The first step in training for a marathon may be the most significant one. Making a firm decision to take on 26.2 miles gives runners a definitive goal and makes it easier to keep going when hitting hurdles along the way. As much as preparation involves pushing physical boundaries, it’s also very much an exercise in mental planning.

“A lot of people who are runners are very driven, success-prone people,” explains Trevor Spencer of the Marathon Training Academy. Patti Finke, founder and director of the Portland Marathon Clinic, agrees. “I think marathoners tend to be very goal-oriented people; they tend to be visionary.”

Once that vision is in place, a schedule is imperative, for both beginners and seasoned athletes. Most concur that any informed program you feel comfortable with will work fine—as long as you stick with it. Most instructors recommend being able to run at least three to six miles at a time for a good six months before even taking on longer distances. Once that endurance has built up, aspiring competitors can take on more mileage over the next 16 to 24 weeks.

“The best place to start is by running slow: if you can’t breathe, you’re [going] too fast,” Finke advises. The secret to finding the right pace is being able to jog and speak at the same time. The sport shouldn’t be hard, she expands. It’s not a punishment; it should be enjoyable. And Finke would know. Now in her 70s, she’s been an enthusiast for more than 30 years, participated in more than 85 marathons, and has written a book with her husband, Warren, on how to succeed at races.

Ammiel Mateen, a Chicago resident who ran her first marathon in 2006 (and has run at least seven since then), says at first she was intrigued by the possibility that her body could actually handle the physical activity. As she continued her preparation, she realized that the sport wasn’t the only change she was seeing in her life. She was intrigued by the discipline she would need to exhibit to succeed.

“You had to make sure you were eating right and sleeping properly. I found that I had to be in the right company. You can’t be around people who are speaking negatively all the time,” she explains.

Mateen once went out on a 15-mile jog and had no issues until the halfway point, when she started ruminating over a problem. “I started having thoughts about this situation, and I remember my body slowing down. I came to a point where I started walking, and I couldn’t get started up again,” she laments.

The same can happen in the actual race. “Regardless of how you’re feeling, you have to push yourself to not feel that way. That’s what will kill your race,” she expounds. “I’ve tried to be stronger than those negative thoughts.”

Finke says she often uses these life lessons as encouragement when working with new joggers. Endurance builds slowly over time, and those in the process have to understand not to overlook smaller stages to achieve the larger objective. “Goals add up. Use that as a metaphor for life and approach everything as taking little steps,” she expands.

Annan Shehadi, a Hickory Hills, Illinois, resident who tackled her first marathon 10 years ago, found one of her biggest challenges to be the summer heat. However, planning ahead helped overcome that hurdle. If she didn’t feel like carrying water, she made sure to plan a route that hit gas stations where she could stop.

Physical endurance builds up with being consistent. Different specialists have varying ideas about the best preparation. Some recommend only running three days a week. Others endorse more. Whatever the route taken, steady training will help racers figure out when they need to drink water, what miles are the toughest for them, and how much food and nutrients are necessary to make it through.

Spencer and his wife, Angie, who helm a podcast and website with guidelines and tips for runners, suggest going in with a plan and sticking to it. “You don’t want to do anything new on race day,” he continues.

It’s also important to listen to what your body is telling you, which includes the fuel that goes into your system.

“For a beginner, you need to start with baby steps,” Spencer informs. “Eat a healthy diet, whatever that looks like. Some people are low-carb, some people are vegan. If you’re not eating a lot of sugar and processed foods, you should be good. Then you learn things as you go.”

There’s no one answer for any aspiring athlete on the best diet to consume. Instructors’ opinions also vary on when to eat. Some endorse food before a long outing. However, from experience, Mateen can tell you that she reacts better when she doesn’t eat before a long distance and then fuels up later.

Finke supports eating meals that consist of protein, fats, and carbohydrates to ensure enough energy and nutrients are taken in to last through ever-increasing distances.

Anyone who takes on the sport will also hear about “carb-loading” as a way to prepare; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean eating a large plate of spaghetti the day before a contest. That will likely just be stored as fat and not come in handy while actually in a race. Spencer advises eating more carbohydrates after long periods of exercise. Finke adds that may come in the form of consuming sports gels during the actual competition.

The bottom line, however, is that you will slowly figure out what is helping you and what needs to be improved. “Your body craves better food once you’re pushing yourself physically,” Mateen explains.

It’s also surprising what most people can handle when pushed. Mateen decided to continue exercising in Ramadan while fasting. “It’s difficult, but it’s doable,” she says. “I thought of all these athletes—football players and basketball players and soccer players—who are still doing it. They train as heavily as they do and fast, so I thought I could train at the level I do and fast.”

Of course, any physical activity should include proper hydration (Mateen participated in group runs right before sunset so she could drink water afterward) and be preceded by consultation with a doctor.

Specialty equipment can also be overwhelming for first-time aspiring athletes, but the most important thing to keep in mind is to wear proper clothing that will wick moisture away and have a good pair of shoes that fit your stride. Spencer advises visiting a specialty store to have your gait evaluated.

For years, Mateen wore heavy cotton clothing when exercising until one day getting soaked in the rain made her realize advice from a fellow marathoner to wear lighter and tighter fabrics made sense. However, the gear suited for athletes did give Mateen a bit of a crisis of conscience.

“I stopped running for about a year because I was thinking it’s not Islamic because of some of the clothing I would wear,” she says. In the end, Mateen made an effort to find appropriate clothing, but she also resolved to make her intention clear to herself.

“If any time I think I’m wearing something to be attractive, then that outfit I wouldn’t wear. Also I felt that running was something [God] has blessed me with,” she continues. “That was a tough thing for me because I think it stops a lot of Muslim women and girls from running and possibly stops them from being as good as they could be in the sport.”

One of the biggest challenges for any distance runner—but especially for beginners—is scheduling. The timetable is pretty demanding: 26 miles doesn’t come out of nowhere.

When Shehadi participated in the Chicago Marathon in 2006, she was in college in the midst of midterms. For a few weeks before the actual race, she didn’t have much time to consistently take on long distances. “It made me a little discouraged,” she says. But, the groundwork for months before that slowdown provided extra motivation. “I think because you’ve put in so much and have a lot of adrenaline with the crowd and everything that day. . . I ran it and I finished it,” she says.

A decade later, she’s contemplating another go at it, but this time around she may take advantage of being part of a group. Most trainers also suggest working with other enthusiasts as extra motivation. Shehadi is also planning to devote her efforts to charity, which provides an added incentive to keep going. Those going that route pledge to raise a certain amount of money for an organization and solicit donors. Because contributors know the fundraiser has intentions to run, it delivers a little extra push to keep at it.

As Finke and others who keep coming back for more have proven, once you’ve taken part in one, marathons can become addictive. “Once you buy into it, you do the training,” she continues. “It’s exceedingly empowering.”

Nadia Malik holds a degree in journalism and is a former reporter for a Chicago-area newspaper. She has written for websites and publications and has also worked for several non-profit organizations