Run a Sub-3:00 Marathon in Just 4.5 Short Years

First 10
Scenes from marathons 1-10 (not in order)

Over the past four and a half years, I have grown to love the marathon more and more. This doesn’t mean I haven’t struggled along the way, or that I have the whole marathon figured out. However, I have learned a lot through each and every training cycle. In fact, some of my best successes in races have come from looking back and pointing out what worked and what didn’t.

It’s so simple to say: “train and race and just go get the time you want.” In reality, it’s not that simple. I want to take you step by step through the past four and a half years of my marathon career to show you how I went from a 3:46 to a 2:58. And by doing that, I think you’ll learn a lot about finding your own recipe for marathoning success. 

Consistency is Key

First, let’s go over the usual things people look at when assessing a marathon training cylce. Here is a list of the marathons I have done, including the common data points most people focus on: mileage, goal time, and actual finishing time.

image

It’s hard for me to even call my first 3 marathon build-ups actual training. My first was a hot mess, I got sick quite a few times throughout training which meant lots of down weeks, skipped runs, and lower quality training. Perhaps most importantly, it was my first and I had no idea what I was doing. My second marathon, Rochester was basically done on a whim. Then I ran my third, Harrisburg to redeem myself after that second one was disastrous.

Consequently, I think the training cycle for my fourth marathon, Marshall as my first real marathon training cycle. There is an entire year in between Harrisburg and Marshall because I broke my foot in a non-running related accident early in 2012. This was a blessing in disguise because it forced me to take time off and then start marathon training from scratch. This allowed me to get strong and healthy again, and made me look at training in a more structured way. The result of consistent mileage, weekly workouts and long runs? A huge PR. 

It’s also not hard to notice that as my mileage gradually increased, my times went down for the most part. Erie was hands down one of my best training cycles- and having the average and peak where they were, definitely played a part in that. One of the things I love about those numbers though, is that they feel manageable to me. Yes it took time to get there, but by gradually increasing mileage and intensity I didn’t kill myself trying to take on more than I was ready for. But, I do want to see if I gradually increase mileage more what the results would be.

Key thing learned: Consistency, consistency, consistency. Gradual increases, along with consistent numbers each week helped me gain the fitness needed to reach my goals and also kept me healthier.

Respect the Distance by Training for It

Now let’s take a look at another chart considering a completely different set of data points: length of runs and double-digit mileage days (days when I ran at least 10 miles either in one run or two).

Marathon Progression double digits

This chart is perhaps the most important one for my progression as a marathoner. I have always identified as an athlete “built for speed” rather than the athlete “built for the long haul.” Because of this, learning to pace, and also training my endurance became incredibly important in improving my marathon times. The highlighted training cycles are chosen in this case, because I believe the big jumps in my PR came as a direct result of increasing the number of double-digit days in my training.

For Marshall, my first breakthrough race, I nearly doubled the previous cycles average double digit miles per week. The result was a 16 minute PR. Yeah, that could definitely have something to do with strong endurance base that wasn’t there before!

Wineglass marathon and CIM cycles kind of go together (each was a 4 minute PR, 9 weeks apart). Another increase in the average number of double digit runs per week helped my endurance a ton, and found myself staying strong later in races.

While Rochester to Memphis was a 7 minute best, I think that the 6 minute Erie PR was more important. I don’t say that just because it was my first sub-3 marathon, I say that because the Erie training cycle went WAY better than the Rochester or Memphis ones for many reasons. I felt like I found a sweet spot with that cycle, and the confidence I gained was immeasurable. All of a sudden, running double digits mid week was no big deal and my long runs on the weekend felt shorter because it wasn’t such a stretch from mid-week stuff.

Key thing learned: It’s not about the overall mileage each week, but how you distribute those miles. Instead of running 6-7 days a week at 6-8 miles per run, try running 5-6 days a week with a 8-10 miles per run. Salty Running’s own Jasmine talked about running a Sub-3 hour marathon with 10 miles a day. There’s definitely something to be said about upping average daily mileage.

Don’t Automatically Discount Cross-Training

This one might surprise you. How many times can one runner hear someone say that only running makes one a faster runner. I don’t think that’s an absolute. I believe I thrive by incorporating some cross-training.

marathon progression strength cross train
This chart is a little skewed. This represents the AVERAGE for the entire training cycle.

