How to run a sub-3-hour marathon?
November 2, 2008 3:11 PM   Subscribe

I can run 6:30 miles for an hour, a little uncomfortably, or 7:00 miles pretty easily over the same interval. What would it take, training-wise, for me to run a sub-3-hour marathon?

A little more about my current level of running fitness: I started running daily a little more than two years ago, having previously been a pretty serious cyclist. I run ~8.5 miles/day at present, and can run a mile in 5:30 (maybe more quickly, but I haven't tried it).

I'm 31, have no background in competitive running, and have never raced save for a few 5Ks. I'm planning to run a marathon in the spring, and would like to shoot for the sub-3-hour range in order to qualify for the 2010 Boston Marathon with some margin for error. Given my current fitness level, I'm pretty sure this is achievable, but I don't know much about how to prepare. There are quite a few marathon training resources on the Web, of course, but I'm hoping you can help me form a rough idea of what I'd need to do between now and, say, April '09.

As a side-question: what spring race in the U.S. would make a good first marathon?
posted by killdevil to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I always recommend Hal Higdon's training plans.

With that said assuming you can build up endurance to cover the distance--and this is, believe it or not, probably the easy part (in the sense that it is just a matter of building up mileage over time and doable so long as you listen to your body)--what you want to do is add in intervals. That's where your speed will start to build up. Do hills, track intervals, and all that fun stuff. But check out Higdon. He's cited a lot with good reason--his plans work. They got me to a half marathon from pretty much nothing in five months. It sounds like you already have a good base to work from so you should do even better.
posted by synecdoche at 3:30 PM on November 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Runner's World has a decent calculator (this link might work for you) that gives you a schedule similar to one that their excellent book Run Less Run Faster comes up with. Basically instead of running every day, you'll run 3 days a week (one tempo run, one interval run, one long run) and cross-train on the alternate days. If you 'search inside' on the Amazon page you should be able to find the tables they use to determine how/long fast each of these should be, based on your target time.
posted by 0xFCAF at 3:51 PM on November 2, 2008

Just FYI: you don't need a sub-three hour marathon time to qualify for the Boston Marathon. My SO's brother just ran a marathon today in NH (broke the four-hour mark for the first time!) and we heard that the qualifying time was around ~3:30.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:05 PM on November 2, 2008

Qualifying times. Assuming OP is male and under 34, 3:10 is the qualifying time. Note the phrase "margin for error".
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:40 PM on November 2, 2008

Well, most marathon plans are around 16-18 weeks long, so you actually don't have too much time before your training season starts. It's hard to recommend a program based on your information, but since you are running 8.5 miles a day, you might want to look at a plan that has a higher frequency of runs (i.e. avoid the FIRST plan). Advanced Marathoning might work well for you because your volume is pretty high. Those plans are long, I think there is a 24 week one in there, so you could get started soon.

If your easy pace is a seven minute mile, you shouldn't have much of a problem.
posted by smalls at 9:53 PM on November 2, 2008

OK - nice goal, but I am pretty sure you won't be able to run a sub 3hr marathon! A sub 3hr marathon is VERY hard to do, especially if you don't have a solid running base. A sub 3:15 is very do-able though.

The trouble is that it is very hard to get the miles and the intensity needed to run sub 3hrs from very little base without getting some sort of injury.

Having said that, Hal Higdon is your man - get one of his books. Use mapmyrun for a training log and to get accurate distances to calculate speeds and weekly mileages.

You need to train for distance, speed and strength each week. And you will probably need to be running at least 5 times a week. You probably need to do some track sessions - they are important for speed, but also to get a real feel about your pace. A 5k time trial every month is a great indicator of how well you are going.

You will need to do at least 4 20+ mile runs. The long runs are probably the key to running a good marathon. They train your body, but more importantly, they train your mind to be tough enough to run. The last 10km of a marathon are about your mind fighting with your body. Every nerve in your body is telling you to stop, your mind is going 'toughen up Princess!'

Do a half marathon about 4-5 weeks out to gauge your progress and practice the race routine.

You also will need to hydrate/re-fuel properly. gu/gels/sports drink every hour and the few days leading up to the race is just as important as training. The analogy is that that the fast burn fuel (gel/sports drink) is like the fire lighters or spark in a car - without it the body cannot convert the slower burning fuel in your body to energy. Practice re-fuelling on your long runs. But lose too much weight and you won't have the fuel reserves to get through the race.

Taper. You NEED a good 4 week taper.

Lastly, you need to get your weight down. Every 1kg of weight adds an extra 1 minute for every 10km you run. It is not really weight, it is more body fat. So take measurements on your body fat using scales or the on-line calculators

Good luck. Have fun. You will learn so much about yourself and your body.
posted by lamby at 3:17 AM on November 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think this is doable if you're accurately describing your running abilities. If you can run for an hour "a little uncomfortably" at a 6:30 pace, you can presumably run it even faster if you raced it.

The McMillan Running Calculator says an equivalent marathon performance for your level of fitness is 3:01 (I assumed you could run a 15K in an hour, which is 6:26 per mile). This isn't 100% accurate by any means, but it is a good ballpark figure. I think if you can build some endurance and get yourself reasonably stretched out you should be able to come pretty darn close to three hours. The good news is you have time to train.

