How Does a First-Timer Choose a Marathon Training Plan?

Dear Dumb Runner,
I'm running my first marathon in four months. I keep vacillating between training plans. Do you have a favorite for a beginning marathoner? I am comfortable running half marathons and I'm a streaker so rest days are 1-mile runs, I guess. It's hard to choose between Hansons and Higdon, etc. Even Nike has some weird junk on their app now. I'm not trying to do anything amazing, just run the whole thing. I figure that different plans work better for different people, but I thought I would ask you in case there is an easy answer.—Emily O., Texas


Dear Emily,

First of all, congratulations! Your first marathon is a big deal.

Second, please don't freak out. Because yes, there is an easy answer here. But it has nothing to do with any particular training plan vs. another.

I actually answer this question—or a broader version of it, anyway—elsewhere on this very site, under Training for Runners: FAQ...

Where can I find a training plan?
Training plans are a dime a dozen, and you can find them nearly everywhere. Even on the internet! Soon, I predict, we will start seeing them tucked under the windshield wipers of parked cars.

As with so many goods and services available today, the sheer number of training plans out there may leave you feeling overwhelmed to the point of paralysis. There are "beginner," "intermediate," and "advanced" plans, 5K plans, half-marathon plans, walk/run plans, couch-related plans, three-day-a-week marathon plans, course-specific plans, goal-time-specific plans, and on and on. It's nuts. 

How do I choose the right training plan for me?
Listen closely, because Dumb Runner is going to let you in on a little secret:
For most of you reading this, it doesn't matter a lick which plan you choose. Stop agonizing. Just pick one.

There are caveats, of course. First and foremost, take an honest look at yourself – your current fitness, running history, overall health – and choose a plan that seems reasonable. If you're starting from zero, trying to follow a Break 3:00 Marathon Plan would be insane.

In essence: Use your head. Browse around, eyeball some training plans, and go for one that you feel is a good fit. You'll be fine.

It's true. Especially for a first-time marathoner whose primary goal is to finish.

Think of it this way: Marathon training plans are a lot like "diet" plans. There are probably hundreds of diet plans and nutrition philosophies out there by now, some flakier than others, and at least 90% of them are utterly unnecessary. Redundant. Seriously. When it comes to eating smart, you don't need the paleo diet or Atkins or, God help us all, the Martha's Vineyard Diet Detox. You just need to follow a few simple principles, and stick with them as best you can.

As Michael Pollan famously put it:

"Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

Likewise with marathon training. Worry less about which plan you choose and more about following a few simple rules—namely, build gradually; take time to recover; run most of your miles easy; and taper. 

Remember, too, that you aren't locking yourself into anything. If you realize a few weeks into a plan that it's too ambitious for you or just isn't working out, you can tweak it to suit your needs or even jump to a new plan. Starting a marathon training program isn't like getting on a roller coaster. There's no padded bar locked across your lap, trapping you. You are in control.

Emily, it sounds as if you have a tremendous base of fitness and a good head on your shoulders. I have every reason to believe that this advice will serve you as well as it's served me. 

Good luck!


Who the Hell is "Mark"?

Have a Question? 

Submit it here and we'll do our best to answer it. If we publish your question, we'll send you a free Dumb Runner T-shirt.