Bagging a sub 4 hour marathon is all about getting that 4 hour marathon pace right.
After running a bunch of them myself and coaching many other through the process, I learned the right pacing strategies and training methodologies to break the 4 hour barrier.
In this post, I’m going to break down what you need to know to break the four hour mark in your next marathon.
We’re going to look at:
- What your sub 4 hour marathon pace strategy should be,
- How to get comfortable running at that pace,
- How to train towards the 4 hour marathon pace, while also increasing your mileage
- How to structure your training . . . plus I throw in my free 20-week four hour marathon training plan!
Running sub 4 not a big enough challenge for you? Check out our sub 3 hour marathon guide!
Let’s jump in!
The 4 Hour Marathon Benchmark
It just so happens that it takes most well-prepared marathon runners somewhere between three and five hours to run their 26.2 miles.
In a recent 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.
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.
How to Run a Sub 4 Hour Marathon
A sub 4 hour marathon is all in the training.
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 three to 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 there to develop a training plan to get you to that point.
So – how do you train to run a marathon in under 4hrs?
Marathon Success = Pace
A successful 4 hour 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.
The average marathon runner start off very fast, manages to sustain a good pace throughout most of the race, then drops 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’s 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.
(check out my related article: Why Marathon Pace Is So Important)
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 Hour Marathon Pace
In order to get around your marathon in exactly 4 hours, you would need to run a 9 minutes 9 seconds per mile pace, or 5 minutes 41 seconds per kilometer.
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 recommend you plan to run a little faster than an exact 4 hour pace.
If you were to allow for 10 minutes of padding – thus finishing in 3hrs 50mins if all goes well, then your marathon pace would be:
8:46min/miles, or 5:27min/km
Write this pace down on a post-it, stick it on your fridge or somewhere you’ll see it!
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 4 hour marathon 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.
4 Hour Marathon – Training
Jump to the end of the post to get a copy of our sub 4 hour marathon training plan.
Here I’ll describe the elements of the training plan, the minimum recommended length of the training plan, and why a training plan is so great in the first place.
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
Here’s the different types of training I recommend, and have included in the downloadable training plan:
Classic ‘Training Run’ – These are typically 3-7 miles (5-11km) in length, and run at the 4 hour marathon pace (8:46min/mile pace, or 5:27min/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 marathon you want to be running this at marathon pace. These runs are what will really build up your core running base.
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 21 miles or around 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 your poison: tempo runs, interval training, hill repeats…. Speed work helps you get your base pace up to that magic 4 hour marathon pace.
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.
Other useful forms of speed work include:
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 Train For A Sub 4 Hour Marathon?
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.
4 Hour Marathon Training Plan – Download Here
The training schedule 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.
And don’t forget to check out my ebook – The 4-Hr Marathon, 130+ pages with step-by-step advice on how to beat the 4-hr mark – including extensive details on the 4 hour marathon pace strategy!