For many, tackling a marathon is a bucket-list item—like skydiving, bungee jumping, or traveling the globe. Lace up and cross the finish line of the race, and you join the ranks of the 0.5 percent of the U.S. population who have run a full marathon. But before you join the group of long distance-loving racers, you might be wondering some basic things like: How long is a marathon anyway?
Here’s everything you need to know about the race, from marathon training basics to where the distance comes from to what to wear when you toe the starting line.
[Smash your goals with a Runner’s World Training Plan, designed for any speed and any distance.]
How Long Is a Marathon?
Dating all the way back to 776 B.C., Heres How to Recover After a Marathon was a foot race. In 490 B.C., a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran roughly 25 miles from Marathon to Athens, Greece, to deliver news of a military victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Fast forward to 1896, when the first-ever international Olympic Games paid tribute to Pheidippides by holding a “marathon” of their own. Twenty-five runners conquered the 24.85-mile route that spanned from Marathon Bridge to Olympic Stadium in Athens, which would inspire the first-ever Boston Marathon the following year in 1897.
Just over a decade later in 1908, the marathon distance as we know it today was established at the London Olympics. At the time, there was no standard marathon distance. According to BBC, the British Royal Family requested the race begin at Windsor Castle and finish at the Olympic Stadium’s royal box. That total distance was 26.2 miles. In 1921, the International Amateur Athletic Federation officially declared 26.2 miles to be “the marathon.”
What Is an Average Time for a Marathon?
Now that we know the distance, you might be wondering how long is takes a human to cover such ground. Well, it takes years of hard work to get elite-level times like the fastest marathoners Eliud Kipchoge (1:59:40, unofficial) and Paula Radcliffe (2:15:25). (See a complete list of World’s Fastest Marathons). That’s around 4:34- to 5:10-minute miles, respectively!
As for the rest of us, the average American marathon time has slowed down from about 4:15 to 4:40 over a 20-year period, according to a report published on Danish website RunRepeat.com, based on more than 34 million individual race results from 1996 to 2016. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve all gotten slower, but it’s more likely due to the fact that running has grown in popularity, attracting more people with varied experience levels. Still, an unwritten benchmark amongst a lot of marathoners old and new: the four hour race. To accomplish this feat, runners need to maintain around a 9-minute mile pace.
Marathon cut-off times vary depending on location, but typically hover between six and six and a half hours. At the New York City Marathon, sweep buses follow the marathon route at a 6:30 marathon pace, roughly 15 minutes per mile, and the official end time of the race is 7:25 p.m. At the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., runners need to maintain a 14-minute/mile pace to not get booted from the course at the 20-mile mark. As for Boston, athletes have six hours from the time of the last starter to complete the course.
How to Train for a Marathon
If you’re super overwhelmed when you Google “marathon training plans,” you’re not alone. A great plan will include four different things: a build up to a long run that's at least 20 miles, a rest day following that long run, cross training, and a prerace taper. As for duration, how long you should train depends on your own personal fitness and experience level and the expert or authority you’re following, but you should expect to incorporate speed work, hills, and long runs. Generally speaking, most training plans span from 12 to 20 weeks. You can crush your own goals with a Runner’s World Training Plan, designed for any speed and any distance. Here are our five most popular plans, but if you’re looking to break a specific time goal or run your best Boston ever, we’ve got you covered there, too. Just click here.
Full Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 35 Turbo
- Beginner Marathon (16 weeks, 16–44 miles per week)
- Break 3:30 Marathon (16 weeks, 26–51 miles per week)
- Break 3:00 Marathon (16 weeks, 34–65 miles per week)
It’s critical for you to be honest with yourself about what level of a runner you are. Beginner and aging marathon runners will need more time to recover from the demands of training, which means they’ll need more time to build up to the longest run. These runners may find themselves at the 20-week end of the spectrum, running five days a week (on average), and never increasing their weekly mileage by more than 10 percent each week. Seasoned marathoners and elites alike will be looking at a plan that’s closer to 12 and 16 weeks, running at least four days a week.
Starting from the couch? Don’t rush things. While there are plans that can get newbies to the starting line within 20 weeks, it’s safer to think even more long term. Taking 10 months to a year to develop a relationship with running and build a safe, substantial base may not be exactly what Netflix-and-chill crowds want to hear. However, rushing it can result in stress fractures or other common injuries—and no one has time for that.
How Do I Choose a Marathon?
A lot of factors go into choosing which marathon is your marathon. Do you want to travel? Or would you rather stay close to home? Do you want there to be mountains involved (looking at you, Pikes Peak)? Or would you rather run in wine country? (Check out our complete 2020 Marathon and Half Marathon Calendar.)
The Majors, a series of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world, are some of the most coveted. They determine the world’s best male and female marathon runners and wheelchair competitors (the overall winners receive big prize money), and include the Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City marathons.
All of the Majors (except Boston) and other popular races (Marine Corps, for example) use a lottery system. For a chance to participate, runners must file an application before a certain deadline. Then, they’re picked at random to participate. Runners who are not accepted into events can typically still get entry by raising money for charity or sometimes through other local running programs.
