How To Qualify For the Olympic Trials Marathon

Not since the 1996 Olympic Games have so many runners dreamed of making it to Atlanta. Just yesterday, USATF announced that the Atlanta Track Club won the bid to host the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon which will select the team for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Great! Now how can you get there? The U.S. selection system for the Olympic track and field team is beautifully democratic. For the marathon, there are a few ways to qualify to compete at the Trials.

Attention to detail is key

First and foremost, before we get into the nitty gritty of qualifying times: in order to qualify for the Olympic Trials it’s not enough just to run fast. You can’t just do it in any old race. The race must be certified and sanctioned. Yes, those are both long words, but they mean two separate things. I repeat:ย certified does not mean sanctioned! It must be both! A race can be certified and sanctioned by either the USATF or the IAAF (the international governing body of track and field). That means you are able to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at many major international marathons certified and sanctioned by the IAAF.

Certification means that the governing body has confirmed that the course conforms to the proper marathon distance.

Sanctioning means the race follows national and international rules and regulations of the sport, such as rules against pacing or accepting outside assistance. You can confirm USATF sanctioning status of any race quite easily on the USATF website.

A further course requirement: the race can only descend 3.25 meters per kilometer. I did the math for you: that’s about 449 feet of total descent over the marathon distance. This conveniently accommodates the Boston Marathon, which has 442 feet of net downhill.

Run the “B” Standard Time of 2:45:00

A 2:45:00 marathon will qualify you to compete in the Trials. This is known as theย B Standard. It qualifies you to compete at the Trials, but in past years has meant you had to pay your own way (more on this later, but it’s looking like 2020 will be an exception and all qualifiers will have their travel expenses paid!)

If you might be a squeaker for the B standard, make sure to line up right on the starting line at your qualifying race because the qualifying time will be your gun time, not chip time!

Run a half-marathon qualifying time of 1:13:00

Beginning September 1, 2018, women runners can also qualify via a 1:13:00 half marathon (a 2-minute tightening since the 2016 Trials). Plan to take care of business by the end of January 2020: the Trials will be held February 29, 2020.

Top placements at high-level races

Finishing at the front of certain national and international races can also earn you the right to compete at the Trials. These races include the 2017-2019 USATF Marathon Championships and the 2017 or 2019 IAAF World Championships Marathon. Members of the 2016 Olympic marathon team also get a free pass to the Trials. It’s probably a fair assumption that the 2016 Olympians will easily achieve a time standard anyway, but this month’s Boston marathon has shown once again how weather can wreak havoc on finishing times!

Run the “A” Standard qualifying time of 2:37:00

If running 6:17 pace for 26.2 is a little too easy, let’s talk “A” Standard for you overachievers. While “B” standard runners historically have paid their own way, a 2:37:00 or better marathon historically earned you a free trip to the Trials. (Contrary to popular belief, it is the local organizing committee who funds this and all other expenses of the race, not USATF.) But here’s some fantastic news: The Atlanta Track Club has promised to fund the travel expenses of every qualifier in 2020!

Sounds like it’s time to get down to some serious work. Good luck!

Will you attend the Trials? Are you a Trials hopeful or already qualified? What do you think of the American system for selecting the Olympic marathon team?


I'm a 20-year veteran of competitive running, USATF certified coach, mom of a toddler -- and still trying to set PRs. I write about training from 5k to marathon, motherhood and competitive running, and the elite side of the sport. The 5k is my favorite race (16:56 PR) but I've got a score to settle with the marathon.

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  1. It is strange that you would write about how to qualify for the trials when you have never qualified for the trials.

  2. Any suggestive training plans for the โ€œBโ€ qualifying standard? I donโ€™t have a coach and run solo. I am searching for a good plan to follow.