Hello runners dreaming of a sub 4 hour marathon! You are here because you are looking to achieve a specific marathon time goal. Finishing a marathon is not enough for you and I commend you for your laser-focus. Sub-4 or bust!
I’d like to humbly say that you’ve come to the right place to accomplish this goal! I’ll be walking you step-by-step through each element of your training, preparing you as best I can to help you dip under one of the holy grails of marathon running, the highly desired sub-4 barrier.
The fundamental objective of pace-specific training is to get you very comfortable at running your marathon goal pace.
At first, running even a few miles at your goal pace might feel really hard, but trust me, you are going to transform into a metronomic machine by the end of your training cycle, with the ability to lock into your pace with ease.
Your job is to trust the process. What feels impossible now will slowly but surely enter the realm of possibility, and eventually, you’ll arrive at a fitness level where you can confidently say that you are ready to achieve your goal.
It’s okay to be nervous, it’s okay to doubt, but as the weeks click by, let your confidence blossom and believe in the new you.
Sub 4 Hour Marathon Pacing Strategy
Nine minutes and nine seconds per mile. Let me say it again: nine minutes and nine seconds per mile! That’s what it’ll take. I want nines on the mind, in your dreams, and written down in your doodle art. Nine-O-Nine!
You can think about pacing like cruise control for your car. You aren’t actually a machine so you won’t be able to nail the pace exactly every mile, but locking in a pace and cruising along is what you’re aiming to do.
It’ll fluctuate based on uphills and downhills, but the goal is to learn to turn off your mind, and run at this pace you’ve been training at so religiously for the weeks and months leading up to the race.
With the assistance of a basic GPS watch, you’ll know exactly what your average pace is throughout training. Again, you won’t want to get caught up on any given mile split, it’s the average mile pace that we’re concerned about.
For example, most GPS watches will beep and flash your most recently completed mile time. For example, you might complete mile 21, one of the toughest miles of the race, in a time of 9:33, and you’re going to stay very calm, not caring that it was 24 seconds slower than 9:09.
Why? Because you are going to immediately glance at your average pace and see that you are still averaging 9:06 or 9:07 per mile because you banked some time earlier on during a few downhill miles.
Another tidbit to keep in mind is that I can guarantee you that if you are within striking distance of running your sub-4 marathon, you will find some extra speed in the last couple miles.
If you did your best through the dreaded “wall” (miles 18-22), and you start to smell that finish line, you’re going to be able to pop off some sub-9 minute miles, finish strong, and make up some of that time you may have lost earlier.
So don’t panic if you are slipping off the pace a little bit. Don’t give up! Hang in there and minimize the damage, knowing that you’ll catch what they call a second wind and finish with arms raised high.
Pacing Charts (Miles/KM)
Below you will find our custom pace charts. One will provide you with 9:09 pace per mile (and 5:41 pace per kilometer) from start to finish while the other takes into account a second-half slow-down where you’ll bank some time early on by running 9 minute per mile pace instead of 9:09 (or 5:35 pace instead of 5:41).
Both pace charts can work for you, and you’ll learn which type of strategy will work better based on what you learn about yourself during training.
Please note that pace charts can be very difficult to follow closely if your race course has a fair amount of hills. That said, I imagine that most of you have already selected a flatter course since you are trying to run a sub-4 marathon.
That’s not to say that you can’t run a sub-4 hour marathon on a hilly course, just that you may be a glutton for punishment as the hills will up the challenge considerably!
Pace Chart in Miles:
Pace Chart in Kilometers:
Sub 4 Hour Marathon Training Plans (PDF)
If you’ve never followed a training plan before, I’ll start by telling you that you’re going to need to take this plan and make it yours. If you need it to be rigid, follow it religiously.
If you need it to be flexible, know that you can rearrange workouts, add and decrease mileage depending on your time constraints, and use it more as a loose framework.
These plans are not customized to perfectly fit your life, physiology, genetics, background, or any and all other factors that make you you, but they are darn good training plans that are designed to work effectively for the largest proportion of runners.
So trust the plan, trust the process, but also make it yours and do your best to learn what works and what doesn’t work for you along the way.
12 Week Plan
Short and sweet… and tough! Twelve week marathon programs can be a beautiful thing but almost everything needs to go right for your fitness to crescendo and peak at just the right time.
I typically prefer my athletes to select the 16 or 20 week program so they have more time to work with but I completely understand if your race is happening sooner than that or if you simply prefer a shorter training cycle. Just be ready to hit the ground running!
With 12 weeks, we’ll have enough time for a few build/recovery blocks of training. These blocks consist of two to three weeks of increasing volume, followed by a recovery week where we allow your body to absorb the training and mentally recover.
If you select the 12 week plan, you should be coming into it with a significant fitness level. This is not a couch to marathon program. This is a training plan for runners that stay fairly fit throughout the year and are looking to test their limits.
Only you know what level of fitness you currently have so choose your training plan accordingly!
