So, you've mastered the four-hour marathon. A little time has passed and the pain is becoming a distant memory. Despite promising yourself 'never again' at around the 19-mile mark, you've since become enamored with the idea of repeating the experience. Only, this time, you want sub 3:30...
A 3:30 marathon – or a sub 3:30 – is seen by many runners as a bucket list time. As Arj Thiruchelvam, head coach at Performance Physique, says: “For most amateur runners having achieved a four-hour marathon, the next target is often a 3:30 marathon.”
However, progression towards running a 3:30 time for a marathon depends on a number of factors, including your running history, age, as well as commitment to a training plan. If you can repeatedly and doggedly lace up your road running shoes and really commit, you're in with a chance.
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Fiona loves running in all its forms. Based in the Scottish Central Belt, just a stone's throw from the Southern Highlands, she has a wealth of excellent road and trail running right on her doorstep.
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The need for dedication
- Build up your speed and distance over 12-18 months
- Focus first on a 5k, then 10k, then half marathon, before attempting a marathon
- Dedication to your training is the key
Christian Allen, an England Athletics qualified run leader, says: "If you’re relatively new to running you’re going to need to build yourself up to this distance, and pace over time. I’d recommend allowing yourself 12 to 18 months to do this, first concentrating on a 5k, then 10k and then half marathon goal before tackling the marathon."
In addition, he believes the runners who are most likely to achieve a 3:30 time for a marathon are those who are "the most dedicated and consistent in their training".
He adds: "Those who are already fit, healthy and dedicated to running are most likely to achieve a faster marathon. You’ll probably already have some marathons under your belt and you will be used to running long distances at pace.”
Tips for running a 3:30 marathon
- A 3:30 marathon requires a pace of 7:58 minutes per mile
- A proper marathon training plan is vital
- Ideally give yourself 24 weeks on the training plan
The average pace to achieve a 3:30 marathon is 7:58 minutes per mile or 4:57 minutes per kilometer.
A 3:30 marathon training plan, written by a professional, is vital for runner to put in the specific hard work required to achieve their goal.
Allen, who works for Runners Need, makes the point that training is a very individual thing. “It all depends on a person’s running experience beforehand, such as whether they have already run marathons, what their previous times have been for these marathons and also their half marathon times," he says.
“I’d suggest that the minimum build-up for a marathon is around 12 weeks, but better still you should give yourself 24 weeks.”
Training plan for a 3:30 marthon
- A marathon training plan should include a range of running workouts
- A mix of slow runs, speed sessions and one long run each week is ideal
- You should aim to run faster than your intended pace on some runs
A training plan for a 3:30 marathon should include a range of different types of running workouts.
Allen says: “You need to incorporate a mix of tempo running, where you can have a comfortable conversation while running at pace, and speed sessions to help make your marathon pace feel more comfortable, plus a long run each week.
“During training, runners also need to learn how to get comfortable with their aimed for marathon pace, which often involves running faster than this for periods, too.”
Allen says the best way to train specifically for a 3:30 marathon time. “With your tempo sessions, you want to gradually build up the distance where you’re running at pace each week until you reach a maximum of around 12 to 15 miles in a session running at your 7:58 per mile pace.
“Speed sessions are also important and there are a number of different training options you can do where you up your speed even further, for example 6 x 1 mile at 7:30 minute a mile pace. These should be short and sharp so you get used to running at speed.
“Then there’s the long run, which will help you to get the miles in your legs. There are lots of different ways you can do your long run. You can run at a solid pace each week until you reach around 24 miles, or you can incorporate a tempo session into your long run, where you’re running at your race pace.”
Allen gives an example of how this would look: run 30 minutes easy pace, an hour at tempo pace, then 30 minutes easy pace.
Taper before a 3:30 marathon
- It's vital to taper your training as you approach the race
- Your longest training run should be no sooner than three weeks before the race
It’s also important that runners allow enough time to taper ahead of a marathon race to ensure they are physically rested and in optimum condition.
Allen says: “Your longest run should be no sooner than three weeks before the race and then you start to work your way back down, cutting your overall weekly mileage by 20 to 30 per cent each week.”
For example, if your longest week mileage was 50 miles, you should decrease this by 10 to 15 miles the following week.
How to pace the marathon race for a 3:30 finish
- Proper pacing is crucial
- Many marathon runners start off too fast, which leads to fatigue later on
- You should aim to keep the same pace throughout or achieve a faster second half of the marathon
It’s vital that runners learn how to properly pace a marathon, whatever their hoped-for finish time. Rachael Woolston, coach and founder of Girls Run the World , says: “Many marathon runners miss out on their goal by starting off too fast.”
Christian agrees. "The main thing to avoid is going off too fast, or pushing too hard too early, which could easily lead to a feeling of fatigue and heavy legs later on," he says. "This, in turn, is likely to slow your overall pace.
"Runners should either aim to run an even pace throughout a marathon, or try to achieve a negative split, which means running the second half of a race faster than the first half.
“At the heart of all of this is training at the right pace. So in your running sessions, you will learn how to run at the required pace for your hoped-for time of a 3:30 marathon, and also include some slightly faster session. This way you will become familiar with the right pace before the race itself."
What about other training sessions?
- A mix of strength and conditioning training, yoga and a rest day every week is ideal
Strength and conditioning sessions help build muscles for marathon runners – and allow your body to become stronger, while also aiming to minimise the risk of getting injured.
Allen also suggests a weekly yoga or stretch session as part of a marathon training plan. He adds: “Plus you should aim for a rest day each week. It’s important to allow your body time to recover as this is when your muscles repair and build.”
Choose the right marathon race
- Choose a marathon race that appeals to you
- You could do it with friends for extra support and that sense of fun
- Completing it with a pacer is a good way to improve your odds of success
You should pick a race that appeals to you, perhaps in a new location, with friends, or with lots of interesting things to see en route. Also think about the course, such as how flat the route is. A flatter marathon is more likely to give you a faster time.
If you know that a marathon is renowned for a great atmosphere, with lots of spectators to cheer you on, this could help to motivate you to run a faster race.
”Choosing a marathon the you will enjoy means you will be more likely to run a good pace,” Allen says.
Many marathons have official pacers who set the right pace for different marathon finish times. Sticking with a pacer throughout a marathon, or making sure you keep a careful eye on your pace with your sports watch, will give you the best chance of a consistent speed and ultimately achieving a goal of a 3:30 marathon.
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Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favorite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing (both downhill and backcountry). Aside from her own adventures, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy getting outside and exploring, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.