Can you run a marathon without training?

As a running coach and Physiotherapist, I’ve seen plenty of runners who have attempted a marathon without training.

Unfortunately most of those have been seen in my role as a Physiotherapist rather than in my coaching capacity…

The most common scenario is a runner who suffers a major injury in the months before the race, like a stress fracture.

With a race entry in hand and their heart set on the race, many runners decide that a marathon without training is better than no marathon at all.

So is a marathon without training possible and what’s the best way to approach it?

Two very different “marathon without training” stories

Runner 1 – the planner

In early 2019, I saw a 40 year old female runner who was diagnosed with a tibial stress fracture 3 months before her race.

Undeterred and determined to make it to the start line, she spent the months before the race diligently strength training.

For her marathon goal, the time target became a “just enjoy it and finish” target.

On race day, she started out steady and grateful to be participating in the race atmosphere. After some easy running, a little walking and a lot of smiling, it was job done.

After a short recovery, she rebuilt her running volume and made a successful return to racing.

Runner 2 – the dreamer

By contrast, in late 2019, I saw a 36 year old male runner who attended physiotherapy two weeks after his marathon.

He hadn’t run in the months leading up to the race but decided to race anyway. He had signed up with a group of friends and wanted to be part of the action.

Despite no running, cross training or strength work, he made the fateful decision to run with his friends as long as he could keep up.

After struggling until the halfway mark, he decided to split from his group and walk for a little. Then a little more. Then a lot.

He crossed the line well after his friends and joined them for a celebratory drink.

He didn’t feel great, but only realized the predicament he was in when he tried to stand up. He had sustained injuries in his Achilles, knees and hips.

He gradually returned to some running over the next four months but it took almost a year to be back to full volume.

The smart approach to running a marathon without training

Firstly, you need to acknowledge that a marathon without training is going to be a fun training run, with some walking. Don’t refer to it as a race – that only adds expectation and pressure that you don’t need at this stage.

Secondly, do some strength training. The main point of failure isn’t fitness, it’s being able to maintain a decent running technique throughout the race.

Any strength training is better than nothing, but running-focused strength work is better than random gym exercises. If possible, get some advice on customising your program for the race and your type of running.

Third, add some cardio. This is a distant third behind strength work but it’ll still help you get to the finish in slightly better condition.

Next, get some fresh running shoes. New shoes can help take the pressure off your knees or bunions if they’re vulnerable areas for you. It also minimises achy feet during the race. Just wear them for a month before the race if possible to avoid any blisters or issues during the race.

Lastly, prepare for some pain and suffering amongst the glory. Don’t go in expecting it to be an effortless cruise – expect everything to hurt and and you can’t be disappointed.

The key to it all

The moral of the story is that you can’t bluff your way through a marathon, especially attempting a marathon without training.

If you can’t train before a marathon, revising your goals and adding some strength training can get you there but it’s probably more sensible to postpone the glory and focus on a later date. Forging on undeterred with the same time expectations, because of frustration or bravado, only leads to disappointment.

A marathon needs to be respected and earned – there are no shortcuts.