Running a Marathon under 3 hours is a very respectable goal. As a benchmark, it indicates that as a runner you have at least a little talent and enough dedication to training and hard work to bring that talent out. There is even a blog, Cloud259.com, which has the sole purpose of helping people break 3 hours in the marathon. It is more than a few runners that are interested in breaking the 3 hour barrier for a marathon.
Why put this treatise on how to run a marathon in under 3 hours on a forum about the Bridger Ridge Run? In my experience, if you can run a standard marathon in under 3 hours, you are capable of running the Ridge Run under 4 hours. See the post on how to estimate your Ridge Run Finish Time. A sub 4 hour Ridge Run garners a heck of a lot of respect in the local community.
After many failed personal attempts at trying to break 3 hours in the Marathon using various training plans, I finally succeed by focusing on the bare essentials. My purpose in writing this post is to share what worked for me. Consider the plan presented here a “Just Enough Training Approach“. No more, no less than what is required to attain the goal.
When I finally broke 3 hours for a marathon, I was nearly 50 years old and injury prone. My training approach was to train just hard enough to be able to run a 3 hour marathon, but not train so hard that I got injured. A delicate razors edge balance between training and recovering to avoid injury. I stripped out all running and training that was not exactly specific to the goal of running a 3 hour marathon. In the end, I realized, I needed only three different focused workouts a week, affording lots of recovery days.
A Sub 3 Hour Marathon is a “Local Class” Time
3 hours for a marathon is certainly not a “world” class time, but it is a “local class” time and an ambitious goal. If you can run a marathon under 3 hours, your local community will consider you a darn good marathon runner – not a world beater, but worthy of respect.
Just for fun, below is a list of some handy, but nonbinding, definitions of the notion of athletic class in regards to marathon ability. Notice there is a 15 minute shift between Men’s and Women’s times for the same notion of class. There is also a 15 minute decrease in marathon time as the notion of class widens from Local to Regional to National finally to World Class. The concept of National and World Class is easy to define by well-defined spatial boundaries. Local and Regional are a bit harder to pin down as their spatial boundaries depend on notions of population groups and what geographic area you are referencing. For the United States, you could consider local as a city or town and regional as a state, a large city or large portion of a state.
Class Time Men Time Women
- Local 3:00 3:15
- Regional 2:45 3:00
- National 2:30 2:45
- World 2:15 2:30
Prerequisites before you Attempt this Training Plan
Obviously not just anyone can run a marathon under 3 hours no matter how hard or long they train. There is a certain amount of running talent and experience that is required. Here are the two prerequisites that must be in place before you attempt to train for a sub 3 hour marathon.
1. You must be able to run a 5K in under 19 minutes
2. You must have a base of consistent endurance training (running) of at least 3 to 4 hours a week for at least the past year.
The 5K is the measure of your speed, cardio vascular ability or engine. The training history indicates your body is adapted to the long term rigors of endurance training. If you do not have these two prerequisites in place, then work on them first before you embark on training for a sub 3 hour marathon.
The Three Essential Workouts
The training plan I am going to detail here is very simple, boring and repetitive. But if you stick to it, it works. It consists of just three different training sessions (workouts) each week carried out over 14 weeks. The 3 training sessions are the same throughout the 14 week duration of the plan. The only thing that changes week to week is the duration of the individual sessions. The training paces remain the same throughout the 14 weeks. A significant portion of the training is at goal marathon pace. If there is a magic formula to running a 3 hour marathon, it is to do a lot of running at the pace needed to run a 3 hour marathon. Specificity is the key to success.
The 3 different training sessions are spaced out throughout the week. You never do training on back to back days. The rest day(s) between sessions gives your body a chance to recover, rebuild and adapt to the training. Training breaks your body down, resting gives it the chance to recover, heal and become stronger. The ideal and most symmetrical workout schedule is training on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Recovery takes place on Tuesday, Thursday and the Weekend (Saturday Sunday). Later on, I will discuss what to do and what not to do on the rest and recovery days.
Remember the Rules:
- Only Three Days of Training per Week
- No Back to Back Training Days
- Other than Changes in Duration, The Workouts remain the same throughout the 14 week Plan
What are the three training sessions or essential workouts?
- Workout 1 is a tempo run at marathon race pace, MP (Monday)
- Workout 2 is Yasso 800s (Wednesday)
- Workout 3 is a long easy run finishing with some marathon pace, MP, running (Friday).
Let’s define each of the three different weekly sessions or workouts in detail.
Workout 1 Tempo Run at Marathon Pace (Monday)
This is the simplest workout of the three. All you do is go out and run at your marathon pace. The only variable is how far you run. The goal of this workout is to get you very familiar, comfortable and efficient running at marathon goal pace. Marathon pace will become a like an old friend. Eventually your body will naturally gravitate to this pace even when you are tired.
Choosing Marathon Pace
In regards to Marathon Pace, a 3 hour marathon equates to a 6:52 mile pace. Obviously, to run under 3 hours you must run at an average pace faster than this. So how much faster should you choose for your training? I recommend a marathon pace for training of 6:40. Six minutes forty seconds per mile. This is equivalent to the nice round number of 9 miles per hour. A 6:40 mile pace for a marathon yields a 2:54:40 marathon; a time with a 5 minute cushion under 3 hours. Factoring in the slowdowns at aid stations, negotiating turns, traffic, clothing drops, etc. this is a reasonable cushion.
