“How many miles must a runner run down,
Before they’ve done one marathon…”
That’s a question, we’re fairly sure, never asked by Bob Dylan. Bob’s more the staying still, writing poetry kind of guy.
But we’re borrowing inspiration from the similar question he did ask, because the answer to the marathon question is less exact than you might imagine.
Sure, if we ask “How many miles make up a marathon?”, you’d think we were asking a trick question, right?
Most people know that a marathon is a running race that takes place over 26 miles, 386 yards. Even more people know it more colloquially as 26.2 miles.
Well, sure… but that would be a short conversation.
Of course, we’re not just talking about ‘the event’ of a marathon. You genuinely don’t need us to tell you that.
We’re talking about alllll the miles a marathon runner runs. At least all of them from the day they decide “I’m going to run a marathon” to the moment they run, or stagger, or even fall weeping over the line at the end of the marathon they’ve determined to run.
What are we talking about in terms of commitment, in terms of sidewalk-pounding, muscle-cramping, lung-burning miles to get someone to the starting point of a marathon, with a reasonable confidence in their hearts that they’ll get over the finish line, alive and in more or less one piece.
That, it turns out, is as much a philosophical question as anything Dylan ever sang.
The number of miles a marathon runner runs is a philosophical question because human beings are all enigmatically different.
When someone makes the decision that they’re going to run a marathon, that’s the click of a stopwatch and the start of a mileometer. When they finish their intended marathon, that’s another click and the stopping of the mileometer.
But the people starting the watch are as different in their character, their nature, and their state of preparedness as they are in the make-up of their DNA. Oddly, and with apologies to Shirley Maclaine, when it comes to measuring the miles a marathon runner runs, “it’s not where you finish, it’s where you start.”
If you're used to running, say, 5 miles a day, more or less for fun, you’re probably going to have a shorter mileage-journey en route to the end of your marathon than someone who’s used to running precisely zero miles a day.
Why? Simply because you’ve already elevated your body’s capability to run for the sake of running, rather than in short bursts to catch a bus, flag a cab, or chase a prairie dog. If your body knows it can do that, you’re already starting with the biggest advantage.
Going up progressively from being able to run 5 miles and not convince yourself the Rapture’s coming for you to running 10 miles is much less hard work than it is to conquer those first five miles from a zero start.
So if you’re already out running your daily five miles when you decide “I’m going to run a marathon,” your journey to the finish line is – still not going to be easy. There’s nothing easy about running a marathon, that’s more than half the reason most people do it.
But it’s still going to be a lot easier to get there if you start with that 5-mile capacity head-start, because you won’t have to add on all the smaller runs that condition a human body to being able to run 5 miles when there is in the modern world, no real reason or excuse to do so other than for the challenge.
Depending on where you start – on the couch or regularly running 5 or 6 miles, say three times per week – you’re looking at anything between 6 months and a year of training runs before you’re anywhere near ready to safely, let alone confidently approach a marathon.
Sorry, did you miss the part where this was not going to be easy?
Look at it this way. Any time you do something entirely new, with a goal of eventual mastery in mind, it’s not an overnight process. It’s a hard journey of commitment and gradual improvement.
Whether it’s learning carpentry, perfecting souffles, or running long distance, you start off slow, you achieve goals, you encounter setbacks and push through them, and eventually, eventually you achieve your aims.
While the amount of time it will take you is significantly different if you have a pre-existing running habit and if you don’t, the process and the principles are the same in either case.
First you do a little, as often as you can.
Do not at any point leap up from the couch and immediately try and run 5 miles. If you’ve ever tried to start a car from standing still to 30 miles per hour, you’ll know the sensation. Panic, shock, acceleration, confusion, and overall disquiet when it’s done.
Try brisk walking first, and almost surprise yourself by turning that into some minutes of running. Don’t run until you’re exhausted, just integrate bursts of running into your brisk walking, so you can get a feel for what running does to your body – the elevated heart rate, the impact on your knees, ankles, and hips, and so on.
Walk, run, walk is your first pattern of activity straight off the couch – and you should talk to your doctor before you begin. In general terms, you should be able to do this with no drama or damage, but each individual is different. Know your state of health, as explained by your doctor, before you even start walk-run-walking.
While there’s no accounting for individual progress, European health programs suggest taking the first steps slowly. Within the space of nine weeks, such programs build up from around 20 minutes of exercise to around 35 minutes of exercise, three times per week, with the aim that by week 9 you should be able to run 3 miles.
