How to Run a Sub 3 Hour Marathon

What’s Holding You Back From Your Sub-3 Goal? The MOST Common Mistake Runners Make

As someone who has coached a wide variety of runners trying to break three-hours for the marathon, I have noticed certain patterns emerge from their previous running that seem almost universal. Some of these are habit-driven and can be very positive in improving one’s race times. Others, even those that may seem beneficial, may in fact be holding them back from achieving their goals.

Of the many obstacles standing in the way of running 26.2mls in under three-hours, there is one that is perhaps the most detrimental of all. Unfortunately, it is also perhaps the most common for ambitious runners. However, with the right discipline, motivation, and understanding of basic physiology, it is also the easiest obstacle to overcome on the journey to your sub-three.

Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.

Albert Einstein wasn’t a running coach, but if he had been, I think this famous quote would have established the framework for his coaching philosophy- “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Read those lines again. How do they resonate with your own running? How many times have you personally attempted to break three-hours in a marathon only to fall short by a few minutes (or seconds!)?

The good news is that you can change that result by changing your patterns and habits within the basis of your training.

The number one obstacle to breaking three-hours in the marathon isn’t your age, your diet, or your longest run’s distance; it is simply not having enough variety in the training that you complete on a weekly and monthly basis.

Tell me if this weekly structure looks familiar:

Monday through Friday – Steady Running of 30-60min, basically at the same effort level, maybe with a few sprints or a misunderstood tempo run thrown in there for some measure.

Saturday or Sunday – An Arduous, Lengthy Effort to Pay Homage to the Touted Benefits of A Weekly Long Run

If this resonates with you at all, keep reading.

So, what defines variety in running? How can we as serious runners finally break that mammoth task of cracking three-hours?

First, it is very important that we be honest with ourselves about current fitness levels and where we stand on our sub-3 quest. I believe you only need about sixteen weeks of devoted training to really move the needle with your running performance.

Use the below guidelines to ensure that you are in a good spot before tackling your next marathon build-up towards that sub-three goal. If you are significantly outside these parameters, I would suggest taking baby steps to get back on track.

Age

You can likely break three-hours in the marathon with the correct training approach if you have completed the below marathon times or equivalent half-marathon times in the last two years. You may take some liberties if your most recent marathon or half was on an especially hilly course or in adverse weather conditions.

Note- The younger you are, the more margin of improvement you will likely have in regard to marathon improvement.

  • 20-30yrs Old- 3:20 Marathon (~1:35 Half-Marathon)
  • 30-40yrs Old- 3:15 (~1:30 Half-Marathon)
  • 40-50yrs Old- 3:10 (~1:25 Half-Marathon)

Bodyweight

The topic of bodyweight and running performance is often the proverbial elephant in the room, but let’s address this in a very approachable manner. If you are too heavy, you will likely underperform in the marathon. If you are too light, you will likely underperform in the marathon… Two sides of the same coin. So, what is a realistic weight for distance runners to help ensure that you are healthy, strong, and able to withstand a higher training load?

There is a pretty simple formula to help answer that question in a general way that most people should be able to achieve.

According to the famous Dr. Irwin Stillman, healthy males are allowed 110lbs for the first 60in in height, and then 5lbs for every inch above that. Women are allotted 100lbs for the first 60in in height, and then 5lbs for every inch above that. I would make a further assertion that being within 10% of these rough figures is not detrimental to your running based on bone structure, muscle mass, age, etc. The key here being body composition; if you are on the heavier side of these calculations, you need to be of a more muscular build with a relatively low body fat percentage.

Examples –

A 5’10 (70in) Male Runner would optimally weigh between 144lbs and 176lbs with a mean of 160lbs.

A 5’5 (65in) Female Runner would optimally weight between 113lbs and 137lbs with a mean of 125lbs.

If you are more than 10% above or below these recommendations, it may be beneficial to adjust your diet to get closer to this range. Of course, always consult with a healthcare professional before altering your diet, weight, and exercises habits.

Current Training Level

This may be a pretty intuitive point in regard to a sub-three marathon goal, but let’s address it to be on the safe side. If you are serious about racing 26.2mls at 6:50 per mile pace, you’ve got to be running a lot! Whatever “a lot” means for you, start there and we can help develop the rest. I would recommend those in a good place to attempt a sub-three be quite comfortable with running 5-6hrs per week over at least five training days as a solid, fundamental starting place.

You may be asking- “Wait, no hard and fast weekly mileage recommendations?”

Nope. We’re going to be primarily placing time and effort over pace and distance for your next sub-3 journey.

The Pivotal Importance of Variety (a Case Study)

With these parameters being understood, let’s talk a little more about the primary obstacle we discussed previously- adding variety to your training!

To do this, let’s look at a case study from an athlete I coach. We’ll call him Brandon for reference.

Brandon was a serious runner, known as “the guy always out running” in his local community. He ran and ran, miles and miles, day after day. He registered for a marathon about every three months, with big goals and hopes each time on finally breaking three hours for the distance.

However, when I started working with him, there was one glaring issue that stuck out to me after reviewing his training- his 5K, 10K, HM, and Marathon personal best paces per mile WERE PRACTICALLY THE SAME! Ironically, his daily training paces weren’t much different either. This was a major red flag to me, but one that was very easy to correct.

Brandon had become overly comfortable running right around goal sub-three pace for 40-70min at a time, but was suffering in races when he had to speed up very much at all. Furthering this problem, his ego and Strava profile simply wouldn’t allow him to slow down appropriately enough on his easy days to really benefit from all these miles around his marathon pace.

He had become a one trick pony. He had one speed, and that similitude was not producing the results he wanted.

Enter our intervention…

Over the next four months, we started to re-program his training to include up to five distinct effort zones into his running each week.

This was very difficult for Brandon at first, as he tended to “default” back to his old patterns of running “kind of hard” almost every day.

We were able to create a deep modulation between his challenging training days and his recovery days… We had him running as fast as 5:30 per mile on some days, and as slow as 9:00 per mile on others. He started to look more muscular, feel better while running, and ran two personal bests in his tune-up races along the way.

On the day of his target marathon, he texted me before the gun- “Coach, I’m ready to go! I’ve never felt so prepared!”

The result- a breakthrough 2:57 marathon in warm conditions and a hilly course.

Are you ready to join Brandon and others in the marathon PR club? Stay tuned, because we are working on personalised training plans to help you finally break the 3 hour barrier!

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