How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon - Beyond the Usual Training Advice

How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon: Beyond the Usual Tips

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

How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon - Beyond the Usual Training Advice

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.

How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon - Beyond the Usual Training Advice

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.

How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon - Beyond the Usual Training Advice

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 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?

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43 Responses

  1. I love this! Most posts about BQ’s are pretty generic. Even though I have yet to achieve my BQ, I would have to say luck pays a factor too. You could have an absolute stellar training block but have things beyond your control ruin your race. Weather being a big thing (hello this years Boston!).

    1. Thank you! Luck is a factor…sometimes things just don’t line up in one’s favor on race day. This year’s Boston was definitely an example of that – or the year that CIM had a monsoon!

  2. Love all of these approaches and tips. This is the kind of advice I love to see! Getting a BQ isn’t the be all end all. These tips will make you your best runner.

  3. I think your first two points are the most important! Especially now, with all the pressure/influence of social media, it’s hard to train how YOU need to and not get caught up in what everyone else is doing. I hired a coach when I decided I wanted to qualify for Boston and the most important lesson he taught me was taking rest days!!!
    The fueling is always a struggle so I think practicing it early is so key.
    Great stuff here, as usual!

    1. I both like and dislike training logs for that reason. I love seeing what other runners are doing and being able to support them in their training each week…but I know that sometimes it can be taken as “so-and-so ran X number of miles with Yassos each week so I should do that”. And yes to rest day! I’m a big believer in one rest day per week making a huge difference!

  4. as a non-runner I leapt on this post because Boston has always fascinated me. How do you qualify? How do you train? How do you get there?? Is it as impossible as it seems???

  5. These are really great tips. I especially like the advice about getting faster at short distances first. I feel like way too many runners rush into the marathon- and I was that runner in 2013. I spent all of 2014 training for shorter distances then raced a pretty fast half in 2015. It is NOT all about the long run like people believe, either, the other runs are also very important as well as things like nutrition on race day and race conditions. 26.2 miles is a long time for everything to go right…

    1. The marathon certainly is not all about the long run…when you’re training to BQ, you aren’t just trying to run 26.2 miles – you are trying to run 26.2 miles right at the edge of your aerobic threshold.

      1. I only ran one marathon, and this is anecdotal, but I believe I would have benefited from respecting EVERY run rather than putting the long run on some kind of pedestal. When I “trained for a marathon”, I focused only on completing my long runs rather than logging consistent mileage *throughout the week* and tempo/speed efforts that were marathon focused. I use “trained” loosely, because all of us were okay with skimping on weekday runs but that “long run” was considered holy and often half our weekly mileage. Since my 2013 “marathon gone wrong”, I’ve read a lot more like Hansons book and I really like their ideas about the long run (not saying I’d top out at 16, but plenty of people do extend to 18 and 20).

        Completing those long slow 20-milers helped me *participate* in the marathon (4:15, because athlinks doesn’t forget even if I want to), but I feel like running solid 6-8 milers on other days of the week, a mid-week “semi long” run, tempos, etc, would have helped me *run* the marathon.

        1. I realize reading your second comment that I had a grave typo in my first comment – I meant to say it *isn’t* all about the long run, in agreement with you. (argh. sometimes my fingers type too fast and my brain autocorrects.) Goal pace runs, threshold runs, some speedwork earlier on, and overall weekly mileage are very important as well….simply focusing on the long run, like you said, will prepare one to finish a marathon but not to race it. I’m not a fan of the Hansons Method simply because I think they place too little emphasis on the long run – a 20 mile long run is not unreasonable on a 60 mile week, especially if you delve deeper into the theory of Jack Daniels which they base that upon – and have too much focus on training one particular pace (goal pace very early on) – but that’s also because I tend to favor non-linear periodization with an emphasis on race specific workouts a la Hudson and Daniels. It does, however, work more effectively than the weekend warrior approach to marathon training.

