How To Choose Your First Marathon: Tips For Beginners, Race Selection Factors

Choosing your first marathon can be as daunting as it is exciting. It’s the first step in a personal journey demanding both physical endurance and mental resilience. Yet, the choice of marathon can significantly shape your experience.

You’ve made the bold decision to sign up for your first marathon. What comes next? And what should you consider when choosing your first marathon?

We’ve all heard the saying: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” For marathon runners, that first step is committing to running a marathon, and that’s where the fun begins. 

Join us as we take you through the ins and outs of choosing a marathon by looking at all aspects of a marathon and how they can influence your choice. 

This is how to choose your first marathon. 

Table Of Contents
  1. The Importance of Choosing the Right First Marathon
  2. 5 Most Important First-Time Marathon Factors
  3. Understanding Your Goals and Abilities
  4. Fitness Levels and Training For A First Marathon
  5. Your Marathon Expectations
  6. The Race Size
  7. Choosing a Suitable Marathon Course
  8. How A Marathon Course Affects Your Training and Race Day Strategy
  9. Planning A Race Day Strategy For Your First Marathon
  10. Climate and Time of Year
  11. Choosing A Location For Your First Marathon
  12. Travel Logistics for Marathons
  13. Should I Choose a Marathon Based on Crowd Support?
  14. How Race Organization Will Affect Your Marathon Experience
  15. Researching Race Reviews and Runner Feedback
  16. Running for Charity
  17. What Costs Are Involved In Running A Marathon?
  18. Training Plan Alignment: Make Sure You Have Time For Your Marathon Training Plan
  19. Final Tips for First-Time Marathon Beginners

The Importance of Choosing the Right First Marathon

how to choose your first marathon

Before you get started, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What am I looking for in a race course?
  2. What is my end goal?

Establishing these two factors early in your decision-making process can help you make the best choice according to your fitness levels, running goals, and what you want to accomplish by running in a marathon. 

Deciding that you’re ready for a marathon is the first step and takes a lot of commitment as you get ready to tackle a grueling 26.2-mile run that will physically and mentally challenge you. 

Your first marathon should leave you wanting to do more and should be memorable, enjoyable, and fun, albeit challenging.

5 Most Important First-Time Marathon Factors

So, what should you consider as you choose your first marathon? Here are the most important factors to keep in mind that’ll make your first marathon experience a great one.

#1: Your Fitness and Experience Levels

How fit you are and how long you’ve been running significantly impacts the type of marathon course you choose. Be realistic about your current fitness level, and choose a course that suits you.

Hilly marathons can be a challenge for those used to running on flat terrain. Trail marathons are a bad idea if you’ve done all your training on the road or asphalt surfaces. Bear this in mind when you choose your course. 

#2: The Course

Your first marathon should be the easiest race you can find, so choose a course that fits your current running style. Do you prefer road running? Or are you a runner that goes off the marked track to indulge in the local trails? 

Choose a race accordingly and study the course map to prepare yourself for what lies ahead. As mentioned, running a hilly trail marathon when you’re used to running flat roads – for example – will frustrate you and perhaps even see you dropping out.

#3: The Location

The location of your first marathon is a tricky one to choose. Do you want to get away from your home and city and travel to a destination marathon, or would you prefer to stay closer to home? There are so many marathons to choose from, so consider all your options before making that all-important choice.

Travel can disrupt your routine, which is the one thing you need to maintain when training for a marathon. If there is a marathon that ticks the boxes course-wise and is close to home, opt for this rather than a destination marathon – at least for your first marathon.

#4: The Weather

The weather is a big factor to consider. Running in the wind, rain, heat, or cold can be challenging, so pick a marathon in autumn or spring when the weather is more fair. Weather forecasting apps and websites are your friends, so consult these and look at historical data about the weather during previous races

 If you have to choose between a hot or cold marathon, most runners would advise opting for the colder option – it’s easier to warm yourself up than cool yourself down when running.

#5: The Size

Larger marathons, like those of the World Marathon Majors, see up to 45,000 runners take to the streets of large cities. Are you keen to run in a large group where the energy of the runners and crowd carry you along the course? Or would you prefer a smaller marathon that won’t see you fighting through masses of people as you make your way to the finish line?

Both options have pros and cons, which we’ll cover below, so keep reading to see what these are and how they can affect your marathon experience. 

Understanding Your Goals and Abilities

Before signing up for your first marathon, you should assess your abilities and understand your goals. Let’s look at what you should focus on before your first marathon. 

