If you want to PR or BQ, which marathon you choose to run matters. Here's how to pick your fastest marathon!

How to Pick Your Fastest Marathon

A first marathon is often run for the experience of running a marathon and the challenge of pushing yourself further than you have ever ran before. Once you register for your second, third, or even tenth marathon, the focus becomes less on completing the distance and more on improving your finish times.

 If you are training hard for a PR or BQ marathon, you want to eliminate any factors that could detriment your chances of achieving your goal time. You can have the most knowledgeable training coach, a highly tailored training plan, or the smartest race day strategy, but the marathon for which you register can make or break your goal time. Elevation profile, temperature, and the race itself can all impact your finish time, no matter how hard you train or how smartly you race. Of course, each individual runner thrives under different circumstances, which is why knowing yourself and possibly hiring a coach is so beneficial.

If you want to PR or BQ, which marathon you choose to run matters. Here's how to pick your fastest marathon!

When you want to PR or BQ, here’s how to pick your fastest marathon:

Be a Cold Weather Runner

Statistically speaking, marathoners perform best when the temperature during the race ranges from 37-45 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want to run for a fast time such as a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time, then you’re best off selecting a chillier fall marathon. Why?

As this in-depth article from Runner’s Connect explains, the faster you run, the more heat you generate. This makes sense: thinks of how much more you sweat during a speed workout than an easy run.

So if you really want to nail that BQ or a big marathon PR, maybe signing up for the hot and humid Honolulu Marathon isn’t the best idea. That’s why most big marathons happen in the fall – cooler weather!

Size Matters

If you’re searching for a PR or BQ marathon, race size is certainly a factor to consider.

Big city race may offer great crowd support and attractive course profiles, but the most popular big marathons such as Chicago and Boston are incredibly crowded. You hear stories of being stuck in a group, unable to pass other runners, losing energy from bobbing and weaving around others, or getting bumped and jostled around. Crowded races can also make it more difficult to race the tangents, thus adding unnecessary distance and time to your race.

Competition is also a factor here: big city races will attract runners across all finish times, so front-of-the-pack runners will be able to compete against others while back-of-the-pack runners will have company during the race. Most runners thrive off competition, especially those aiming for a fast finishing time. Pace groups, whether formally organized by paces or organically grouped by runners during the race, can keep you on pace even when you hit the marathon wall.

For rural or smaller local races, you likely need to be mentally prepared to run by yourself for some duration of the race, since there are usually less runners overall. If you are racing a rural, small marathon, include several solo long runs and marathon pace runs so you learn how to pace yourself over a long distance.

That’s why I favor mid-sized marathons such as the Portland Marathon or the California International Marathon: large enough to have spectator support and all the amenities of a big city race, but small enough where you have room to breathe (and accelerate).

Portland Marathon

Elevation Profile

At first thought, flat races sound ideal for all runners. By basic physics, it should be easier to run a fast race on a completely flat or even steady downhill course. For some runners, flat marathons or half marathons are in fact the preferable course profile. The flat course of the Chicago Marathon is what attracts tens of thousands of runners to race in the windy city each year, especially those looking to punch their ticket to Boston.

However, you may find that pancake- flat courses cause muscle fatigue early on, as you pound on the same muscles over and over again for 26.2 miles. A course with gently rolling hills throughout may be better for the long distance of the marathon or half marathon, since you will use a variety of muscles throughout the race.


Colorado and Utah may offer some incredibly scenic and theoretically fast marathons thanks to net downhill courses, but if you live and train at sea level, you’re going to have a rough time with the altitude on race day. You can take special steps to avoid altitude sickness, but ultimately the thinner air will affect your time, especially if you live and train at sea level and can’t arrive early at the race to acclimate. 

Spectator Support

Spectators are the under-appreciated heroes of the marathon. Can you imagine running as hard as you can for 26.2 miles without a single encouraging word from your family, friends, or even complete strangers? 

Most races allow spectators on the course, but be aware that some do not. I almost considered running a marathon that only permitted spectators at three precise mile markers! Check the race’s website and read reviews if you know spectator support is important for helping you run your fastest marathon.

Go! St. Louis Half Marathon Recap

USATF Certification

If you want to BQ, you need to run a USATF certified race course. The BAA does not accept qualifying times from courses that are not USATF certified. There are certainly good races out there that aren’t USATF certified yet, but by selecting a USATF certified course you are guaranteed to run exactly 26.2 (if you run the tangents).

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner

You may also like:
8 Must Run Fall Marathons Beyond Chicago and NYC
Mistakes I Made in My First Marathon And How You Can Avoid Them
The Allure of the BQ

How do you pick your goal marathon race?
What’s one marathon/race that you would love to run someday?
What else would you add to this list? How did you pick your best marathon?

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12 Responses

  1. These are some great points. I prefer fall races because of the cooler weather. Also, training in the summer makes fall racing feel easier! And I do like some slight rolling hills in a race. While a downhill course sounds appealing, I have definitely heard how tough they can be on your quads!

    1. Thank you, Lisa! Summer training is like a cheaper altitude training – it makes cool temperature running so much easier, whether it’s just mental or some physical as well. I’ve heard downhill marathons can be tough! Which is why I’m a bit glad my marathon plans changed – even though CIM is net downhill, it’s got some rollers so quads aren’t completely trashed.

  2. I did a pretty good job of picking all of my marathons–I knew more and more about myself each time, and that really helped me. I definitely think knowing what level of spectator support you need is crucial. Somemethimes, you really, really need a cheering squad of people you don’t know!

  3. Great tips! Another thing that’s really important is race location/travel. If you’re really depending on performing your absolute best, it might be best to pick a local race (if one is available) where you can sleep in your own bed, familiarize yourself with the course ahead of time, and have more friends and family come out to cheer you on. If no in-town races fit the bill, maybe choose the closest one possible, or one in a location you’re at least familiar with or have friends/family in. A lot of people get very stressed out by travel, and that can really interfere with race performance, so those people might not want to pick a destination marathon if they’re gunning for a huge time. On the other hand, some people find travel very relaxing and thrive on the excitement of running in new places, so maybe a destination marathon would be good for them.

    1. You are so right on this! There’s certainly a benefit to local races, but sometimes out of town races offer other benefits (better course profiles, races at the time of year you want to run) – so it does vary from runner to runner. It’s weird – I prefer local halfs, but for some reason I’m drawn to destination marathons, maybe because I get so excited to travel somewhere and running a marathon lets you see so much of the city (and then enjoy so much of their best indulgent foods afterwards).

  4. In around 2009 I was trying so hard to BQ so my mom and I and Jake went down to Arizona to visit family and there I ran the Tuscon marathon because it’s net downhill, point to point. And I did WORSE there than I did in my hilly hometown, because the constant pounding on my quads from running in a straight line downhill trashed my legs and they all seized up at around 22 miles. I had to walk in. 🙁 I ended up BQ-ing in Vancouver, a super tough course.

    1. Tuscon has like a 2500 or 3000 foot drop, right – that sounds painful! That stinks that you had to walk the last 4 miles. I think there’s benefit to running on similar terrain to what you train – and not pounding the same muscles over and over again is good.

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