What Gear Do I Need for a Marathon?
While there’s no singular perfect kit every runner needs to run a marathon, there are a few rules to abide by when choosing your race day best. (Use our Clever Gear Recommendation Tool to figure out exactly what to wear for your race conditions.)
First, and maybe most importantly, you need a long distance running shoe. That fast, light shoe you can’t get enough of may be perfect for a few quick treadmill miles, but it’s probably not your marathon shoe. Find yourself a style that gives you the cushioning or stability your feet crave for longer distances, and then train in it. By tackling your longer double-digit runs in the shoe you plan to wear on race day, you’ll be able to feel out how it performs.
Next, dress like it’s 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is—no matter what the temperature says, your body is going to heat up as you start moving. So, if it’s 30 degrees out, and you’d typically walk out to meet a friend wearing a fleece, you don’t want to wear the same ensemble for your miles. Remember: You can always ditch layers. Don’t wear anything you’re too attached to, and you’ll be good to go.
Finally, you’ve heard it before, and we’ll say it again: Don’t try anything new on race day. By now, you should have different gear items from tights or shorts to sports bras and singlets that you know you feel comfortable in (no chafing, please). Make sure you’re wearing wicking fabrics that will help keep you cool and dry as you run, and give different compression items a try. If compression socks or tights, feel right—go for it. If not, don’t. Just like pacing, you have to listen to your body when it comes to gear. The last thing you want is an ill-fitting sock rubbing your leg the wrong way for three hours straight.
What Should I Eat During a Marathon?
What you eat before, during, and after you run can make or break your training. Eat too little, and you’ll bonk—that is, run out of energy to finish your run. Too much and you’ll find yourself running to the bathroom instead of the finish line. Midrun fuel—from sports drinks, gels, gummy bears, etc.—helps you sustain energy to finish the effort.
Thats around 4:34- to 5:10-minute miles, respectively: To sustain energy, you need to eat something before any run lasting more than 60 minutes. Ideally, you should have a high-carb, low-fiber meal three to four hours before you plan to run. That timeframe gives your body a chance to fully digest and reduces risk of midrun stomach issues. However, if you’re running in the morning, it’s not always possible to leave that much time between your meal and your run. If you have at least an hour before your workout, eat about 50 grams of carbs (that’s equal to a couple pancakes or waffles with syrup or a bagel with a hard-boiled egg).
During your run: Taking in fuel —in the form of mostly carbohydrates—during training runs that exceed 60 minutes will help keep your blood sugar even and your energy levels high. Runners should consume about 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour of exercise (it’s best to spread that out over time intervals that work for you, such as every 20 minutes). You can get the right amount of carbs from sports drinks, one to two energy gels, or energy chews. Real foods, like a quarter-cup of raisins or two tablespoons of honey, also provide the right amount of easily-digested carbs that will energize your run. Everyone’s tolerance for fuel is different, however, so the key is to find out what works for you during your training so you know what to take in on race day.
After your run: Eating a mix of carbs and protein within 30 to 60 minutes postrun is crucial because it helps speed your body’s recovery. Carbs help restock spent glycogen (or energy) stores, while protein helps repair microscopic damage to muscle tissue. If you ran easy, try eating a breakfast of oatmeal with raisins, nuts, and a splash of milk after a morning run. If you ran hard or for longer than 60 minutes, you need something more substantial. Aim to consume a recovery meal with 15 to 25 grams of protein and 50 to 75 grams of carbs (for a more precise amount, try to eat .5 grams of carbs for every pound you weigh). Good postrun recovery meals include an omelet with veggies and feta cheese, plus two slices whole-wheat toast and a fruit smoothie. For lunch, a turkey sandwich topped with extra veggies on a hearty whole-grain roll along with a bowl of lentil soup will fit the bill. Or for dinner, try grilled salmon or flank steak along with a sweet potato, sautéed spinach, and fresh berries for dessert.
How Much Should I Drink During a Marathon?
You also need to drink enough before, during, and after your run to perform your best. Indeed, just two percent dehydration can slow you down. It’s especially important to stay on top of hydration during warm summer months, when you sweat more. While some experts recommend you stay hydrated by simply drinking when thirsty, others suggest you develop a customized plan by performing a sweat test—that is, weighing yourself before and after exercise. Any weight loss corresponds with fluid loss, so try to drink enough to replenish that weight. Thats around 4:34- to 5:10-minute miles, respectively, you should have six to eight ounces of water, sports drink, or even coffee. While you are running, you should aim to take in three to six ounces of a sports drink with carbs and electrolytes to replenish sodium.
For total fluid needs, everyone is a bit different—a good rule of thumb is to weigh yourself before your run, keep track of how much you drink (in ounces) during your run, then weigh yourself after your run. Subtract your weight from your prerun weight and convert to ounces. (One pound equals 16 ounces.) Then add to that number with however many ounces of liquid you consumed on your run. For example, if you lost a pound and drank 16 ounces of fluid, your total fluid loss is 32 ounces.
Now that you’ve got all the basics down, it’s time for you to take control. And if all this seems like too much, there’s always the half marathon.