Your Fitness Levels

What is “fitness level,” and how does this influence your choice of marathon?

It’s quite simple, really. Your fitness level refers to your running speed and your heart rate at that pace. There are four “spheres” of fitness, which are defined as follows:

Aerobic Fitness

Your aerobic fitness refers to your running heart rate and what percent of your max rate you reach at a certain pace. Healthy resting heart rate levels are usually between 60 to 100 beats per minute based on your age, fitness level, weight, and gender. The fitter you are, the lower your heart rate will be.

Another aspect of aerobic fitness is your V02 max rate, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body needs while running per kilogram of body weight. Those with a higher V02 max rate are fitter and can run longer distances before feeling fatigued or out of breath.

Below is the RPE table with the correlating heart rate percent and the ideal race at that heart rate level. 

RPEHR %Talk LevelMaintain Pace DurationIdeal Race
Very Easy1 – 2< 60NormalIndefiniteN/A – warm-up
Easy3 – 460 – 703 – 6 word sentences2 – 5+ hoursUltramarathon, marathon
Hard5 – 670 – 802 – 3 word bursts30 minutes – 2 hours10k – half marathon
Very Hard7 – 880 – 901 – 2 words between gasps8 – 30 minutes5k or less
Maximum9 – 1090 – 100Hard to say 1 word5 minutes or less1 mile

For a marathon, you’d want to run at an RPE of 3 – 5, with your heart rate at between 60 and 75% of your max rate. To calculate your max heart rate, take 220 and subtract your age. For example, if you’re 30 years old, your max heart rate is 190. This means you’d want to run most of your marathon with a heart rate between 114 and 143.

By developing your aerobic fitness, you can run faster and further while keeping your heart rate lower.

Endurance and Strength of Your Muscles

Strength for running is not the same as strength for weight lifting and is assessed by the mileage you can comfortably run before fatigue sets in. 

As running depends predominantly on leg and core strength, fit runners have larger muscle fibers, giving their legs definition, strength, and tone. The stronger your legs and core, the better you can support your body when running longer distances.

Much like aerobic fitness, endurance depends on your V02 max rate. The better your VO2 max level, the further you can run before fatigue sets in.


No matter what physical activity you’re doing, flexibility is crucial and directly impacts your range of motion, gait, and form. Those with greater flexibility often have better running performance and can comfortably run longer distances without injury or pain.

You can become more flexible by stretching daily and before every run. Additionally, using a foam roller and massage gun can assist in making your muscles looser and more supple.

Body Composition and Body Fat Percentage

Let’s be completely honest for a minute. A slender body doesn’t automatically make you fitter than someone who is bulkier. Body composition refers to weight, body fat percentage, and overall muscle mass or strength. While a lower body fat percentage may lead to faster running, muscle mass should be considered too.

So, someone who weighs 100 kilograms can run faster than someone who weighs 55 kilograms if their body composition is more muscular and their fitness is higher. But, if all things are even between these two runners, it’s more likely that the 55-kilogram person will run faster and further before fatigue as there’s less strain due to their lighter frame.

With this in mind, we aren’t saying taller or heavier people shouldn’t run; on the contrary, they may be very talented runners, but they may need to put in more effort than shorter, lighter runners.

Fitness Levels and Training For A First Marathon

First time marathon runner

Choosing a marathon training program based on your fitness level is crucial to prevent the risk of injury, properly train your body for the upcoming exertion, and ensure you can finish the marathon in your goal finishing time. 

Runners with a higher fitness level may choose a less time-consuming schedule, as their bodies are already well-prepared for the distance. But, if you’re less fit or cannot run long distances without experiencing fatigue and achy muscles, you should choose a longer training schedule and work to increase your pace and endurance slowly. 

Training schedules for a marathon are usually between 12 and 24 weeks – the fitter you are, the shorter your training plan can be. A good training program that considers your fitness levels can mean the difference between a well-prepared run and the risk of experiencing running injuries. 

Choose a marathon that gives you enough time to prepare sufficiently. You’re risking your health and safety if you run a marathon (especially your first) without adequate training. If you’re still at the start of your running journey (6 to 12 months of experience), you’ll likely need a 20- to 24-week training block. 

Don’t try to complete your training in 14 weeks because a certain marathon is four months away. Never risk causing a long-term or permanent injury for the sake of a few weeks. 

