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How To Run a Sub 3 Hour Marathon + Training Plan

Elite runner Mark Callaghan sets out a physical and mental blueprint for mastering the sub 3-hour marathon.

You’ve completed a half marathon, and ticked off the full distance. What’s next?

For many intermediate endurance runners, completing a sub 3 hour marathon race is the pinnacle of their running journey and a huge life achievement.

With the accomplishment of consistent finishes under four hours comes the planting of a seed that going under three hours may well be possible.

Accepting that challenge means embracing the additional physical and mental demands that training for the next big barrier will bring.

How many people break 3 hour marathon? When you cross that finish line in under 3 hours you will be amongst an elite group of runners, with estimates stating that only four percent of all marathon runners of all ages successfully complete the distance in under 3 hours.

In this article, runner Mark Callaghan will outline:

We also share a sub 3 hour marathon training plan – scroll to the bottom to grab your copy – available for free in PDF and other formats in both miles and kilometers.

My Journey to a Sub 3 Hour Marathon – Mark Callaghan

My first marathon was a humbling experience.

I’d arrived in London low on knowledge, even lower on preparation but boasting unwarranted high confidence, citing the classic marathon novice reasoning of possessing excellent ‘football fitness.’

It will not come as a great surprise then that I suffered an almighty bonk at the 20-mile mark and a horrendous last 10km, eventually missing out on the four hour mark by two minutes.

After a four year break, I returned with a series of gritty and uncomfortable 3:30 finishes without really applying myself fully to a goal or a specific training program. I decided that if going ‘sub 3’ was to be a realistic goal for me, I would need to become more focused. 

A runner runs along Brighton seafront during a marathon.
Racing to a sub-3-hour marathon at Brighton

By ‘respecting the distance’, learning how to optimize my training, and having a clear race day strategy with regard to preparation, pacing, and fuelling, I was able to run three sub 3 hour marathons in two years.

I eventually qualified to represent England over the marathon distance for the M40 age group.

The Sub 3 Hour Marathon Benchmark

Sub 3 Hour Marathon Time – Pacing

What is a sub 3 hour marathon pace?

In order to run a sub 3 hour marathon, a minimum pace of 6 minutes 50 seconds per mile is needed – or 4 minutes 15 seconds per kilometer – this would give you a predicted finish time of 2:59.10.

In reality, unless you are glued to the ‘shortest distance’ racing line throughout a marathon, you will end up running slightly longer than 26.2 miles – how much longer depends on how good your cornering is!

To compensate for the additional distance – and give yourself a bit of a buffer, I recommend targeting around 6 minutes 40 – 45 seconds per mile pace – or roughly 4 minutes 10 seconds per kilometer, which gives a predicted finish time of 2:54:48 – 2:56.59).

Those 5 minutes in your back pocket can count for a whole lot as you go through those 26.2 miles!

By working on the practice of ‘negative splitting’ (running the second part of a race faster than the first) during your long training runs, you will hopefully be confident in executing this strategy on race day.

This means keeping your ‘powder dry’ by being conservative in the first half (e.g., ~2.58 pace, 6.48 min miling / 4.14min per km), and moving up to a faster pace in the second half (e.g., ~2.55 pace – 6.40 min miling / 4.08min per km).

Your race-day tactics will, of course, be dependent on the course and terrain; a course with a more challenging second half may not be appropriate for a gradual increase in speed, a good reason why it’s best to consult the course map to help you decide your strategy.

Not sure this is the plan for you? – Check out our other marathon training plans.

You can utilize our Marathon Pace Calculator to calculate specific pace targets and get a downloadable PDF of the even splits. As recommended above, you should enter the time as closer to 2:55:00 than 3:00:00 to give yourself a bit of headroom.

A large crowd of runners during a race.

Sub 3-Hour Marathon: Training Schedule Breakdown

How much training do I need for a sub 3 hour marathon?

My training plans would normally last 20-24 weeks.

The general theme is to begin with a gradual build of easy mileage alongside regular strength work before introducing higher intensity and specialist workouts 4-6 weeks in.

I factor in one rest day per week (more if I am feeling fatigued or unwell) and periodize into four-week blocks with a lower mileage week at the end of each block.

Here are my training tips:

Strength & Conditioning

I always have a running-specific strength training plan that I start before any increase in weekly mileage.

This program is dedicated to building up my strength and balance, ironing out any issues from my previous campaign, and giving my body the best chance to avoid injury.

The sessions involve single-leg balance work, core strength, and plyometric exercises. It can also be beneficial to include cross-training exercises such as cycling or swimming.

I would plan two or three of these sessions a week to begin with before reducing as I build mileage and intensity.

Easy Runs

I do these on days after a heavy or intense session the previous day and also as the second run of a ‘double’ if I’m doing two sessions in a day. This is a typical workout performed by East African elites in the evenings after a speed session in the morning.

Depending on how slow you go, these can also be classed as recovery runs. Regardless of how slow you go, upload them to Strava with pride!

Recommended training pace: 30-40 mins @ 2 mins+ slower than race pace (e.g. ~8.45-9 min miles)

A runner's legs on a road

Long Run

Long distances are the bread & butter of a marathon training program.

These weekend runs would build from around 10km at the beginning of a plan to 20-22 miles toward the end. I would run these at approx 1 min slower than my target race pace (e.g. 7.45 minute miles, or 4.50 minutes per kilometer)

As I get 8 weeks out, I would start to introduce blocks of race pace efforts into my long run, normally in the second half, to practice the physical and mental feeling of running at my race pace when fatigued.