So – only another 23 miles and change to go, then.
The point is that the strategy for getting you from the couch to being able to comfortably run 3 miles is a gentle program of build-up and addition. It uses a gradual achievement-slope, and a regularity of effort, to condition both your mind and your body into running, and then running further.
That’s the same principle as the rest of the journey towards running a marathon. It’s just that to some extent, adding on distance and perseverance gets easier the more you can do.
So you have your 3 miles done, three times a week. Already, you’re starting to accumulate miles traveled. Mapping out quite how many miles you’ve already run is both tricky and individual, so bear in mind, there’s never going to be a concrete answer to our question of how many miles a marathon runner runs.
How many miles you conquered during your individual journey of walk-run-walking is down to you, your level of fitness, your running gait, and a number of other factors. That’s an important uncertainty, because at the beginning, you’re not measuring distance covered, but time over which the effort is sustained.
It’s roughly at about the point where you can run 3 miles consistently that you start to think of what you’re doing as running miles, rather than minutes.
But even at that stage, you’re running nine miles a week. Admittedly, most marathon organizers would probably disqualify you if you took around three weeks to run their course, but it’s a very important first step.
And it’s also, importantly, not that far from what marathon runners run as a block. You run 3 miles per session. Most marathon runners in training run an average of between 5-6 miles per session.
Granted, they get that number by working on the basis of running every day, rather than your three sessions per week, but by the time you can run 3 miles without stopping or feeling like you welcome the sweet, cold oblivion of death at the end of it, your brain and body both have the habit of running, so running 3 miles, three times per week is actually not much more drama than running 3 miles, five times a week, or seven times a week.
Repeated, habitual effort conditions your brain and your body to the regular achievement of your goals.
How long it takes you to go from 3 miles, three times a week to 3 miles, five times a week or seven times a week is entirely down to your own effort and comfort levels (which throws another spanner in the works of precise but general calculation of how many miles a marathon runner runs.
You can know how many miles you run en route to your marathon though, by keeping a mile-diary).
However long it takes you though, by the point at which you’re running 3 miles, seven times a week, you’re no longer taking three weeks to run the equivalent of a marathon. In fact, by that point, you’re running a marathon in just nine ‘days’ – or nine running sessions.
From there, the trick is simply to build up your tolerance for distance-running, until you can sew the sessions together.
Once you’re comfortably running 3 miles, seven days, or sessions per week (because some people also choose to double up sessions run in a day – morning and evening, for instance – as a way of conditioning themselves to running more miles in shorter spaces of time), the key is to challenge yourself on distance.
Going straight from 3 miles to 5 miles is a big leap – it’s roughly speaking another 66% of your previous distance. So try moving up from 3 miles per session to 4 miles. Get that comfortably under your belt before you move up to 4 miles per session.
Is there a point to such slow progress? Yes – it eases the gradient of the exertion curve.
If you jump straight from running 3 miles to 5 miles, you’re going 66% extra distance per session – and having to put an equivalent extra effort in, which might well hurt and/or discourage you. Go from 3 miles to 4 miles, and you’re only adding 33% extra distance to your session.
Both mentally and physically, that’s a much more attainable goal. Then when you go from 4 miles to 5 miles, you’re not adding a second 33% extra, because you’ve become comfortable running 4 miles. Going up from 4 miles to 5 miles, you’re only adding an extra 25% of what you’ve already done.
The more running you’re doing regularly per session, the less, as a percentage, extra you have to run per mile. Going up from 5 miles to 6, for instance, just takes 20% more distance, and so on. The slope of your exertion curve is more gradual the slower you take it.
Of course, it’s also true that the slower you take it, the more miles you actually run, because the longer it will take you to build up your miles-per-session. But slow and steady runs the marathon, as the old saying… very nearly goes.
The Marathon Difference
Now, the tactics we’ve outlined of increasing the number of sessions and then slowly increasing the distance-per-session is sound overall, but it’s not the whole story of marathon training. For one thing, you absolutely need rest days.
And for another, there’s a necessary slow transformation of the exertion curve from, for instance, running 3-4 miles per session, three sessions a week, into the kind of distances and distance-groupings marathon runners use to train themselves to keep going.
Remember that slight kink where we said marathon runners train by running an average of 5-6 miles per day, but that equated to running those miles every day? This is where the kink falls away.
