Improving marathon time



I'm looking for advice regarding improving my marathon time.  I ran the london marathon this year in 5.19, I was very unhappy with the time but sort of expected it as my training had a few blips, i didnt do enough long runs and struggled mentally.  I am hoping to do it again next year, this will be my third time, and I want to do a sub 5 hour.  I know i'm capable and motivated and I know what i have to do.  What I  would like advice on is when and how to start, I am taking up swimming and biking to try and increase my strength. Any help or advice would be appreciated. Thanks



  • I would keep up running between now and xmas  doing a long run varying between 8 and 10m once a week and then try improving speed on 2 shorter runs with fartlek and pushes. Also keep up the biking and swimming for variety. Then at xmas you should be in great shape for a 16 week programme.

  • In short the more you run the faster you get. Its fine doing other things but if you want to get good at running to have to practise it. 

    Suggest running slowly and often. If you can run up to 2 hrs once a fortnight amongst your other runs then you will will be well placed for your training plan.

    There are no short cuts. practise running and practice running long. 



  • Thank you both for replying and for the advice.  I have been running for 7 years and i have had a lot of practice but still feel that without the speed sessions just podding along for 2 hours which i can do easily is getting me nowhere with regard to pace. No disrespect, but I don't agree that the more you run the faster you get, unless you consciousky want to ncrease your speed.  I have lots of stamina and can run for a long time but it is my pace I want to increase.

  • I think AGF is suggesting the training plan, which I have forgotten the name, where you do a few months of very slow runs just basically building on the time, this builds up the capillaries in the legs. Then when you start faster training your legs are fine tuned for the distance. I tried it on a couple of runs and found it hard work as it was so slow. However, starting this early for the London, it could well be a good plan.

  • Thats Fine kestrel. You asked for advice and I gave it. Its up to you if you listen or agree to it.

    I did exactly what I suggested and have moved 10K time from 50+ ,mins to 43 Mins. Half marathon from 1:50 to 1:35.

    Also note that Mo farah spend time running 120 Miles a week. Most of these are slow miles. I doubt that any more than 10-20% of those miles are "fast" ones.  its all Relative.

    The training advice that Happy refers to is "hadd". There is a thread on it in the forum !!

    Good luck.

  • Out of interest - how many miles are you running each week kestrel? Not your standard week - but your average week? Eg how many miles have you run this year ( devide that number by 32 ( roughly).

    Ideally if you want to improve your Marathon Time then I suggest that number should be north of 30 Miles ( with peak weeks higher ).

    just my view.....

  • If running is your main objective I would drop the swimming and biking and run more, as you probably not putting in enough miles.

  • Thank you all for your advice it is very helpful.  I am continuing with the biking and swimming once a week, as I enjoy it a lot and cross training is good to do on the days I am not running. 

  • Hi Kestral,

    I agree that, once you have  that overall stamina base, more miles at the same slow pace won't make you any faster - your body will become very good and atuned to running that speed.  You need to stress the body to produce adaptations and that involves running faster for shorter distances. Mo might run 120 miles a week but you can be sure many of his sessions will be fast, shorter, high intensity ones.

    Most HM and M schedules would include weekly interval sessions and tempo runs exactly for this purpose. Many people find these difficult and running with a club might help here. Another thing to try is adding in short races like 5 and 10Ks into the mix from now until xmas. Concentrate on working at short distance speed since you know you have the stamina in the bag.

    Best Wishes




  • From Sheffield Owl to Birmingham Owl

    Thanks for your reply and advice - and I agree with what you say - I do run with a club but am very motivated if I know what I have to do - I just needed advice on how and when to start.  Thanks again, been very helpful.

    Thanks to everyone else for their advice too, I obviously wasnt clear on getting my point across.

  • The point about running long slow runs to make you quicker is correct. Up to a point. Adding hill work and tempo runs is something to try once you have a strong base.

    What is your half marathon time?

    I run 13-15 miles every Sunday. Not slowly, but slightly slower than marathon pace.

    I run a tempo run mid week - this consists of 1 mile warm up 3 miles at half-marathon pace then 1 mile warm down. Then I run a 10mile at somewhere between half and full marathon pace.

    It's important to know how slow a 'slow' run should be and what pace 'tempo' should be.

    I don't do interval training as I don't have access to a track etc.

    Targeting half-marathons and learning how you perform over those distances in a race will give you some good pointers.