Typically, I tend to throw in more supplemental training in the first half of the cycle. When my mileage might be a tad lower, and I’m not into marathon specific training quite yet. The second half of a cycle, and especially in peak phase, I tend to push my focus almost all on marathon-specific training, which means more running.

I highlighted a few cycles on this chart for different reasons. With my first marathon, my mileage was low and my running was inconsistent which leads me to believe my performance was improved by my cross-training. I was hitting multiple spin classes a week, which built my aerobic endurance. I also think cross-training made my Cleveland Marathon much better than it would have been otherwise, because I was training for my first triathlon and the extra biking and swimming really helped me aerobically.

For that first breakthrough race, Marshall, cross-training was an important tool to ease back into marathoning after breaking my foot. I couldn’t jump right into training, and I also needed to be good about strength work for the same reason.

Both of my Boston Marathons went well. My first Boston, while not a PR went very well despite struggling with a calf injury all winter. I managed to train to finish Boston that year, by supplementing with extra cross-training and using strength training to replace the hill work that I wasn’t able to do because of the cranky calf. Boston 2015, I was healthy during training this time, but I think the performance was enhanced more by strength training which helped on the demanding course than the actual increase in run-specific training.

Key thing learned:  Yes, you get better at running by actually logging miles, but as my experience shows, cross-training can be great for getting and staying healthy, as well as counteracting your training restrictions.

Check out the photo I created
Can’t forget marathons 11-13! 11&12 being my fastest two, and 13 being an unforgettable first time marathon experience with a friend!

Find Your Own Recipe for Success

While I love being able to say that I’ve improved a ton with my training, I know there is still a lot of improvement left in my marathoning career. Laying out what I have done over the first four and a half years of marathoning and analyzing the obvious and not-so-obvious data points show me the path to future improvement is likely continuing to be consistent, focusing on endurance and staying healthy and strong by continuing to balance cross-training with a solid foundation of running miles.

As the difference between what I do and what Jasmine did to achieve our sub-3:00 marathons shows, the most important thing is to find out what works for you.

What do you think our your keys to marathon success? 

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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22 comments

  1. Well, crap. It only took me 8 years.
    Ran 3:49 in 2003 (age 20). Finally broke 3 in 2011 (2:58 in Chicago, 2:51 4 weeks later in Indy).

  2. This data is amazing! I just finished my first marathon training cycle, and I can’t lie – while I was following a plan, I was not as structured as I could have been, either. Cross-training in recovery has been a godsend, though.

    I think I’ll take your advice on the process and see where improvements come for the next 26.2. Awesome job!

  3. Great article. I’m happy to see how you’ve improved as you’ve increased your mileage, and hope that bodes well for me. I averaged about 35 miles a week with a 50-mile peak for my first marathon and 37 miles a week with a 55-mile peak for my second marathon. I’m 2.5 weeks away from my third marathon, and this plan averages 42 miles a week with a 60-mile peak. (Crazy coincidence: My next marathon is in Memphis, and I live in Rochester.)

    1. The mileage increase (safely) did definitely help, as well as learning HOW to run those miles. Easy runs actually easy and taking it harder on workouts. Sounds like you have had a good progression which should bode well for Memphis! That was a great race last year, I heard they changed the course a bit but not much as far as I know. Running through the St. Jude campus is incredibly inspiring! Watch out for the gradual grades on the course, particularly the short over/underpass combos later on…they hurt at the end. Small world that you are also in Rochester! What other marathons have you done?

      1. Thanks for the tips about the course! I ran the Maine Coast Marathon in May (beautiful course, but it was 85 degrees on race day) and the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October 2014. I definitely feel like this plan has been much better preparation. I’ve run more miles, I’ve run many of the easy runs very slowly and I’ve really pushed myself on the speed work. Really looking forward to the race.

          1. The higher-mileage training definitely paid off. I set a PR by more than 17 minutes Saturday. Loved this race. You weren’t kidding about it being inspiring to run through the St. Jude campus; I got a bit choked up during that part of the race.

