26.2 miles, 42.2 kilometers, a marathon is not something most runners would consider on a whim. In fact, whether you’re a professional, elite athlete, or a beginner, this physical feat comes with weeks and months of training – physically and mentally.
Most marathon training plans include a structured workout plan, diet, hydration, strength and conditioning, and stretching regimen. This leads most of us to believe a marathon isn’t possible without proper training.
But every year, over a million people run – and complete – a marathon worldwide. Surely some of them are running with no prior training, right? Is it possible?
We’ll look at what really goes into marathon training, the risks of running with no training, and answer the question on everyone’s mind: Can you run a marathon with no prior training? Let’s get into it!
Can You Run a Marathon With No Prior Training?
We’re not going to make you read a marathon of an article to get the answer to your question. The reality is that you CAN run a marathon without any training… IF you’re already a runner with a fair amount of experience.
But even in this scenario, running a marathon without prior training can lead to long-and short-term injuries.
While some runners may think it sounds cool to say they’re running a marathon with no training, this event is tough on the body and will likely lead to a rather miserable experience.
People Who’ve Run a Marathon With No Training
With that said, several people have taken on the marathon with no training and crossed the finish line. What’s their secret? Let’s see.
Irish twins John and Edward Grimes, best known as Jedward, ran the 2012 Los Angeles marathon on what they say was a whim. More than doing no training, they also got straight off an airplane and went to the start line. Doing this is in strong opposition to what most experts advise.
But many didn’t know that John and Edward used to run with an athletics club and competed in cross country and mountain running races. Plus, they dance and move around a lot while performing, giving them muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness. This fitness history allowed them to run the marathon with no training.
While their bodies weren’t primed for a distance run, per se, with the right nutrition and a slower pace, the pair made their way around the course with little issue. The twins were also only 20 years old, and their youth was an advantage too. John finished first in a relatively average time based on his age of 4:04:04, with his brother finishing a few minutes later.
While he is now the director of the London Marathon, David Bedford used to be a professional athlete who set a new record for the 10,000m in 1973 – a searing time of just 27:30.8! In 1981, David decided to enter the London Marathon the night before the race after being dared by sports commentator David Coleman.
On his way home in the early morning hours, Bedford stopped for a curry, had a quick nap, then turned up at the start line. He completed the marathon, but not without a few issues. He was photographed vomiting just past the halfway point.
26-year-old American Sean Ogle ran the Eugene Marathon in Oregon in a respectable 5:29 with no training, but this wasn’t his intention. He started training for the marathon 20 weeks before the event, but after three weeks of training, he was derailed by work, travel, and a shin injury.
3 weeks before the event, he decided that, despite his lack of training, he would do the marathon – by walk-running it. He ran the first 18 miles, then switched to his walk-run strategy. He ran for around 9 minutes, then walked for a minute, continuing to the finish line.
In 2009, British comedian Eddie Izzard ran 43 marathons. What’s more amazing is that she did these 43 marathons in just 51 days! She was raising money in honor of South African president Nelson Mandela.
She only started his training 5 weeks before setting off, making the accomplishment even more impressive. Eddie managed to raise over £1.3 million for charity.
What Is Marathon Training?
We all know that a marathon involves running – a lot of it. But marathon training isn’t simply doing a lot of running. There’s much more to it. Of course, being fit and strong helps give you a good foundation, but even super-fit people will struggle to perform well without proper training.
Typically, marathon training involves progressively increasing your weekly mileage, so your body learns how to handle longer distances. At the peak of the training block before your marathon, the goal is to be able to run for 3 hours or 20 miles without stopping.
There’s no one marathon training plan – it looks different for everyone depending on age, fitness level, physical weaknesses, and goals. Someone doing a couch-to-marathon plan may need to follow a 6-month plan, whereas a runner who already does several 3 to 5-mile runs per week may only need a 3- or 4-month plan. But, no matter what experience level you’re at, a marathon is a beast that needs proper training to conquer.
The human body is amazing; it can adapt to different settings and stressors. Following a training plan forces your body to adapt to the stress of running. And the best way to teach your body how to run long distances is to run long distances. Simple.
Why Shouldn’t You Run a Marathon With No Prior Training?
Where do we start with this question?! Besides the fact that you are at an increased risk of not finishing the marathon, there are many risks involved in running a marathon without training. Here are just a few of them:
Longer Recovery Time
Those who choose to run longer distances, especially marathons, are putting themselves at risk for longer recovery times. While marathon training teaches your body how to run longer distances, it also prepares it for the impact it will need to absorb when pounding the pavement for 26.2 miles.
If you don’t have appropriate training, your body will have inefficient recovery. Recovery may take much longer, and you may experience pain and stiffness for an extended period.
