A four-hour marathon is one of the most popular running goals. Some runners chase this goal for years, and many wait to run their first marathon until they feel more confident about this goal. Running a four hour marathon does not come from luck; it requires dedicated training and feeling very comfortable at 4 hour marathon pace by race day.
This article provides generalized training advice on how to run a sub-4 hour marathon. Your exact training background, your strengths and weaknesses, the marathon course you choose, and other factors will all influence your individual outcome.
How Fast is 4 Hour Marathon Pace?
Four-hour marathon pace is approximately a 9:09/mile (5:41/km) pace – if you perfectly run the tangents on race day.
However, few runners run exactly 26.2 miles on the marathon course. Most GPS watches will record 26.3 to 26.7 miles. GPS interference in large cities does account for some of this error. Tangents and turns along the race course and weaving around other runners (especially at large races) will also add distance – and therefore time – within the race.
For that reason, a prudent strategy is to plan on running roughly 9:05/mile (5:39/km) for a sub-4 marathon. The extra cushion would ensure you could run in four hours if the GPS added 0.2 miles. For big-city races such as Chicago or NYCM, you may need to plan on closer to a 9:00/mile (5:36/km).
Assess How Much Time You Have to Take Off
Training for a sub-4 hour marathon will differ significantly for a 4:10 marathoner compared to a 5:00 hour marathoner. The more time you need to take off, the more time you need to achieve your goal.
If you have recently run a 4:01 to 4:15 hour marathon, begin by assessing the weak points in your most recent training and race. How was your nutrition during the race? Did you support your training with appropriate recovery? Did you adhere to an appropriately-developed training plan? You may be able to run a four-hour marathon by making small tweaks to your current training.
For a 5+ hour marathoner, it is best to think long-term with your goal of a four hour marathon. Focus on training from where you presently are. Aim to take chunks off at a time, while interspersing training blocks focused on shorter distances.
If you have never run a marathon, look at your recent race times in other distances. Four-hour marathon pace is not as simple as running 2-hour half marathon pace for twice as long. The distance becomes exponentially more difficult as you contend with glycogen depletion, muscle damage, and cognitive fatigue.
Equivalent Race Times for 4 Hour Marathon Pace
If you enter a 4-hour marathon into popular running calculators, they suggest that if you can run a 1:56 half marathon, you can hold four hour marathon pace. While this may be achievable for very slow-twitch, well-trained runners, you may find that your equivalent race times may need to be a bit faster than the calculators suggest.
From coaching hundreds of runners, I have observed that many runners need slightly faster equivalent race times. If you can run a 1:54 half marathon, a 51-minute 10K, or a high-24 minute 5K, they have the foundation of fitness to train for a sub-4 hour marathon.
Plan Both Short-Term and Long-Term
Solely focusing on the marathon distance often leads to plateauing. When marathon training, prioritize only long, slow miles. As a result, these runners neglect other necessary aspects of running fitness. The most beneficial approach to training includes various doses of all training intensities throughout a macrocycle.
Many runners see long-term growth with one marathon per year. If you choose a fall marathon, you would structure the three other seasons to work on other aspects of fitness. In this scenario, you would do off-season in winter, a shorter race (5K to half) in the spring, base building in early summer, and marathon training in the autumn.
That said, no rule confines you to only one marathon per year. If you tolerate marathon training well, you may do 2-3 marathons per year. If you take this approach, be deliberate to include speed phases throughout the year to develop your overall fitness.
How Many Miles Per Week Should You Run?
Unfortunately, a simple input-output approach does not universally exist. Training history, genetics, and other factors affect response to training volume. Some runners may be able to run a 4-hour marathon off of 30 miles (50km) per week or fewer.
However, for many runners, you will likely need more training volume. Most 4-hour marathoners will find themselves in the range of 35-45 miles per week (56-72 km). For example, if you run four days per week, you may peak with a 20 mile long run and three weekday runs ranging from 5-8 miles each. (In metric: a 32 km long run and 8-13 km weekday runs.) The weekday runs should be long enough to optimize endurance – approximately 50-75 minutes in duration.
Very few 4-hour marathoners require high-volume training. For a 4-hour marathoner, it is safe to assume that most training runs are done at 1-2 minutes per mile slower than marathon pace (10:00-11:00/mile). The metabolic cost of running more than 75-90 minutes for most easy runs extends recovery time. If you are running 90+ minutes most days during marathon training, you will not recover as well – and therefore not respond to training or race as well as you could. For this reason, a 4-hour marathoner likely does not need to run 50+ miles per week.
(Read this article for more on how to determine how many miles per week you should run.)
How Should 4 Hour Marathon Pace Feel?
Running continuously for four hours is a long time – too long to hold a high intensity. The intensity of four-hour marathon pace in your training should reflect that. While you may sometimes question if you can hold the pace for a full 26.2 miles, marathon pace should feel relatively comfortable and sustainable in workouts.
If you consistently struggle to hold 9:09/mile pace in 5-10 mile workouts across the whole training cycle, you may want to reconsider the appropriateness of your goal. That is not to say that you need to give up on your goal if you have one bad workout. Bad workouts happen to all runners! What matters is the overall pattern of your training and how four-hour marathon pace feels across several workouts.
How to Hold 4 Hour Marathon Pace When You Are Tired
While 4 hour marathon pace should feel relatively comfortable in training, the pace will inevitably feel very challenging near the end of the marathon. You can prepare yourself in training for the end of the race:
- Practice running marathon pace when tired: Adding a progression to marathon pace at the end of your long runs will simulate how the end of the marathon feels – without the extensive muscle damage. Throughout your training cycle, add a progression long run every two to three weeks. On these long runs, aim to finish the final 3-6 miles at approximately marathon pace.
- Have a solid fueling and hydration strategy: “Hitting the wall” is one of the top causes of missing a marathon goal time. You cannot just wing it with gels on race day; you need a fueling strategy. A 2014 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that a fueling strategy in a marathon helped runners finish almost 11 minutes faster. Your strategy should include carb-loading before the race, a pre-race breakfast, intra-race nutrition of 50-60 grams of carbs per hour, and a hydration plan.
- Prepare positive self-talk: Mindset has a profound effect on performance in the marathon. However, you cannot expect positive self-talk to manifest out of nowhere on race day. You must practice it in training. Use your hard workouts and long runs as an opportunity to refine your self-talk and mindset techniques for the race.
- Have a pacing strategy: Many marathon goals are missed because of aggressive pacing in the first three-quarters of the race. You want to have a pacing strategy that allows you to sustain four hour marathon pace throughout the whole race. Typically, this strategy involves even splits or slightly negative splits. For more details on how to pace a marathon, read this article and listen to this podcast episode.
Preparing to run a sub-4 hour marathon may require many marathon training cycles – and that’s okay! Big goals take time. If you miss a four hour marathon pace the first time, or second, do not give up. Assess your race and training, make changes, and keeping aiming for your goal.