  4. So, here’s the thing especially about those cross training sessions. I don’t specify how long they are. In the winter I am great about longer ones, and as I said the earlier portions of training when mileage is a bit lower I counteract that with longer XT sessions. BUT I am also a big believer in adding little bits here and there. Sometimes it was going to the pool to swim laps for 20-30 minutes because it was hot out, and figured it was good aerobic time (swimming is fantastic for it). Sometimes it might be 10 minutes of random kettlebell exercises after my run before hopping in the shower. Maybe it’s 30 minutes on the bike later in the day after a morning long run or race just to flush some of the crap out of the legs. It doesn’t have to be 2 hours of biking every day. I’ll be sure to start including the amount of time I spend doing those things in my training log- it’s probably less than you think. BUT 10 minutes of core work before bed is better than 0 minutes right? I also believe the consistency of little bits here and there is far more helpful than 90 minutes at once every other week.

  5. I love the message about the higher mileage. This post speaks to me a lot right now because I’ve been training with Run Less Run Faster, but I’ve been having a lot of trouble with mental fortitude and sticking to my long runs, and I’ve been feeling like my overall weekly mileage has been waaaaay too low to be only ten weeks out from race day. This week I’ve been increasing my mileage a little bit, and the confidence that I’ve gained from that is making me reconsider my training plan for the rest of this cycle. Thank you for sharing!

    1. 10 weeks is a LOT of time to get work done for a race! 70 days… think about it that way, sounds like a lot more. That’s 70 days to focus on what you want to do and what you need to do to get there.

  6. I love Jasmine’s and your posts on marathon improvements! You have different perspectives, but there are definitely very consistent messages coming out of both of your posts.

    I also love that you show how non-linear the process and how important it is to be consistent and persistent to achieve the higher levels of the sport. Well done!

  7. This was awesome! I really love the approach you took breaking down some of the data like this and putting it in context.

    I am surprised by the amount of cross training you fit in your schedule, even in your higher mileage training cycles. I need to take a look at your training logs to understand how you fit it all in! It’s something I’ve really struggled with since moving to Houston and losing a good chunk of workout time to traffic.

    1. So, here’s the thing especially about those cross training sessions. I don’t specify how long they are. In the winter I am great about longer ones, and as I said the earlier portions of training when mileage is a bit lower I counteract that with longer XT sessions. BUT I am also a big believer in adding little bits here and there. Sometimes it was going to the pool to swim laps for 20-30 minutes because it was hot out, and figured it was good aerobic time (swimming is fantastic for it). Sometimes it might be 10 minutes of random kettlebell exercises after my run before hopping in the shower. Maybe it’s 30 minutes on the bike later in the day after a morning long run or race just to flush some of the crap out of the legs. It doesn’t have to be 2 hours of biking every day. I’ll be sure to start including the amount of time I spend doing those things in my training log- it’s probably less than you think. BUT 10 minutes of core work before bed is better than 0 minutes right? I also believe the consistency of little bits here and there is far more helpful than 90 minutes at once every other week.

  8. This is very interesting and informative. Would love to know more about your speed/quality workouts, both amount and intensity.

    1. Definitely working on that for another post. I figured that starting with talking about the mileage and basics first would be best way to show the progress. The workouts and marathon specific training tweaks kind of deserve a post of their own

  9. Great analysis! As a newbie marathoner (I’ve only done one before and just like you said with your first one, had no idea what I was really doing) this is a really great look at what needs to be done in order for me to get to where I want to be eventually. It’s also a nice reminder that these things take more time than we’d probably like them to. Of course we want results and we want them now, but it’s so important to remember that goals like these often take a few years to reach and require lots of “chipping away.” Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for reading Katie! The progress does take time, which can be frustrating in this very “instant gratification driven world”. But, it’s worth chipping away at it, and makes the results that much more rewarding in my eyes. I worked for it, like we all do :) Do you have any races coming up?

  10. Can I just say how impressed I am that you have all that data? I try not to overanalyze, but it could be very helpful to spend some time analyzing real data and not just focusing on the woulda shoulda coulda’s that happened during the race. I’m going to try and do a better job at looking what my training has been like over the past few marathons. Obviously I can’t recreate the years of data I don’t have, but better late than never! thanks!

    1. I’m such a data nerd, fully admit it. I use Running Ahead which has so many capabilities for logging, tracking, reporting and searching data. I sometimes get TOO wrapped up in it, but other times it is really helpful to break down things better and see what was good/bad.