    Also aim to do 3-5 20 milers on VHS lead up to your marathon. I'm guessing this is where your preparation will have fallen down. These runs are where you teach your body to run for long periods off your fat stores.
  • Kestrel, you say you struggled mentally - can you expand. Where did the training fall apart last time.

    I would build a decent aerobic base between now and starting a 16 week plan. Lots of easy miles. Start building your long run distance now. Do some easy midweek runs, incorporating a few 100m strides on some of them to get you legs turning over faster.

    I develop my speed through lots of miles, and one tempo run per week. Once you have a base, add in the Tempo run. Mine is something like 2 miles warm up, 5 to 7 miles at tempo pace, 2 mile warm down. Tempo miles are a little quicker than my half marthon pace. To get started just do 2 or 3 miles. These are hard workouts, allow recovery time to reap the benefits. Long intervals is another option - doesn't suit me.

    Run some of your long run miles at your target marathon pace occassionally.

    Don't run all of your sessions at the same pace.

    With the right balance of sessions, putting in the miles and hardwork, I am sure you will improve. Swimming and biking can be useful on recovery days.
  • I struggle like hell to run more than 4 miles at little faster than my HM pace in tempo runs. I'm not sure whether its the physical effort or the mental concentration.

  • Gaz, it's normal to find HM or even Mara race pace difficult to maintain.
    That's because of periodicity. You build up your fitness with a target race in mind (or an A target race), then you'll taper for a couple of weeks. The result is that the race is an absolute flyer, helped by the fact that you are being paced by everyone else around you.

    I've never managed to get any marathon paced miles into my long runs. The best I get is mara pace plus 1min/mile. On a daily 6 miler I can occasionally get a great day when I hit mara pace, but the next day's training is definitely recovery pace.

    Miles make champions, and the more running you do the quicker you get. The weight will also come off and that has got to be good (I don't know your BMI) but I think that weight loss translates to a square of speed improvement. Half a stone makes a HUGE difference for me. Your weekly mileage will also be a key figure to incorporate into your training plan.

    Hi there TmR, long time no see.


  • Cheers Blisters. I do the miles, usually 60-70 a week, in marathon training but for the next race I was considering dropping down to 50 miles a week and really trying to nail the tempo runs with (hopefully) fresher legs. The "problem" is doing 70 miles a week as got me down fom 3:53 to 3:16 in 6 months so I'm loathe to change too much but I get the feeling I'm going to get stuck around 3:15 unless I change something.

    I was thinking of doing my mid week run of 12-15 miles with 4-8 miles at MP in the middle, like you I struggle to put any more MP miles than that in a long run.

  • Sorry for butting in Kestrel but seemed pointless making another thread asking pretty much the same question as you have!image

  • Gaz. That's a pretty impressive improvement in just 6m. I'd say that it was working just fine. My best marathon times came after 12 months of consistent training.
    I'd do a long one at the weekend, and a fast one mid week. If possible the fast one would be a short club race. The long runs alternated between 21 miles and 13.

    I promise that you won't get stuck at 3:15 if you're doing 70mpw. Have you an Autumn race planned?

  • I'm doing Chester in October but I hadn't really recovered from Manchester marathon in April when I started training so the first month or so was very hit and miss with niggles.

    Given those issues and things like summer holidays and weekends away I'll be happy with around 3:15 at Chester as long as I was confident of pushing on from there for next Springs marathon. I've not been running long but getting the miles in seems a lot easier in the winter than it does in the summer!

    I'm 43 and I think maybe 2 full on 18 week training programmes a year might be too much for me to give my best in. I'm seriously considering of using Autumns 2013 marathon as a "ticking over" race and just having a real shot at the Spring one.


    Sorry for the long post but I've been mulling this stuff over for a few weeks now. Its good to get it off my chest!image 

  • Kestrel if you keep doing the same things then you will get the same results.

    I doubt cycling or swimming will help you improve your time - which is what you want to do.

    Tell us what your training was ?

    How many miles a week on average say in the 13 weeks before the marathon.

    How many long runs (20 miles or more) did you do ?

    How much speed work ?

    Without this - its a pointless discussion really.
  • Gaz, I agree with Cougie. I have done the London marathon 6 years out of the last 7 and have done 5 pbs. I have always done something different/more.

    Only 3 things affect your improvement:

    The number of miles you run.

