Each Boston Marathon inspires runners to set their sights on America’s most historic marathon. Thousands of runners set the goal each year to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and a BQ (Boston Qualifying time) tops the list of even more thousands of runners’ lifetime goals.
For me, qualifying for Boston wasn’t about gaining entry to one of the most prestigious road races. Qualifying for Boston meant pushing my physical and mental limits. It meant rising to the challenge of training hard, removing self-imposed limits of what I could or couldn’t run, and persevering through the final uncomfortable miles of a marathon. The BQ time was a goal to chase for personal fulfillment.
Whether you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon in order to make that final turn onto Boylston or to prove to yourself that you are capable, these are my best tips for you. These aren’t your common marathon tips of “run at race pace” or “include at least one 20 mile long run” – chances are, you are already doing that in your training if qualifying for Boston in the near or distant future is one of your goals.
How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon
Train to Your Individual Strengths and Weaknesses
What worked for your training partner may not work for you. Other runners may rave about Hansons or Pfitzinger, but you may find those plans leave you overtrained or under-performing. Each runner has a different combination of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers, a different background of training, and different personal preferences.
Plug a recent race time from between the 5K and half marathon into a calculator such as the Jack Daniels VDOT Calculator. See how the predicted times in other race distances compare to your training and actual races. Is your actual 5K time slower than your half marathon time predicts? Then you may be a better long distance runner. If you are faster at shorter distances, then you are a better speed runner.
If you haven’t raced recently, your training log will reveal your strengths and weaknesses. If you consistently run strong long runs and struggle with speedwork, chances are that you are a long distance runner.
Your training plan should cater to your areas of strength will also addressing some weaknesses. For example, since I perform best at the half marathon and marathon, my training plan focused a bit on speed development (more on that below) and heavily on tempo runs and endurance. I didn’t need to push my mileage very high (I ran 45-54 miles per week throughout my training cycle) since my endurance came more naturally.
Find what works for you at your current fitness level – or find a coach who can develop a plan that specifically works for you as an individual runner.
Foster Self-Belief in Your Abilities
Running a BQ marathon hurts. My quads burned with discomfort during the final 4 or 5 miles of CIM and the temptation emerged more than once to slow down. My mind, however, was stronger: I believed in my ability to run a 3:35 marathon and refused to let some achy muscles convince me otherwise.
It may sound cliche, but the body achieves what the mind believes. I am not saying that you can will your way to a BQ marathon on subpar training; what I mean is that, if you are trained and believe you can BQ, you are more likely to. If you doubt your training and your abilities, your finish times will reflect that.
Learn to trust your training and review your training logs before the race. Your training doesn’t lie; while you may have ran some bad workouts or some exceptionally strong ones, the overall trajectory of your past 16-20 weeks of training will indicate to you if you are ready to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Draw upon your training during the race; remember those strong workouts where you nailed all of your splits and those long runs where you fought to finish and won.
Even if it takes you a few tries to qualify for the Boston Marathon, do not lose your self-belief. Do not lose your grit or resilience. Patience, hard training, and smart racing will pay off.
Train Your Gut
Training low on fuel may help you develop your body’s ability to convert fat to energy and store glycogen, but you do not want to race the marathon low on fuel. While many runners fear gels, chews, and even natural fuel for risk of GI distress, not consuming adequate carbohydrates and calories during your marathon will increase your chances of bonking – and bonking will not help you qualify for Boston.
In order to avoid bonking, you need to consume calories, ideally in the form of carbohydrates, during the marathon. The body can only store enough glycogen (carbs in their stored form) for approximately 2 hours of running – and even when you look at elite runners finishing a marathon in not much longer than 2 hours, you’ll notice that they take fuel in their specially marked bottles along the race. Carbohydrates are one of the best legal ergogenic aids in the marathon.
Thankfully, research indicates that you can train your gut to handle carbohydrates during a run. A recent study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism concluded that 2 weeks of training your gut to handle fuel (the study used both gels and real food) during a run resulted in less GI distress during a 2-hour run and a better performance at a 1-hour distance test compared to their initial tests and the placebo group.
During your marathon long runs, then, training your gut to handle carbohydrates during the run so that you can optimally fuel on race day. A couple long runs during the peak weeks of training should be fueled just as you would a marathon – the same type of fuel in the same volume at the same frequency as you plan on doing on race day (you probably will cap this run at 20-22 miles, so you should still plan on taking at least one more gel on race day).
As with so much else in running, you must find the type of fuel that works best for you – whether that’s gels, dried fruit, applesauce, sports drink mixes, or chews. Experiment with different types of fuel and different brands until you find something that works well for your stomach. You want to do this earlier than later in training because then you want to devote a few long runs to gut training.
Get Faster at Shorter Distances First
Many marathoners tend to only train for the marathon and race 1-2 marathons per year – meaning that a majority of their dedicated training time is spent running at marathon pace or slower. In order to run a faster marathon, you need to become a faster runner overall. Realistically, you can’t build a tremendous amount of speed during marathon training, since the focus is on building your endurance and the fatigue of speed workouts may cause injury for some runners.
Personally, I found that specifically training for the half marathon and then doing a speed segment before building up my mileage too much in marathon training gave me the speed base I needed to qualify for Boston. Once I was able to break 1:40 in the half marathon, I knew I had developed the speed I needed for a 3:35 half marathon (keep in mind, I’m a slow-twitch, long distance runner – speed does not come to me as easily as endurance.)
Then, in the 14 weeks leading up to CIM, I could focus on building my endurance, running at race pace and threshold pace, and training on the hills to prepare for the specific demands of the race. I did include speedwork such as 1-mile and 1-K repeats in training, but they were not the primary focus on my training – the marathon was.
If you want to qualify for the Boston Marathon and have continually missed the BQ mark in cycle after cycle of marathon training, consider giving the marathon a break for a season and focus on building speed at a shorter distance. Then, when you return to marathon training, you won’t have to build both speed and endurance within only a few months and will be that much closer to your goal.
Consider Weather Conditions for Your Race
If you search “best marathons to qualify for Boston,” you will see many of the same courses repeatedly suggested: Chicago, Twin Cities, Phoenix, Houston, Wineglass, etc. The courses may share many similarities in terms of terrain, but the weather can differ significantly. Some of my good running friends have qualified for Boston at the Chicago Marathon and Phoenix Marathon – both are fast courses that attract BQ hopefuls – but I knew those races would not optimize my chances of qualifying.
When selecting my 2016 marathon for a BQ attempt, I considered the weather along with the course profile. I train in mild temperatures and run my best in 40-50 degree weather – even temperatures in the 60s can throw off my hydration and pacing. I opted for California International not just because of the fast course, but because the average temperature for the race was within my ideal range.
Know your abilities and preferences when selecting a race course. If you train in a warm climate and run your best in warm weather, then perhaps California International wouldn’t be the ideal race for you. You can use FindMyMarathon.com to review the past several years’ worth of weather for hundreds of marathons and determine which race is best for you.
Is qualifying for the Boston Marathon one of your goals?
What tips would you add to this list?