The 6 Marathon Training Principles Behind the Best 16 to 20 Week Plans

marathon training principles

​The reason many runners are still searching for success over 26.2 miles is they don’t fully understand or apply 6 core marathon training principles during their build-up.

Sadly, too many let marathon success desert them by plodding aimlessly through dreary, ineffective workouts.

​They may then overcompensate for the tedium of their campaign by doing too many ill-advised races. This leaves them feeling weary, or carrying niggling injuries, by the time they reach the marathon start line.

Without proven strategies to stay on the right track, their desired marathon goals become mirages that never materialise.

Here are 5 proven ways to avoid or end that barren spell. You can then enjoy your journey towards the marathon success you deserve… ​

The 6 Marathon Training Principles

1. Purpose – Start any Activity With the End in Mind 

marathon purpose

Always understand why you’re performing a particular activity. Better still, make sure it contributes in some way to running faster marathons.

​It’s far too easy to expend a lot of effort going nowhere in a desert. So you need to decide what direction you’re taking and how fast you want to get there.

wilderness metaphor for marathon training without direction

To make sure your sights are set on something stretching but achievable, you must complete some form of fitness test…

Unless you’re looking for top elite level performances, you don’t need to spend money on laboratory testing.

wilderness metaphor for marathon training without direction

The most obvious assessment is a recent race.

The more specific you can make this the better.

Best of all is a marathon of course.

marathon runner celebrating fast finishing time

A half run in conditions similar to those you are expecting in your chosen marathon is also good. It can be fed into a race calculator to get a fairly precise prediction.

As you move down to 10Ks, 5Ks and the middle distances, the precision falls significantly. You can still, however, get a better indication than using blind optimism alone!

Time trials are another consideration particularly for distances of 13-20+ miles. It’s best though to treat them as slight under-predictions, as you won’t be performing under race conditions.

A combination of race times and time trials is the best of both worlds. You can then refine your predictions and set a more informed goal time.

If you’re a more experienced runner, your race history will give you a good idea of the margins for improvement you can expect. You can also gauge your past response to different training loads.

Be careful not to go too far back, however, as the objective is to assess your current fitness.

marathon race time estimates

Each type of running workout targets a different aspect of fitness across a spectrum spanning recovery, endurance, stamina and speed.

marathon training zones

Supplementary training such as cycling, swimming and rowing can further boost these aspects of fitness. You benefit from less musculoskeletal impact. Other activities such as yoga, pilates and resistance training help to enhance recovery and prevent injury.

For example, strength training can address running-specific weaknesses. Focus on exercises that improve performance of the kinetic chain as a whole. Working exclusively on isolated muscles fails to account for the complex movements involved in running .

Don’t forget that psychology can also play an important part in defining the purpose of a session. For example, cross-training can provide welcome respite from the monotony of running. This can help you get through particularly challenging periods.

marathon runner cross-training

Arrange your workouts in 1-3 week training blocks. Each block can emphasise one of the aforementioned aspects of fitness. Just remember to have a hard-easy cycle built in to them.

The training blocks themselves should also periodically focus on recovery to allow training adaptations to occur and prevent overtraining.

Moving up again in scale, training phases are essential to achieve the broader fitness outcomes you need along your path to marathon success.

At the highest level, a preparatory phase gets the runner ready for the more demanding race-specific phase. An active recovery phase is scheduled after the marathon. More on phases below…

2. Personalise your Preparation to Meet your Own Unique Needs


Successfully navigating your way across a harsh environment like a desert is tough. You need to quickly learn how to harness your strengths, manage weaknesses and adapt to the prevailing conditions.

The same principles apply when working your way through a challenging, often unforgiving marathon campaign.

This will be a personal thing which depends on a host of factors stretching beyond running into lifestyle circumstances such as work pressures, family commitments etc.

Your training needs are always going be specific rather than general.

fish shoal metaphor for personalised marathon training

This is why prescriptive cookie cutter marathon training plans should be avoided at all costs.