          1. Yeah, I had a lot of success using Hansons for the half, but I think a long run of 12 miles is totally reasonable for a half. I was planning on lengthening the Hansons long runs as well… I personally would not be comfortable with 16 as my longest before a marathon and would want to run at least one 20. Regardless of training benefits, it would make me feel better psychologically.

            My Run Less Run Faster friends do like 5 20s… and I can’t keep up with them. That approach just doesn’t work for me because their long run paces are aggressive!

          2. The paces in Run Less Run Faster are incredibly aggressive! Even with just three days of running, that’s really close to turning the 20 milers into weekly races…

  6. These are great tips, all so important! I’m glad you are offering the “less common” advice. Yes, we already know we need to practice race pace and do long runs (although to be fair, I think that advice is geared more toward people who never really gave BQing a second thought until marathon Monday rolled around and they got all whipped up into a frenzy of inspiration). I agree with a previous commenter that luck also plays a big role, as much as we hate to admit it – if you are one of the mere mortals who are on the razor’s edge of being able to qualify, in addition to good training you really need to have everything go right on race day, in taper, etc. This is why it takes some runners multiple attempts to qualify even if they are fast enough.

    I’m like you – I want to run a BQ time just to know I’m capable. I don’t have a burning desire to run the Boston Marathon. I’m happy to just cheer for my friends running and follow the American elites on race day 🙂

    1. Thank you! I was thinking that this week – I love watching the elites compete each year at Boston, which you can’t do while running the race (or even in Boston…because you can’t stay with them along the whole course!).

  7. This is such a great post full of actionable advice to get to a BQ. I truly admire those who qualify for Boston as it has never been a personal goal for me. I definitely agree that having the right mentality makes a difference – I think it played a role into my performance at the Love Run half marathon!

  8. Awesome. Is threshold pace faster than goal race pace? And is it used for mile repeats? Like, my goal race pace is 6:50 so would threshold pace be something like 2×3 mile repeats at 6:40? Something like that?

    1. So here’s a really long nerdy answer:
      Threshold pace is based upon your current fitness/recent race times, rather than a goal time. It’s approximately right around 10 mile race pace for most runners (so slightly faster than half marathon pace), which means it’s usually about 30 seconds per mile faster than current marathon pace (not goal pace – although it usually is also faster than goal pace, 30 seconds per mile is a HUGE jump in the marathon). The Jack Daniels VDOT Calculator give a good estimate on threshold pace, especially for runners like your or I who fare better at longer vs. shorter distances. That pace is used for cruise intervals such as 2-mile or 3-mile repeats, or for continuous tempo runs. Either Brad Hudson (who sets two thresholds, one at 10K pace – short tempo – and one at half marathon pace – long tempo) or Jack Daniels will be your best resources on the topic of threshold pace and have the best workouts for training at threshold pace – especially for the marathon and half marathon.

      1. I feel like we just took a step forward in our relationship. Your really long nerdy answer spoke to my soul! Okay, so, how nerdy would *I* be if I took a picture of your response so that I could reference it whenever I needed to? 😛 Because that’s precisely what I’m doing.

  9. This is awesome advice. The mind over matter piece is huge! You have to believe it and be willing to power through the pain. Weather, courses, speed at shorter distances… it all matters!

  10. I’m okay with never qualifying for Boston. It would be a huge pipe dream. If I ever choose to run it, I would go the charity route but given how many other races there are, I’ll leave this one to the fasties!

  11. Picking the right race is important, and you hit nail on the head about it not being just about the course. I think weather is even more important. You were smart to pick the race that you did.

    I myself dealt with many issues, including exercise-induced asthma, that I had to overcome. The result was that my marathon times jumped all over the board, from 4:10 to 3:16, all based on how my asthma treated me on a given day.

  12. Thanks for re-posting this on the social media! I missed it back when you originally posted it, and I feel like I need these tips more than ever. I’m not running a marathon this year, but I *really* want to run my best one next year — if the BQ happens, then hooray!

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