16 Week Plan
16 weeks is probably my favorite duration. It feels like the sweet spot, enough time to get in fantastic shape but not so long that there’s no sense of urgency. Here, we’ll be able to do everything that the 12 week plan offers plus one additional build/recovery block.
Another benefit of the longer plan is that it provides some wiggle room for unplanned illnesses and minor injuries. If you lose a week to the flu and four days to plantar fascitis, it’s not going to have as dramatic an effect as if that happened during the 12 week plan.
Here too, you’ll definitely want a decent base of fitness to start this plan. I typically recommend 2-3 months of consistent base building where you’re running 3+ days per week.
20 Week Plan
Are you coming into this marathon cycle less fit than you’d like? Do you want to alleviate some of the physical and mental stress by having plenty of time for a nice slow build-up?
Is the universe telling you this is the plan for you? Whatever it is, this 20 week plan is the Cadillac of marathon training plans. It’s a nice long slow progression. We’ll have lots of time to build general fitness and then fine-tune the workouts to make your fitness pop.
We’ll be able to complete five full build/recovery cycles while increasing weekly volume and intensity slowly so that your body has plenty of time to adapt to the increase in workload.
Training Plan Terms to Know
Cooldown – After your interval and tempo run sessions, it’s important to cool down your body by continuing to run for a mile or two at an easy pace. This will keep the blood flowing, help flush out the legs, and speed recovery.
Cross-train – Alternate forms of aerobic activity. Anything from mountain biking to cross-country skiing, swimming laps to stand up paddle boarding. If it gets the blood pumping and the sweat flowing, it’s cross-training!
Easy run – As it sounds, easy running should be EASY. You should be able to hold a conversation and feel relaxed. You’re moving the body, stopping to take in the views and storing up your mental and physical energy for your next hard interval, tempo, or race pace session.
Intervals – A hard effort for a short period of time followed by a period of rest. These workouts should be tough! At the end of each interval you should be breathing hard and feeling like you couldn’t maintain the pace much longer. Do the first couple a little easier to make sure you can get through the entire workout.
Quick-start strategy – Instead of running 9:09 per mile from start to finish, the quick-start strategy allows you to bank some time early on when you are feeling good.
This strategy takes a little stress out of the experience because you have a bit more time to play with later in the race when you might start to slow or need to make an emergency pit-stop at the porta-potty.
Race pace – 9:09! 9:09! 9:09! Or if you are planning on going after the quick-start strategy, aim for 9 minutes per mile on the head.
Rest – (1) Rest days. Take the day off from any form of intentional exercise. That doesn’t mean you can’t walk around the block or ride your bike to the farmer’s market. Feel free to maintain your active lifestyle, but don’t do any vigorous exercise. These rest days are just as important as your workout days!
(2) Rest between intervals. Take the full amount of prescribed time to recover. Jog around a bit or walk, whatever you like. Just keep moving!
Strides – Start out at a jog and slowly accelerate your pace over the course of about 100 meters, roughly the length of a football field.
Every ten meters or so, take it up a notch until you are running at 90% of maximum speed at the 80 meter mark, then slowly take your foot off the gas and slow back down gradually. Focus on efficient running form. Swing those arms and lift those knees!
Tempo run – Sustained hard effort, quicker than marathon race pace. These workouts should be difficult and are great simulations for how you’ll feel late in a marathon.
You should be breathing too hard to maintain a conversation and the pace should be quick enough that you really have work to maintain it throughout the entire session. But again, ease into these workouts so that you can maintain the tempo pace for the entire duration.
Uphill sprints – After your easy run, when you are nice and warmed up, find a hill (flat ground is okay) and tap into some of those fast twitch explosive muscles by going nearly all out for 30 seconds.
Be a little cautious with these as we don’t want to pull a muscle! Flexing this system will make you a better runner, improve your efficiency, and build strength.
Warmup – A mile or two of easy jogging to warm up the body, make your muscles more elastic, and set you up to maximize the return on your workout.
Weekly Running Mileage to Achieve a Sub 4 Marathon
My primary goal as a coach is to get my athletes as fit as possible while making sure to avoid injury and mental burnout. Weekly running mileage requirements are dependent on the goal at hand. Someone trying to run sub-4 in a marathon will have a different workload than someone trying to run sub-5.
For the aspiring sub-4 runner, I’ve found that we need to spend a lot of time in that 30-40 miles per week range, with the biggest week being nearly 50 miles.
You’re going to have to trust me that more mileage does not always translate to higher performance. Sure, we could prescribe 55 miles a week, but you might find that you are simply adding in a bunch of slow jogging miles that have little to no physiological benefit.
Or those extra 10-15 miles per week might feel good at first, but then the mental toll of trying to hit the weekly target will start to tax your energy and motivation levels will drop. At 30-40 miles a week with a max of 50 miles, you’ll stay fresh.
Quality over quantity. For sub-4 training, I want you feeling good, like you could be doing more, not like you’re teetering on the edge.