Commit it to Memory:
- Marathon Pace for Sub 3 Hour Marathon is 6:40 per Mile, 9 Miles per Hour
How far to Run
This program consists of a 10 week build up and a 4 week taper. Week 1 you will run 3 miles at MP. During the buildup, each week add 1 mile. The length of this run peaks in Week 10 at 12 miles (1 hour 20 minutes). During the taper, each week shorten the workout by 2 miles. During Race Week (Week 14) this workout is only 4 miles.
Week Distance Time
- 1 3 20:00
- 2 4 26:40
- 3 5 33:20
- 4 6 40:00
- 5 7 46:40
- 6 8 53:20
- 7 9 1:00:00
- 8 10 1:06:40
- 9 11 1:13:20
- 10 12 1:20:00
- 11 10 1:06:40
- 12 8 53:20
- 13 6 40:00
- 14 4 26:40
How to Warm-Up for Marathon Pace Tempo Run
The warm-up for this workout will be the exact same warm-up as you foresee you will use on race day. The idea is to simulate race day with a minimal duration warm-up and to jump right into running at marathon race pace. The warm-up consists of strides, skips, dynamic movements and some plyometric movements. Just enough movement to loosen you up, get the blood moving, wake up the muscles. Figure about 10 to 15 minutes of movement for this warm-up. Static stretching does not warm-up the body and loosen you up and is not a part of this warm-up.
Another trick to simulate race day, is to schedule this workout to start at the same time of day as your chosen race. It conditions your body to perform under the same conditions and time of day as the race. If this is not convenient, at least do it for the last couple weeks before the race.
Think of this workout (with the warm-up) as a dress rehearsal for race day.
The idea is to find yourself at the starting line on race day, confident, relaxed and ready to perform.
Workout 2 Yasso 800s (Wednesdays)
This workout is simple 800 meter (half mile) intervals or repeats at your 5K race pace. The recovery between each is the same time as the interval. This workout builds strength and cardiovascular capacity. It consists of hard fast running and will make your marathon pace running seem easy.
Take your marathon time (in this case 3 hours) and call the hours minutes and the minutes seconds (3 hours results in 3 minutes). This formula will yield an 800 meter or half mile time that is essentially your 5K race pace. This formula works just as well for a 2:10 marathoner as a 4 hour marathoner.
For a 3 hour marathon, your 800 meter time will be 3 minutes. The recovery time between intervals will also be 3 minutes. On a 400 meter track, you will run 2 laps in 3 minutes. Then easy run 1 lap in 3 minutes for your recovery (6 minutes total). Repeat this.
Over the 14 week duration of this training program, you will start at 2 repeats and build to a max of 10 at week 9 and 10. You will then decrease the number of repeats by 2 each week until you do just 2 the last week before the race.
Week Number of Repeats Time
- 1 2 12:00
- 2 3 18:00
- 3 4 24:00
- 4 5 30:00
- 5 6 36:00
- 6 7 42:00
- 7 8 48:00
- 8 9 54:00
- 9 10 60:00
- 10 10 60:00
- 11 8 48:00
- 12 6 36:00
- 13 4 24:00
- 14 2 12:00
It is important to be well warmed up for this workout. Use a two mile easy run, followed by some dynamic movements like skips, plyometrics etc. Take at least 20 minutes to warm-up well. This workout is short enough that you will not need to do any fueling until after you complete it.
If you want to learn more about Yasso 800’s and hear marathon training advice from Bart Yasso himself, check out this interview. This Coach Jay Johnson interview of Bart Yasso is loaded with sage advice and training tidbits. It is pure marathon preparation gold.
Workout 3 Long Easy Run finishing with some Marathon Pace Running (Fridays)
This workout consists of a long run at a very easy pace followed by some running at marathon pace at the end of the run. The idea is to develop the ability to run at marathon pace when you are tired and have been on your feet for a long time.
The easy running portion needs to be between one and a half hours and two hours in duration. The pace is very easy. No faster than 8 minutes per mile. 9 to 12 minutes per mile is ideal. Even some fast hiking on hills at 15 minutes per mile is okay. The goal is to be on your feet moving for 1.5 to 2 hours to deplete your energy, but at an easy pace that does not beat you up. The actual distance traveled and pace is not important. The total time spent moving is important.
The marathon pace portion begins right after you finish the easy running portion. The duration begins at 1 mile the first week, increases 1 mile each week building up to 6 miles (40:00) by week 6. It then stays at 6 miles until week 13. The last week, race week, it drops it 4 miles. The length of the easy running portion decreases during the last 4 weeks of the program and is eliminated the last week of the program.