You want to keep your relative effort low during your long runs; this helps you to build an aerobic base without putting excessive strain on the muscles.

If you struggle to measure your RPE, you can measure your heart rate during longer distances with a smartwatch like Garmin.

Tempo Runs

Related article: Tempo Runs Guide

Slightly faster-paced efforts where you run on the edge of comfort or at your ‘threshold’.

These are 45-60 min sessions, once a week. I would run these ~25-30 secs quicker than my target race pace (e.g. 6.15-6.20 minutes per mile, or 3.55 minutes per kilometer).

Speed work 

Hills: Uphill sprint repetitions – great for working on your strength and running form. 20 mins effort after a good warm up with the same on downward recoveries e.g. 40 min session.

Intervals: These are done on a track if possible but can also be performed in a loop at a park or a quiet road if you have somewhere nearby that is relatively flat, safe, and free of obstacles.

My favored workouts are 16x400m and 8x800m. I would build up to the maximum number of repetitions across the life of my program.

Also, a fun ‘pyramid’ style track workout for some variety: 200m, 400m, 600m, 800m, 1km, 1.2km, 1km, 800m, 600m, 400m, 200m (90 second recoveries) = Total Duration: 7.2km (4.5 miles).

Fartlek: I favor the East African fartlek style workout that is used in the elite camps in Uganda and Kenya of 1:1 or 2:1 (minutes of effort vs easy recovery) for 30-40 mins.

I run these sessions on feel, aiming for 85-90% effort for each repetition, so I’m not working flat out and want to be able to maintain a consistent level throughout the entire workout.

I’ll be uncomfortable toward the end of each effort but still able to speak in short bursts (normally swear words).

If my breathing means I’m struggling to speak at the end of a rep then I know I’m going too hard. With the recoveries, my breathing should have pretty much returned to normal before I attempt the next effort.

A large group of runner's legs on a road

Rest and Recovery

In addition to these sessions, I would have an increased focus on quality rest and recovery, getting regular, adequate sleep, eating a clean, nutritious diet, and reducing my alcohol intake (avoiding it completely in the last weeks in the lead-up to the race).

What is the best nutrition strategy for a sub-3 hour marathon?

Optimize your marathon training diet with strategic dietary choices. Aim for a carbs-to-protein ratio of 3:1 or 4:1.

Structure your day with three meals and 2-4 snacks, including nutrient-rich foods like lean meats, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats.

Maintain proper hydration throughout the day for overall health and effective recovery.

On race day, ensure you stick to familiar foods that your body is accustomed to, as introducing new foods can lead to digestive issues. If you haven’t eaten gels before, don’t let race day be your first!

For a deep dive into what you should eat on race day, check out How To Fuel For A Marathon.

Sub 3 Hour Marathon – Race Day

For me, the key to race day success is having a plan for the whole day or weekend, rather than just the race itself.

You don’t want to arrive on the start line stressed, tired, or missing a key item of equipment or fuel.

Here are some tried and tested tips to give you the best chance of success on the big day:

Race Day Tips:

  • Complete a kit packing list before you leave home. Make sure you have everything you need before, during, and after the race and that you’ve tested it, e.g., worn or consumed it during a long run, to ensure that your body gets along with it.
  • Check the weather report before you leave and decide if you need to take clothing for extreme conditions before/after the race. Being a wet, shivering mess is not pleasant before or after a marathon.
  • Pack sufficient fuel for your estimated running time with a couple of spares in case of loss, accidents or slippy fingers on the day!
  • Allow adequate time to travel to your destination and ensure you are able to register, etc, well before any cut-off time with the minimum of stress and effort.
  • Carry out your race kit lay whilst the shops are still open in case you’ve missed or lost anything and need to make an emergency purchase.
  • Pre-book your evening meal so you don’t spend hours traipsing around an unknown city trying to find a restaurant that has a table (yes, I have done this on more than one occasion).
  • Get an early night and give yourself the best chance of a decent night’s sleep.
  • Plan your marathon breakfast to allow plenty of time to travel to the race village, change, warm up, and make your way to the start for your allocated time.
  • Take a toilet roll and small hand sanitizer in case of a shortage at the race village.

That’s how I managed to consistently run a marathon in under three hours. All that remains is to start on your plan and deliver!

If you need any further guidance for achieving a specific time goal, consider working with a running coach.

Read more from Mark Callaghan over at Adventures In Running.

Free Sub 3-Hour Marathon Training Plan Download

What is the average weekly mileage for a 3-hour marathon training plan?

We’ve combined all of Mark’s tips and training advice into a 20-week training plan, free to download in PDF and Google Sheets / MS Excel format (so you can customize it however you please).

Sub 3 Hour Marathon Training Plan - printable

Download The Training Plan Here

Enter your email, and I’ll send you this free training plan now, in PDF and Google Sheets formats (completely customizable), in both miles and kilometers.  

After entering your email, you’ll be prompted to create an account on the Grow platform we use to control access to the plans. It’s completely free – make sure to complete the process to gain access to the plan!

Previous visitor or not seeing where to sign up?

Head over to our marathon training plan database for full access to all plans.

download the free training plan

Check Out The Premium Version of The Sub 3 Hour Marathon Training Plan . . .

We’ve teamed with TrainingPeaks to offer a premium version of the Sub 3 Hour Marathon Training Plan:

Access the plan via the TrainingPeaks website and app, track your workouts in real-time against the plan, and get performance data analysis on your progress.

Check out the premium sub 3 hour marathon training plan here!

How To Run a Sub 3 Hour Marathon + Training Plan 1
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Photo of author
Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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