Your Marathon Expectations

Choosing a marathon is no easy task. From knowing your fitness goals to identifying your goals, there is a lot to consider. Be as realistic as possible when assessing your expectations – of yourself, the marathon, and your training. Under- or overestimating your abilities may cause you to choose a marathon based on unrealistic expectations. 

Again, if you are used to running on flat roads, choose a fairly flat road course that doesn’t have steep elevations or hills to conquer. Your first marathon is not the time to overreach. 

Choose a marathon that: 

  • gives you enough time to train
  • has suitable terrain
  • is well organized
  • has the appropriate number of aid stations 
  • allows you to feel like you’ve achieved your goal

Understanding Your Motivation

Understanding why you want to run a marathon is another factor that can help you decide which marathon to enter and what your goals are for that marathon. 

Here are some of the things you can ask yourself to determine your motivation:

  • Are you running for the achievement of finishing a marathon?
  • Are you running as a part of a bigger goal that sees you racking up marathons or running a specific marathon? 
  • Are you running for charity to raise funds for a cause close to your heart?
  • Are you running a marathon to prove you can finish within a certain time limit?

Ask yourself these questions and understand your true motivation when choosing a marathon. It might determine which marathon is best for your needs and goals. 

The Race Size

The size of the race you choose is vitally important and, just like all of the aspects we assessed above, can greatly impact your first marathon experience. 

Marathons are usually categorized into large or small events and come with their fair share of pros and cons. Large marathons are well-sponsored and generally have many activities over a few days. This typically includes race expos and fairs, and are big attractions that bring in visitors from across the globe that participate in or spectate the event. 

Large marathons accommodate more runners, with some larger marathons exceeding 45,000 runners – all jostling their way to the finish line. 

Small marathons are usually local races sponsored by a running club or other local business and are usually just a one-day event. Small marathons are great for first-timers and are the perfect setting to help you prepare for larger events. 

Smaller marathons see mostly local or national entries and do not have the spectators or events that larger events would. 

Let’s look at each of these types of marathons in more detail as we look at the pros and cons of large and small marathons. 

The Pros and Cons of Large Marathons

Great Wall Marathon in China

A marathon’s size is classified by the number of entrants, with large marathons having as many as 50,000 runners participating in the event. Large marathons usually have more than 10,000 runners. Here are the pros and cons of large marathons:

Pros of Large Marathons

  • More prize money (for overall winners and age group winners).
  • Well organized, with several sponsors on board. Better sponsorship leads to an increase in the number of hydration and aid stations along the marathon route.
  • Fantastic crowd support and a large number of cheering sections to motivate runners.
  • A chance to meet new people from around the world.
  • Greater accolades and a sense of achievement.

Cons of Large Marathons

  • A larger number of entrants could lead to overcrowding and being slowed down.
  • Qualifying standards are tougher.
  • Costly to enter (travel and accommodation costs).
  • Time limits are stricter.
  • Higher risk of injury due to overcrowding.

Large marathons are great if you want to experience marathon running at its best, and they come with their own challenges and good points. But, if it’s your first time running a marathon, we would recommend you sign up for a smaller event in your area. 

The Pros and Cons of Small Marathons

Small marathons are great for first-timers, and they generally see far fewer runners competing in the event. Here are a few pros and cons of smaller marathons and why they are ideal for your first marathon. 

Pros of Small Marathons

  • Fewer runners and less crowding.
  • Small marathons are usually local, requiring less travel and costs.
  • Easier to enter and qualify.
  • Great atmosphere as the local community comes out to support the runners.

Cons of Small Marathons

  • Fewer entrants can make for a lonely run.
  • Less crowd support than that of large, well-sponsored events.
  • Fewer hydration stations and aid stations on the course.
  • Less acclaim as smaller marathons are less newsworthy.

However, this does not mean that a small marathon is less important than a larger marathon – it’s a great way to hone your skills and assess your times and goals for larger events. 

Think of small marathons as stepping stones to your marathon running success. Use them as opportunities to perfect your running and fueling strategy and learn where your running performance needs fine-tuning. 

Choosing a Suitable Marathon Course

No two marathon courses are the same, and you would be hard-pressed to find one that suits all your needs as a runner. Let’s look at the two main types of courses, how they are defined, and the pros and cons of each. 

The two main types of marathon courses are hilly and flat. To differentiate between the two, we apply the 4% rule. That is, a course with more than four hills with a 4% grade is considered a hilly course. A great example of this type of course is the Boston Marathon course, which is home to features like Heartbreak Hill that make for a challenging run. 

