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How Long Does It Take To Run A Marathon: Finish Times Explored

An analysis of finish times, including average & beginner times, how they've changed over time, & how they vary between different countries.

It’s always fun to compare your own marathon finish times with the average marathon times for runners in the same age group and sex. After all, by nature, most runners are pretty competitive people, so it is only natural to want to see how we stack up relative to our peers in the sport.

In addition to looking at average marathon times by demographics such as sex, it can be interesting to dig into marathon finish time stats based on other demographics such as average marathon finish times by country. 

Which country has the fastest average marathon finish time? Which country has the slowest marathon finish time?

People running in a marathon.

Average Marathon Finish Times

It’s not all that easy to determine how long it takes to run a marathon for most people.

It can take anywhere from 2 to 8+ hours to run a marathon, depending on whether it’s an individual’s first marathon, their fitness level, and their age (it might even take you 5 days if you decide to wear a 1940s diving suit or even 54 years or more if you drop out and forget to tell the race organizers).1Diving suit man Lloyd Scott denied London Marathon farewell. (2012, March 21). BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-17465047 2Campbell, A. (2022, July 2). Man Breaks The World Record For Slowest Marathon. Deep English. https://deepenglish.com/lessons/man-breaks-world-record-slowest-marathon/

Hence, it’s more useful to look at average marathon times.

The closest we can get to a current read on the average marathon finish time comes from a comprehensive mapping of global running participation carried out by RunRepeat in 2019. 

This impressive analysis covers 107.9 million race results from more than 70,000 running events over the course of 22 years (1986 to 2018). 

Although the data is getting a little outdated at this point, now nearly 6 years in the rearview mirror, it is still the most comprehensive race data analysis done today and an admirable one at that.

Average Marathon Finishing Time:

According to RunRepeat, in 2018, the average marathon finish time across all age groups, genders, and countries of origin was 4:29:53. There were 1,298,725 marathon finishers worldwide.3Anderson, J. (2019). The State of Running 2019. Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat.com. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running

Male Average Marathon Finishing Time:

The average finishing time for men in 2018 was 4:15:13.4Anderson, J. (2019). The State of Running 2019. Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat.com. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running

Female Average Marathon Finishing Time:

The average finishing time for women in 2018 was 4:56:18.5Anderson, J. (2019). The State of Running 2019. Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat.com. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running

People running in a marathon.

How Long Does It Take To Run A Marathon For Beginners?

There is no predictable exact amount of time it will take a beginner runner to complete a marathon as it depends on age and their training schedule.

First-time marathoners or less-experienced runners are generally unlikely to run a marathon in much less than 4 hours.

Most marathon newbies, if they gradually build up their mileage and follow a proper training program, are likely to finish between 4 and 6 hours.

How Have Marathon Finishing Times Changed?

Interestingly, according to the data, the average marathon finish time has changed a lot over the years. 

When considering the overarching trend in regard to the history of long-distance running, prior to the running boom in the 1970s, full marathon running was mainly limited to very competitive and elite runners. 

There were certainly some recreational runners, but most of them were either enjoying distance running without competing regularly, or the handful of enthusiastic recreational runners who did take part in marathon racing made up a much smaller portion of the overall percentage of marathon participants than it does today. 

Essentially, participating in road races at the recreational level was not nearly as common as it became in the 90s, 2000s, and beyond, especially at the marathon distance.

Related: Race Time Calculator | Predict Your Race Finish Times

People running in a marathon, one person waving.

Resultantly, the majority of marathon runners were competitive athletes with a fairly fast marathon pace, so the average time taken to travel from the marathon starting line to the finish line on race day was faster than it is today.

Distance running, including the marathon distance, has become much more inclusive over the years. Running at the recreational level has been embraced and celebrated, allowing runners of all ability levels to feel like they can and should run a marathon if they desire to do so.

Rather than the demographics of marathon participants being mostly isolated to young adult males as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, marathons now draw runners of all ages, genders, body sizes, physical limitations, and ability levels.

Therefore, not only has the number of marathon finishers per year increased significantly but also the average marathon finish time is much slower now than it was at the beginning of RunRepeat’s race data analysis (in 1986).

According to this data, the average marathon finish time increased by 36 minutes between 1986 and 2001, jumping up from 3:52:35 to 4:28:56, which is an increase of a whopping 15.6%.6Anderson, J. (2019). The State of Running 2019. Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat.com. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running

Since 2001, the average marathon finish time has continued to increase (at least to the end of RunRepeat’s data collection in 2018). 

However, the rate of this increase has also slowed significantly. From 2001 to 2018, the average marathon finish time increased by four minutes, which is an increase of only 1.4%. As of 2018, the average marathon finish time is 4:32:49.

