run a faster marathon

How to Run a Faster Marathon

Do you want to run a faster marathon? Here’s exactly what you need to do to shine on race day. 

A marathon is the ultimate test of endurance among the classic road race distances. Whoever finishes one has earned bragging rights for a lifetime. It’s never easy—even for advanced competitors—and that challenge attracts hundreds of thousands of runners of all ages and ability levels to enter a marathon every year. 

For most participants, it is the season’s highlight, often including long-haul flights to one of the 6 World Marathon Majors, such as London, Tokyo, or Berlin. A goal like this instills purpose and motivation for several months of race preparation. 

While a marathon will never be easy, it’s an experience unlike any other if you are well-prepared. 

What is a Good Marathon Time?

For a beginner, just finishing a marathon is a worthy achievement; for intermediates below 4 hours; for an advanced runner, it’s the exclusive sub-3-hour club, and the elites work on cracking the 2-hour barrier in an official race. 

What is the Marathon World Record?

Kelvin Kiptum, from Kenya, holds the current record-eligible marathon world record with 2:00:35 hours.

Less than 10 years ago, I remember reading articles debating whether it’s humanly possible to finish a marathon in under 2 hours. In 2019, Eliud Kipchoge ended that debate with his 1:59:40 performance at an unofficial event in Vienna. 

Tigst Assefa, from Ethiopia, is currently the fastest woman over the marathon distance in 2:12 hours. Before long, we will discuss whether women can break 2 hours, too. 

The fastest time at age 50 is 2:19 for men and 2:31 for women. At age 80, it is 3:15 for men and 4:11 for women. That humbles even the most athletic among us. 

What is the Average Marathon Time?

The average marathon finishing time is about 4:20 for men and 4:50 for women across all age groups. But if we look only at runners below the age of 50, then I would categorize by the following ability levels: 

Men

  • Beginner: above 4:00
  • Intermediate: 4:00 – 3:10
  • Advanced: below 3:10

Women

  • Beginner: above 4:20
  • Intermediate: 4:20 – 3:30
  • Advanced: below 3:30

What is Your Marathon Potential?

For someone with world-class potential, a 2:40 marathon should be possible on as little as 40 – 50 miles per week. For a runner with average inherent potential (50th percentile), finishing significantly under 3 hours is also possible, but it requires the commitment and mileage of a semi-professional to get there. 

In other words, you can become a front-pack runner if you fully commit.   

Marathon Training Zones

For success in the marathon, you will need to run a large number of weekly miles over several months, with a few long runs of 20 to 25 miles. Otherwise, you may still finish, but certainly not with a time equivalent to your 5K and 10K race results. But some marathoners mistakenly reason it’s all about mileage. Of course, you can’t neglect higher-intensity zones and expect to run fast at any distance, including the marathon.

Endurance

Sufficient weekly mileage and regular long runs above 12 miles improve fat metabolism, enlarge glycogen stores, and increase muscular fatigue resistance. While these adaptations are also helpful for shorter distances, they are essential for the marathon. Much of what happens 20 miles into your marathon depends how well you took care of your endurance. 

Lactate Threshold

Marathon race pace is significantly under your lactate threshold (LT). But the higher your velocity at lactate threshold, the faster your marathon pace. A relative beginner may have a lactate threshold as low as 70 percent of VO2 max, whereas in elite runners the LT occurs at around 90 percent of their maximal aerobic capacity. In other words, you can improve your marathon time by more than 10 minutes if you raise your lactate turnpoint by just 5 percent. 

VO2 max

A high VO2 max alone isn’t a stand-in for race performance in the marathon, but without a high aerobic capacity, your marathon pace is limited. I recommend VO2 max training in the middle of a marathon buildup, as VO2 max intervals too close to race day are detrimental to fat metabolism. There’s no downside as VO2 max can be maintained for several weeks. 

Speed

Marathoners don’t need to mess around much with intensities above 3K pace, but a small amount of speed work helps increase range of motion and running economy. I also recommend hill sprints to improve strength and injury-resilience. 

Marathon Training Phases

A proper buildup to a marathon can be as short as 3 months for athletes for runners who have a solid aerobic base from recent training. However, committing to 4 – 6 months of marathon preparation is more common and yields a higher chance of achieving your time goal. 

But just progressing mileage over the weeks won’t lead to your best performance on race day. A periodized training program with the right type of workouts, at the right time is your best bet to succeed on race day.