A flat course has fewer than four 4% hills and is great for fast and “easy” runs. The Berlin and Chicago Marathons are very fast, flat courses.

Endurance is key when running a marathon, so flat courses are great for runners who want to achieve their best time and set a new personal record. 

The Pros and Cons of Hilly Courses

Here are the pros and cons of hilly marathon courses:

Pros of Hilly Courses

  • A great challenge for experienced and fit runners.
  • Downhills are great for picking up speed and reducing overall running time.
  • More calories are burnt when running on a hilly course.

Cons of Hilly Courses

  • More effort is required as hills place more strain on the joints.
  • Can significantly slow you down.
  • Harder to run in general.

The Pros and Cons of Flat Courses

Here are the pros and cons of flat courses:

Pros of Flat Courses

  • Faster than hilly courses.
  • Less strain on the joints.
  • Great for any fitness level, especially beginners and older runners.
  • Less risk of injury.

Cons of Flat Courses

  • Elevation can have physical benefits that include strengthening of muscles and cardiovascular health.
  • Less excitement as the course can become mundane.
  • Limited in terms of up or downhills that can help increase speed and use different muscle groups (relieving other muscle groups).
  • Less challenging than a hilly course – may not give the same sense of achievement.

Flat and hilly courses both have their benefits. It’s up to you to decide how much of a challenge you want to take on when competing in your first marathon, so choose wisely and enjoy the experience of running in a marathon. 

Understanding Elevation Maps

Whether you choose a flat or hilly course, understanding elevation maps can help you prepare for your marathon. From training to race day strategy, knowing what to expect from your marathon course can make a big difference in your overall experience and performance. 

Elevation maps are often included on the marathon event website, with each mile’s elevation recorded on a graph. Miles are listed on the bottom axis, while elevation (measured in feet or meters) is listed on the vertical axis. 

Take note of the range listed on the vertical axis. If the elevation is measured in hundreds or thousands of feet or meters, you’re in for a hilly run, as there are several hills to conquer on your way to the finish line. No marathon course is completely free of elevation, so study the course map and elevation charts to prepare yourself for the challenge – information is the key to proper preparation.

The best advice we can give you is to train on the same terrain you will be running on race day. Use the elevation maps to help guide your training. If your course is particularly hilly, add a couple of hilly runs into your weekly training schedule to adequately prepare yourself.

How A Marathon Course Affects Your Training and Race Day Strategy

As we have stated above, the marathon course you choose has a large impact on your training program and running strategy on race day. Here’s what you can expect from each type of course:

Training For Flat Courses

Flat marathon courses are all about endurance and are great for long-distance runners that maintain high mileage or those who are just getting started in longer distances. Focusing on pacing, breathing, and endurance or stamina in training will help prepare for race day. 

Train on flat or semi-flat terrains to mimic the course profile of your chosen marathon. Preparing your body for a flat course should focus on increasing your mileage while building cardiovascular and muscle strength.

While flat courses don’t have the strain of up and downhills, they can be equally as exhausting as your legs get no respite, so ensure you’re prepared for that.

Training For Hilly Courses

Hilly courses come with unique challenges and are best for runners with impeccable stamina and strength. Running up and downhill puts more strain on the joints and should be reserved for runners with higher fitness levels and more experience. 

Maintaining pace and consistent effort on hilly courses is key and helps reserve your energy for when you need it most. To train for a hilly course, include exercises that help build and strengthen your muscles and prepare your cardiovascular system for running on hilly terrain. 

Include intervals and hill runs in your training schedule, and work on pacing yourself. If you choose to run a hilly marathon, rather than running with time-based pacing, you should consider RPE-based pacing – maintain an RPE of 3 to 5 throughout. This means you’ll be slow on uphills, average on flats, and faster on downhills.

Planning A Race Day Strategy For Your First Marathon

The type of course you choose will significantly impact your running strategy on race day. While hilly courses require more conservative pacing to ensure you have sufficient energy to tackle the hills, flat courses require more endurance and speed to ensure a good finishing time. 

Familiarize yourself with the elevations expected on the run, and determine where you will need to slow down and where you should increase your speed. 

Most marathon runners tend to run slower for the first three to four miles, warming up into their pace early in the race. This crucial period sets the tone for the rest of the marathon and is necessary to ensure endurance for the full 26.2-mile course. 