Week Long Easy Time MP Distance MP Time Total Time
- 1 1:30:00 1 6:40 1:36:40
- 2 1:30:00 2 13:20 1:43:20
- 3 1:40:00 3 20:00 2:00:00
- 4 1:40:00 4 26:40 2:06:40
- 5 1:50:00 5 33:20 2:22:20
- 6 1:50:00 6 40:00 2:30:00
- 7 2:00:00 6 40:00 2:40:00
- 8 2:00:00 6 40:00 2:40:00
- 9 2:00:00 6 40:00 2:40:00
- 10 1:50:00 6 40:00 2:30:00
- 11 1:40:00 6 40:00 2:20:00
- 12 1:20:00 6 40:00 2:10:00
- 13 1:00:00 6 40:00 1:40:00
- 14 0 4 26:40 26:40
No warm-up is needed for this workout. Consider the long easy run a long warm-up. The last week, week 14, this workout becomes identical as the tempo marathon pace workout, so practice the race day warm-up just like the session.
This workout is long enough that you will need to hydrate and fuel during the workout. I recommend that you just drink water during long easy portion. Then after a mile into the marathon pace portion, you can start taking in calories if needed to avoid bonking. Take in enough calories to avoid slowing down and not being able to maintain marathon pace. The purpose of not taking in calories during the easy portion is to condition your body to use stored fat as a fuel and spare glycogen (muscle sugar). The idea is to avoid the adrenalin response to stress associated with fast running that kicks you into using muscle sugar (glycogen) instead of fat.
This program consists of 3 different workouts each week over a 14 week period. The first 10 weeks are a gradual build up. The last 4 weeks are a fairly steep taper. The total training time begins at about 2 and a half hours of training the first week, peaks at just over 5 hours at weeks 9 and 10 and tapers back to under 2 hours for week 14, the week of the race.
There are many other important topics for running a successful marathon – such as fueling, activity on recovery days, choosing a marathon, what to wear. There can be a lot of variation of personal preferences on these subjects. I’ll just give a few brief recommendations based on my preferences and experiences.
Running a marathon at your full potential requires adequate hydration and fueling. During the race, strive to take in 16 to 24 ounces of liquid each hour. Obviously, drink more on hot days, less on cold days. Your drink should also contain enough fuel so that you will get 100 to 200 calories per hour. My preference is to have my fuel in my drink as that is an easier way to get my calories than eating a gel or food.
Drinking and fueling efficiently (time wise) requires practice. Personally, I gave up trying to get enough water or sports drink from cups at aid stations. I find it nearly impossible to drink enough from a cup while running. Notice that the top runners that get special treatment at big city marathons have their own fuel and hydration bottles pre stashed at aid station. If they grab a paper cup of water, it is usually to dump it on their head to cool off. As a general population runner, you can’t expect to have your own bottles waiting for you at every aid station. So what can you do? I recommend that you carry a small 10 to 16oz water bottle the entire race and drink on the run. You will need to stop and refill it every half hour or so at aid stations. You can either carry it on a waist belt or try one of the hook shaped bottles that you tuck into your running shorts.
What to do on the Rest Days, Tuesday, Thursday and Weekend (Saturday, Sunday)
Rest days are for letting the body recover and adapt to the training. These are low stress days. This does not mean just sitting around doing nothing. The body needs to move every day. Just don’t stress the body with too much challenging activity, especially running. Moderate walking, hiking, biking, yoga, golfing, swimming, dancing even a little weight training and stretching are appropriate as long as you do not beat yourself up. The three training days a week will already beat you up enough. You don’t need any more stress. If you do run on the rest days, run very easy on trails and soft surfaces. This means avoid the track, treadmills and roads.
Update 2017: Check out this Blog’s Post on microdosing training. In addition to making a case for not overtraining, it discusses the importance of staying active on rest and recovery days.
Using this Program for Goal Times other than 3 Hours
You can adopt this program easily to other marathon goal times. All you have to do is change your marathon goal pace and your 800 meter interval times. For example, if your goal is to run a sub 4 hour marathon use 9:00 per mile. Run your 800 meter intervals in 4:00 with a 4:00 recovery. Everything else remains the same. Since you will be running slower, you will actually spend more time on your feet running during the workouts, but you will cover the same distances.
Update 2020: If you are interested in a half marathon training plan, check out this Blog’s Post on a minimalist half marathon training approach. It is a modification of this marathon training plan and worked well for me in attaining a goal of a 1.5 hour half marathon.
What Marathon to Enter
- Pick a well-established marathon that has the basic amenities.
- It is essential to have an accurate certified course with all the miles marked accurately. Pace teams are a nice bonus.
- Choose a venue that is flat and low elevation. Pick one that has a history of cool and dry weather conditions.
- Avoid marathons with gimmicky sales pitches such as a fast downhill course, scenic, winding, undulating, part trail, etc.
Meeting these requirements usually means a fairly large city Marathon such as Chicago, Houston, Portland. Some well-known marathons such as New York and Boston have a reputation for being challenging producing slower times. They may not be the best choice for trying to hit a goal time. Do a bit of research and Internet searching for a marathon that has a reputation for fast times and reliable weather conditions.
Doing a quick search for a flat, fast, cool, sea level marathon turned up this possible candidate that I was unaware of. Newport Marathon in Oregon. I’m sure there are plenty others.