A Running Coach’s Guide for How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon

How to Qualify for Boston Marathon

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon is a popular goal amongst runners. In my years of experience of coaching, it is one of the most common goals I hear. For some runners, it’s a realistic goal; for others, it is a stretch goal.

I have coached dozens of runners to BQ times (and beyond), as well as qualified for Boston twice myself (under self-coaching). These training tips for how to qualify for the Boston Marathon are based on that practical experience as well as the body of scientific evidence.

These aren’t your common marathon tips of “run at race pace” or “include at least one 20 mile long run.” You are probably already doing those things! These tips focus on effective training practices that can help you work towards a BQ, whether it is a short-term or long-term goal.

Get Faster at Shorter Distances First

In order to run a faster marathon, you need to become a faster runner overall. For many runners, the mileage demands of marathon training make it difficult to develop speed. Instead, a more effective approach – one I’ve seen work time and time again – is to get faster at shorter distances between marathon cycles.

For example, if you are targeting a fall marathon for a BQ, you could spend the spring and summer racing 5Ks, 10Ks, and half marathons. These training blocks allow for more training at high intensities. As a result, running economy, critical velocity, and velocity at VO2max often improve. When you begin to shift your focus to the marathon, your ceiling is higher from the start.

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. 

Stop Running Your Easy Days at Marathon Pace

Too fast easy days and long runs are a common mistake amongst marathoners, including BQ hopefuls. Realistically, marathon pace will feel pretty aerobically comfortable by race day. However, training all the time at marathon pace accumulates a lot of fatigue over the course of a marathon training program. As result, you never fully recover, especially if you are running high mileage. By race day, you have left your race in your training.

Slowing down easy runs allows you to run higher mileage without breaking down your body or frying your nervous system. You also adapt your aerobic system more with deliberate zone 2 training, even if you are not doing high mileage. You can also handle harder, bigger marathon workouts if your legs are not fatigued from easy days. Slowing down easy runs is a simple solution that yields big rewards. You just have to set your ego aside.

How easy should your easy runs be? Easy enough to carry on a conversation, RPE 3-4/10, or in your zone 2 heart rate zone. If you are running less than one minute per mile slower than your goal marathon pace, you need to slow down. Easy runs may even slow down during marathon training as you experience cumulative fatigue – and that’s okay.

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 underperforming. 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 more slow-twitch dominant runner. Long distances like the marathon may come more naturally for you. If you are faster at shorter distances, then you are a more intermediary muscle fiber dominant runner. These athletes may need to approach marathon training differently. (True fast-twitch dominance is seen in track athletes racing 800m or shorter).

Your training plan should cater to your areas of strength, while also addressing some weaknesses. A slow-twitch dominant runner may need to devote some more time to speedwork, but can also do higher mileage. A fast-twitch dominant runner may need more time learning how to control themselves at marathon pace. Fast-twitch runners often need to go slower on their easy days as well.

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.

Use Carbon Plated Running Shoes

There is no denying that marathon times have gotten faster due to carbon plated running shoes. These shoes have advanced technology that reduces muscle breakdown throughout the race. As a result, you can run anywhere from 1-4% faster (depending on your pace). While the effect size is smaller for averaged-pace runners, you will see a benefit if you run faster than 8:00min/mile.

Super shoes do not work for every runner. Be sure that the shoes feel comfortable for you and work for your budget. (Here’s how to know if carbon plate shoes are worth the cost.) It is recommended to test them during a few runs in training by starting on shorter workouts and building up to one long run.

Foster Self-Belief in Your Abilities

Running a BQ marathon hurts. At some point, your mind will want to quit. Usually, this point occurs well before your physiology is actually incapable of continuing to push. It may sound cliche, but the body achieves what the mind believes.

That does not mean that mental toughness outweighs subpar training. Your fitness has to be there if you are going to qualify for the Boston Marathon. However, you need self-belief to express that fitness into performance. If you doubt your training and your abilities, your finish times will reflect that.

Learn to trust your training. Your training doesn’t lie. Yes, you inevitably have some bad workouts. However, 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.