Don’t leave your running strategy to the last minute. Decide your strategy early on in the experience and start the race on a positive note. Don’t try to bank time by running too fast at the start – run at the pre-decided pace, even when it feels like everyone is flying past you.

Climate and Time of Year

The climate and time of year influence your running performance quite a bit. Let’s see how these will affect your performance and what you can do to ensure a great marathon experience. 

Understanding How the Climate Impacts Marathon Running

Climate impacts marathon running as runners are exposed to heat, wind, rain, and cold. With excessive heat causing dehydration and fatigue, cold weather creates a dreadful running experience and an increased risk of injuries as the muscles may not perform at their peak. Rain creates a slipping hazard, and wind is frustrating at the best of times and prohibitive at the worst.

And, while no perfect climate exists for running a marathon, choosing one with moderate to fair weather can improve your running performance and experience. Ultimately, the best climate for a marathon is one with moderate temperatures of 44 °F (7 °C) to 59 °F (15 °C), no rain or wind, and lower levels of humidity. 

Choosing a Marathon Based on Running Conditions and the Time of Year

If you’re looking for the best running conditions, this section is important and will help you plan your first marathon. 

The dead of winter and the heat of summer are no-nos for first time marathon runners and will impact your running performance and your entire marathon experience. For this reason, most popular marathons occur in either autumn or spring, when temperatures are moderate. 

Planning a marathon free of wind or rain is not always possible, and event organizers urge runners to plan accordingly when preparing for the race. 

Seasons differ according to location, so ensure you note the time of year and season when signing up for a marathon. While it might be springtime in your city, it could be winter in another, and it is up to you to consider this when you plan for your marathon. 

Plan ahead by looking at the weather forecast for the city you will be visiting, and look at the weather before and after race day to determine what the weather is expected to be like for the duration of your marathon window (weather systems can shift a few days either way). This helps when choosing what you’ll wear, how much fluid you need, and your pacing strategy for race day. 

Note that the climate will affect your training, too, so factor this into your training schedule. If you’re running an autumn marathon, most of your training will be through summer, and vice versa for a spring race. Decide which extreme is better based on your location (if you have more moderate summers, opt for this), and select your marathon based on when training will suit you best.

Choosing A Location For Your First Marathon

Many cities play host to their own marathon, with larger events like the World Marathon Majors taking place in London, New York, Boston, Tokyo, Berlin, and Chicago. But these are not the only marathons to choose from, and the choice is yours if you want to participate in a local or destination marathon. 

Let’s look at both and assess the pros and cons of local and destination marathons. 

Should I Choose A Local Marathon?

These marathons are generally smaller and take place within an hour of where you live. Local marathons see mostly local runners competing, which is good news for qualifying for and entering these events. 

Here are a few of the pros and cons of local marathons: 

Pros of Local Marathons

  • Smaller lottery pool for entry (often no waitlist at all).
  • Less costly to sign up for.
  • Fewer runners taking part makes for a less-crowded course.
  • You can run the course before race day and improve your running performance and skills.
  • Less travel is needed to get to the event.

Cons of Local Marathons

  • Smaller events mean less prize money and fewer sponsors.
  • Less crowd support than destination marathons.
  • The course could be mundane compared to destination marathons (often just run in the city’s streets).

Should I Choose A Destination Marathon?

Destination marathons occur in a different city, state, or country and require extensive planning and travel. Great for seeing different parts of the world while running a marathon, destination marathons are popular for runners looking to set new PRs and compete in scenic marathons as part of their travel. 

Here are the pros and cons of destination marathons:

Pros of Destination Marathons

  • Compete with local and international marathon runners.
  • Exciting way to experience new cities and cultures.
  • Great crowd support and electric atmosphere.

Cons of Destination Marathons

  • More difficult to enter.
  • Qualifying standards are far trickier to adhere to than local marathons.
  • Entrance might be limited to certain countries only.
  • Costly (travel, accommodation, visas, entry fees).
  • Larger groups of people to compete with.

Travel Logistics for Marathons

Planning for a destination marathon requires more than just signing up and qualifying for the event. It takes careful consideration as you factor in the travel, accommodation, and meal costs. 

Larger marathons are usually held over a weekend with several activities and festivities. While you might think you can just arrive, race, and go home, it’s not as simple as this, as race expos and other race-day necessities, such as collecting your race bib and pack, need to be included. 

