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How a Marathon Works

Training for the Marathon
Training for your marathon with running partners in vibrant, outdoor spaces can keep your morale high and beat boredom.
Training for your marathon with running partners in vibrant, outdoor spaces can keep your morale high and beat boredom.

If you were expecting a how-to section here, brace yourself: There's no one way to train for a marathon. And even if there were, we couldn't cover all your training bases in one measly section! Training for a marathon takes months of preparation and hard work.

Training regimens vary widely across the board. It's easy to get carried away by the different schools of thought in running, the number of running shoes on the market, the many diets that promise to complement your regimen and fellow runners who offer unsolicited advice about the sport.

At its most basic level, marathon training is preparing your body to run 26.2 miles. In addition to the workouts your training regimen prescribes, this preparation usually encompasses:

  • a weekly long run: No rocket science here -- it's simply a long run. Eventually, you'll work your way up to the full distance of the race, or at least 15 to 20 miles.
  • cross-training: You can do cross-training on your rest days. Even though you're taking a break from running, cross-training keeps your running muscles in shape by putting them to use in a different way. Many runners swim, walk or cycle for cross-training.
  • speedwork: Also called interval training, speedwork breaks the monotony of your runs, builds muscle and improves form. It can be as straightforward as adding sprinting spurts to your runs or as freestyle as fartlek running, an impromptu style in which you speed up and slow down in varied intervals [source: BBC].

The many sources available for training can be helpful but confusing, too. In your search for the ideal regimen, it's helpful to consider your goals for the race. Do you want to run the entire distance or walk parts of it? Finish in under three hours -- first in your division -- or even first overall? Or do you simply want to finish? Time isn't the only factor to consider. If you're a social runner, you may scope out local running groups in your city. Even if you're a lone wolf, the support of fellow runners may get you out of bed and on the pavement when your training hits a rough patch. What's more, they'll hold you accountable for training.

You can hold yourself accountable and measure your progress through a training journal. This vital training tool is a place to record your daily mileage or time, routes, body weight or other changes in physiology and notes about weather, stress level or schedule that may have affected your training.

While the smooth-worn rubber soles of your running shoes and your sharply defined calves attest to the miles of training you've put in, there are some internal changes that speak to your hard work, too. Next, let's take a look at the physiology behind marathoning.