There are a million plans out there, but the one thing you will absolutely need to do is incorporate longer training runs - every marathon training program you'll find will do this for you.

The Hal Higdon programs are good, and if you build your endurance enough I think you'll have the ability to run pretty close to three hours. But make sure you read as much as you can and talk to people about race strategy. The race day can be a huge wild card - running the race is a skill in itself and sometimes your fitness level isn't what keeps you from meeting your goals. Weather, hydration, pacing, and a myriad of other factors can make or break your race day.
posted by PFL at 8:11 AM on November 3, 2008

Were you a sub-5 cyclist? A sub-5 century is probably easier than a sub-3 marathon, but it's the closest comparison to your cycling experience. It's not a perfect comparison because cycling allows for periods of rest within the event with drafting in the peloton and coasting. Marathons requires continuous effort. (Bias: Both Mr 26.2 and I went from marathoning to cycling and found the bike to be pretty light effort. We could easily smoke the rest of our cycling team on long, steep climbs. Mr 26.2 has done a bunch of centuries in the last year, but I didn't enjoy road cycling.)

A few suggestions for you -

Join a coached running group. It's so much harder to do your long runs on your own. For a 20 mile run, you need SAG. There are ways to provide your own SAG, but it's harder. Also, marathoning is a skill. You can figure it out on your own which will take you a few races. Or you can buddy up with some experienced marathoners in a running group.

Run practice events. Nothing can substitute for actually running an endurance event. You need to learn which corral is for you and how to efficiently get water from the aid tables (run wide of the first group of water station volunteers and get your cup from the far end of the water station).

Work with a coach on your form to learn you most efficient stride. You can run efficiently or you can struggle. A coach can point out form problems that are going to slow you down or cause you pain. A coach will know how to spot the overuse injuries that are your sworn enemy.

Fartlek. Fun to say; less fun to do.

In your practice marathon, run with the pace team for your target time. Talk to the pace team leader before the event and find out how the leader plans to handle bathroom breaks. Some will slow through the bathroom stops; some tell you to run ahead of the team. Most major events have a pace teams.

Event selection. I love endurance running events. Right now, I'm focused on the half marathon distance and won't be running fulls again until Fall 09. A great first marathon is San Diego's Rock and Roll Marathon in May - cool, flat and fun. The same event organizer, Elite Racing, has the Country Music Marathon in Nashville on April 25. That one is closer to home for you. (I'm running the entire Elite series of marathons next year. If you run one, let me know.) Cincinnati's Flying Pig is on May 3. I haven't run it, but I've heard it's a fantastic run and a great first event. There are some hills in that one which make it a bad BQ, but a good practice. The Charlottesville Marathon is nearby, but it's a bit too early and too hilly to be a good qualifier. Also, they aren't closing the course to traffic which will slow you. Might be a worthy contender for a practice race. There are always the standard "downhill BQs" Tuscon, California International, Saint Georges and Pocono. Pocono is in early May. That might work for you.

Good Luck!
posted by 26.2 at 8:18 AM on November 3, 2008

Possible? Probably.

A Spring Marathon isn't a bad idea, as long as you can train over winter and start marathon training in plenty of time.

The most important thing is to work on the Long Run, and if possible build up gradually and allow for periodization. Running is different to racing, so undertaking a series of events between now and in the month before your chosen marathon would be good if possible in your locale. They needn't be big city fun runs, indeed local events with dedicated runners could be more valuable, but a couple of 10ks and a half marathon or two would be very valuable. Don't be misled though - a marathon is a lot more than two half marathons.

Building up your long run to over 30kms is important. This is not only important for your legs to get used to the distance, but for psychological toughness. If aiming for sub-3, run a portion of the long run, ideally in the second half, at your proposed race pace. Don't be tempted however to run the 26 mile distance (or over) in training. It's not necessary, and counter productive.

Where possible, build your legs up to being used to running on a surface and gradient similar to your proposed race. Concrete is far less forgiving, and if you do the majority of your training on trails you may not make it to the finish. Seemingly small hills assume a far greater gradient into a marathon and you do need to get your body used to the terrain.

I agree that the McMillan calculator is excellent, but if you are not involved in any competitive running at the moment, I would be cautious about ascertaining your pace. It would be worthwhile investing in a device such as the Garmin 205/305 to give you valuable information about your real training pace and outcomes.

I'm in a bit of a mixed mind of using nutritional products during training. First of all, part of the long period of training in preparing for the marathon will be in sorting out your diet and what works best for you. You need enough calories, but consuming them at the right times to refuel your glycogen stores needs sorting out to what suits you best. Diets high in fat are often not tolerated, and too much fibre near the time of a fast paced and/or long run doesn't work.

Part of the point of training is in getting your body used to utilising its fat stores for energy. Taking in gels too frequently undermines this. Also, if you are aiming for a sub-3 The ability to take in and ingest the calories during the race is limited and your gut motility reduced. Ensure that you a well hydrated, of course, and once you have decided on your marathon get used to whatever sports drink they will have available.

Good Luck!
posted by Flashduck at 8:17 PM on November 6, 2008

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