How to run a sub-three marathon
© Dave Shopland for Virgin Money London Marathon
Running coach Richard Coates on what it takes to crack the elusive sub-three 26.2.
A sub-three-hour marathon marks you out as an above-average runner. Indeed, you're within an hour of the elite field. But just what does it take to break the sub-three barrier, and how achievable is it for amateur athletes?
Activity tracking platform Strava recently released data from over 10,000 Virgin Money London Marathon runners, revealing that, on average, those who managed a sub-three-hour time at the marathon in 2018 trained roughly twice as much (in terms of miles run and quantity of runs) than those who ran sub-four marathons. This translates as running 65.9 miles in a week over eight runs, compared to 33.1 miles in a week over four runs. Before you double your training plan though, it might not be as simple as that.
“For starters, a lot of it is down to genetics,” explains running coach and director of Full Potential, Richard Coates. “I’ve had runners who did 30 miles a week and still ran three-hour marathons. It doesn’t necessarily follow that you have to do big miles. Everyone’s unique and different, so it’s not always the case that if you do big miles you’re going to do it.”
That’s not to say that it isn’t an achievable target, though. “You have to remember that most people running around three hours might not even be club athletes,” adds Coates. “They’re normal human beings – they’re not elite athletes.”
Surprisingly, bags experience isn't a prerequisite, either. “Sometimes a runner might not have actually been running all their life and, because they’ve got less mileage in their legs, they’re a lot fresher than runners who might have started running a lot earlier,” says Coates.
So if you don't need to be elite, experienced, or racking up 65 miles a week, what do you need to do to attain that elusive 2:59?
1. Be consistent
Coates believes that the biggest difference between a three- and four-hour marathon runner is consistency – "the first golden rule of training". "Those aiming for four hours are no less committed but they may be a little less consistent in how many sessions they’re doing a week," says Coates. "The runners that are training consistently are far more likely to get the time they want rather than those that dip in and dip out.”
2. Work on your speed endurance
If you want to finish with a marathon time that starts with a two, you’re going to have to average 6:50min/miles for the duration of the run. This means having a good lactate threshold (the pace you can maintain without lactate increasing the blood). “Faster runners will do more lactate threshold work to improve their speed endurance, whereas runners around four hours might be doing some but not at the same volume,” says Coates.
Lactate threshold work involves training at a "comfortably hard" pace – slightly faster than marathon pace. “Sub-three runners would do threshold work throughout their training, but in the early stage of a marathon training block, they might just do short one-minute intervals to help develop the central nervous system and get more leg power.”
3. Boost your strength endurance
“As training goes on, faster runners will work more on their strength endurance and ability to last for longer,” explains Coates.
Strength endurance refers to the body's ability to produce force over time – and can be improved by training against some form of resistance. “They might do hilly undulating runs or Kenyan hills, where they are working at threshold up and down a hill, rather than just running hard to the top of the hill.”
Another way to develop strength endurance is through specific strength exercises. “The faster runners will be doing more strength work in the gym as well. It’s not only about training your cardiovascular system, but you’ve also got to train your muscular system as well to get strong.”
4. Develop your gears
Although it may seem counterintuitive, Coates recommends running at a wide range of paces – easy, steady, threshold, 90 percent effort and target marathon pace – throughout training. “The adage I like to use is: to run fast, you need to be like a car and develop lots of gears. If you just train at one steady pace all the time, that’s what your body will get conditioned to. Fast runners will do lots of different paces, whereas a four-hour marathon runner might just be doing a steady pace all the time, just be able to complete the distance.”
5. Go for quality over quantity
Strava’s stats revealed that last year's sub-three-hour runners were training more than seven days a week, meaning they were training twice on some days. But Coates believes the focus should be on quality over quantity: “If you go out and churn out lots of miles for the sake of it, that’s okay, as long as you’ve got the time and your body can handle it. Most people are time deficient in this day and age, and they don’t have the strength or mobility to do it, so going out and doing lots of miles just batters them. The main thing is to listen to your body.”