Let’s look at each aspect in more detail as we help you plan your first destination marathon. 

Travel Costs

Depending on the location of the marathon, you will need to spend a considerable amount on travel as you factor in flights, taxis, or shuttles to and from the airport and event and the cost of visas or other travel documents. 

Marathon Entry Fees

If you’re taking part in an international marathon, you can expect to pay a larger registration fee than that of smaller or local marathons, especially if the entry fee is in foreign currency.

Marathon runners usually enjoy free entry to race expos or fairs, but check on this when planning your trip. If you’re bringing family or friends with you to the expo, they may need to pay an entry fee.

Accommodation Costs

Booking accommodation well in advance is crucial, as only the more expensive accommodation will be available closer to race day. Consider booking an Airbnb or room in a guest house rather than a hotel to keep accommodation costs as low as possible. Book as far in advance as possible to ensure you have somewhere to stay, and book your stay close to the starting line for convenience. 

Another accommodation consideration is access to a kitchen. As you know, sticking to your routine is critical before any race, especially a marathon. If your pre-race breakfast needs to be cooked (like oats) or you need a kettle, ensure your accommodation has facilities that suit your needs.

Meal Costs

Food availability and prices differ from country to country, so ensure that you set aside enough money to cover your meals for the duration of your stay. While some accommodations provide free breakfast, many do not include lunch and dinner in their packages, leaving you to fend for yourself for these meals.

Research eateries and supermarkets in the area and set aside sufficient funds to cover your meal costs before and after the event. Larger marathons often provide post-run meals, so you can eat a substantial meal after you finish to replenish nutrients. If your race doesn’t, factor this into your planning. Running 26.2 miles will burn more calories than you can believe, and replacing them post-run can be a costly (albeit delicious) exercise. 

Other Things to Consider

Depending on where the marathon will take place, you might need to take time off work to travel to, participate in, and recover from your first marathon.

Avoid arriving the day before your race, as you will need at least 12 hours of sleep in the 24 hours before race day to prepare your body for the upcoming challenge. If you’ve traveled to a different country, you may also struggle with acclimating and jet lag, so give yourself at least three days for this.

Take note of when you must collect your race bib and pack and if there are any pre-race events you wish to attend when planning your travel.

The Thrill of a ‘Racecation’

Want to use the opportunity of a marathon to take a little vacation? A racecation is the answer! It combines the thrill of participating in a destination marathon with a few days of relaxation and sightseeing while you are in a new city or country. 

Racecations are becoming more popular, but they have their challenges. Accommodation can be hard to find around the marathon. You may struggle with jet lag, allergies, or acclimation issues. Plus, being in a new place can bring anxiety, especially when it’s your first marathon.

Book accommodation as early as possible, including the additional days you will stay after the race. Remember to factor in jet lag and post-race recovery into your travel schedule. Give yourself time to recover sufficiently after the race before you hit the streets and do the tourist thing.

Should I Choose a Marathon Based on Crowd Support?

Marathon beginners

Crowd support and cheering sections are necessary parts of any marathon to help motivate runners to keep going as they progress through the course. Many pros and elites have confirmed that crowd support gave them the energy and boost they needed to push harder.

With many larger races having spectators along the entire route, some marathons – like the Tokyo Marathon – are known for their cheering sections that see each suburb having a dedicated cheering section to support the runners at each mile marker or checkpoint.

There’s no doubt that the start and finish line of a marathon are jam-packed with supporters cheering on the race finishers, but the cheering sections along the toughest parts of the course make a big difference in motivating runners when they are tired and fighting to make it to the finish line. 

Motivation, encouragement, and an electric atmosphere are the most important aspects of crowd support. Find a marathon known for having good crowd support – you never know when a high five or “you can do it” from a random supporter will give you the push you need. 

How Crowd Support Can Push You to the Finish

As we said, crowd support is vital for morale and motivation at any marathon, regardless of whether it is a small or large event. This support is often the driving force behind many successful runs, with complete strangers urging runners to pick up their pace, keep on going, and cross that finish line.

Cheering sections might consist of a few people clapping and cheering to large groups of people that line the streets, sing, play music, and offer refreshments. All are crucial and play a role in making your marathon experience a great one. 

Most runners, bar those who find the cheering and clapping distracting, will tell you about the incredible encouragement and motivation that crowd support brings. If you’ve ever heard a runner describe the crowds as being “electric,” this is what they’re talking about. You can draw strength and energy from the crowd, allowing you to push on.

