How to Run a Marathon in 4 Hours: Top 7 Tips


Running a marathon in 4 hours is a time goal that many runners aim to achieve. Knowing that most runners complete a marathon between 4 and 5 hours, as discussed in our article, “How long does it take to run a full marathon?”, getting a sub 4-hour marathon time is something very few people will ever do. I personally didn’t achieve this goal right away, but with a few tweaks to my training, I was finally able to make it happen in 2017.

To run a marathon in 4 hours you’ll need to do the following:

  • Go into training with a solid mileage base
  • Have a fitness level that allows you to complete 26.2 miles in that timeframe
  • Train between 16 – 22 weeks
  • Run a specific amount of mileage each week
  • Run a long run every week
  • Stay consistent
  • Pace yourself in your race

Running a marathon in 4 hours doesn’t just happen, it takes a lot of work! (That’s a 9:09 average pace per mile or 5:41 per kilometer by the way). Even many who do the work may not achieve that goal on the first go. But by implementing the following recommendations and being consistent over time, it’s a goal that most runners have the means to achieve.

Top 7 Things You Need to Do to Run a 4-Hour Marathon

A lot goes into marathon training. And everything you do properly will set you up for success. These are the seven best determining factors to snag that 4-hour marathon.

1.) Go Into Training With Solid Base Mileage

Attempting to start training for a marathon with no base mileage is a bad idea, and even worse if you have a time goal as lofty as 4 hours.

It may seem weird to train for your training, but that “off-season” prep is really important. If 4 hours is your goal, I highly recommend going into marathon training feeling very comfortable running 20-25 miles per week divided among 4 or 5 runs per week.

And you should be able to be at the point where you’re consistently putting a longer run into your week that last at least 1 hour long.

This will make the transition to marathon training much easier on your body, making it a lot more likely that you’ll get to the starting line healthy AND ready to run a 4-hour marathon.

2.) Demonstrate a Certain Level of Fitness

I think almost all runners are capable of running a sub-4-hour marathon when given enough time to train and build their running fitness. But for some runners, this will realistically take years. But no one ever said reaching your running goals would be easy. It’s all about chipping away at those times year after year, and building running fitness progressively and safely month after month. So how do you know if you’re ready to go for that 4-hour marathon time goal?

Some might think if they can run a 5k with an average pace of 9:09, then they can certainly do that for a marathon if they train hard enough. You’d think that would be the case, but unfortunately it’s not.

One of the best ways to know if you’re close is to do a time trial or use a recent race result. Though these times don’t prove that you’re ready to run a marathon in a certain time (you still need to properly train) they demonstrate that your VO2 max makes you capable to run a marathon in a certain time.

For example, I may have a goal to run a 3-hour marathon, but my 6:59/mile pace for a 5k shows I’m just not there yet. Setting a 3-hour time goal for myself would be completely unrealistic…at least right now. Similarly, you need to determine if 4 hours is realistic for you.

You can use something such as the Mcmillan Calculator or VDOT to determine this. According to Mcmillan, the following times show you’re “ready” to run a sub-4-hour marathon:

Mile: 7:05
2 Miles: 15:04
5k: 24:38
10k: 51:09
Half-Marathon: 1:54

You might be surprised to find that just because you can run a 2-hour marathon doesn’t mean you can run a 4-hour marathon. This is because runners get slower in longer races. But if you can run close to a 1:54 for a half, you’ll be much more likely to be able to achieve those 4 hours.

Now, these are not the end all, be all. But if your 5k time is far off from what is shown here, the 4-hour time goal may be a bit lofty right now. But that doesn’t mean it’s a great goal for the future. And you should definitely still run that marathon as best you can (and perhaps prove me wrong!)

3.) Train Between 16 – 22 Weeks

In my article, “How Many Weeks to Train for a Marathon,” I discuss how important it is to marathon training should last at least 16 weeks. I go on to say that for most people, especially those less seasoned or with lower base mileage coming in, should consider a plan that’s at least 20 weeks in length.

