For many runners, the marathon is the pinnacle of achievement. Completing one can be a serious long-term aspiration for new runners, and it can shape training cycles for veterans. Once the domain solely of elite athletes, marathons are now a goal that many recreational runners tackle – about 600,000 Americans complete one each year! This eye-popping number shows that, with training, dedication, and focus, just about anyone who sets their mind on running a marathon can do it.
Even though it is best for a first-time marathoner to simply focus on completing the 26.2-mile distance, runners are a competitive lot. We want to know “What is a good time? What should I expect to run?” Well, those are actually complicated questions.
This article will answer your questions, covering common marathon times, how to predict your own marathon time, and some tips about running a marathon.
How Long is a Marathon?
A modern marathon is, by definition, 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers), roughly the distance between Marathon and Athens. This is the origin of the terminology. It is believed that Philippides, a messenger, took off running from the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C. to announce the victory to the Athenian government. He could have run a shorter distance over a mountain range, but it seems he was not a trail runner. Instead, he chose a longer, flatter route for his mission. He covered about 25 miles to deliver the news before keeling over and dying on the spot. This inspired many other runners to think, “I would like to try that, too.”
Over the years, the distance of marathons varied slightly. When the Olympic games were brought back in the modern era, the marathon was included, and it’s been a prominent running distance ever since. At the 1908 London Olympics, logistics turned what would have been a 25-mile course into one that covered 26 miles, 385 yards. In 1921, the IAAF (now World Athletics) adopted this as the standard distance.
While it might seem like a small number—I mean, it would only take 30 minutes driving in a car—it is a distance to respect. Just ask Philippides.
Common Marathon Times
Obviously, running times vary greatly, depending on age, skill, gender, goals, and so forth. But we’ll give you some good guesses about different categories of people.
Average Marathon Time For All Runners
The average person completes a marathon in about four to four-and-a-half hours. This translates to roughly a 9:00 pace for a 4 hour finish, or a 10:00 pace for a 4:30 finish time.
Average Time for Elite Marathoners
Elite marathoners cover the same distance in about half that time. The top professional men almost always finish under 2:10, with top women finishing under 2:25. The official men’s world record, set by Eliud Kipchoge in Berlin, stands at 2:01:39. That being said, Kipchoge also became the first person to cover 26.2 miles in under two hours, breaking the tape in 1:59:40, at an event that was not eligible for the world record.
The current women’s record is held by Kenyan Brigid Kosegi at 2:14:04 set at the Chicago Marathon in 2019. That’s maintaining just over a 5:00 pace for 26.2 miles!
Most of us will never see the sharp end of the race, where running is truly a sport and careers live and die by ultra-fast paces.
Typical Marathon Time for First-Time Marathoners
Further back in the pack, recreational runners of all ages and abilities are still pouring their heart and soul into the marathon, even if they are just another face in the crowd. Mid-pack, where the marathon is more running festival than race, you likely can expect a finish time similar to the finish times for the average runner. If you can typically sustain a 9:00 pace no matter how long your training runs are, you should be able to finish just under four hours.
If you’re wondering what is considered a “respectable” time, Boston Marathon qualifying times (BQ) are typically a good benchmark. It is 3:00 for men ages 18 to 34, and 3:30 for women 18 to 40. Make no mistake, though: a BQ means you are a very strong runner. Not elite, necessarily, but you’ll be the envy of your local running group.
While this might be a good goal if you decide to run additional marathons, it probably will be a bit much for your first marathon unless you’ve been running shorter distances competitively for a long time and are just now making the jump to marathon.
Celebrity Marathon Times
If you need some added encouragement, check out some marathon times for celebrities. That will likely make you feel good! For example, Oprah Winfrey finished the Marine Corps Marathon in 1994 in just under 4 and a half hours when she was 40.
Another example is Will Ferrell, who ran the Boston Marathon in 2003 in under four hours, or former president George W. Bush who finished the 1993 Houston Marathon in 3:44:52. You’ll be in good company if you finish around the average time of completion for a marathon!
Your Own Marathon Time
What you can expect for your own marathon time will vary greatly, and there are several factors you should consider.
Running Background/Fitness Level
Consider the answers to questions like, “How long have you been running?” If you just jumped into running after years of being a couch potato (like I did last year), you should err on the side of a marathon taking you longer.
You’ll also want to consider how long you have trained for this upcoming marathon, as well as if you’ve sustained any injuries. If you’ve been training for a while and haven’t had any injuries, you can likely expect a faster finishing time.
Finally, consider if this is your first marathon or if you’ve run one before. If it’s your first one, your goal should simply be to finish. Don’t worry so much about time. For your second one, you can focus more on time goals.
