How to run a sub 4-hour marathon: advice from the experts

happy runner in a race
How to successfully run a sub four-hour marathon (Image credit: Getty)

A sub four-hour marathon is the ambition of many amateur runners. To cross the finish line in under four hours, runners need to be able to hold an average pace of 9 minute, nine seconds per mile, or five minutes, 40 seconds per kilometre.

Arj Thiruchelvam, the head coach at Performance Physique (opens in new tab), says that for many runners, the marathon is seen as the pinnacle race and four hours is considered to be “the marker of a good amateur time”. 

Thiruchelvam adds: “I believe that with a sufficient training regime, four hours is achievable for many runners who commit to the mission.”

runners in a race

Many runners target a sub four-hour marathon  (Image credit: Getty)

Who can run a sub four-hour marathon?

A good indicator of who can run a sub four-hour marathon is the time that runners have already achieved for a 10k and a half marathon. A 10k time of under 55 minutes, or a half marathon time of under two hours, will be a good base from which to work towards a four-hour marathon.

If you have been running constantly for a couple of years and building up your pace and distance without picking up injuries, it’s likely that a sub four-hour marathon time is a good goal.

two runners on a beach

It's important to use a proper training plan (Image credit: Getty)

How to train for a sub four-hour marathon

It’s important to use a professional marathon training plan as your resource. It’s possible to find these on-line, although many runners discover that having their own coach will give them a better chance of being successful.

Thiruchelvam, who has been a coach for 17 years, supporting everyone from novices up to Team GB Olympians, reveals the important components of a marathon training program.  

He says: “To successfully training for a marathon, whatever your goal time, a training program should include slow, easy runs; faster-paced runs to build your speed and tolerance to a faster pace; strength work to ensure the body can cope with the demands of endurance running; and mobility work.”

Whether you’re hoping to run a four-hour, five-hour or three-hour marathon, the principles are the same. 

Thiruchelvam adds: “The most important aspect is tailoring paces, intensity, duration of that intensity and total mileage to each runner. 

“Huge distances each week aren’t necessary and most of the running will be slower, easy runs but with two faster, more challenging training sessions. The aim of these harder sessions is to raise a runner’s performance ceiling. 

“In addition to this I recommend one to two strength and conditioning sessions each week and at least three mobility sessions to ensure runners don’t build up tightness and restriction within their body."

a cheerful runner - head and shoulders

You ned to enjoy the training for be successful at a marathon distance  (Image credit: Getty)

Tips for achieving a marathon goal

Get a coach

You can download many different free programmes from the internet but it is usually better if you can find your own coach because they will build a personalised programme that adapts around your life,  current running paces and the challenges that you will face during the journey. 

Thiruchelvam says: “A coach will also understanding the science behind endurance running, which will make a difference, particularly when you move to the faster times."

Fuel yourself

Nutrition for running before – and during the marathon – is important for success. It’s vital that you eat a balanced and healthy diet to effectively fuel your body to train efficiently and recover rom the harder and longer sessions. 

Marathon runners are also advised to practice race fuelling strategies, including the best running gels and isotonic drinks, before the marathon. 

Thiruchelvam says: “You need to ensure you know what works for you so you won’t have any gastrointestinal discomfort on the day.”

Check what the race will provide at food stations so you can decide if you will make use of this in the marathon, or if you will carry your own food and snacks. 

Make it fun

You will be running many miles each week so it needs to be enjoyable. There will be hard sessions and times when all the miles seem dull, but above all you should see your marathon goal as a fun thing to do.

Try to run in places that inspire you, or run with other people so that you feel motivated. Marathon training miles can be a good time to catch up with friends.

Pick the right marathon 

It’s worth considering the marathon that you will aim for. Thiruchelvam says: “Look at the terrain of the marathon and choose something that will inspire you, whether that’s the scenery, the particular city or the opportunity to have crowds supporting you. Do everything possible to enjoy the day. Also consider the temperature of the location and what climate suits you.

“If you choose the right marathon for you, you will be more likely to achieve your time goal.”

 Think about a negative split

There are a variety of strategies for running a marathon, including aiming for an even pace, or going for a negative split. This requires runners to start off at a steady pace and then build to a faster pace so you complete the second half faster than. the first half. 

runner in a race

Aim for success with a four-hour marathon  (Image credit: Getty)

Conclusion

If you are looking for a good goal, a four-hour marathon could be for you. Many amateur runners can be successful if they follow a training plan and take tips from the experts.

Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, who is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favourite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing, both downhill and back country. Her target for 2021 is to finish the final nine summits in her first round of all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of more than 3,000ft high. Aside from being outdoors, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy the great outdoors, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors (opens in new tab).