Sub 3:30 Marathon Training Plan: Everything You Need to Know

Let’s talk a little bit about what  a sub 3:30 marathon training plan looks like, who it’s for, and how to get started.

The one thing to state here before getting too deep into it is, if you’re looking to break 3:30 in a marathon, you’ll need to do quite a bit of running.

In addition to running though, there’s a lot to pay attention to – such as your base fitness, diet, injury prevention and a lot more.

Let’s be clear – this sub 3:30 marathon training plan is not of the “couch to marathon” variety. You’ll want to have some running experience, and a solid base level of fitness, more on that… well, right now.

Note: looking for a different time goal? Check out all of the marathon training plans available and find the one best suited for you.

Sub 3:30 marathon statistics & prerequisites

To run a marathon in 3.5 hours, you need to maintain an 8:00 pace for 26.2 miles.

This also means you should be able to run faster than that pace for shorter distances. Consider these as guidelines:

  • 1:40 half marathon (7:37 pace)
  • 45 minute 10k (7:00-7:30 pace)

This training plan is also 16-18 weeks long, so it’s important to be able to run 20-30 miles per week out of the gate, broken up over 4-6 runs.

What does a sub 3:30 marathon training plan look like?

Injury prevention as a priority

Any marathon training plan, but particularly one pushing for a time goal, should follow the wave method.

The wave method is essentially routine increases in volume for 1-3 weeks, followed by a 1 week ‘taper’ or lighter week.

This helps your body build new fitness with volume increases, but also allows your body to rest, recover and absorb that new fitness with a lesser risk of injury.

Repeating this method for the entirety of the plan will help you feel fresh & ready to roll on race day, giving you the best possible chance of nailing that sub 3:30 time.

The 5 different types of training runs

  1. Tempo – Runs at tempo speed will be runs done faster than your intended 8:00 marathon pace. These could be as fast as 7:15/mile and serve the purpose of over exaggerating difficulty & speed so that your race pace running feels easier.
  2. Race pace – Race pace runs are (obviously?) the idea of practicing exactly what your race pace will be. In the case of a 3:30 marathon, that’s 7:55-8:00 per mile. This is for getting acclimated to what you should ‘feel’ like on race day AND help build your confidence that you can sustain this pace over long periods of time.
  3. “Track”/interval workouts – Different from many of the other run types, these tend to be broken up into “sets” or repeats of a small distance to work on speed and anaerobic conditioning (like what you’ll need if your race has any significant hills). An example of a portion of a track/interval workout would be something like 4×800, translating into 4 separate 800m (or half mile) sprints at tempo or faster – a little recovery – and repeat.
  4. Easy/recovery – This is going to sound silly, but these are some of the hardest runs you’ll do. You have to force yourself to slow way down anywhere from 8:45-9:45/mile. On recovery runs, you should be able to breathe exclusively through your nose, keep your heart rate about 75% or lower of your max (220-age, roughly), and maintain relaxed the entire time. These are simply for building some fitness/comfort on your feet – nothing else.
  5. Long (and sometimes trail) runs – THE most important run type of any marathon training plan, the long run. These runs are where you really put the work in to acclimate your body to moving for long periods of time. You’re going to run 26.2 miles, you’ll need to work up at least close to that, and do it slowly & methodically to avoid injury. These runs are done ~30 seconds slower than race pace and will almost always close out a week of training.

The weekly schedule

Whew, ok, now that you know what types of runs you’ll be doing, let’s talk a little bit about when you’ll be doing them.

Your sub 3:30 marathon training plan is measured in weeks, and each of those weeks will follow a pattern like the below:

  • Monday: Rest day
  • Tuesday: Workout (tempo, interval, etc.)
  • Wednesday: Easy run
  • Thursday: Workout (tempo, interval, etc.)
  • Friday: Easy run
  • Saturday: Mid-long fast run/workout
  • Sunday: Long run

There are a few goals in a schedule like this:

  1. Alternate easy/recovery days with hard workout days so the body can perform at a high level when asked.
  2. Stack a tough day and a long day back to back to aid in building increased resilience
  3. Give yourself a rest after a long, tough weekend so you can adequately attack the next weeks runs

The diet required to run a sub 3 hour marathon

You’re going to burn A LOT of calories – which directly translates into, you’ll need to eat a lot of food.

What kind of food you ask? Well, a general rule of thumb is to eat meat & vegetables, nuts & seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no as little sugar as possible.

You’re looking to find quality, whole foods to eat – doing your best to avoid overly processed foods (which yes, also include those super tasty double chocolate ‘meal replacement’ bars).

Overly processed foods may taste good, but they’re actually counter productive. They can make you feel more sluggish, and even slow you down on some of those longer runs.

The question of ‘how much food do you eat’ is unique to every person.

A good way to get a sense of your personal caloric intake requirements is to use a free app like MyFitnessPal to track your calories & note how you feel. Better yet, if you own a Garmin, you can sync the two apps together & it’ll tell you how much you have burned vs how much you’ve eaten, and you can adjust accordingly.

The sub 3:30 marathon training plan

Alright – you’re now up to speed diet, types of training runs, workout schedule, etc.

Now let’s talk about the various different training phases in a sub 3:30 marathon training plan:

  1. Base
  2. Build
  3. Peak
  4. Taper

Each phase will follow the weekly schedule outlined above, but the intensity, length and type of workouts will vary from phase to phase.

Base phase

This is one of the least exciting phases, but also one of the most important.

The purpose of base phase is to – well – build a base level of fitness where you can begin stacking more difficult and longer runs with a reduced risk of injury.

In this phase, there are a lot of runs at consistent distances and times, with the workout runs being shorter than you may expect.

You might be tempted to push harder or go longer in this phase because you feel like you’re not doing enough – but resist this urge, those hard/longer runs are coming.

Build phase

This is where you start building layers of fitness on top of the base.

In build phase, the runs (even the recovery ones) get progressively longer, and you’ll be asked to push the tempo/race pace runs for more and more minutes & miles.

This is where you’ll really appreciate the wave approach and even look forward to the taper weeks. That said, you’ll also see some of the best fitness gains in this phase, building up the resilience and confidence you need to attack the toughest phase of them all, Peak.

Peak phase

This is where the long runs get real.

You’ll be pushed to 20 miles, maybe even multiple times, at the peak of this phase (no pun intended).

Many of your weekday runs (tempos, intervals, recovery) will stay similar to build phase, but it will be those long Sunday runs that slowly start to creep up in distance until you’re running 4/5ths of the total race distance at only slightly slower than race pace.

This part is tough – and it’s imperative to listen to your body and take it easy during the week if needed to make sure you hit those long runs.

The Taper

Almost there!

The taper sounds great – reduced volume, tapering down until race day so your body can be as fresh as possible at the start line.

The problem with taper is more psychological than it is physical.

The issue comes with the attitude that you’ve been training super hard and long for weeks leading up to this, so a dramatic cut in volume feels.. well, it feels wrong.

You’re flooded with thoughts of “I’m not doing enough, I have to go harder” – it’s super important to know this isn’t true at this stage.

Your work is done, taper is designed to recover your body – the fitness is built, now you just need to get to the start line healthy & ready to rock.

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