It’s More than A Goal Time: What Exactly is a Sub-3:00 Marathon?

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It’s more than a bunch of numbers!

So many times I hear runners talk about their goal time for a marathon. Having an end goal for your race is awesome! Something I realized though, is that we talk about our time goals but don’t always talk about what they actually mean. What the heck IS a sub-3:00 marathon? (When I say sub-3:00 you can substitute any goal. It’s just the example we’ve been using the last few weeks.)

I know, I know, you’re thinking “Duh, a sub-3:00 marathon means running at least a 2:59:59!”

Bear with me here though. As runners we often have pretty arbitrary time goals; 4:00, 3:45, 3:35, 3:15, 3:05, 3:00, 2:49. These are all excellent goals, but they are often chosen because they look or sound good, not necessarily because they are what we are capable of.  I want to explain how to understand what your goal actually is as well as some important and often neglected steps you need to take to help you achieve that goal. 

If you’re looking to break three hours, you can’t expect to just go out at 8:00 miles for a while then all of a sudden bring it home. Likewise, you can’t go out at 6:15’s and expect that it will end even remotely well (unless you were really sandbagging your goal). You also cannot be upset about the goal you didn’t reach when you didn’t even know what you needed to get there.

I say that as someone who has been on both sides of this. There was a time when I said, “I’ll just go BQ, whatever that means!” I learned my lesson, though. A few years later when I began actively trying for a sub-3:00 marathon, you bet I knew exactly what pace that meant. In fact, no matter how many times I plugged the numbers into the pace calculator, it never changed; 2:59:59 meant running 6:51-pace for 26.2 miles. 2:59:59 is not a pace, it’s a time. 6:51 is the pace-per-mile to attain that time.

And this brings me to the first question you need to answer before you start planning to go after a time goal:

What pace do you need to run to hit your goal?

When I finally trained properly and knew I would be gunning for a 3:35 BQ at my 4th marathon, I honestly didn’t know what pace a 3:35 was. I did know that a 3:30 was exactly 8-minute miles on the nose. I knew that because I wanted to set my goal a little higher than “just qualifying” to give myself some breathing room. I took a similar approach when my goal was sub-3:00. I chose a 2:59:00 goal time which meant a 6:49 average pace.

But WAIT! There’s more. Knowing what pace you need to run to reach your goal isn’t enough! You also need to answer this question:

What pace should you train to run to hit your goal?

Again, it’s not as simple as you might think it is. If you need to average 6:51 to run a 2:59:59, you actually need to train to run a little faster than that. That is, because unless you run amazing tangents, you will run a little longer than 26.2 miles. (If you need a refresher on tangents, go here.) The more turns in your race and the more crowded it is, the less likely you are going to be able to run tight tangents. Subtract at least 2 seconds per mile from your goal pace for training to accommodate the tangents.

Oh, but again, we’re not done here. You still have one more question you need to answer before you’re ready to take down that big goal:

What do you need to do to average your target pace to hit your goal?

Chances are you won’t be running a race on a treadmill, so running exactly the same pace for mile after mile is not likely going to happen. You need to do a little thinking about how you can make sure you average your goal pace on race day to hit your time goal.

Study the course map and the elevation chart.

My last goal race was the Erie Marathon where my goal was the sub-3:00. Erie Marathon is a double loop course and is pancake flat. No elevation to account for, so even splits each mile is most suitable. The course has long sight lines, so is pretty easy to run the tangents- but I still wanted to give myself a 2-3 second/mile buffer. Goal pace now 6:46-47.

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Pace bands are great if the course is conducive to even splits or if you can vary the pace targets based on the terrain of the race.

Know your checkpoints.

Having a pace band or an idea of what time you need to be at certain checkpoints throughout the race is very helpful. If you don’t want to use a mile-split pace band, perhaps think about at least knowing 5k-10k-half-30k-20m splits. When I ran my first BQ, I went into the race knowing EXACTLY what time I needed to be at when I hit mile 5 (40:00), the half (1:45), and mile 20 (2:40) to meet my 3:30 goal. It worked!

Resources!

Here are some resources you can use to help you get the information you need and make a great race plan so you can nail your goal!

Pace Calculator: Know what you need to do for each of those 26.2 miles.

McMillan calculator: Race time conversions, training paces, etc.

Find My Marathon: This site is amazing for all things marathon. Find race specific details, race specific pace bands, compare marathons, PR scores, you name it and it’s there.

Marathon Guide: Marathon Guide has lots of great information and links to most race websites. Perusing the actual race site itself can give you additional helpful information.

