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:
- Go into training with a solid mileage base
- Have a fitness level that allows you to run a 9:09 average pace for 26.2 miles
- Train between 16 – 22 weeks
- Run a specific amount of mileage each week
- Run a long run every week
- Stay consistent with training
- Pace yourself well in the race
Running a marathon under 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 lasts 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 (the average pace you need to run a sub 4-hour marathon), 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 current fitness level makes you capable to run a marathon in a certain time.
You need to determine if 4 hours is realistic for you at this point in time.
You can use a race prediction calculator, I typically use Greg Mcmillan’s for myself and the athletes I coach, to determine this. According to Mcmillan, the following times show you’re “ready” to run a sub-4-hour marathon:
2 Miles: 15:00
Already meet these times? Awesome! I’ve written a 4-hour Marathon Training Plan accessible via the Final Surge app that will prepare you to run your sub 4-hour marathon.
You might be surprised to find that just because you can run a 2-hour half 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 for marathon training to 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 have your heart 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. That same article shares why each phase of training is so important – and you can only maximize those phases with a proper training block.
Download my free 18-week beginner training plan that includes an optional 10-week base program so you have plenty of time to be ready for your marathon.
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 due to the other demands our lives require, 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 difficult for most runners to hit that goal (unless there is a lot of other aerobic cross training occurring).
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 muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints 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: 9 Miles
Week 2: 10 Miles
Week 3: 11 Miles
Week 4: 9 Miles (cutback week)
Week 5: 12 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, for most people I recommend using a training plan with a 7-day training cycle as long as your body can handle it. (Older masters runners may do best on a 10-day cycle, however, and you can read more about that here.)
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. Here are a few examples of how to make sure you get it in:
- Late night at work? Run on your treadmill before you go to bed. If you don’t have your own treadmill, get a membership to a gym while in training so you always have access to one.
- Finding yourself too tired to get your run in after work? Get in the habit of running before work. I know it may seem like a huge shift to get up at 5 or 6 am and perhaps even need to run in the dark (here’s how to do that safely), but if you are committed to your marathon goal of 4 hours, you need to find a way to get all of your runs in with no excuses.
- You’re headed out for a getaway? Find a place you can get your run in. Advanced planning is key and here are few options:
- If your hotel has a gym, you can use the treadmill.
- Find the best trails to run on. Many urban areas will have a paved trail closeby that will provide a safe location for your run. If this isn’t the case, get creative. You may have to run a certain loop or point-to-point multiple times.
- There is also likely a recreation center nearby where you can get a day pass.
An athlete I currently coach who is going for a sub 4-hour goal has a no excuses mentality, so on a recent trip to Arizona, she completed her 17-mile long run. It’s not always the most fun and may require you to be flexible with scheduling, but runs on vacation can almost always get done.
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…even when it’s tough.
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 pick up the pace a little farther into the race.
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. It’s not easy.
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:
It will take hard work and dedication to run a marathon under 4 hours, but it is absolutely possible for most runners. Why not see if you can be in that 43 or 21 percent?!
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.
How hard is it to maintain a 4-hour marathon 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 months and sometimes 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 just because the plan provides that title doesn’t mean it’s right for where you’re at in your running journey. Instead, you want to choose a plan that takes into account paces that are specific to you and your current fitness OR only includes easy running and strides which is included in my free beginner marathon training plan.
But if you want to incorporate speed work, you may want to go with a plan that can tell you what paces you should be running for certain runs based on your current fitness.
Here are a few options:
- McMillan plans are helpful because they will still integrate your paces based 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. Even if you aren’t ready to go sub-4, you can start building consistency to work toward that over time.
- Check out the Go Sub-4-Hour Marathon Plan I created for anyone who already is demonstrating the fitness to go sub-4 with a quality training block. I used the same methods to create it that I use when I coach my athletes 1:1 and it’s delivered via the Final Surge app which is a really intuitive platform that helps keep you accountable.
- Look at this list of some of the most popular training plans to see if one might be right for what you need.
- Have a coach create a fully-customized training plan catered to your exact needs and goal which I offer here.
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 potential 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.
What if 1:1 running coach isn’t in your budget right now?
1:1 coaching may not be in the cards for you right now or it may just not be your jam. That’s ok! Many people achieve their running goals and keep getting personal records just by researching and sticking to a plan on their own. By choosing a quality plan and sticking to it, you’ll slowly but surely see the gains you’ve been hoping for when it comes to your marathon success.
Utilizing a plan written by a professional that takes the guesswork out of what your runs look like each day is one of the best ways to keep yourself on track towards achieving that 4-hour marathon time goal. Now go get it done!