A few examples of specific skills YOU may need to focus on in your next campaign…

  • Build better endurance – Spend more time on your feet
  • Improve leg strength – Get in some extra hill work
  • Make sure your running technique can withstand the demands of marathon training – Do some drills and stride repeats
  • Develop your speed with less risk of injury – Schedule two or three informal fartlek workouts

I used to find hill running easy, yet struggled in cross-country sessions.

As a seasoned marathon runner, you may feel very comfortable covering long distances. You may, however, shudder at the thought of a track session!

marathon speedwork training

Or, like me, you may have stepped up to the marathon for a new challenge after peaking over shorter distances.

The long run may be your nemesis, or it may be speed work or hills. The point is, you must learn to identify how your own body responds to different workout stresses. You can then tailor your training to fit your own particular strengths and weaknesses.

3. Practice to Become Faster Through Consistency

marathon training practice

​Here’s the deal…

The more you can run without overtraining, and the better you become at tailoring these workouts to the marathon, the faster you will perform over 26.2 miles.

Not that difficult to get your head around, yet a major barrier to marathon success for many.​

Specificity is vital…

It may seem obvious, but you need to spend time practising your goal speed. You will then be in familiar territory on race day and feel comfortable.

Similarly, if there are any long descents in your marathon, be sure to incorporate these into your long runs. If you don’t, your underprepared quads will end up very sore and your performance will also suffer.

Consistency is the second essential ingredient.

Marathon running requires dedication and commitment, yet there will inevitably be odd days when you don’t feel like training or you have other more pressing engagements.

marathon runner with motivation issues

If you are actually ill, or you’ve picked up an injury, then obviously don’t run.

Otherwise, switch your workouts around or complete the planned session at the bottom of the target pace range.

If, however, your lethargy extends for days, you are most likely overtraining. So, before getting buried in a sand storm, review your plan and adjust as necessary.

Remember… practice without progression eventually leads to a performance plateau.

marathon training plateau

So, if you were to repeat exactly the same workout, your fitness would improve for a while as your body adapted to the training overload.

Your improvement would level off though, when your body was no longer stressed by the workout.

To continue progressing, you would need to extend the workout duration or ramp up intensity to increase the training stress again.

4. Progress so you Reach Peak Fitness on Marathon Day!

marathon training progress

​Which brings us nicely on to progress in its broadest sense…

For me, this is your ability to gain and sustain purpose-specific fitness while staying healthy and in control of the other priorities in your life.

A huge, but often neglected part of this, is timing your progress to peak on marathon day.

This requires judgement on when best to ease off, as well as appropriate times to kick on. You can then land safely on the marathon-day runway rather than fall short or overshoot.​

marathon peaking using plane landing metaphor


If you are to reach your promised land safely and in good time, you need more than the sun and stars to guide you.

You’ll require extremely accurate instruments to navigate and you should be tracking progress regularly in your travel log. You can then make informed and decisive adjustments to your course as necessary.

The same principles obviously apply to tracking your marathon campaign…

A training log helps you…

  • Identify fitness gains
  • Pinpoint effective workouts
  • Decide which sessions to move, drop or add
  • Detect and act on early signs of overtraining, and,
  • Monitor your ongoing health and mood

Look for clear evidence of progress you’ve made since those early days of the campaign. It will gives you a tremendous psychological boost when the going starts getting tough.

I urge my clients to review their log just before their marathon. This reminds them what they’ve achieved already to get to the start line.

This is important because it’s all to easy to forget the tougher training weeks, having just been through the taper.

All my clients lead busy lifestyles, so I encourage them to report on an exceptions basis, which also makes important trends easier to spot.

They simply colour code sessions that were tougher or easier than they should have been.

marathon workouts

They can then infer why flagged sessions went the way they did in a comments box for the week.

Simple, yes, yet very effective for pinpointing issues to act on at a glance…

  • A training block providing insufficient challenge
  • More recovery needed following a practice race
  • A dodgy curry the night before!
  • Outside commitments leaving them too exhausted to train
  • Insistence on a marathon goal that’s proving to be too ambitious
  • Bad weather, or slippery conditions that week, and so on.

