Run a Sub-3 Hour Marathon in Just 13 Short Hours a Week!

Lauren Kleppin, who famously worked long hours at a bar while she trained for her first Olympic trials qualifier. Image via wikipedia,
Lauren Kleppin, who famously worked long hours at a bar while she trained for her first Olympic trials qualifier. Image via wikipedia,

So you want to get faster, maybe break three hours in a marathon or maybe … just maybe qualify for the Olympic trials. No matter where you are in your running career, you can.

But, Jasmine! A lot of these competitive women train a whopping 80, 90, 100 miles or more per week. I don’t have enough time to do that. How can I ever be that fast?

You can. I want to put to rest the misconception that training for big dreams requires an ambiguously large amount of time and nothing better to do. The truth is that putting in the work to train at a competitive level doesn’t really take up that much time.

I don’t want to tell you that you can have it all. But even if you have kids, a demanding career, or need to go home every four hours to let a dog out, you probably have time to train as much as the average elite runner. I want to reinforce that the amount of time it takes to train for big running dreams is finite. It is not a full time job. Actually it isn’t even close to being a job. Something like  70-80 miles per week is probably only a few more hours than you are doing right now especially if you are in a fitness routine and maintaining very good athletic shape.

The amount of time it takes to be dedicated to taking on your big running dreams is probably something you can handle with a full time job and maybe even kids. For example, I peaked at 93 miles per week training for my 2:54 Columbus race. In the longest week, I didn’t even hit 13 hours. I did this while ultracommuting between two states and working a full time engineering job.

Women training at 120 miles per week may be around 16 hours per week…. but that is still a manageable level. Canada’s top marathon runner, Lanni Marchant is a criminal defense attorney. My pick for the third spot on the US Olympic team, Annie Bersagel, is an attorney living in Norway. Hanson Original Distance Project’s team runs twice a day while working in the stores and doing their side coaching gigs. 

Alana Hadley fits in 120 mile weeks while going to school full-time and being a “regular” teenager. Image by Mark Hadley.

I think the misconception that elite-level training demands so much time comes from the desire for an excuse and from things elite athletes say that get taken out of context. When American running hero Desiree Linden says something like training for a marathon is a lifestyle she doesn’t think she could have balanced as a full time student, we are all quick to assume that means she didn’t have time to train as a student.

On Sunday Alana Hadley lined up to race the NYC Marathon only for her day to end in a severely disappointing DNF. She and her father stand as a high profile example of an athlete and coach criticized for all the things we would expect: 18 year-old woman trading grades and social life for running 120 miles per week and having it backfire. See! She’s spending too much time training!

But at 120 miles per week, how much could Hadley be running? 16 hours? if she was just a responsible eighteen year old, she would already be showering and doing some sort of exercise every day anyway. Aren’t her classmates already spending more time than this on football, band or beer pong?

So guys, what would it take me to convince you that to shoot for big dreams you don’t have to dedicate an impossibly unpredictable amount of time to running? There are a lot of women at the top of this sport that literally have nothing better to do, but there are also a lot of women like Lanni and Annie than have high stress full time jobs. Some have jobs and kids. Some hove jobs with lots of travel.

Ellie Hess, a mother of four kids between the ages of 2 and 8, qualified for the Olympic trials a couple of weeks ago!

We write about all the tricks here, like multitasking and run commuting. But what I’m proposing to you here is that the amount of time you need to train like an elite is manageable and predictable. It is something you can write on your calendar and something you can figure out how to fit in every day. If you are already a responsible adult that showers every day and exercise enough to be in very good shape, it is just a another level of dedication and not that much more time.

I’m not saying that out of your 168 hour week, you should be able to recoup a bunch of waste. We are all busy. What I’m saying is that if you are dedicated to your dreams in this sport, something like 13 hours is a reasonable amount of time to fit into a 168 hour week for a few months out of the year. You just have to choose this sport over whatever other sports, hobbies or time wasters you spend your week on and take multitasking bonuses when you get the chance. (Personally, favorite multitasking bonus is getting in an hour and a half of TV on the treadmill every day in the winter.)