Essentially, you need to find the sweet spot between having enough time to train without training for so long that you get burnt out. If you are dead set on getting that 4-hour goal and don’t want anything to stand in your way, err on the side or more weeks, not less. The same article I justifies why each phase of this training is so important.

4.) Build Mileage Gradually to a Proper Level

Even the best runner who builds mileage too quickly puts themselves at risk for injury. And guess what you can’t do when you’re hurt? Run a 4-hour marathon. In fact, you won’t be able to run it at all. So in order to snag that 4-hour time goal, you’ll need to get to a weekly mileage point that prepares your for the big race while doing it in a way that gives your body time to acclimate.

There is no hard and fast rule that you MUST RUN THIS MUCH MILEAGE to achieve a certain time in a marathon. Everyone will be a bit different. However, you are usually more likely to be able to meet that goal with higher mileage (within reason). It’s rare that most people are going to be able to hit 60-70+ weeks, but aiming for a peak mileage around 50 miles/week is a great goal. Many runners are able to achieve a 4-hour marathon with 40-45 miles per week. Averaging less than 30-35 miles/week is going to make it pretty difficult for most runners to hit that goal.

RELATED: A Guide to How Much Marathon Runners Run

5.) Run a Long Run Every Week

The long run is really the bread and butter of marathon training. Yes, you need all the other runs too, but the easy-paced long run is what is going to allow you to build your cardiovascular endurance that you’ll need to run 26.2 miles without stopping and also acclimate your legs to that kind of distance as well.

Plan on increasing your long run mileage by about 1-2 miles each week. You’ll also take a cutback week every 3-4 weeks. So it may look something like this:

Example of a Proper Long Run Build

Week 1: 8 Miles
Week 2: 9 Miles
Week 3: 10 Miles
Week 4: 11.5 Miles
Week 5: 9 Miles
Week 6: 13 Miles

And so on. Though some training plans may have you on a 10-day training cycle where you only do a long run every 10 days, I highly recommend using a training plan with a 7-day training cycle as long as your body can handle it and if you’re not working with a coach. Try your very best not to skip any of your long runs. Missing one is typically not a big deal, but that should only be due to circumstances beyond your control (such as an illness). Missing anymore than that will push you further away from being able to achieve your 4-Hour time goal.

6.) Stay Consistent

As someone who coaches runners, I’ve noticed how difficult it can be for people to stay consistent with their training from week to week. Though one off week is typically not a big deal, it can often derail people and get them off course. I cannot express how important it is to STICK TO YOUR TRAINING PLAN.

Of course, things pop up, but other than sicknesses or family emergencies, generally, where there’s a will there’s a way. Late night at work? Run on your treadmill before you go to bed. You want to go to the mountains for a getaway? Find a place you can get your run in (hotel gym, perhaps?) Though these situations are not ideal, if you want to achieve your 4-hour goal time, one of the best things you can do is stay as consistent as possible with your training.

7. Pace Yourself in the Race

The day has finally arrived and you’re ready to put all the intense training to good use. It’s time to see if you can get that sub-4-hour marathon you have worked so hard for. Though the training is the most important part, you also have to know how to race smart so as not to sabotage what your body is ready to do. This is where pacing becomes extremely important.

The biggest mistake newer marathon runners make is going out too fast. Runners with a time goal, especially, become a slave to their watch and try to “bank time” by going faster than their goal pace. As I discuss in this article, this is the worst thing you could possibly do. It’s much, MUCH better to be conservative in those first few miles, hold back and let yourself ease into the race.

With 26.2 miles to accomplish your goal, you’ll have plenty of time to make pick up the pace a little farther into the race. Read all my best tips on how to accomplish this in “Top Tips for Pacing a Marathon the Right Way.”

Is it hard to run a marathon in 4 hours?

Just running a marathon at all is an amazing accomplishment; running one under four hours is something most runners will never do.