    The pace you run them at.

    Your bodyweight.

    I decided that 60+ miles/week was my limit so then I started to do my training miles faster. I also focussed on getting my weight down. Apparently every pound lost is worth two seconds/mile in a marathon - obviously within limits!

    To give you an ideal, for London this year I maxed out at 61.33 miles/week at an average for the week of 7:12/mile and I weighed 9st7lbs. It was another pb and my second sub 3 hr marathon at the age of 56.

    I would suggest you stick with the 60 plus miles and try to up your average training pace. My mileage also included one track session per week. Hope this helps.

  • Cougie, and everyone else who has taken the time to repky really - First of all can I stress that I have been running for 7 years so I'm not a beginner or an inexperienced runner.  My fastest half marathon was 2:04 and my slowest 2:16.  Before I began the marathon training this year i was averaging 25 miles per week, during the training the most i did was 44 miles.  I followed a schedule with three long runs in weeks 10,11 and 12 of 18 miles, 20 miles and 18miles.  Unfortunately I was ill with stomach bug for two consecutive weekends so could only manage two 18 miles and a 16 and I know myself this wasnt enough.  By mile 9/10 of the actual marathon I felt terrible, I started to slow down i really believed I wouldnt be able to finish.  I wasnt in a good state mentally and it was only through sheer determination that I finished.  I didnt enjoy it and I was very disappointed with my performance.  I really want to do it again next year but I need to be much better prepared, hence the request for advice.  Its great that everyone's taking an interest and I really appreciate you taking your time to reply and give me advice but I'm confused again now, as there seems to be conflicting advice. I don't expect my biking and swimming to make me faster, i jst thought that i could use that for cross training and it would increase the strength in my legs slightly.  I know I have got a 4:30 marathon in me - HELP!!

  • Kestrel, 

    I will qualify my original Answer. 

    IMHO, the best way to improve is to ensure that you have plenty of 20 Mile runs under your belt.  It sounds like you have some speed already.  The issue the last time is that you started to struggle ( and therefore slowed down) around 10 Miles. This means enduarance was the problem.... eg you were unable to keep up your speed as you got later into the race.

    The way to avoid this is to do lots of long runs. I do not think 2x18 mile runs and a 20 Mile run is enough if you wish to keep your pace towards the end. Or to put it another way if you did 5 x 20 mile runs then you will fair far better.

    The issue is that you cannot just start your training plan from a lower base and pile in 5X20 milers in 12-16 weeks if you are not used to it.  This is why I say get used to running long now before you getto your formal training plan.  Get used to running say 15 miles every other weekend.  Come race day you find it easy to run 15-20 miles as you will have done it so many times. With a good taper it will seem "easy" to run thsi distance. 

    This in itself will mean you will run a faster time than you did last time as you will not slow down so much. 

    The benefit of lots of "long Runs" is that it helps you be more efficient in your running. This also will help you in your shorter runs. Lots of folk improve their times in shorter races when they do marathon training for this reason. 

    I agree with One gear as to the 3 things that will help you improve. My view is that more long runs is the most important for marathon training.  That said its also good to try and run some of your shorter runs faster. Things like intervals and tempo runs are good, however you do not want to tire yourself out too much so that you do not do your long training runs.  Whilst its not everyones cup of tea a regular parkrun done twice a month may help you get faster over shorter distances and this would complement your regular longer runs. 

    To help back up some of my views heres some data of my own. 

    I did my first marathon in 4:09. I ran 500 Miles in the 16 weeks before the marathon. I did a 16,17,18,19+20 miles for my long runs in advance but I really slowed in the last 3-4 miles. 

    Then 7 Months later I ran 3:34. This time I ran 660 Miles in the 16 Miles before this marathon and did more long runs beween 20-23 Miles. This time I ran strong to the end with an even pace.

    For both races I did not do a lot of faster shorter runs. I did semi regular parkruns. These helped.  For my next marathon I am doing some faster intervals etc. However I would have "broke" had I tried to increase my mileage and do lots of faster runs. 

    So I think you will improve speed ( or rather not slow down and run faster as a result) if you increase mileage only.  There is more than one way to skin a cat - but be careful not trying to do everything too soon or you may end up with Injury and get a virus etc...

    Good Luck...