You have the time to train like an elite. Will you take it?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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27 comments

  1. I do think there is a lot of truth to this post- if you want something you make the time for it. It is inspiring when I read about fast runners who work, are parents, have life commitments and so on. But, that doesn’t mean that those people who don’t have as many commitments aren’t inspiring as well- some people were gifted enough for opportunity to live the way that they do. Some people have that chance, and take it. Are there days I wish I had unlimited access to some of the things pros do? You bet! But are there days I am really freaking glad that I have a lot more than just running in my life, YES (most days). Because running is incredibly important but it isn’t everything to me and I find I do better when it isn’t my sole focus.

    While juggling busy schedules is tough (but can be done like you said), I’d imagine there are plenty of challenges that come with being a pro and your ONLY thing being running. Hell, mentally I don’t think I could do that. I take a lot of pride in managing the schedule I do, on top of training and life. But I also feel really lucky that when I go into a race, it isn’t about a paycheck or putting food on my table. That’s a whole different pressure that they deal with….I’ll stick to my full time job (and part time too) with life and training.

    Making the time can be such a simple fix. Some people might be like “where the hell do I get a few extra hours?”, but getting creative is key. The obvious like you stated of run commutes and multi tasking- but I’d simply challenge people to start with finding an extra 15-20 minutes a day to dedicate to training. Maybe yoga, or core work, cross training or a little extra 20 minute run. After a few weeks of that I bet people would notice that they can find even more, maybe 30 minutes and 45 minutes. Priorities start to shift and when they see it CAN be done, it becomes a lot easier to say “I train 13 hours a week, and you can too”.

    1. Yeah, I doubt any elite or subelite runners really just train to fill the emptiness of their otherwise boring lives. Most serious runners are pretty goal oriented across the board if my friends and acquaintances are any measure.

  2. So 13 hours is for running, what about the time driving to and from runs, changing, showering, stretching, strengthening, receiving health care?

    1. Well, my friend, the amazing thing about running is that the road awaits in front of your house. You don’t have to go anywhere. If you are already exercising every day, you are already changing, showering and stretching. Destination and social running is a luxury that comes from having more than the minimum time to throw at this sport.

      1. I’ll just tell my kids the road awaits me and then I need to shower, but I swear it’s not a big deal! I’ll be back to feed them … eventually!

  3. When you put it that way, it sounds so easy and inspiring! I would caution anyone taking this article to heart to start slowly like Barley suggested and not forget to listen to what your body might be telling you and give it time to adapt to these intense (but worth it, I’m sure!) training weeks. Overtraining is almost as sure a way to a DNF or an injury as not training at all.

    1. Good point. Almost no one should go from 25 miles per week to 90 in one season. But if someone wants to eventually train that much, it’s not necessarily time that’s the limiting factor.

      1. Seems like it’s also important to mention that, if you’re going to train like an elite, you have to make time to rest/recover/stretch/feed yourself like an elite too. I see a fair amount of aspiring elite runners training like elites while continuing to take an amateur approach to recovery and nutrition (and getting injured as a result.) It’s definitely true that aspiring elites (with busy lives and challenging schedules) trying to mimic elite-like training need to get creative in order to fit all their miles and workouts in. It seems like it’d be really counterproductive to work THAT hard at carving out extra time for training while failing to pencil in time it takes to properly fuel, rest, and stretch to sustain that level of training. And that stuff DOES take time. Not a ton…but enough to be an added factor when you’re trying to cram it all in between work and school and family-ing and such.

  4. I agree, it’s easy to make the time just for the miles, but all of the “extras” to really be an elite or sub-elite take up a lot more time. And assuming you don’t train solely alone there’s also added time commuting to meet people or just talking before/after your runs etc. that also adds up. It also depends on how much sleep you need and how clearly you need to think at your job. You definitely can’t think clearly, train like an elite, and sleep enough all at once, or at least I can’t

    1. I’ve also conveniently left out the amount of time spent bitching about running and the amount of time spent curating training logs. These are all things you have to contain to fit running or any sport into your life. However, the limiting factor in fitting a high level of training into a normal lifestyle is not the amount of time actually spent on your feet running.

    2. I completely agree, Marisa. I’ve chosen a career that only allows for about 6 hours of sleep a night without running. And that’s my choice, granted, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing 50 mile weeks wouldn’t crush my soul along with my health. I drove myself into the ground training for my spring marathon and my career suffered for it! Being a zombie didn’t help my job OR my running.

  5. As someone who has put in consistent mileage over a long period of time, I have to say that it’s really not as simple as you make it out to be.