Here’s a time-tested progression of marathon training:

General Conditioning

The first phase is as basic as training can be. It consists of easy and moderate runs (upper zone 2), with no substantial long runs. Some short hill sprints should be added twice a week to strengthen your running-specific muscles. 

  • Easy runs
  • Moderate runs
  • Hill sprints

Base Training

The primary purpose of the six weeks of base training is to increase weekly mileage and extend the duration of the long run. But there is also some faster running on 2 runs per week. One workout is a Fartlek with a few surges at 10K to 3K pace and the other includes segments at the manageable moderate and marathon paces. 

  • Easy runs
  • Moderate runs
  • Long runs
  • Marathon pace
  • Fartleks (3K/5K/10K pace)
  • Hill sprints

Support Training

During the 6-week support phase, you will build up to your most challenging long run, not only in duration but also with substantial add-ons at marathon pace. The other 2 key workouts develop VO2 max and the lactate threshold.

  • Easy runs
  • Long (progression) runs
  • Tempo (Mar/HM/15K pace)
  • Intervals (10K/5K pace)
  • Hill sprints

Race-Specific Training

The last 4 weeks focus on lactate threshold training and marathon goal pace on 2 workouts of the week. The long is still substantial but not as demanding as in the previous training phase. The last 2 weeks are characterized by a gradual taper so that you will toe the starting line on race day with fresh legs. 

  • Easy runs
  • Long (progression) runs
  • Race-specific (marathon pace)
  • Tempo (HM/15K pace)
  • flat sprints

Marathon Workouts

The runs and workouts for the marathon are similar to other road race distances. But there are some important differences which I will outline in the following paragraphs. This includes suggestions on how to progress these runs.

Easy Runs

Training mileage is essential for the marathon, and the least stressful way to do that is to increase the number and duration of easy runs.  An easy run can also be placed strategically the day after a long run to magnify its effect. Keep the intensity of your easy runs between 60 – 70 percent of VO2 max. 

  • 40 – 70 min @ easy pace

Long Runs

If you don’t prioritize the long run in marathon training, you will not be able to race well, even if you get every other aspect of training right. First, you need to build up the distance of the long run to 20 – 25 miles. Then, tag faster paces at the end of long runs. But you shouldn’t overdo the duration at marathon pace during long runs. That’s what tempo runs are for.

Here’s what the long run buildup can look like, but not necessarily in 1-week changes: 

  • 75 min easy
  • 90 min easy
  • 105 min easy
  • 120 min easy
  • 45 min easy + 45 min moderate
  • 135 min easy
  • 60 min easy + 60 min moderate
  • 150 min easy
  • 60 easy + 45 moderate + 15 marathon pace
  • 135 min easy
  • 45 easy + 45 moderate + 30 marathon pace

Tempo Runs

Tempo runs are a close second to long runs regarding their importance for marathon training. While tempo runs are not overly complicated, it is important to know how to progress them from week to week. The idea is to go from the aerobic threshold (LT1) to the lactate threshold (LT2) as the training cycle unfolds. That means starting out with shorter segments at marathon pace, then upping the ante to 30K, half marathon, and 15K pace. Equipped with a higher lactate threshold, you will ultimately handle a faster marathon pace. 

Here’s an example of how to progress tempo runs over several weeks:

  • 4x 10 min @ marathon pace w/ 2 min easy
  • 2x 20 min @ marathon pace w/ 3 min easy
  • 30 min @ 30K pace
  • 2x 15 min @ HM pace
  • 30 min @ HM pace
  • 3x 10 min @ 15K pace w/ 2 min easy
  • 40 min @ marathon goal pace
  • 25 min @ 15K pace
  • 60 min @ marathon goal pace

VO2 max Intervals

VO2 max training is only part of the support training phase for a marathon. Here, I like to alternate weekly between 5K and 10K intervals.

A week-to-week progression can look like this:

  • 8x 400m @ 5K pace w/ 2 min jog
  • 4x 800m @ 10K pace w/ 2 min jog
  • 6x 600m @ 5K pace w/ 2 min jog
  • 4x 1000m @ 10K pace w/ 2:30 min jog
  • 5x 800m @ 5K pace w/ 2:30 min jog
  • 4x 1200 @ 10K pace w/ 2:30 min jog 

Speed Repetitions

Speed is at the bottom of the hierarchy for marathon training—but you shouldn’t go without it. The key is to keep repetitions short, as we don’t need to prime the anaerobic energy system for the marathon. All we look for is improving muscular strength, power, and running economy.  

