There is something that only 0.5 percent of the American population has accomplished. Can you guess what it is?

Whether you’re a running rookie or a veteran, the mental and physical fortitude it takes to complete a marathon (that’s 26.2 miles for those who aren’t familiar) is remarkable. And while distance running has certainly grown in popularity in the last few decades, an increase in understanding of what it takes to actually get through a marathon has helped so many runners complete one—especially those who never thought they could.

If you’ve ever watched a marathon in person or on television and thought, “There’s no way,” keep reading. The tips and tricks below, plus insight from some of the most reputable running organizations in the country, just might change your mind.

Marathon Basics

Before you make the decision to run a marathon, it’s important to understand a few things. First and foremost, you will need to dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to training. Most programs run at least twelve weeks, with some running as long as twenty or more. Of course, the amount of training you need depends on a lot of different factors, including your current fitness level, your nutrition, and your running experience, among others.

But just like any other exercise program, it’s important to understand your body and know your limits before you hit the ground running. If you’ve never run a shorter-distance race before, such as a 5K or a 10K, training for one is a great way to prepare for marathon-level running. These races are still excellent tests of endurance, and they can provide you with more insight into the level of training required. Besides, trying to add miles to your run too quickly could result in injury and severely set you back on your goals. Slower, steady, and consistent running is key to proper training.

There are thousands of training programs out there, but according to Roberto Mandje—an Olympic runner and the manager of runner training and education for New York Road Runners—there is no one program that’s the perfect fit for everybody. Most programs will follow similar guidelines, but you have to find what works best for you.

The Four-Part Training Method

The program that’s the best fit for you might not be the same program your friend uses to train. But that doesn’t mean the programs won’t have the same basic components. Mandje notes that most programs you find are based on four different phases: base-building, a long-run buildup, speed training, and the taper. All four components are essential to the process, and following them can make a world of difference come race day.

Base-building phase

The most important thing to remember in your training is to avoid doing too much too soon. Immediately going from running five miles on average to twelve miles is guaranteed to bring severe muscle fatigue and potential injury—possibly leaving you unable to run at all. Mandje recommends gradually increasing the length of time you’re running, not the mileage, because as you increase time, mileage will naturally increase. He also recommends joining a training group or working with a coach, either of whom can help set the groundwork for you and help you progress safely.

Goals for this phase:

  • Plan to run at least three to five times per week.
  • Don’t increase mileage by more than 10 percent from week to week.
  • Reaching a long run of six miles is a good base for marathon training.

Long-run phase

You know the phrase “slow and steady wins the race.” Quick, short runs are great for building aerobic fitness, but they won’t cut it on race day. After building a base, continue to gradually increase the length of your weekly long runs up until the tapering phase of your training. Make sure to also reduce the mileage of your long run every few weeks during this phase to prevent injury. For example, if you start with a long run of ten miles and build to eleven miles the following week and twelve the third week, cut back to ten miles before moving on to a thirteen-mile run.

Goals for this phase:

  • Continue running at a slower, consistent pace to build stamina.
  • You should still be running three to five times per week, with strength training and light cardio days worked in.
  • Most programs recommend a peak of twenty miles for long runs, to be hit before the tapering phase.

Speed training phase

Mixing more difficult runs into your training is a great way to prepare for your marathon from both a physical perspective and a mental perspective. When your body is used to running at a more challenging pace for an extended period of time, it will be better prepared to sustain its energy over more than twenty-six miles.

Interval running: A series of short runs at a fast pace, with slower jogging or walking in between runs.

Tempo running: Slightly longer runs than interval running, run at a challenging but sustainable pace.

Tapering phase

Can you imagine running more than twenty-six miles after running twenty miles less than twenty-four hours earlier? Take the last few weeks before your marathon to slowly cut back the mileage and pace of your runs. Let your body rest. This is not to say you should cut back completely on workouts, but rather that you should reduce them to prevent fatigue and ramp your body up for the race.

Fueling and Recovery

Aside from improving your physical and mental fitness through training, understanding how to fuel your body and properly recover after workouts is crucial for marathon-level racing. You should think of food and water as fuel for your training. It’s recommended to drink three to four sips of water for every fifteen to twenty minutes of running and to eat a small meal between thirty and sixty minutes prior to running, with a high-protein snack shortly after your run.

Protein is perhaps the most important nutrient to consume during this period, as it can help repair muscles damaged during your workouts and give you plenty of clean energy to sustain your body through intense sessions. Foods high in protein include lean meats like chicken and salmon, beans, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and egg whites. A good example of a prerun meal could be a piece of whole wheat toast with a scoop of natural peanut butter or a half cup of cottage cheese with some fruit.

Postrun, it’s also important to eat a snack or meal that’s high in protein as well as carbohydrates to replenish energy stores and stabilize blood sugar. A protein shake paired with some fruit, or pretzels and hummus, make for great snacks. If you need something more substantial, opt for a sandwich with turkey and veggies or a bowl of whole wheat pasta with chicken, or a salad with salmon.

From Start to Finish

You’ve followed your training plan and invested in your nutrition, and you’re feeling confident. Once there’s a week left to race day, it’s officially crunch time. Make sure to drink plenty of fluids the night before and a full glass of water the morning of to be sure you’re fully hydrated. Try and get to the starting line thirty to forty minutes ahead of time to scope out the area, go to the bathroom, and mentally ready yourself for the run. After the race is over, it’s important to keep moving if you can. Long-distance running can cause small damage to muscles, and walking can help prevent soreness, cramping, or tightening. Most important, take in the feeling of your accomplishment and hard work, and knowing that it paid off.