It’s also a good idea to flag reaching the 300-400 mile limit on your current pair of shoes.

worn out marathon training shoes

Moving on to ‘navigation instruments’, you’ll need a GPS watch and/with a heart rate monitor to measure…

watch and chest strap of a heart rate monitor for marathon training
  • Duration (hh:mm:ss)
  • Distance (miles or km)
  • Pace (mins per mile/km)
  • Effort (RPE/Talk Test), and,
  • Morning resting pulse (bpm)

You’ll initially depend on gadgets to judge performance. In time, however, you should have developed an intuitive feel for the correct level of effort for each workout.

5. Phase your Marathon Buildup to Get Fitter Faster!


As we touched on earlier, effective campaign phasing can also take a lot of the guesswork out of the process.

The preparatory phase gets your body and mind ready for the more demanding  marathon-specific training.

It can be split into two parts…

You start by building up endurance and running strength gradually to gain basic fitness, while also paying attention to your technique.

The focus of the endurance component is gradually increasing total time on your feet (5-10% maximum per week).

marathon training time on feet

Add some cross-training through cycling, swimming and pilates…

  • They provide welcome variety
  • Boost your general fitness, and,
  • Develop your flexibility and core strength.

Complete your preparatory phase by injecting additional strength and speed work into your campaign as required.

This will typically be hill work, progression runs (easy to medium-hard pace) and fartlek repeats, to lay the foundation for later marathon-specific workouts.

marathon hill training

Your technique will improve naturally as you get fitter. Adding specific form-drills will, however, increase your running economy and further reduce your risk of injury.

As mentioned above, this is a good time to work on your weakest area (endurance, stamina/strength or speed). It won’t then limit you unduly in the next phase.

The marathon-specific phase obviously accelerates the development of your endurance and strength/stamina. There is also greater emphasis on pace and reaching peak performance.

  • Long Runs prepare you for the fatiguing effects of the marathon
  • More time is spent running at marathon pace
  • Faster-Longer workouts focus on increasing your lactate threshold, and,
  • Faster Repeats are introduced as more structured, higher intensity workouts for developing your speed
  • You get more race practice, which can be used as predictors for how you’ll perform on marathon day.

Greater demands are put on you physically, psychologically and even logistically as you reach your peak, so it’s vital that you rest and recover properly…

6. Preserve all that Hard-Earned Peak Fitness!

preserve marathon fitness

Finally, to ensure you peak rather than peter out by the time you get to marathon day, you need to preserve all that hard-gained fitness.

This is partly achieved, of course, by tapering down your training volume in the last three weeks.

I say partly, because fitness preservation should be integral to your training throughout.

Each training week should have recovery days…

Each block should have recovery weeks…

And, each marathon campaign should be followed up with a 3-4 week recovery period (complete rest, then some cross-training, then easy running).

Recovery is vital, so listen to your body, let it heal and refresh your mind.

An over-ambitious marathon goal, or too many races can be all that it takes to stretch you beyond your means.

Yes, we’ve already acknowledged that your body needs to be stressed by training to adapt.

It’s equally critical, however, that you don’t apply too much stress, and you allow sufficient recovery time to let your body rebuild.

man with stress fracture from running too many marathons

Supplementary training protects you by improving your flexibility and strength.

It can also further boost your aerobic fitness when any more running puts you at risk of injury or burnout.

It’s also the ideal bridge between complete rest and the resumption of easy running following your marathon.​

So, if you adhere to these 6 marathon training principles, success should be clearly within your sights.

marathon goal setting


And, just to make sure you don’t stray off that path back into the wilderness, I’m offering a strictly limited number of FREE Personal Strategy Session slots to help you break through your biggest time barrier.

Simply enter FREE in the coupon code field, click the Apply button and then complete your booking.

Book your 30-minute, one-on-one video call now with me before your place is taken!

Have you been applying all these marathon training principles in your own build up? If not which ones will you now be focussing more on? Please leave a comment below.

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