Increased Chance of Injury
Yale Medicine recently posted an article about running injuries and stated that 50% of people who run regularly suffer at least one injury per year. Typically, the injuries are related to overuse and overtraining.
When you realize this statistic is for people who run regularly, it becomes even more concerning to consider the injury rate for those who run distances without training. Running without training increases your chances of injury. It’s as simple as that.
Running any distance, especially a marathon, is mentally demanding. While you can pop in your earphones and listen to podcasts and music to distract yourself, your mind will still focus on the pain and effort involved in running longer distances.
See more: our pick of the best running podcasts
When your energy is low, your calories are depleted, and your positive attitude has wandered into the pain cave, it will become an active struggle between you and your mind to keep going. You may struggle mentally if you haven’t trained your mind to push through.
Many novice runners simply cannot appreciate what it feels like to run a marathon.
Health Risks of Running With No Training
Other than the abovementioned reasons, many dangerous health risks are associated with running a marathon without prior training. These include:
- Stress fractures
- Muscle strains
- Hyponatremia (low sodium levels)
- Runner’s knee
- Plantar fasciitis
- Joint damage
- Shin splints
- Muscle cramps
- Dizziness and nausea
How Much Time to Go From Beginner to Completing a Marathon?
As we’ve mentioned, the amount of time needed for training comes down to several factors, including age, fitness level, physical weaknesses, and goals. The shortest time required varies from one person to another, but here’s a basic guideline:
- Beginners (no running experience, sedentary lifestyle): minimum of 5 months
- Amateurs (exercise 3 – 4 times per week): minimum of 3 months
- Experienced runners (run 4 – 5 times per week, 1+ year experience): minimum 2 months
Beginners who’ve never run consistently should set aside a minimum of 5 to 6 months for training and start with 3 short runs per week to build endurance and aerobic capacity. Focus on your eating and stretching regimen too.
As a beginner, your marathon goal should be finishing the race, not aiming for a certain time. In the peak week of your training block, you should be able to run for 3 hours or around 20 miles in one go.
Intermediate athletes are those that exercise 3 to 4 times per week. The exercise is not necessarily running and can include swimming or cycling. Because your body is already used to exertion, you won’t need as long to prepare for your marathon, so 3 to 4 months should be sufficient.
While swimming or cycling has likely built your aerobic fitness and endurance, you need to use the muscles specific to running by doing exactly that – running. Running experts advise intermediate athletes to start with around 20 – 25 miles per week, then add 8 – 10% per week.
Experienced athletes have at least a year of running under their belt and can run around 10 miles without stopping or walking. Experienced runners can get away with 2 to 3 months of training because they’ve already built their endurance, worked on their form, and their body knows what distance running feels like.
All that’s left is to keep building mentally and maintain fitness levels. If there’s a specific goal you’re working towards, this is when you will put in the effort to work on your VO2 max with intervals and fartlek exercises. These increase your efficiency, which improves how fast you can run over longer distances.
Of course, the time it takes to train for a marathon will also be affected by whether you have a specific marathon finish time in mind.
What’s the Bare Minimum Amount of Training for a Marathon?
If you are set on putting in as little training as possible (which, again, we don’t advise), you should consider putting in a minimum of 6 to 8 weeks. In all likelihood, putting in this amount of training will still result in you having a challenging day that will hurt. A lot.
But it can be done.
Aim for running at least 3 times per week, prioritizing recovery runs and long runs. Each week, your overall distance run should increase by 8 to 10%, and the long run should increase by 10% each week. However, you should never run more than 22 miles for a long run. That’s the absolute maximum. 18 to 20 miles will be more than sufficient.
If you feel like your body needs a rest day or you have a niggle, do not run. When you already have a shorter training block, the last thing you want is to get an injury that you won’t have time to heal from. On those days, rather focus on low-impact exercises, such as cycling, elliptical, and swimming.
Ultimately, how long you need to train for will depend on what time you hope to achieve. Anybody can run a super slow marathon if they have enough time, guts and patience. That’s why it’s considered easier than a “fast mile”.
But the challenge should not be underestimated!
Our Verdict on a Marathon With No Training
When considering running a marathon with little to no prior training, it’s vital to understand that there’s a big difference between someone who leads a sedentary lifestyle and someone who has relative fitness.
Even with decent fitness and health, you should still put in at least 3 or 4 months of training to ensure you have the best marathon experience possible, both mentally and physically. The last thing you want is to walk away with an injury – or worse – so put in the effort.
Although it can be done, running a marathon with no prior training would be pretty crazy. Respect the sport, respect your body, and respect the distance – if you do these things, you will be good to go!