During the race itself, practice self-belief through positive self-talk. Research indicates that how you talk to yourself directly impacts performance outcomes. A 2015 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance found that endurance athletes who used motivational self-talk had higher power output and oxygen uptake at the same RPE – which resulted in faster time trial performances. The effect compounds if you speak compassionately to yourself in the second-person. A 2019 randomized controlled trial in the Journal of Sports Science found a statistically significant improvement in time trial performance when participants used second-person self-talk vs first-person self-talk.

Importantly: 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.

Refine Your Pacing Repeatedly in Training

Your pacing on race day can make or break your marathon. Hitting the wall can occur due to poor nutrition (see more below) – or it can be due to overzealous pacing in the early miles. Generally speaking, most runners benefit from a slightly controlled start (10-20 sec/mile slower in the first couple miles) and then even pacing for the remainder of the race. Trying to bank miles sets you up for a slow final 10K, while aiming for a huge negative split can be difficult for even the fittest runner.

You also want to go into the marathon with an appropriate pace goal. If your goal is qualify for Boston Marathon, you should not automatically set BQ pace as your marathon pace. Instead, base your marathon pace goals on your training. Threshold runs and marathon pace runs will provide you with a clear idea of your fitness. (You can use this marathon pace chart to set your goal pace.) It’s better to race at your first and take a few marathons to BQ than to consistently crash and burn.

For more in-depth information on marathon pacing strategies, listen to this episode of the Tread Lightly Podcast. My co-host Amanda and I share strategies for pacing downhill marathons, marathons in warm weather, and more!

Prioritize Performance-Focused Nutrition

One quick way to miss out on a BQ? Hitting the wall due to poorly managed sport nutrition.

If you want to run your fastest marathon, you need the nutrition to support it. The overwhelming consensus from both scientific literature and from real-life practice is that high-carbohydrate intake during long-distance races is essential for peak performance. Carbohydrates are one of the best legal ergogenic aids in the marathon. (For a more in-depth discussion, listen to this podcast episode on long run fueling.)

Need convincing? A 2014 International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism study divided marathon runners of similar 10K abilities into two groups. One group freely fueled in the marathon. The other group followed a strict regimen of 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour throughout the entire race. The group taking 60g carbs/hr finished an average of 10:55 minutes – 4.7% – faster than the freely fueled group. That difference is huge – especially if you are trying to qualify for Boston.

If that number sounds intimidating, do not fret. You have months of long runs leading up to the marathon – use them to practice your marathon fueling. 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 carbohydrates (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.

An effective gut-training protocol in marathon training:

  • Ensure your sports nutrition products work for you. If you don’t have one that works, experiment in the first 4-6 weeks of training.
  • Gradually increase carbohydrate amounts over the first 4-8 weeks of marathon training. Build up in small increments of approximately 10 grams per hour every couple weeks.
  • Once you feel comfortable, practice your fueling during long run workouts or weekday workouts at marathon pace (or both). You want to feel comfortable fueling at a slightly higher intensity.
  • Practice your exact race day strategy at least twice on long runs the month before the race.
  • Continue your fueling strategy throughout the taper to ensure your gut tolerates it on race day.

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. However, the best course is automatically the nearest Revel race; the best course for you to BQ plays to your individual strengths.

Factors to consider:

  • Do you perform best on flat courses or rolling hills?
  • How does altitude affect you?
  • Do you perform best when traveling or racing locally?
  • What weather do you perform best in?
  • Do you prefer big races with lots of spectators or smaller, less crowded races?
  • What time works best for your schedule outside of running?

Know your abilities and preferences when selecting a race course. For example, even if it’s the fastest marathon in the country, you may not perform best at it if you know you will have a stressful season at work leading up. If crowds overwhelm you, it may be best to avoid one of the Majors. 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.

Sign Up for My Newsletter for More Running Tips

* indicates required

Share this post

44 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!

  13. I’m pondering whether or not I could qualify for Boston and have been reading quite a few articles about it. This is the best one by far! This is all such great advice and will definitely help my training. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *