Running a marathon is an amazing feat, especially if you’ve been building up to it for a while. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of crossing that finish line and knowing what you’ve accomplished!
The experience of running a marathon never gets old. Each one is new, interesting, and different. But if you’ve run a few and they’re starting to feel easy, you may be wondering where to go from here?
Unless you want to do an ultra-marathon, the next question you should ask yourself is how to run a sub-4-hour marathon? Most runners who have just a few marathons under their belts aren’t at this point yet, so it’s an excellent goal to reach for.
Here’s what you need to know about running a sub-4. We’ll discuss how to know you’re ready for it, tips for training, tips for race day, and we’ll even give you a 14-week training program to get you started!
Is It Difficult to Run a Sub-4-Hour Marathon?
The average marathon finishing time—worldwide—is 4 hours, 29 minutes, and 53 seconds. More specifically, for men, it’s 4:21:03, and for women, it’s 4:48:45.
So if you want to run a sub-4-hour marathon, you need to be an above-average runner. You need to stick to a fast pace for 26.2 miles, which requires a lot of endurance, physical and mental toughness, and a great fitness level.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t aim for this goal if you’re a newer marathon runner. You just need to know the benchmarks to hit on your journey to a sub-4-hour marathon.
Are You Ready to Run a Sub-4-Hour Marathon?
These are the benchmarks you need to work toward if you want to run a sub-4-hour marathon.
Once you hit these numbers, you’re ready to start training for a sub-4-hour marathon. It will take time if you’re still a little ways off, but this is the best way to build the endurance you will need.
The good news is that if you consistently work toward these benchmarks, a sub-4 race will come much more naturally.
In order to run 26.2 miles in less than 4 hours, you need to have achieved other goals first. You will need to have a few marathons under your belt, with your most recent one finishing between 4 hours and 4:20.
If you’re still working your way there, a good starting point is a 10k Personal Best (PB) of between 50 and 53 minutes. This shows that you can sustain a good pace for 6-ish miles, which is a great base to build on.
You’ll also need to run between 15 and 20 miles per week—or more—at the beginning of your training plan. If you can’t do that yet, work on it before you get started.
If you’ve achieved all of the above, you can settle into a good training program to reach your goal.
Even if you’re confident in your running ability, we highly recommend not skipping this—a solid and focused training program is essential for hitting those sub-4 numbers.
You will be training your body to go harder and faster, consistently, for a longer period of time than it’s used to.
This is why patience is essential. You will need to train consistently for between 12 and 22 weeks to prime your body to run a sub-4-hour marathon.
The Ideal Sub-4-Hour Marathon Pace
Running a sub-4-hour marathon is all about your pace. You must maintain an average pace of 9:09 per mile to cross the finish line in under 4 hours.
This may not seem too difficult, especially if you can maintain that pace in a 5k or 10k race. However, keeping up that same consistent pace for 26.2 miles without fatiguing is much more of a challenge.
If you run your first two-thirds of the marathon at a 9-minute per mile pace, you should have enough of a buffer to slow down a little as you fatigue and still meet your goal.
However, ensuring that you meet the pace requirements will require a pacing strategy.
There are many strategies out there, like negative splits, a fast first half, slower second, or the 10/10/10 method.
Sub-4-Hour Marathon Training Plan
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Here are some tips on how to make the most of your training. Implementing these will help you get there faster, even though it may seem counterintuitive.
3 Weeks Effort, 1 Recovery Week
Recovery is as important as pushing yourself toward a goal. Aim for 3 weeks of hard effort and then one recovery week.
A recovery week doesn’t mean you take the week off. Instead, during this week, you should lower your intensity slightly, reduce your distance, and work on easy runs and lighter cross-training.
This “active” break gives your body a rest without interrupting your training schedule. The following week you can get back into it with high intensity.
14 to 22 Weeks In Total
Training to run a sub-4-hour marathon takes time. You can’t expect to push through training in a few weeks and run well on race day.
Expect between 12 and 22 weeks of training. If you’re already running close to 4 hours, you can be ready in 12 weeks. If you’ve still got a way to go, you should consider increasing it to 16 or 20 weeks.
Tapering is an important part of marathon training. This is when you reduce your training load for the 2 to 3 weeks before you run the race.
This break allows your body’s muscle glycogen levels, antioxidants, and hormones to return to normal. Muscle damage also gets repaired, which means you’ll be in prime condition when you start your race.
Don’t underestimate the taper—it can be one of the hardest parts of training!
Adding in resistance training at least once a week will help to build muscle, which will increase your overall strength.
It can also help you iron out muscle imbalances that may affect your performance, while building muscle in your legs.
We recommend doing one day of non-running cross-training per week, as well as a dedicated core workout day. Having a strong core is more important than you think!
Monitor Your Effort
If you don’t have a smartwatch, now is the time to get one. Running a sub-4-hour marathon relies on pacing, and your training schedule will require you to run a certain pace during different runs.
If you’ve never paced yourself before, it may take a week or so to get into the flow of things. Monitoring your time, distance, and pace is the best way to see how you’re progressing as the weeks go.
Sub-4-Hour Marathon Training Tips
Incorporate Different Types of Runs
Using different types of runs in your training not only prevents boredom, but it helps you develop your endurance
Race Pace (at least one each week)
By “race pace” we mean the pace you will need to keep up with to run a sub-4-hour marathon!
Running at your race pace—or thereabouts—will help you get used to the feeling of the pace you should be keeping.
You can begin by running 5 to 10 seconds slower than race pace if you need to, but the goal is to be running at least one of your weekly runs at this pace all the way.
A tempo run should be at a faster pace than your race pace but shorter in distance. It also helps you train at a slightly faster pace than your marathon pace, so that when you come to running your marathon pace, it feels easier.
If you’re aiming at hitting a sub-4-hour marathon, your tempo pace will be between 8:30 and 8:50 per mile.
Long Run (one each week)
Long runs are essential to build up endurance. You should aim for a pace that’s slower than your race pace by about 30 to 40 seconds, so 9:30 to 9:50 per mile.
This is the ideal opportunity to work on split timing, experiment with fueling strategies, and figure out the best recovery strategies for you.
Easy/Recovery (one to two additional each week)
Easy runs may feel frustratingly slow, but they’re handy for recovery while keeping your mileage up. Aim for 75% of your max heart rate during these runs.
Recovery Is as Important as Training
Don’t neglect recovery. If you don’t allow your body the time to rest, you’ll find that it’s hard to sustain your pace when D-day comes.
Everyone’s recovery routine looks different. Depending on what works for you, you may include foam rolling, getting a sports massage, gentle stretching or yoga, and using compression gear.
Staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and maintaining good nutrition are also essential to fuel your body for recovery.
Don’t Sweat Missed Workouts
If you miss a run during your training plan, it doesn’t mean you need to start over or your plan is ruined. Life happens. The best way to move forward is to just carry on with your plan—there’s no need to try and make up the missed miles.
If you have a bad week and miss several runs, then consider the week a recovery week and adjust your training plan to reflect that.
However, if you miss runs on a regular basis or have bad weeks often, you won’t be ready. You will find that you end up adding weeks to your training schedule.
Run With Others
If you find training sessions boring, you can ask a fellow running friend or family member to join you.
It’s a great idea to train together if you know someone with the same goal as you. You’ll be able to motivate each other when the going gets tough.
If you don’t know anyone close to you who would join you, you can always join a running club if there’s one in your area.
Add Variety to Your Routine
It’s a good idea to try and do your runs on new routes, unless you like keeping things the same.
Experiencing different types of terrain, hills, curves, and surfaces will help you be more prepared for whatever comes your way.
Tips for Race Day
Although it may be difficult, try to turn nervousness into excitement on race day. This is what you’ve been training for!
Remember everything you’ve already achieved. You’ve come so far, and now you can use everything you’ve learned and worked on to hit that goal.
Get There Early
Try to arrive with plenty of time to spare so you can settle in, do some stretching, and get your mindset right before the race. If the race is close by, this may be a few hours.
If you’re traveling for the race, it’s a great idea to get there the day before if you can, or even a few days. This will give you time to rest, settle in, and maybe check out the course before race day.
Bring a Support Person/Crew
We all need support. If you can, take along a friend or family member who can be there when you cross the finish line and cheer you on.
It’s a great bit of motivation and a moral booster to see your support person/people there at the end of a long race!
Prep Your Gear 24 to 48 Hours Ahead
You don’t want to be running around trying to organize stuff on race day or the night before. Make sure you sort out your gear 24 to 48 hours before so you don’t have to think about it again.
This includes your clothing—laying out your clothes and shoes for the day—your fuel—making sure you have enough to see you through the race—and things like charging up your smartwatch.
Go Through the Course
If you get the opportunity, physically going through the course beforehand is an excellent idea. It will take a few hours, so it may be best to get it done the day before.
If it’s on the road, get someone else to drive you. This will allow you the freedom to observe any sections that may be tricky and take notes.
Carbo loading can have a significant positive effect on your performance. You can carbo-load 24 hours before your race, but make sure you’re only eating good carbs! Don’t take it as an excuse to eat whatever you want.
Know Your Times
Keep your targeted split times in mind so you can monitor your progress along the way. If you’re behind, you know you need to run the next split at a faster pace.
If you don’t remember them, write them on your forearm so you can check quickly when you need to! Or, you may be able to set an alarm on your smartwatch to alert you when you should be hitting your split times.
Remember, running a sub-4-hour marathon is a great quest, but it should be fun. If your self-confidence is low, remember that this isn’t the only chance you’ll get. Focus on having fun, hitting your split times, following your strategy, and seeing how things go.
Have you downloaded your 14-week sub-4-hour marathon training plan? Get it now and you could be running a sub-4 in 15 weeks from now!