How to run a sub 4-hour marathon: our expert advice

how to run a sub 4-hour marathon: happy runner
Finishing a marathon is a magnificent moment, especially if you've beaten your time target (Image credit: Getty Images)

When Pheidippides ran the 26.2 miles from the Battle of Marathon to Athens in order to proclaim victory for the Greeks, he probably wasn't to know the impact he'd have on millions of plucky runners some two-and-a-half millennia later. He probably had other things on his mind considering such was his exhaustion that, when he arrived into the assembly to share news of the Greek's success, he keeled over and died.

Anyone who has ran a road marathon and endured some manner of suffering will at least partly sympathize with poor old Pheidippides. Tackling 26.2 miles is no mean feat, yet it's not so much the distance covered as the intended speed that makes it challenging. Most people could probably walk a marathon but running one to beat a specific time is a different matter.

For amateur runners, the specific time of four hours has become something of a benchmark to strive towards and conquer. Arj Thiruchelvam, the head coach at Performance Physique, 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”. 

To cross the finish line in your road running shoes under four hours, you need to be able to hold an average pace of 9:09 minutes per mile, or 5:40 minutes per kilometer. Thiruchelvam adds: “I believe that with a sufficient training regime, four hours is achievable for many runners who commit to the mission.” Let's delve into what's required to achieve the feat.

Meet the expert

Three trail runners on a trail
Fiona Russell

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.

Today's best deals

Who can run a sub four-hour marathon?

  • A 10k of under 55 minutes or a half marathon of under 2 hours is a good base
  • If you've been steadily building up your distance, you'll be ready to start training

runners in a race

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

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.

How to train for a sub four-hour marathon

  • It's important to follow a training plan to give yourself a good chance of success
  • Many find having their own coach helps their preparation immensely
  • A tailored training plan featuring slow and fast runs plus strength and conditions sessions works best

two runners on a beach

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

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."

Tips for achieving your marathon goal

a cheerful runner - head and shoulders

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

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)


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
Outdoor writer

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.

With contributions from