Because what marathon runners actually run while training to run a marathon is between 30-50 miles per week. 5 miles per session will get you to the beginner slopes of that distance if you do it every day, but the snag with that is that you shouldn’t do it every day.
While easing off the exertion curve is a good way to get your numbers of miles-per-session up to begin with, when you change up a gear into full-on marathon training, there comes a point when you have to let go of averages and deal in cold, hard miles.
If you’re training for a marathon, and you want to hit 30 miles per week, there are two ways of doing it. There’s the easy, gradual-exertion-curve way – 5 miles per day, six days per week, boom, miles done, let’s have a dessert.
But that only breaks the week into two kinds of days: the days on which you run 5 miles, and the days on which you run none. Rest days. Days on which you give your body a break… before it… well, breaks.
But when you shift up to full marathon prep, it’s worth breaking a week down into not two types of day, but three. Rest days, easy days, and long run days.
What are long run days? They’re days… on which you run a long run.
It’s almost worth switching your focus when you begin full-on marathon training, so you think less of average numbers of miles per day or per session, and more of a monolithic mileage-goal for the week.
If you want to run that monolithic number of miles (say 30) in one long run, you’re probably not going to be able to do it until you’ve been training for at least several months.
Also, if you do it at a steady 5 miles per day, it only allows you one rest day per week, and also doesn’t give you any experience of pushing through and doing longer distances. That’s experience you need as you progress in your training towards marathon-length running.
Unrealistic Running Week For Beginners
is an unlikely and possibly harmful way to tackle the monolith of your weekly 30 miles, and:
Relatively Easy Running Week For Beginners
might feel logical and achievable, what you’re actually looking for as you shift from running small daily monolithic numbers of miles (5 miles per day, etc) to larger weekly monolithic numbers of miles (say 30), is something like this:
Ideal Running Week For Beginners
6 miles – Easy Day
6 miles – Easy Day
0 miles – Rest Day
4 miles – Easy Day
0 miles – Rest Day
6 miles – Easy Day
8 miles – Long Run Day
That sort of schedule gives you two rest days, to allow your muscles some respite, two different lengths of ‘easy day’ distance, and a longer day which, while it stretches the distance running you do, doesn’t leave you with a figure that feels insurmountable.
The way we’ve split things here is not set in stone – you can choose whichever days you like to do your long run, give yourself easy days when you need them, and take your rest days as needed too.
It’s probably a good idea to intersperse the rest days throughout the week though, rather than clumping them together and, for instance, taking the whole weekend off. That Monday morning run is going to feel much harder if you’ve had two consecutive days off. Just like it does in work.
The more running you do, the easier it gets to stretch your easy day mileage totals, because the more you do, the more conditioned your body and brain both are to doing it. Stretching your long run will at first be much harder, because it’s already more miles than you’re used to running on your easy days, so it begins by feeling like you’ve stretched yourself.
Running for any longer than that, initially, will probably feel like a backward step. You may well get breathless, you may well get muscle cramps or dehydration issues (be aware of these and prepare for them – take water with you).
But by gradually stretching the number of miles you cover in your long run too, you build your endurance towards the goal of being able to run that full 26.2 miles in one chain.
By adding miles to both your easy day totals and your long run day, you’ll surprise yourself by how many miles you’re running each week, and before you know it (actual time usually around 6 months), you’ll be running more than the 30 miles per week that is usually the entry point for serious marathon training.
Months Of Mileage
However many miles you’ve run to get you to that point are between you and your milometer.
The truth though is that you need to be hitting that sort of mileage consistently for several months before you stand a chance of pulling off a successful marathon.
That’s a statistic at which we stand a reasonable chance of achieving a standard answer for most runners.
Rough Guide To Marathon Training Months
6 weeks (1.5 months)
30 miles per week
6 weeks (1.5 months)
35 miles per week
8 weeks (2 months)
40 miles per week
4 weeks (1 month)
50 miles per week
Taper Weeks (roughly three weeks)
25-30 miles per week
For those who want the hard figures, that breaks down to:
6 x 30 = 180
6 x 35 = 210
8 x 40 = 320
4 x 50 = 200
3 x 35 = 75
For a grand total of 985 miles. Plus, if you want to be picky, the 26.2 of the actual marathon you run.
So 1011.2 miles. Minimum. Is the number of miles a marathon runner probably needs to run – and that’s just in the six-month period immediately before and including the race. It breaks down to over 38.5 actual marathons-worth.
What The Heck Are Taper Weeks?