  • Hi AGF

    I did a total of 436 miles, your figures are very impressive and having digested this lnfo I have to take your advice.  I know I need to do more long runs during training, this was my major downfall but still not sure I would have made the sub 5 hour target, but i'll never know!   I occasionally do my local park run - did it this morning in fact just for a change - thank you again for your advice, it's been really helpful.  Good luck to you too..

  • That's a bit more relevant info.

    I was running 2hr halfs too. I suspect your illness may not have gone, and you definitely need those 20milers.

    If you can run 2hr half then either you started way too fast, or you weren't fully recovered from your illness.

    The sound advice of increasing the length of your shortest long run to 13-15 miles is a good start. I added a midweek 13 mile to my sessions. A 10mile on Friday and Sunday was 15-20 miles. So wasn't even doing 40miles a week and I managed a 4:40 off a 2hr half on undulating trail.

    I've been doing lots of tempo work this year and knocked 6mins off my half this year and hope to go faster in my November marathon.
  • I dont think theres too much conflicting advice now  - especially as you've clarified the problem.

    Your best half times should give you a 4.30 full time. So this shows that you fade. 

    You know you didnt do enough long runs. I aim to do at least 5 20m+ runs.  In your schedule you must allow some slack - you know that something will go wrong and you dont want to be behind - so build an extra 2 weeks into it.  If you plan to do 6 or so 20 milers then losing one isnt so bad. 

    Theres no way you can run the marathon properly with a long run of 18 miles. Its just not enough and you will fade and lose a lot of time. Your splits probably show this. 

    Swimming and cycling are just distractions - its mainly different leg muscles for cycling anyway - and look at the best runners - they're wimpy legged. Its not leg strength you need - its a good cardio system and legs that are used to running - lots. 

    Speedwork needs to be in the mix as well - probably just the one session to begin with - maybe two tops if you can cope with it - but it depends on you.

    If you write out a decent schedule with a taper, plenty of long runs, and some speedwork then theres absolutely no reason why you cant smash that marathon record of yours. 


  • Well thank you all again, am getting the picture now and not meaning to be cheeky, but you all know so much more than I do about how to improve, could anyone of you write me a training plan for the actual marathon training, I've looked at so many lately,and just not sure which would suit me, my club nights are Tuesday and thursday and we usually run 6 miles, or would be grateful if someone could recommend one please. Thank you all again ....
  • I have always used the Runners World schedules. So for the last few years this has been the sub 3hrs one. Pick the appropriate schedule for the time you want and you won't go far wrong. Personally, I stick to the overall mileage for the week and the long run but how I do the rest is up to me. Generally though I do my long runs faster than they advise and I have always done the full distance as a training run - which is something they definitely don't advise!!!

  • One Gear

    I'm interested that you do a full distance run in training for a marathon.

    How far ahead of the actual race do you do that, and what kind of recovery do you need after it?

    I'm currently tapering for my first marathon and my longest runs were two 21+ miles, both of which were done fairly slowly so as to be what I call "time on feet" runs - which means they took about the same amount of time that I hope to finish the marathon in (3hrs 20ish).

    I've also done 3 other 20 milers, and several 18-19 mile runs.
  • The general rule of thumb as far as I can read,    Each week do a LSR, a MSLR and either tempo and intervals.   Rest of the week run aerobically.

  • Kestrel, you have until Christmas until you have to worry about your actual marathon Plan. Between now and then all you need to do is build a solid base. To do that, A Generis 3 Week cycle might look look this...

    Weeks 1&2
    M = 60 Mins aerobic, T = Club run+ extra ( MSLR) , W = Rest, T =Club run ( Tempo), F= 30-45 mins recovery, S= ( LSR), S= Rest......
    ( build total Mile from current to 45-50 Miles a week ) 

    Week 3
    M = 45-Mins Aerobic, T = Club run (tempo), W = Rest, T =Club run , F=  45- mins Aerobic , S= (Shorter Race - eg Parkrun/10K), S= Rest
    ( Cutback week - but with speed = 20-30 miles/week )  

     Its possible that there are better plans, but the above would get you used to doing regular long runs and give you some sessions for speed.  Also the step back week in week 3 will help you ensure that you do not burn out and do things with your life other than just run image   Between now and christmas try and build the lenth of the long runs and/or the MSLR and the small races every 3 weeks should also see an improvement 

    (disclaimer - I am not qualified to give proper training plans to folk ) 


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