Sub 4-Hour Marathon: Training Guide and Pacing Strategies

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Breaking 4 hours in a marathon is a sought-after goal for many marathoners. While this might seem like a difficult finishing time, it’s definitely possible with a good training plan.

No matter where you are now, a sub 4-hour marathon is within your reach! But we have to warn you – it won’t be easy. You’ll need to dedicate anywhere from 12 to 16 weeks of training and stick consistently to the plan. But getting a three in your marathon time is achievable if you do!

Keep reading and learn how to structure your training plan to smash your marathon in under 4 hours.

What is a Sub 4-Hour Marathon Pace?

To cross the finish line in 4 hours, you’d need to maintain a 9-minute-per-mile pace throughout the race. This is equivalent to a 5:41 per kilometer pace.

Technically, 9:09 is your goal pace if you run 26.2 miles, but because of turns and crowds, you’ll likely run a little longer than 26.2 over the full course.

The official race distance is measured on the shortest possible route, called the tangent. This means you run as close as possible to the race barriers and through turns. But most runners run slightly wider on bends, adding a short extra distance to every corner. Plus, you will likely be weaving from one side of the street to the other as you dodge other runners, adding a little more mileage.

For this reason, it’s easiest and most accurate to round down to a 9-minute-mile and make that your marathon goal pace.

How Long Does It Take to Train for a Sub 4-Hour Marathon?

It can take between 12 and 26 weeks to train for a sub-4-hour marathon, depending on a range of factors, including your fitness level, running experience, and how much time you have to dedicate to training every week.

Most runners who aren’t complete beginners can train for this time in 12 to 16 weeks.

What to Consider Before Training for a Sub 4-Hour Marathon

Here are a few things you need to know before deciding if running a sub 4-hour marathon is for you.

Level of Experience

New to Running

If you’re completely new to running, there’s nothing wrong with aiming for a marathon in 4 hours or less. But you need to accept that it’s likely to take longer to train. Your body will need extra time to adapt to build strength and stamina.

Novice Runner

If you’ve already run a few races, you’re off to a good start. Your body is already accustomed to running, so you should be able to cut a few weeks off your sub 4-hour marathon training schedule.

Current Fitness Level

Your training plan will be dictated by how fit you currently are. Prepare to make adjustments on this.

Average Weekly Mileage

If you’re already running 20+ miles per week, it’s a great foundation. If you’re running regularly but not reaching that kind of mileage, you may need to work your way up to a higher mileage before you consider running a marathon.

Average Mile Pace During Last Race

If you’ve got some races behind you, you should know your average mile pace. Compare this to the 9 minutes per mile needed to run a sub-4 marathon.

You can use that as a gauge to determine how close you are to being ready. You can also plug this time into an online calculator like Strava’s, to get a good idea of if you’re close to the 4-hour mark.

Time Commitment

Training for a marathon can’t be rushed. Rushing through training places excess strain on your body (and mind), so before you start, make sure you’ve got the time—both enough time per day to run and enough time to train fully before your race.

You may have to shuffle some commitments or put some things on the back burner for a few months while you train. You need to be all in if you want your training to be successful, so ensure you have the time to dedicate to it.

Race Selection

Choose a race that gives you enough time to train. You might have great ambitions of running a specific race, but if it’s coming up in less than 12 weeks, it’s not a realistic goal.

Consider also that weather conditions and the course itself can impact your race. Hot weather will slow you down, especially if you did most of your training in a cool place. A hilly course with lots of turns will also make you run slower.

So pick your race carefully, or wait until you’re close to the end of your training before choosing one.

How to Train for a Sub 4-Hour Marathon Pace

As we mentioned, you need a well-structured training plan. Our recommended training plan to get you to a sub 4-hour marathon pace is 16 weeks, which should be enough time for beginners and intermediate runners to build up their base and improve.

It’s split into four phases, each building on the previous one to increase your strength and endurance and improve your speed. The final week includes a taper, so by race day, you’ll be rested and ready.

Any good training plan should include five different types of runs. Each one has a purpose:

  • Easy/Recovery Runs: Slow, steady, and able to converse. Aim for 70 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate.
  • Race Pace Runs: Matching your 9-minute-per-mile race pace for the full run.
  • Tempo Runs: 15 to 30 seconds faster per mile than your race pace, usually shorter in distance.
  • Speedwork: Helps to build endurance and strength.
  • Long Runs: Invaluable for building up your mileage. 20 to 40 seconds slower than race pace.

Base Building (Week 1 to 4)

In the first four-week block, your goal is to build up your mileage and endurance. It might feel a little monotonous, but it’s essential for building a foundation. New runners should aim for 20 to 30 miles per week, and intermediates can aim for 30 to 40 miles per week.

In this block, you’ll increase your distance by 10 to 15 percent each week, which allows your body enough time to adjust to the additional mileage without increasing your risk of injury.

Your fourth week should be a recovery week, during which you reduce your mileage to about 60% and continue to train at full intensity. Don’t skip this—it’s a vital part of properly building up your running base.

Training Breakdown

Every training plan will vary, but this is a rough idea of how weeks 1 to 4 will be structured:

  • Easy Runs: 3 to 4 each week, 3 to 6 miles each.
  • Long Run: 1 per week, start with 8 miles and increase by 1 each week.
  • Cross-Training: 1 day per week, non-running cardio or strength training.
  • Rest Days: 1 to 2 full rest days per week.