How to Estimate Your Marathon Time
You can estimate your marathon time in a variety of different ways. First, most training plans have you running a half marathon as a tune-up. Simply multiply your half marathon time by 2 and then add 10 minutes. That will give you a good idea of what time to expect for your first (or second or hundredth) marathon.
You might also have a GPS watch that gives you estimated times for various races. I have found this feature to be a little inaccurate, but not super off-the-mark. This could give you a good idea of what to expect, especially when compared to other factors like what your average mile time is.
Finally, you can always use an online calculator that is based on prior race times to figure out what marathon time you can expect. It’s important to not overestimate your abilities. Give yourself a very conservative and realistic number so that you’re not disappointed on race day.
If you would like to involve some suffering in your finish-time calculations, run a Yasso-800 workout. This is 10 repeats of 800m each (two laps of a track). Run each repeat full-gas; it needs to be a hard effort. Time your 10th interval. Whatever the minutes and seconds of that 800 are, that will be your hours and minutes finishing time for a marathon. So if your last 800 took 3:45, then your estimated marathon time would be 3 hours, 45 minutes.
Variables That Will Impact Race Time
Unfortunately, there are a variety of factors that can impact your race time no matter how much time you have spent training, so don’t forget to account for these as well.
Weather and Temperature
The ideal temperature for a race is between 50 and 55 degrees with no wind and no rain. But most races will not fit this profile. You might get slammed with a really hot and humid day, which will slow you down, or a super rainy one.
Whether the course is hilly or flat will make a huge difference in your marathon time. Obviously, you’ll go faster with fewer hills. New York City has a notoriously hilly course, and the finishing times are, in general, slower as a result. In addition, numerous turns versus a straight course can make a difference because fewer turns make the course faster.
The fastest marathon courses are mainly flat, or even downhill, with few turns. They have some gently rolling hills to use different leg muscles, but for the most part, they are flat and fast. Berlin and the California International Marathon are examples of such a course.
What you eat and drink in the days and hours leading up to the race and how your body processes it will impact your race time. It is very important to stay hydrated, as being dehydrated and not having enough carbs for energy in your body can substantially decrease your finishing time. Make sure your body has the energy it needs.
While you shouldn’t be running a marathon with a major injury, you may face minor ones like blisters and chafing. Minor though they are, they can slow you down. The best way to prevent such annoyances is to make sure that there is nothing new for race day so that you’ve already had a trial run in your clothing.
Tips for Running a Marathon
Now that you have a good idea of what time to expect for finishing a marathon, let’s cover some tactics to make your marathon experience super-enjoyable.
Before the Race
The night before the race, make sure that you get a good meal that will provide you the nourishment that you need the morning of the race. No spicy or fatty foods! Make sure that you get a good night’s sleep, but don’t stress if you can’t sleep due to nerves. Just stay calm.
The morning of the race, make sure that you get some nutrients in your body like peanut butter on a bagel with a banana, and drink a sports drink 30 minutes before the race is going to start. This can make a huge difference in finishing time.
Running the Marathon
When you’re running the race itself, make sure that you have a good PMA—positive mental attitude—and give yourself everything that you need to succeed.
You have a couple of options for pacing strategies. The best one (and what is recommended by most running experts) is negative splits. This means that you run the second half of the marathon faster than the first half. In reality, this is hard to do, but a great goal to strive for.
Another option is to bank time, meaning that you run faster in the first half, so when you inevitably slow down in the second half you have time “banked” to still get you to your goal time. The disadvantage of this strategy is that you might wear yourself out and completely miss your goal time because you are too tired.
A final strategy is even splits. This is probably the best option for a first-time marathoner. Simply run roughly even mile splits to reach your goal time. You shouldn’t overexert yourself, and you’ll still be able to go faster for those last few miles if you want.
Nutrition and Hydration
To make sure that your body has all the energy it needs, it’s a good plan to drink some water or sports drink every other mile. You don’t want to stop at every mile water stop because you don’t want to become overhydrated.
Make sure that you’re taking calories regularly, whether it’s a sports drink every 20 minutes or a gel every 45-60 minutes.
Hitting the Wall
This is a concept that is well-known in the marathon community, and it usually occurs around mile 20 for most runners, especially first-time marathoners. However, it could be earlier or later.
This is why most runners say that the race really starts at mile 20. You only have a 10k to go, but your body is so tired. The wall is the time for you to dig deep and remember why you love running. Smile as often as you can because it will make your run easier. You can do it!
After the Race
You still need to make sure that you’re recovering properly once you finish the race. Make sure to hydrate and get something to eat. If it’s a cooler day, make sure that you stay warm and take the mylar blanket if offered. Change clothes as soon as you can.
In the end, running a marathon is a huge accomplishment, and you have a lot to look forward to! While it’s great to have lofty goals about times you want to make (and by all means, reach for the stars), remember that at the end of the day, what’s important is that you’re living a healthy life.