How Race Organization Will Affect Your Marathon Experience

A well-organized event is key to a great marathon experience and helps ensure the event goes off without a hitch. From aid stations to hydration points and race marshals, many things go into planning a marathon, and the difference comes in when you are out on the course and running in the marathon. 

But what’s important? And what are the key things that make a marathon a well-organized event?

Aspects of a Well-Organized Event

Here are a few things that make a marathon a great experience:

Clear Course Guidance

From digital signs to route markers, clear guidance on what to expect during a marathon is key for runners and gives them a clear sense of direction. Larger marathons will have marshals on the course; smaller events may only use signs and markers. Either way, any marathon worth doing should have clear route marking so you know exactly where you need to go.

Aid and Hydration Stations

Sufficient aid and hydration stations ensure runners stay hydrated on the course. Hydration stations should be located every two to three miles. Some of the larger marathons offer various refreshments and snacks at their hydration stations, allowing runners to refuel and replenish nutrients while running. Aid stations, too, are vitally important and should be available along the course to assist injured runners. 

Post-Race Amenities

Amenities like food and drink, aid stations, and bathrooms are necessary post-race, allowing runners to rehydrate and take a well-needed break after their race. Most runners are all too eager to find a bathroom to freshen up, wash their faces, and change their clothes before returning to their accommodation or home. Some events offer food or snacks at the finish line – check the race information to see what will be available.

What to Look for in Post-Race Amenities

Once you have crossed the finish line that marks the end of the race, what comes next? A well-organized marathon should be easily accessible to all runners and provide the following post-race amenities:

  • Parking
  • Busses or shuttles
  • Restrooms or bathroom facilities
  • Food and refreshments for runners to replenish their nutrients and hydrate
  • Aid and recovery stations for aching muscles
  • Photographers and videographers to capture the finish line festivities
  • A prize giving or medal ceremony

These are not always provided, but a well-organized event should have at least some of these for runners to enjoy. Covering 26.2 miles is no small feat, so having a space that allows runners to soak in the achievement is important. 

Researching Race Reviews and Runner Feedback

Want to know more about the marathon you have chosen? Looking for great tips from runners who have already completed your chosen marathon?

Social media, event websites, and running forums are all great resources for researching a specific marathon. Many of the larger events will have social media groups and platforms you can access for the inside scoop on the event, so harness the power of social media and reach out to your fellow runners. 

Who knows, you might just gain some great insights on what to expect and what you can do to improve your marathon experience. 

Running for Charity

Slow marathon in fancy dress
Charity marathon runners. Pic via Paul Wilkinson

Marathons are a great way to raise funds for a charity close to your heart. From running in a charity team to participating in a sponsored event, there are a few ways to get involved with running for charity. 

Large marathons, like the World Marathon Majors, earmark a certain number of entry slots for charity runners, with runners contacting their chosen charity to sign up for the event and donating a minimum amount to the charity in return for a race entry. 

To get involved, visit the event website, select your charity from those provided, and apply. Alternatively, you can raise funds for a charity of your choice. You will, however, need to enter the marathon by qualifying and going through the lottery selection system if applicable.

The Benefits of Running a Marathon for a Charity

There are many benefits of running for a charity. Here are just a few:

  • Bringing awareness to your chosen cause
  • Raising much-needed funds for a cause close to your heart
  • A guaranteed spot on the starting line
  • No need to qualify or go through the lottery selection system that most large marathons have in place 
  • Motivates you to push harder during the race
  • Provides a purpose for your training and running

These are just a few of the benefits you can enjoy when you choose to run for charity. The most obvious, however, is feeling like you are a part of something bigger and that your run has a purpose. 

What Costs Are Involved In Running A Marathon?

Surprisingly, running a marathon is not as cheap as you would think, as various costs need to be covered. These include race entry fees and registration costs, the cost of travel to and from the event, accommodation, gear, food, and drinks. 

Let’s look at how much you would expect to fork out for a marathon.

The Registration Fee

The registration fee you pay when signing up for a marathon covers your race bib, race pack (typically including a t-shirt), the costs of the hydration stations, all pre- and post-race amenities, and the logistics involved with timing runners. 

Your registration fee is a once-off non-refundable payment. You will not get your money back if your entry is unsuccessful or you don’t run on the day. Registration fees vary based on several factors, but you can expect to pay between $20 and $300.