Add-ons to Fartleks after every 800m of easy running during the base phase:

  • 10x 100m @ 3K pace
  • 8x 150m @ 3K pace
  • 6x 200m @ 3K pace
  • 5x 300m @ 3K pace

High-end power and neuromuscular training at the end of easy runs:

  • 4 – 8x 10 sec hill sprints all-out (6 – 10 % grade)
  • 4 – 8x 10 sec relaxed sprints @ 400m race pace

Marathon Race Strategy

All the training you did up to your race was foreplay. Now is the time to prove what you are capable of in an actual race. While a marathon will always be unpredictable to some extend, you can increase your odds for a great race result by getting your taper, warm-up, fueling, and pacing strategy right. 

Marathon Race Taper

Getting the marathon race taper is an art and a science. If you don’t taper enough, you won’t shed the accumulated fatigue from monster long runs and demanding tempo runs. If you taper too aggressively, you will see a drop in aerobic endurance. Both are the enemies of peak performance on race day. 

Most coaches agree that the longest run should be in the bank 4 to 5 weeks before race day. This is your 20 – 25 mile run, possibly with a fast finish. As for the most challenging race-specific tempo run, 10 – 14 days out from the marathon is enough time to absorb the adaptations. Those are the two cornerstones to keep in mind. 

All things considered, advanced runners may only need a 2-week taper, while relative beginners are better served with a 3-week taper as they likely overreach more during marathon preparation than someone who is used to running higher mileage. Whatever the length of your taper, cut the mileage and keep up the intensity. 

In the final week, it’s all about fitness maintenance. You’ll need enough easy mileage to preserve aerobic enzymes and some segments at marathon goal pace to prime your running economy. 

Marathon Warm-Up

My athletes’ warm-up always starts with a short shakeout run the day before the race. That means 2 miles of easy running followed by 2 or 3 strides at 5K pace. That increases muscle tension and keeps their legs bouncy. 

The warm-up on race day isn’t any different from a warm-up for a tempo run. Run easy for 5 – 10 minutes, followed by dynamic stretches and some accelerations. Anything more than that will dig too much into your precious glycogen stores.  

Marathon Pacing Strategy

At the start of the race, you are likely boxed in by other runners, which prevents you from running at your target pace. This is nothing to worry about in an event that will likely take you more than three hours to complete. Settle into your rhythm as soon as you can, but don’t try to make up time early on. 

Some runners get overconfident because they feel much better on race day with fresh legs than during their tempo runs. But don’t be fooled. You may feel fantastic until 20 miles into the race, and then reality sets in. You can run a pace in a marathon that you couldn’t hold on to in your training. 

Remember to pack gels for your marathon. At marathon pace, your energy requirements are fueled by 80 percent glycogen and 20 percent fat. Once you run low on glycogen—and you will— your pace will drop because fat metabolism requires more oxygen to yield the same amount of energy. 

You can counter this by taking half a gel every 3 miles. Test this during one or two long runs to ensure your stomach can handle it. Needless to say, you should also take in fluids regularly; otherwise, your cells won’t be able to absorb the carbohydrates. 

Post-Marathon Recovery

You’ve done it—you’ve pushed your body to the limits and did what most people can’t. Now is the time to respect your body and let it recover. Take 2 – 3 days off from running, or use a stationary bike with a low gear if you prefer an active recovery. Ideally, take it easy for 4 weeks to heal the microdamage of your muscles and tendons. Your endocrine system also needs a break to recover from the months-long training effort. And quite possibly, you need a mental break from hard training. 

While taking on another marathon in 3 – 6 weeks after your first event is possible, I don’t recommend it. Two marathons a year, ideally 5 – 6 months apart should be the maximum. And unless you are dedicated to the marathon, I think you are better off racing the shorter, faster race distances throughout the rest of the year.  

Summary

  • Set aside 4 – 6 months of marathon training
  • Build up adequate weekly training mileage 
  • Include at least two 20 – 25 milers
  • Progress your tempo and threshold runs
  • Avoid VO2 max work in the final weeks
  • Optimize your marathon race taper 
  • Stay strictly at your goal pace

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Sandro-Sket-4 (2)

Sandro Sket, CSCS

Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist

Hi, I’m Sandro. A lifelong endurance athlete,
coach, and founder of RunningFront.
You can find my training plans on
TrainingPeaks and FinalSurge

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