For many intermediate endurance runners, completing a sub 3 hour marathon 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.
In this article, runner Mark Callaghan will outline:
- The training modalities and mixture of run training workouts required for a sub 3 hour marathon
- A sub 3 hour marathon pace discussion and strategy
- Advice for race day
- How Mark has consistently run several sub 3 hour marathons himself
We also share a sub 3 hour marathon training plan – scroll to the bottom to grab your copy.
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 programme. I decided that if going ‘sub 3’ was to be a realistic goal for me, I would need to become more focused.
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 3hour 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 – Pacing
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.
Sub 3 Hour Marathon – Training
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 periodise into four week blocks with a lower mileage week at the end of each block.
Strength & Conditioning
I always have a running-specific strength and conditioning plan that I start before any increase in weekly mileage.
This programme 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.
I would plan two or three of these sessions a week to begin with before reducing as I build mileage and intensity.
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.
Recommended pace: 30-40 mins @ 2 mins+ slower than race pace (e.g. ~8.45-9 min miles)
The bread & butter of a marathon programme.
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 minutes per mile, or 4.50 minutes per kilometer)
Then 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.
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).
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 favoured workouts are 16x400m and 8x800m. I would build up to the maximum number of repetitions across the life of my programme.
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 favour 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.
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).
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:
- Complete a kit packing list before you leave home. Make sure you have everything you need for 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 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 toilet roll and small hand sanitiser 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!
Read more from Mark Callaghan over at Adventures In Running.
Free Sub 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 Sheet / MS Excel format (so you can customise it however you please).
Just tell us where to send it!
Free Marathon Training Bootcamp
Let us guide you through your marathon training journey by signing up for our free 5-day marathon training bootcamp!
Every day you’ll get more free tips sent straight to your inbox!