    First, this is not just a weekly time commitment. It is a commitment of years and years to go from a 30-40 mpw fairly serious recreational athlete up to the 100 mpw level. Sure, it’s not too much of a stretch to put in this much work for a handful of seasons, but years..?

    You’re also working with the assumption that each mile is around 8 min pace. 80 mpw for a 10 min pace runner is a significantly harder training load than at 8 min pace (13+ hours…and most female runners are >10 min training pace)..

    Finally, I think we all tend to overlook a big component of what people generally call talent: resistance to injury. Not everyone can run >XX mpw and/or complete intense speedwork and stay healthy. Yes, we see elites getting injured fairly regularly, but this is at training loads much greater than the average runner. When people call me talented, I have to laugh because really my best qualities as a runner are injury resistance and tolerance for boredom (which have both diminished).

    It’s an interesting thought to hypothesize achievements given the time commitment, but it doesn’t translate quite so easily.

    1. I also think it’s really hard to understand the demands on other peoples’ time. Just because one person can do this with little discomfort, does not mean all or most people can.

      For instance, until you are actually a parent no one can theoretically understand the insane demands of your time as a parent. I say this recalling all the ridiculously inaccurate perceptions I used to have about parents. For instance … and those demands are not even consistent, predictable or rational. You can’t take vacation time to taper or to recover or anything. You can’t control how much you sleep. Now I’m not whining about being a parent, but I think putting in OTQ level training while being a parent of any stripe is really impressive. And I think I speak for 99% of parents who would say that their kids come first and they would give up running if they needed to to be a better parent. It’s just to say that we know whether anyone in theory “has nothing better to do” doesn’t mean that’s actually true.

      There are just many unforeseen variables in other peoples’ lives … from demands on their time, to physical limits, to genetic luck, to stuff we can’t even know.

      I think it’s good to say this might be more possible than you think, but it’s not possible for everyone and that’s ok. It just is how it is and because someone cannot swing this level of training for whatever reason does not make her less committed or less competitive or less dedicated … she’s just dedicated within her space. We all have limitations and barriers to getting in the consistent training over time and some of us can overcome these things, other of us can’t.

      In sum, all we can do is the best we can do with what we have to work with.

      The end.

      1. Well said.

        Really, I’d love to “achieve” at running but bottom line is that it needs to be within the boundaries of enjoyment for me. No one gives a crap how fast I run or what I win and it doesn’t pay the bills or make be a better person. For a while I did enjoy the majority of the 100 miles I ran weekly so it was a great fit into my lifestyle. Now more than 70-80 tips the scales toward drudgery.

  6. The phrase ‘nothing better to do’…as someone who has a thousand things I need to be doing at any given moment–and I DON’T have kids–that phrase really stings! I think of my sister sitting in the ER last night with her daughter while trying desperately to get work done, make site improvements, schedule meetings, manage a team…how could anyone say that’s not something better to do than running!? And another runner who has spent years working her ass off for pennies to get a career in a highly competitive field and is now working hard at that career to pay off debt, pay rent, feed herself, work toward owning a home…how is that not something better to do? Running isn’t just for rich housewives with cabana boys who fan them all day while the children are at boarding school! Like you said, we can step out our door and do it, and I think that increases its appeal and accessibility for those of more modest means who have the weight of other commitments on their shoulders..

    Now the positive: I think it comes through, Jasmine, that your real point here is that running is a choice we can make or not make. That’s a GREAT point, and I love that you brought it up, because like Barley says, it points out that we can try to squeeze in more time, whether that’s another five hours or another five minutes. You’ve inspired me a great deal, with this post and your last one, to re-work my strategy in working toward a BQ. Thanks!

  7. Is this post based on the assumption that you are already capable of running a full marathon in 3:30 or a half marathon in 1:40 ? In other words, does this assume that even though you are not running 80 to 100 mile weeks, you are already an above average half marathoner or full marathoner? If someone’s best full marathon is 5:30, is the calculation different?

    I mean, it’s one thing to go from being a really good runner (3:30 marathon) to an awesome runner (2:43 marathon). It’s another thing to go from being a competent runner (5:30 marathon) to an awesome runner.