People running in a marathon.

Of course, the slower the average marathon finish time becomes, the less significant in terms of percentage a minute of change in the time will be. 

However, an increase in four minutes over 17 years (2001 to 2018) is certainly less significant than a change in 36 minutes in 15 years (1986 to 2001).

When the data is aggregated together, the average marathon finish time is 40 minutes slower now than it was in 1986, a significant difference of about 1 minute and 32 seconds per mile.

With that said, using the available data, albeit a bit dated at this point, analyzing the trends in average marathon finish times by sex over the years reveals that there are differences in how the average marathon finish times for men and women have changed.

Evolution Of Male Average Marathon Finishing Times

The average marathon finish time for men increased by 27 minutes (10.8%) from 1986 to 2001, jumping from 3:48:15 to 4:15:13, and then increased by 7 more minutes (3%) from 2001 to 2018.7Anderson, J. (2019). The State of Running 2019. Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat.com. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running

Again, this speaks to the fact that the inclusivity of marathon running at the recreational level increased, such that the demographics of men finishing a marathon exploded to include men of a wider age range and ability level.

People running in a marathon blurred out by the camera.

Evolution Of Female Average Marathon Finishing Times

We see this same trend play out with women marathon runners initially, but then something interesting happens.

The average marathon finish time for women increased by a whopping 38 minutes (14.8%) from 4:18:00 to 4:56:18 over the 15 years from 1986 to 2001.8Anderson, J. (2019). The State of Running 2019. Athletic Shoe Reviews; RunRepeat.com. https://runrepeat.com/state-of-running

This is the largest percentage difference we see across any of the groups and time periods. This is due to the fact that in 1986, the number of women participating in marathons was still quite low.

Many of the female marathon finishers at this time were still quite serious about the sport, which isn’t to say that women who run marathons today aren’t serious about the sport, but the female marathon participants were mainly very competitive runners.

Interestingly, from 2001 to 2018, the average marathon finish time for women actually got faster, dropping 4 minutes (1.3%).

It’s not as clear why we see such an improvement, but perhaps it has something to do with the improvements in marathon training for women and the increased belief that women can train just as intensely as men.

People running in a marathon.

What Countries Have The Fastest Marathon Times?

When looking at the average marathon time by country, the countries with the fastest marathon times were Switzerland, with an average time of 3:50, the Netherlands, and Spain, both of which had an average marathon time of 3:52.

When looking at gender-specific differences in average marathon finish times by country, the fastest country for men was Spain, with an average time of 3:49:09.

This was followed by Switzerland, which had an average marathon time for men of 3:49:13, and the Netherlands at 3:49:18.

We see similar trends regarding the fastest countries for marathon finish times for women. The country with the fastest marathon finish time for women was Switzerland (3:54:09).

This was followed by the Netherlands (3:59:04) and Spain (4:12:22).

People running in a marathon.

What Countries Have The Slowest Marathon Times?

On the other end of the spectrum, the countries with the slowest average marathon times were the Philippines, which had the slowest marathon finish time of 5:25, followed by India at 5:05, and then Mexico at 5:43.

The country with the slowest average marathon finish times for men was the Philippines, where the average marathon time was 5:22:06. This was followed by India, where the finish time was 5:04:43, and Thailand (4:54:51).

The Philippines again takes the crown for the slowest country in terms of the average marathon finish time for women, where the mean marathon finish time was 5:44:52.

There was a significant jump to the next slowest country, which was India (5:12:07) and then China (5:09:42).

People running in a marathon.

As just discussed, the average marathon time has increased by about 40 minutes since 1986, with the caveat that there is limited data available on this broad scope since 2018, which was now five years ago. 

Therefore, some of the trends that we discussed may be slightly dated.

The COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 seems to have potentially altered the marathon participation rate subsequently. 

Whether this has had a significant impact on the average marathon finish time by age, sex, or other demographics is unknown, there just hasn’t been such an in-depth analysis since the one conducted by RunRepeat in 2019.

Now that you’ve seen some of the average marathon times, what is considered a good marathon time? Check out our exploration in our guide: What Is A Good Marathon Time?

People running in a marathon.

FAQs

What Is The Typical Cutoff Time For Finishing A Marathon?

The cutoff time depends on the race. Some races that don’t require qualifying don’t have a cutoff time at all.

Here are the cutoff times for some of the most famous marathons:

How Can I Improve My Marathon Finish Time?

It is important to follow a well-rounded training plan with a variety of training runs and workouts including speed work such as tempo runs, as well as cross-training to increase power whilst lowering the risk of injury.

Check out our marathon training plans for more. If it’s your first marathon, try training for a shorter race such as a 10k or half marathon first.

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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