Taper weeks are a crucial element to add into your mileage calculation if you’re going to run a marathon. They’re days or weeks (at least 10 days, at most three weeks) after your peak training sessions when you purposefully run fewer miles.
We know. Where’s the sense in that, right?
It’s actually in the physiology of changed behavior. You train hard, your body actually takes a few weeks to physiologically adapt to the hard training, so training hard at the very end of your marathon training is needless pain.
The taper weeks give your body the time it needs to adapt to everything you were doing at the peak of your training and carry it through to the actual marathon you want to run. Your body is amazing – but give it time to catch you up. Don’t skip your taper weeks – everyone will regret it, most of all you.
Naturally, the ideal would be that before you run an official marathon, you give yourself some markers of achievement along the way.
As you progress and increase the length of your long runs and your easy days, maybe try out your endurance in different conditions by trying an official ten-mile run.
If your long runs are either over 13 miles or within an achievable distance of that figure, put your name down for a half-marathon and see how you do.
The conditions on the day of the event, the camaraderie with other runners, and the official status of the half-marathon are factors it’s worth getting used to before you set out on your first official marathon.
As with all forms of exercise, when training for a marathon, you need preparation, and you need to build up gradually. That’s the point about going all the way from 0 miles on your couch, to walk-run-walk sessions of 20 minutes, all the way up to your more serious marathon training regime.
Remember to take your rest days and use them as rest days, otherwise your muscles are going to a) hurt you, and rightly so, and b) possibly get damaged. The longer you’re off your schedule or your feet with damaged muscles, the longer it’s going to take you to reach the sort of mileage numbers you need to run a marathon.
So always take your rest days, and gradually increase the miles you cover on your easy days and your long run days. Never try and jump too far ahead – that way lies paaaaain! – but do take a “little bit more” mindset on all your running sessions.
Do a little bit more whenever you feel you can, log your mileometer results, so you can see how you’re progressing, and also so you can answer in your own particular case, how many miles a marathon runner has to run.
Once you’ve run your marathon, and hopefully run across the line with style, poise, and a sense of personal triumph, a curious thing will probably happen to you.
You’ll have a few days of recovering from the extraordinary physical adventure leading up to running 26.2 miles.
And then you’ll want to do it again.
There’s an almost childbirth-like forgetfulness that comes over marathon runners in the exhilaration comedown-glow of having achieved their goal.
And while it’s true that plenty of people do go on to run marathon after marathon after marathon, the cumulative effects of multiple marathons in a relatively short space of time are nothing to be taken lightly.
Two marathons a year? Fine. Three? OK if you must. This British comedian? Wowzer. Awesome charity fundraising, but done with a team of support. If you don’t have that team, do not try this at home.
Between the mountain peaks of marathon training though, it’s never a great idea to come all the way back down to anything close to 0 miles if you intend to ever run another marathon.
Back off your peak training mileage, yes, but if you want to run your second marathon, don’t give yourself such a mountain to climb next time.
Most multiple marathon runners run what are known as ‘maintenance miles.’ If your peak training was, say, 45 miles per week, you should feel free to back it off to less than half that during between-marathon periods.
Do 20 miles a week, including a long run and two rest days, and you’ll keep your marathon motor purring just nicely enough that the next time you want to rev it up for the big run, your body understands what you’re up to, and gets on board far faster than it would if you let the mileage drop to 0.
Do you count maintenance miles, when you’re not actively marathon training, as marathon miles? Again, that’s a decision between you, your milometer, and your mile-diary. More data is probably always helpful though, so if you were going to count them, we wouldn’t lift a finger or a knee to stop you.
Bottom line, how much a marathon runner should run begins as a hazy figure, but settles into some agreeably robust figures when the training turns from ‘Getting off the couch and running comfortably for miles’ to ‘Eye of the Tiger-style focus on running 26.2 miles.
That initial haziness means everyone’s actual mileage number is going to be unique to them, but within the context of hardcore training, you’ve seen the weeks and months of mile-shredding you need to be able to safely run 26.2 miles in a single stint.
Perhaps ironically, marathon running is a process that starts with you measuring time, and eventually shifts to you measuring the running of a monolithic number of miles.
But at the end, with semi-professional marathon runners and ultra-runners, it reverts to a process of measuring time, with the best runners determined not just to finish their marathon, but to shave minutes, or even hours off their completion time.
But then, by the time you get to that stage, you’ll be running at a whole other level.