When many people set their sights on running a marathon, they have no idea what their marathon finishing time might be.
Unless you’ve already researched marathons or been a mid-distance runner, it can be hard to gauge how long it can take to run 26.2 miles.
You might’ve read about elite runners taking just over two hours, or how some people walk the majority of their marathons.
But – what constitutes a good marathon finishing time, and what should be your criteria for choosing your target finishing time?
Marathon Finishing Time Statistics
First, let’s look at some data behind historical marathon finishing times in order to get some context.
The below graph, provided by www.marastats.com, shows the range of finishing times for over 4 million marathon finishers. (Note that the red from the men’s stats falls behind the blue from the women’s stats after the 5hr mark).
The average marathon finishing time, overall, is 4 hours 21 minutes and 49 seconds.
But we can see some people complete it in under 3 hours, others take up to 7 hours.
In fact, 19% of marathon runners take over 5 hours.
So What Should My Marathon Finishing Time Be?
OK, so you’re considering running a marathon, but are not sure what your target time should be.
A few things to consider first are:
1. Current Fitness Level
Are you currently running half marathons every weekend, or do you still have to go and buy your first set of running shoes?
If you are already a seasoned runner, there are already many tools available to calculate your finishing time based on your current training pace (for example, these tables provided by Strava).
Age is also a big factor in your fitness level, and hence your potential marathon finishing times. Younger people can typically build up their running ability quicker, avoid injury easier and have more stamina for long distance runs.
If you don’t currently have a good handle on your fitness level or speed capabilities, then you might want to dial back on your ambition.
2. Training Time Until Your Marathon
If you are planning a marathon that is 12 months away, then you have plenty of time to build up a solid running base of both distance and speed.
If your marathon is only 3 or 4 months away, however, then the amount of time available to invest in preparation and training, and improving your running ability, is a lot less. So the more time you have to prepare, the more ambitious you can be when setting a target finishing time.
If you have 6-12 months to prepare, you can even base all your training around your target finishing time – as I often propose in my training plans.
3. Personal Goals
Have you always had an itch to break the sub-4hr marathon mark? Or perhaps you would like to run your first marathon in under 5 1/2 hours?
In my first-ever marathon, I was determined to have a marathon finishing time under four hours. I actually completed the first half in 1hr 37 mins, and felt great. The second half, however, was pretty much hell – and took 2hrs 20 mins. I hadn’t trained to run a consistent pace, as I’ve now learned is so important. I hit The Wall suddenly and had to really dig deep to push myself through. In the end, I hobbled over the finish line in 3hrs 58min and 53 seconds.
I could barely walk for the next few days, and swore to never run another marathon. (that didn’t last long).
I basically pushed my body waaay past its comfortable limits.
It was part ignorance, part hubris – I totally over-estimated my abilities and under-estimated the race.
BUT – I completed my goal. I didn’t care that much that my body was in pain for a week afterward. I became a marathon runner that day. A sub-4hr marathon runner, at that.
In the time since I’ve learned training and pacing strategies to allow me to run a sub-4hr marathon with much more ease.
Many of you reading this are probably like me and have a fairly driven, goal-oriented, outlook on life. If so, I sympathise with you and want to help you meet your marathon goals – whatever they are.
But please, if you’re going to try and achieve a specific marathon finishing time . . . do the work first! You’ll be much more comfortable, and will reduce the risk of injury, fatigue, or hitting the wall during your marathon. See my post Why Marathon Pace Is So Important to see why you want to get your training and pacing right.
Do I even need a target marathon finishing time?
Here’s the other end of the spectrum.
Is it even necessary to have a target marathon finishing time?
My answer = absolutely not.
Especially if you are going in for your first marathon, you really have no idea what to expect.
Trying to plan too much about what your performance will look like can cause you to run too fast, and really ruin your enjoyment of the event.
If your goal is simply to finish, then you are giving yourself a free pass to enjoy the day to the maximum.
And marathons are an amazing event to enjoy if you allow yourself the opportunity. You can support and trade stories with other runners, take photos, chat with the aid station crews, high-five people in the crowd.
If you have no target time, you can run when you want, and walk when you start to feel fatigued. And remember, it is becoming more and more common for people to walk significant portions of their marathon and finish in 5, 6, or even 7 hours.