About a year and a half ago, I posed the question whether or not it was possible to train for an Ironman in 1 year (spoiler alert, it is).
Now, I’ve found a new challenge to look forward to, the possibility of running a sub 3 hour marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival in October, 2019.
Why 3 hours? Well, for my age group (30-34), sub 3 hours is the time needed to (potentially) qualify for the Boston Marathon, and that would be pretty cool.
Admittedly, I also feel as though I have some unfinished business after my Ironman marathon collapse. After having run a 1:32 half Ironman half marathon, I had my eyes set on a sub 3:30 Ironman marathon and ultimately, my nutrition failed me. After averaging right around an 8 minute mile for the first 18 miles of the run, I hit “the wall” and had to walk 4-5 miles which significantly set my finish run time back to roughly 4:30.
All I kept thinking after that was “if I can run a 1:32 half marathon after a 56 mile bike and a 1.2 mile swim, and if I could maintain an 8 minute mile pace for 18 miles after 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike, it stands to reason that a marathon on it’s own should be easy (remind me to knock on wood or something).
Sub 3 hour marathon statistics
Let’s check this out by the numbers.
To run a sub 3 marathon, you’d be running 26.2 miles in less than 180 minutes. Which comes out to ~6:51 minute miles.
According to this article from Runner’s World, only 2 percent of runners from 2011 (~10,000 of 518,000) ran a marathon under 3 hours.
That’s the 98th percentile of all runners can hang on to 6:51 or less for 26.2 miles. Quite a small group.
For me personally (thanks to my handy dandy Garmin 935 & Run Pod), I know I average about 1.3 meters per step. A marathon is 42,195 meters, which means someone with my stride will need to take 37,457 steps at a rate of 180 steps per minute every minute for 180 minutes to cross that finish line on time.
Note here there are 2 variables that can be controlled to help improve the chances of this happening:
- Cadence (steps per minute)
- Stride length
Using cadence and stride length to increase speed
Logically, increasing your cadence (steps per minute) and stride length seem parts of a no-brainer equation to increasing your running speed.
There are some problems here though…
Your stride length should only be as long as you can continue to land with a mid-foot strike. Extending your stride length by throwing your heel forward and heel striking (then resulting in a dipped hip and a massive pull with the hamstring to move forward) actually causes you to run slower than landing on your mid-foot and pushing through the stride.
Additionally, your cadence should only be as fast as you can cycle your feet, while maintaining the type of stride mentioned above.
This means your increase in stride length should actually come from an increase in power generated from pushing off of your foot (not pulling through with your posterior chain). Your cadence can then be adjusted/quickened so long as that type of form remains true.
3 underrated keys to running a sub 3 hour marathon
Sure, I could tell myself running a BQ marathon on my first try is easy by just “running a little faster/harder”, but that would be (mega-super-annoyingly) beyond naive. Other than working on my cadence & stride length (i.e. power), there are 3 underrated and often overlooked keys to making something like this work. Those are:
- Stretching & recovery
- Strength training
- Intervals, race pace runs & fartleks
- Bonus: Hills
During my Ironman training, I consistently just ran for ‘time periods’ with no real focus on pace (other than what I naturally did). The key for me making it through that program though, was the combination of stretching, scheduled rest & recovery and strength training.
The biggest difference between the plan I followed there and the one I’m concocting here, is the incorporation of race pace intervals and fartleks (yes, I still giggle every time I write that word) into my training runs.
Stretching & recovery
While this seems like a no-brainer, I’ve seen too many athletes in my years coaching who do things like “10 mile cool-down runs” and “recovery metcons”. Truth is, if you’re not resting, you’re not resting.
When you’re actively pushing your body hard it’s imperative that you take the necessary time to let the muscles rebuild so you can continue to push hard for longer.
My plan is to continue using something like RomWod to guide daily stretching routines and rest as consistently as I can on Wednesday and Sundays. I’ll mix up cross training & running during the other 5 days of the week.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – Abraham Lincoln (probably)
Sticking with what worked during Ironman training (and because I don’t really have that much time between now and the Baltimore Marathon) I’ll be following a twice a week squat program designed to peak power output a week or so before the race.
I’ll do 1 day of front squats, and 1 day of back squats starting at 60% on week 1 and working up to 90-95% by week 11.
Not only will that help with power output, it’ll also help with stretching the muscles in my legs to keep them from getting overly tight thanks to all the running.
I’ll throw in upper body work too (in the form of metcons, or strict work), but for the purpose of a marathon, it kind of doesn’t matter.
Intervals, race pace runs & fartleks
If I have any hopes of running a sub 3 hour marathon, unlike my Ironman training, I’ll have to actually train for speed.
My “natural” pace is about 7:30/mi and I’ll need to knock over :40 off that for race day. Adrenaline will help a little bit, but not the full way.
Many of my weekday runs will follow a format like “warm-up, race pace, cool down” where the race pace distance will increase over the course of the program.
In addition to just increasing a steady race pace portion of a run, I’ll do interval runs (fartleks) that will look like “warm-up, (race pace for 800, casual pace for 800) repeated X times, cool down”. Here my number of intervals will increase, but I’ll be working in rest between the fast intervals to help with anaerobic conditioning.
Many programs designed for speed have days dedicated to hill work.
This I’ll be skipping, mainly because my 4 mile loop has over 50% as much elevation as the full marathon I intend to run (i.e., it’s not flat). My goal will simply be to ensure my pace never slows going up hill, which will add another element of difficulty to the program.
So, can you run a sub 3 hour marathon with 12 weeks of training?
I’ve got a shot at making it happen, but ideally, I’d probably have more time to train, and get up to a solid base before jacking up the distance.
If I fall short, no question I’ll have the urge to try again. With a kid on the way (due ~1mo after the Baltimore marathon) it might be a bit before I get that chance.
So, with that said, for the next 12 weeks, we’re gunna go for it.