Don’t just say you want to run 3:00 (or whatever time) because some calculator or person tells you that you can. Take that goal time and break it down, make it manageable and train specifically for it. Also, the internet is full of incredible amounts of information, USE IT. Find out what you need to know ahead of time and prepare yourself to be able to average the pace you need to run to hit that goal!

Could you tell us off the top of your head the exact pace per mile YOU need to reach your time goal? Do you train to run a little faster than goal pace or make a race plan?

An Upstate, NY resident who loves the marathon, a good beer, and all of the numbers/nerdy things. I write about my journey to a sub-3:00 marathon, training tweaks for improvement, and finding that "running/life balance" unicorn. On tap Next: Training to be a first time mom, time for 3rd trimester...ready or not!

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7 comments

  1. I so agree with this! I just ran a 3:00:38 marathon. I also tried to give myself a buffer by going 6:46-6:50 when I could. I think what you pointed out is dead on. I did the long pace runs, but I didn’t do the pace miles quite fast enough. They were usually 6:50-7 minutes. I was relying on adrenaline to carry me through the race, but that ran out after about 2 hours! Live and learn-next time I will aim to do the long pace miles at a 6:45 pace. And true, all marathon courses are long!

  2. What about finding your race pace within a race specific training period? Then once you find it, build confidence (and endurance) at it. The pace is arbitrary and the pace isn’t arbitrary. It is the pace that corresponds to your fitness level, but you have to recognize it when you find it and not be way far off.

    By the way regarding arbitrary race target times, my first sub-3 the goal was 2:58:30. It was taken from reviewing the last few runs that were at what I believed to be my race pace.

    1. There’s definitely something to be said about finding race pace in those weeks of specific training. But if you are going into a training cycle with a goal of BQ or breaking a certain time barrier- knowing what you need to do or be close to being able to do is important, is it not? Having specified training pace ranges is really important in my opinion. You don’t just say I’m going to run easy today and hard tomorrow whatever those mean on that given day. Those are relative terms. Easy on one day might mean something totally different the next. Going into the cycle knowing what your pace range should center around (goal race pace) is how you can structure the workouts and as the race gets closer you can judge more on what your race day pace should be based on training.

      I wouldn’t call your 2:58:30 an arbitrary time if you took information and facts and looked at information to come to that conclusion. Arbitrary by definition is “based on random choice or personal whim”. My first marathon the goal was break 4, and that’s totally arbitrary because there was no information used in making that goal. Gunning for a BQ is not an arbitrary thing, that time earns you something and isn’t just pulled out of a hat. When I first realized sub 3 was a possibility, it was totally arbitrary, I had no reason for wanting that goal other than I wanted it, it didn’t earn me anything extra or do anything different than other PR’s. But, it made me happy and I wanted to work for it. As the training came along it was less arbitrary because I had been doing the work and like you,I assessed my training and believed that sub-3 was a valid and reasonable goal.

      In my experience (with whatever goal time is), going into a cycle with a tentative goal in mind(which you can adjust as training progresses) and knowing what that actually means helps me structure my training. I’m no expert, and you have more sub- 3 experience but I’d think you’d agree that not flying by the seat of your pants with paces is the better option to go during training. Start with knowing what you need to do for what you want and then see where you are at later on.

    2. I think you have a goal time at the outset of a cycle, which may or may not be arbitrary and then adjust it in the few weeks before the race based on how things have been going. Maybe you overreached and your training is telling you that or maybe you underestimated yourself and it’s telling you that. You need to eyeball some goal before the training cycle starts for optimal training and this concept of breaking it down focusing on pace is just one facet in getting to that goal (or whatever your goal ends up being).

  3. Not only are you crazy fast, you’re crazy insightful! These are such important questions we should all ask as we’re both making goals and going for them. I kind of knew this stuff but the way you lay it out really makes it so much more concrete and shows us these little things we need to do to make these big dreams come true. Another excellent post!!!

  4. Yup, I know the time (7:26 now). I’m aware I need to go faster. I have to say, though, I do my MP miles aiming for the pace and not worrying if a come in a sec or two lower. I like training with a lot of half marathon or tempo pace to make the MP seem more comfortable (my legs are easily fooled).

    1. I’m totally with you! While I do MP work (a good amount) many of my tempo runs are done a little faster, or as progressions so MP feels easier. Those last few weeks of training I really hammer in MP to make it feel like second nature. I once read a quote by Greg McMillan that stated something like the first half of training is about challenging yourself with workouts and pushing a bit further but then the few weeks leading to the race its about making race pace feel as comfortable as possible.