In this post, I look at how to train and pace yourself in order to guarantee a sub-four hour finishing time. It requires a good base level of fitness and an extensive training plan (I’ve included one here) – but in the end, a sub 4 hr marathon comes down to focusing on one important element – pace.
Note: This blog post covers the theory and the training. For a comprehensive guide to running a sub-4hr marathon, check out my book – The Four-Hour Marathon.
The 4 hr marathon
The marathon – 26.2 miles of footwork. It just so happens that it takes most well-prepared marathon runners somewhere between three and five hours to run one of these. In last year’s London marathon, the average mens’ finishing time was 4:04:23.
This means that anyone breaking the four-hour benchmark is not just a marathon runner – they’re an above-average marathon runner. Running a marathon in under four hours means you’ve sustained an average pace of at least 6.55 miles/hr for 26.2 miles – it’s a badge that shows not just endurance, but a good level of underlying fitness and training behind it. The four-hour benchmark has become an important line in the sand then.
Many marathoners choose it as a goal – the difference between a 3:59 finishing time and 4:01 is subjective but important to lots of runners. Note: A GPS watch or running app is pretty much mandatory for the training I’m advising here.
Blog Update: Since I wrote this blog, it has been so popular it has spawned a book – The Four-Hour Marathon. Available now in Paperback and Kindle. Here’s how to get it:
How to run a sub 4 hr marathon
A sub 4 hr marathon is all about two things: training and planning.
Here, there are no shortcuts. In order to avoid hitting the wall or getting injured while training, you’ve got to put in the hours – that typically means a minimum of four months of dedicated marathon training. In this post, I walk through the ‘how’ of a sub 4 hr marathon – starting with how your actual marathon will look and the pacing strategy to use, and then working backward from here to develop a training plan to get you to that point.
So – how do you train to run a marathon in under 4hrs?
Pace = King
A successful marathon is all about pacing.
Your pacing strategy can be broken into two elements: speed and consistency. If you surveyed most marathon finishers, you’d see their pace consistency was all over the place – they likely started off very fast, managed to sustain a good pace throughout most of the race, then dropped off in the last few miles. This is typical – 26.2 miles is a long distance, and our bodies are not normally adapted to keep going for so long. It is to be expected that after three or four hours, your energy starts to sag.
So how do we combat this? We train for it.
If you want to run a sub 4-hr marathon, the most comfortable pacing strategy is to run a consistent pace throughout the entire race. This means you’ll probably be holding back in the first half of the marathon, but this will serve you well later on.
Right, so we’ve established that we have to train ourselves to be able to run a consistent pace for 4 hours, but what pace?
(This strategy also assumes that your marathon route is pretty uniform – if you have big hill sections or other challenges, you need to factor these into your training and pacing strategy.)
The 4 hr marathon pace
In order to get around your marathon in exactly 4 hours, you would need to run a 9:09min/mile pace, or 5:41min/km.
Here’s the thing though – no marathon is perfect.
Whether it’s hills, fatigue, toilet stops, crowds at the start or that old knee injury, something is likely to slow you down at some point in your run. That’s why I always try and run a little faster than a 4hr pace.
If you were to allow for 10 minutes of padding – thus finishing in 3hrs 50mins if all goes well, then your new pace would be 8:46min/miles, or 5:27min/km. The truth is, when I am aiming for a 4 hr marathon I’ll constantly check my GPS and try to always be a little under the 4hr pace, by a few seconds per mile/km.
It’s fine to go faster than this pace, but don’t go too much faster – all we want to do is finish within 4hrs, right? And the last thing you want to do is use up energy early on that you later really need.
OK, so we’ve established how fast we need to run, and that we are gonna run as close to a consistent pace as possible, right?
So now, let’s look at how to train for this.
I’m going to share my 4hr marathon training plan with you (skip ahead to download it), but first I’ll describe the elements of the training plan, the minimum recommended
The intention with my training plan is to not only increase your maximum mileage but to develop your running base to be super strong. This is a key ingredient in being able to run a consistent pace for four hours.
That is why the initial mileage is higher than some of my other marathon training plans, which are not so pace-focussed. So why do you need a training plan? Your training plan is going to be your guide – by mapping everything out at the start of your training, you are giving your schedule some structure, allowing gradual increases in mileage and pace.
Types of Training
Typical Run – These should be 8-10km in length, and run at the 4hr marathon pace (9:09min/mile pace, or 5:41min/km). In the first few weeks of training it’s alright if you are a little slower, but by around 8-10 weeks prior to the
Long Slow Run – this is a weekly long run where you gradually increase your maximum mileage. Most people do these on weekends as that’s when they have the free time. This should be done at a slow, easy pace – one in which you could hold a conversation with someone.
These runs allow you to very gradually build up your maximum mileage. You’ll notice that in my supplied training plan, the longest run is 20 miles or around 32-33km. This means that during your marathon, the final stretch will be uncharted territory. Don’t worry – if you’ve followed the training plan, you’ll be conditioned to hold your pace throughout these last few miles.
Speed work – for speed work, you can choose to do either tempo runs or interval training. Tempo runs involve starting at a slow, very easy pace and gradually increasing the speed over around 35 minutes until you are running at faster than race pace (it should feel unsustainable). You should peak, then spend the last 5-10 minutes slowing down.
These are good to do with a friend. Interval training means a mixture of running fast and slow. Try this: run at close to maximum speed (90% of max) for 30 seconds, then back off to an easy jog for 3 minutes. Repeat x 10. Cross training – this means any other type of workout that contributes towards your training. I recommend low-impact activities such as swimming, cycling or yoga. Cross-training should compliment your running workouts, and not risk injury.
How Many Months To Prepare?
In order to build up the running stamina and the consistency of pace to run a sub-4hr marathon, most people with a reasonable level of base fitness would require a complete minimum of four months. To do your marathon comfortably, I’d recommend looking at five to six months, if not more.
4hr Marathon Training Plan – Download Here
Click here to check out the 4hr Marathon Training Plan on our Marathon Training Plan page!
The training plan which accompanies this post is designed around 5 months of training. If you have more time, gradually build yourself up to the mileage detailed in week 1. If you have less than 5 months, I recommend you count backward from the end of the training plan and jump in there.
Don’t forget to check out my other
Good luck – and run far!