According to Marastats, the average male marathoner will complete a marathon around 4 hours and 10 minutes. The average female marathoner is about 29 minutes behind that coming in around 4 hours and 39 minutes. Which means less than half of runners will complete a marathon in four hours.

Here we have the specifics from Marastats:

So yeah, if you can run a marathon in under 4 hours, that’s a big accomplishment and for most people, it’s a difficult task. But for many runners, it’s not impossible.

So, what makes running a 4-hour marathon so difficult?

A 4-hour marathon requires a runner to complete 26.2 miles with an average mile pace of 9:09 (with 6 seconds to spare). Some runners may see that number and know they’ve never even run that pace for 1-mile. You may be looking at that pace, as someone considering trying to go for a 4-hour marathon, thinking you’ve had no problems sustaining that pace for a number of miles.

So, you may be wondering, how hard is it to maintain that pace for 26.2 miles?

Let’s just say your best 10k time is 56:51 – equivalent to a 9:09 pace. If you plug that into the Mcmillan Calculator, it estimates that at that current fitness level (with proper training), you’d run a marathon around 4 hours and 26 minutes which equates to a 10:11 pace per mile. From this you can see that being able to run a 9:09 pace for shorter distances doesn’t allow you to run them at longer distances like a marathon.

This doesn’t mean you could never get to the point of being able to run a 9:09 pace in a marathon, it just means you’re not there yet.

It would be essentially impossible for someone to be sustain their 10k pace (providing they’re going all out) for an entire marathon without increasing their fitness level first. And that usually happens over the course of years. Maintaining a certain pace for single-digit runs isn’t the same as holding it for 26.2 miles.

The Mcmillan Calculator predicts that someone who can run a 10k at an 8:14 pace (give or take) is on track to be able to run a marathon in under 4 hours.

In short, it’s hard to run a marathon at all and even a bigger challenge to run one under four hours.

4-Hour Marathoners Use a Great Plan or Hire a Coach

Ready to tackle that 26.2 in under four hours? On top of that grit and mental strength, you’re going to need a solid training plan or a coach.

Choosing the Right Training Plan

You may be tempted to Google “4-Hour Marathon Training Plan” but most great marathon training plans work for a range of time goals. Instead, you want to choose a plan that takes into account paces that are specific to you and your current fitness. So instead of choosing something like a basic Hal Higdon plan (which can still be great for many runners, by the way), it’s better to go with something that can tell you what paces you should be running for certain runs.

This is why I love the McMillan plans. Even if you just pay for the plan only option, it will still integrate your paces base on your personal race times. This part really helps to dial in your training so that you’re not just running a bunch of mileage without a purpose. With a goal of a 4-hour marathon, go for a Level 2 or 3 plan. For other ideas, I have another post outlining several of the most popular training plans.

Why Hiring a Coach Can Help You Reach Your Goal

Coaches aren’t just for elites! Hiring a coach is a great way to keep you accountable and keep you on track to achieving your goals by providing you with training that’s customized to you and your specific goals. Someone looking to improve their running who may feel like they’re struggling to make progress or stay on track will usually have a lot of success from hiring a coach. If you’re interested, head on over to my coaching page to see if we might be a good fit. If not, there are plenty of amazing running coaches out there ready to help you achieve your goals.

If a personal running coach isn’t in your budget or not something you’re up for, using an app like RunCoach is a less expensive option that’s a nice happy medium between a printable plan and a coach.

Most importantly, you need to have a good plan in place to help you stay committed to your daily running. A plan takes the guesswork out of what your runs look like each day and is one of the best ways to keep yourself on track towards achieving that 4-hour marathon time goal.

Jane

Hi, I'm Jane! I'm an avid runner who races 5ks to marathons. After a 4:59 first marathon, I came back to the distance years later running a BQ time of 3:36. I did a lot wrong for a long time and finally started doing a lot right. Now I'm an RRCA certified running coach and love sharing what I've learned to help others run their best.

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