Strength and Speed (Week 5 to 8)

This week is about slowly building on the foundation you’ve laid. You can stop your cross-training because you’ve got a hill run this week, which is a strength workout on its own!

Don’t forget to have your recovery week during week 8. Reduce your mileage to about 60% and continue running at full intensity.

Training Breakdown

  • Easy Runs: 3 each week, 4 to 6 miles each.
  • Long Run: Keep increasing by 1 to 2 miles each week.
  • Speedwork: 1 day per week (tempo run or intervals).
  • Hill Run: 1 day per week.
  • Rest Days: 1 full rest day per week.

Building Endurance (Weeks 9 to 12)

By now, your body will be getting quite used to the mileage. Your strength will have increased, and these weeks will be about building endurance. You’ll still need a recovery week in week 12.

Training Breakdown

  • Easy Runs: 3 each week, 4 to 6 miles each.
  • Long Run: Cap your long run at 20 to 22 miles.
  • Race Pace Runs: 1 day per week, start with 4 miles.
  • Cross-Training: 1 day (or an extra rest day).
  • Rest Days: 1 to 2 rest days per week.

Taper and Race Preparation (Weeks 13 to 16)

This week is about taking your foot off the pedal and giving your body more time to recover before your big race. You’ve worked hard, but stick to the plan this week and you’ll run the best race possible.

Training Breakdown

Each week, reduce your total mileage by 20 to 30 percent. This means reducing each run by 20 to 30 percent—for example, a 10-mile run would become an 8-mile run, a 5-mile run would become a 4-mile run, and so on.

Then, the following week, the 8 mile run would become a 6.5-mile run, and the same with every other run. The intensity of your runs should be the same, only the distance should change.

Race Strategy and Pacing

Once the big day is here, pacing will be the most important thing to remember throughout your marathon. Here’s how to have the best run and maybe even score a PR!

Pacing

You’ll need to maintain your 9-minute per-mile pace throughout the race to cross the line in under 4 hours, but it’s perfectly possible—you’ve trained for this!

The biggest mistake to avoid here is starting too fast. It can be an easy error, especially when the crowd is buzzing and adrenaline is running high.

Do your best to start at your goal pace—if you get ahead of yourself, you’ll likely fatigue too soon and be unable to finish strong.

The easiest way to stay on track with your pacing is to split the race into segments and work out your time for each segment. For example, you can split it into five sections of 5 miles and the final push of 1.2 miles.

You can then set “split times” to achieve so you know after each section if you’re on pace or if you need to speed up or slow down.

Nutrition and Hydration

Plan your nutrition and hydration. You should have had a good carb-rich meal about 2 hours before the race, and you’ll need to have your first mid-race fuel at around 45 minutes to an hour in.

You can carry your water and fuel if you want to. But there’ll likely be aid stations throughout the marathon, so you should be able to grab water and a gel, bar, or fruit at various points throughout the race.

Don’t skip them—even if it’s only a few sips and a small bite. Your body needs both food and water to perform at its best, and being depleted in either one will start to slow you down.

Mental Preparation

You’ve done the physical training. But don’t forget to take some time to prepare yourself mentally as well.

We recommend spending some time visualizing your race. This can be a powerful tool for mental resilience and strength. Close your eyes and visualize yourself running strongly, at your exact pace, having fun.

Then, imagine yourself crossing the finish line in your exact goal time. Try to feel how your body would feel, the excitement and happiness. Place yourself in the moment.

Do this every evening for at least a week before your race, and remember those feelings during the marathon. You can also choose an affirmation that motivates you and repeat it to yourself while you run.

Race Day Checklist

To help race day go smoothly, it’s a good idea to make a race day checklist beforehand. Note down everything you need to do, everything you need to take with you, and anything else important. An example may be:

To-Do

  • Eat light breakfast
  • Warm up in the shade
  • Hydrate
  • Make sure watch is charged

To-Take

  • Running outfit
  • Running shoes
  • Weather-appropriate gear (sunscreen/rain jacket)
  • Post-race shoes
  • Hair ties
  • Anti-chafing cream
  • Watch/heart rate monitor
  • Running belt
  • Race bib/chip
  • Pins
  • ID document
  • Water
  • Electrolytes
  • Fuel

Post-Race and Recovery

Once you’ve crossed that line, you’ve done it! Whatever your time, it’s a great achievement, and you should be proud. Here’s what to do immediately after your race to help you recover faster.

Don’t Stop Moving

It’s tempting to sit or lie down immediately, but don’t. Keep moving—walk around for 5 to 10 minutes to allow your heart rate to stabilize and metabolic waste to start flushing out of your body.

Cool Down and Stretch

Once your heart rate has lowered, do some static stretching to loosen up your muscles before they tighten.

Refuel

Grab something to eat and drink as soon as you can after finishing. A light snack now and a bigger, healthier meal within an hour or two of your finish will replenish muscle glycogen and rehydrate you.

Rest

Don’t leap straight into another training program. Give yourself a few days to rest and ensure you’re getting good enough sleep.

Reflect and Plan

The day after your race is the time to reflect. Did you achieve your goal? If yes, congratulations! If not, what went wrong? Reflect, assess, and adjust your training plan to hit that sub 4-hour marathon time in your next race.

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!

Sign up for OUR FREE 4-Hour marathon TRAINING PLAN

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.