    I say this as an old guy (going to run 50 next year) who’s PR in the half (set a month ago) is 1:51. Ok. I know that I am not likely to pull an OTQ. But there are people I know who are half my age who run half marathons in 2:05. Does this post apply to them?

  8. This post is wildly simplified. “How I trained for marathon in just 13 hours a week” would be a more appropriate title perhaps. We’re taking out a lot of components to being a sub elite athlete here. Some people aren’t fast enough. If you can’t run 6:51 pace feeling very comfortable, breaking 3 hours isn’t going to be a reality. can you work toward being able to do that? Yes, but it’s going to take a lot more than 13 hours a week for 10-16 weeks. It’s going to take speed work, recovery, tempos, recovery, mental preparation, recovery, for some weight loss, figuring out proper nutrition, and a gennetic predisposition to being able to do this. I know plenty of people putting in 50-60 miles a week that will not be able to withstand the demands of training at a level that will allow them to run 6:51 pace comfortably for 1 mile let alone 20 and push for 6 more.
    It’s not always because they have better things to do, it’s not because they would rather do something else, it’s because they are not fast enough.
    Many people try to break 3 hours and some are blessed with a body that will withstand the training and the mental capacity to handle it all while working, raising kids, and juggling whatever life throws at you. But some won’t. For a million reasons, that have NOTHING to do with the time they are willing to carve out.

  9. I am right with Becki on the assessment, and also many others. In general there is good stuff here, but it is SO loaded with problematic stuff and things that come across as judgmental or worse that the good stuff gets lost in the mix.

    And I think that it starts with the title – look, I get that your title is ‘clickbait’, and I’m sure it works in the proper Buzzfeed model, but not everyone will be able to beat a 3 hour marathon. Period. It requires hard work, to be sure, but there is more to it than that… and failure to beat 3 hours doesn’t make that person a failure.

    Personally I am already someone who is putting in 60+ miles per week, and make the time pretty easily as my kids are older and my work routine is pretty solid (and a 5 mile commute!). But I have been on the other side, scrapping for minutes each day.

    But look at a normal schedule:
    – 8 hours sleep
    – 8 hours work
    – 1 hour commute (US avg)
    – 2 hours eating (across 3 meals)
    – 1 hour to cook, pack lunches, etc
    – 1 hour to shower, shave, brush teeth, etc (morning & night)
    – 1 hour ‘potty time’

    What does that leave? 2 hours. That means 2 hours that divides between dealing with animals, helping kids with homework, listening/talking to your spouse, exercise and whatever semblance of ‘downtime’ you get.

    For me, after the traumatic birth of our younger son required me to continue working, have a long commute AND provide a large amount of the child care and also house work and cooking as my wife slowly got better, I suddenly slept very light and haven’t slept more than 5 hours per night since. Also, getting my running routine back was a priority for me … and since I run before dawn I made it work.

    Is that an ‘excuse’? Depends on your perspective – and your empathy for others.

  10. I agree with Becki and others here. I am in my 30s and have been running competitively (including D1 in college) since middle school. I now run 60ish miles per week, and have managed a 1:22 half and hope to – but haven’t – break 3 in the full. For me specifically, I am certain that “13 hours” would make the difference in running 3:03 (current pr) vs 2:59. But I am injury resistant, have natural (sprint) speed, and have *decades* of endurance-building under my belt. So not representative of the typical runner, for whom breaking 3 isn’t feasible (for many reasons), 13 hours of running or not!

  11. I’m a full time teacher and mother of a four year old and a six year old. I managed to peak at 90 miles this past cycle, but it only worked because it was summer and I didn’t have to be home getting kids up and ready for school, so my typical 9 mile morning runs could stretch out to 15 some days. I can handle about 70-75 during the school year. Also, sadly, I only was able to run a 3:29. So I guess I personally cannot run a sub-3 hour marathon on 13 hours a week. 🙂

  12. My first sub 3 hour marathon time was during my dietetic internship which was full time and with a 1 hour commute to and from the locations that we interned at. I peaked at 80 miles which was roughly 10 hours per week spent training. But my 2:51 PR came a year later and I peaked at 90 miles per week working full time with a 1.5 hour commute- so 11-12 Hours of training. I was married at the time but no kids yet. Now though I have 2 kids and After reading this article, I really want to get back at that level and hopefully qualify for the Olympic Trials- although it may take a few years to get back to that level and some stroller running 🙂