Travel Costs

If you are participating in a destination marathon, you should expect to pay for travel, accommodation, meals and drinks, and any other costs associated with traveling. See our section on travel logistics and considerations above to better understand what you will be spending your money on. 

Running Expo or Fair Tickets

Most large marathons have an expo or fair that includes great activities, booths with information and tips on the event, and of course, food and drinks on offer to those who attend. While some marathon expos offer free entry to marathon runners, anyone accompanying you will likely need to pay an entry fee, so keep this cost in mind. Details on the ticket costs are normally available on the event website. 

Running Gear

Running gear is not cheap, and the gear required for a marathon can cost a lot of money, especially when you add it all up.

A good pair of running shoes is vital for a marathon and can easily set you back a few hundred dollars. The clothing designed specifically for running and marathons will help keep you cool and dry as you take on the challenge. 

A running watch with a heart rate monitor is not necessary but is good for those who take their marathon running seriously. They also allow you to see how far into the run you are, your pace, your heart rate, and other interesting data. Running watches range in price from $100 to $500, depending on the brand, model, and features. 

Other items you may need include a running pack, waist belt, armband cell phone holder, bottles, a cap, running buffs, arm sleeves, socks, chafe cream, sunscreen, sunglasses, and earphones. 

Training Plan Alignment: Make Sure You Have Time For Your Marathon Training Plan

A good training plan can mean the difference between a great marathon and an average one that sees you finishing the race before the cut-off time feeling awful. Training is essential, regardless of your fitness level or running performance, and should occur at least twenty weeks before race day. 

With pacing, mileage, and endurance being the focus of a good training program, giving yourself (and your body) sufficient time to train for a marathon can greatly improve your running performance on race day. 

With that in mind, it’s important to choose a marathon that fits the timeline of your required training plan.

Training Workouts

Even the fittest runners plan for at least 12 to 24 weeks of training before they line up at the starting point on race day. This time frame should be 20 to 24 weeks for runners training for their first marathon. 

A great training program sees you running four to five times a week, leaving two for rest and recovery. Most marathon training plans will include the following activities each week:

  • One long run.
  • One tempo or interval run.
  • Two or three easy runs.
  • Two strength sessions.
  • One or two cross-training sessions. 
  • One recovery day (low-impact activity).
  • One rest day (no activity).

While your weekly mileage will initially be quite low, it should increase by 8% to 10% per week. Your long run should make up around 40% of your total mileage. Stretching and warming up for 15 to 20 minutes before each run is critical to avoid injury.

Training Plans and Target Times For Beginners

One of the best ways to set a target time when running a marathon is to focus on your mileage and pacing. Use your longest run to see what pace you maintain and use this to make an estimation and goal finish time. 

Pay close attention to course cut-off times and ensure you won’t be stopped at any cut-off points. This will help you pace yourself and avoid the risk of injury from pushing too hard unnecessarily. 

Recovery Times and Other Life Commitments

Your marathon training plan should include a recovery day and a rest day every week as you give your body time to rest and let your muscles recover between workouts and runs. No matter how long your training plan is, the last 7 to 14 days should be set aside for tapering – this is where you reduce your mileage to allow your body to get rest and recover properly for the race. 

Aim to have a full day of rest the day before the event, and get at least 12 hours of sleep to ensure you are in peak condition for your big run. You may need to have a nap or two the day before, which is great. And, if you’re feeling nervous and want to do a shakeout run or walk, keep it to 2 miles or less at a very slow pace.

Final Tips for First-Time Marathon Beginners

Choosing your first marathon can be tricky as you assess each factor that makes up a marathon. These factors, especially your fitness levels, the course, weather, location, and marathon size, are all crucial aspects that require careful consideration. 

Take your time researching each of these as you gear up and prepare for the grueling 26.2-mile run that challenges even the fittest of runners. But, as important as the above factors are, nothing is more vital than taking the first step and committing to your first marathon. 

There’s no time like the present to get started with marathon training, so do your research, find a marathon that suits your needs (and your budget), and get running today! The effort is worth it, and your first marathon is just the start of a new world of running waiting to be explored. Good luck!

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Thalia Oosthuizen

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Thalia started running during the the pandemic as a way of getting out of the house. The running bug bit, and now much of her life revolves around everything to do with running - videos, podcasts, studies, books, articles, and interviews. She's also done several courses on running nutrition and mechanics to aid in her training and advising others.
Thalia Oosthuizen

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