? Or if you’re travelling with work, how will you train?

marathon rules
Plan in and book your practice races – it’s a good idea to have a 10k and a half marathon booked in a few weeks before your marathon. Get those booked so you don’t miss out on getting a place, and so you can plan your training around them.

Similarly, thinking ahead in plenty of time for race day is important too. Think about:

  • Accommodation: you’ll often need to book this several months in advance for a big race.
  • Transport: both to and from the race. How will you get there in plenty of time and without a panic? Will someone meet you at the end to help you get home?
  • Kit/packing: do you have everything you need? Write out a checklist at least a week before the race so you can do any last minute shopping for things like energy gels.
  • At the start: how will you stay warm? Think about any old clothes you could take and discard at the start, or a bin liner (surprisingly warm!).

9. Test everything out before race day

Don’t try anything new on race day. In particular, make sure your shoes and your whole running kit have been worn for long runs so you know that they are comfortable and don’t chafe.

Equally important, test out any food and drink in advance – both what you eat before the race and anything you plan to take on board while running. Try out what evening meal and breakfast work best for you before long training runs or practice races like a half marathon, and use those to test out any energy gels too.

10. Have a race strategy

Once the big day comes around, make sure you are clear on your plan for how you want to run.

Think about

  • Pace: What pace will you set off at? You can work this out using a pace calculator, like ours at
  • Don’t set off too fast: Most importantly, avoid setting off too fast – it’s really easy to do, but you will seriously regret it when you reach 20 miles. If you’re feeling great, save the energy for the later miles.
  • Take the shortest route: You can add a surprising distance by not taking a direct path. It’s easy to weave around people, but you can end up adding a lot of distance by doing this, so avoid it.
  • Break down the distance: Have landmarks or supporters at particular points on the route so you can break it down psychologically. It’s easier to think about the next 4 miles rather than the next 18 or 26!

You can pull of these factors together to enjoy your race day, and get the most from your training. Have fun, and good luck!

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