Cross Training, Rest and Injury
Unfortunately, one of the harsh realities about long distance running is that it can be hard on your body. When we talk about injuries in the running world, we are generally talking about little things like minor muscle strains, IT band pain, plantar fasciitis; things that will go away with a little rest.
Occasionally, bigger injuries like stress fractures can occur, but in most circumstances, injuries big and small can be avoided by listening to your body and knowing when to push and when to dial back your training.
Runners tend to be maniacal about hitting weekly mileage goals or completing specific workouts. We tend to think that if we have to take a few days off, we’ll lose all of our hard-earned fitness, but that’s simply not true.
There are a few things we need to do to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. First, cross-training is a way to build cardio fitness while using other muscles and systems than the ones you use every other day while running.
If you’re feeling a little beat up, maybe you make the decision to swap out your 8 mile run for a two hour mountain bike ride. You’ll get a great workout and avoid the stress on your fatigued running muscles and joints. That one day off of running might save you from a minor injury that was about to surface.
If you feel any sort of pain while running, I always recommend taking two full days off of running (and any activity that aggravates the injury), and then test the injury with an easy run to see if it’s still there. If it is, take another three days off and then test again.
Sometimes there will be cases where you can run through some level of discomfort but they should be very minor. My primary consideration is whether or not the pain is intensifying during the run. If it is, I take time off.
If I have a dull ache or minor pain but it doesn’t progress at all during the run, I’ll typically try to train through it. But again, it’s all about listening to your body and erring on the side of safety.
Keep a long term perspective, remember that missing a day here and there is not the end of the world, and that getting to the start line healthy is one of your primary responsibilities.
Marathon Race Day Advice
I recommend viewing race day as a celebration of your training. You did your best with the training plan and you have your Rocky montage of mental images of you nailing workouts, getting out of bed early, doing the work. Now you get to collect on your investment and achieve your sub-4 goal!
Now pair that type of positive mindset with a few of the following race day strategies. Make sure to arrive at the start line with plenty of time to spare. I know, I know, it’s going to be an early morning, but avoiding stress on race morning is going to be key.
Finding parking, orienting yourself with how the races manages their starting corrals, hitting the porta-potty, maybe jogging a few minutes to warm up; these things take time! I’d trade one less hour of sleep the night before your marathon for a smooth and calm race morning without a doubt.
Once the gun goes off and you’re parading through the streets, make sure to check in on your pace within the first five minutes or so. If you’re running a large marathon, it takes awhile for the runners to string out but again, I want you to stay calm and avoid any major changes in pace.
It’s okay if your first mile needs to be a little slower because of the craziness of the start. I don’t want you hopping up onto the sidewalks or onto people’s lawn to sprint around people and hit your 9:09 mile exactly.
Just make sure to glance at your watch to see what your first mile time was and then slowly adjust your pacing accordingly.
If your marathon is large enough to have pace groups, and if your strategy is to run an even pace throughout the race, I recommend you take advantage of a pace group.
Typically, there will be pacers holding up big signs that say the goal finish time so all you have to do is find the 4-hour group, latch on, and ride the wave. That said, it’s important to not be too trusting.
I’ve heard plenty of stories where the pacer (a volunteer) miscalculates the pace and falls short of the goal, or simply isn’t fit enough themselves to run the pace and has to fall off the pack.
The upside of pace groups is that, for the most part, you can turn your mind off and not stress too much about pace, which is a real benefit. You also have the collective group energy of everyone fighting for a similar goal.
Those cheers and hugs and finish line celebrations are pure gold. Just be careful and retain some ownership over your race. Check your watch, make sure you are hitting the pace, and don’t be afraid to run your own race if the pace isn’t even or if the group is more of a distraction than a help.
You are going to reach a point in the race where it becomes less of a physical challenge and more of a mental challenge. I recommend preparing a few mantras that you can recite when the going gets tough.
Specifically, something that relates to your four hour goal because I can guarantee that the more you are suffering, the more you are going to want to compromise on your goal. You’ll start telling yourself that you really just wanted to be a marathon finisher, not a sub-4 marathoner. Hold on tight to your goal!
Lastly, one of my mental hacks late in a marathon is to envision myself running on a route I’ve run a million times. I run a lot from my doorstep so I know exactly how far various distances are from my house.
When I hit four miles to go in a marathon, I think, okay I’m just running home from the Shevlin Park bridge. When I hit three, I’m passing under the Franklin Street underpass, when I hit two, I can smell the bakery, one mile away I’m passing my kids’ school.
It’s comforting and the distances somehow feel more manageable when you stop seeing them as just miles but actual distances that you know well and that you ran so many times in training.
What percentage of runners run a sub 4 hour marathon?
The general consensus, from a variety of respected online sources, places the percentage at roughly 20-30%.
There are certain marathons that have higher sub-4 finisher rates such as the Boston Marathon, but that race isn’t representative of the general population because of the stringent qualification requirements.
There are also large marathons in hot humid climates and others with very hilly courses where only 5-15% of finishers dip under four hours. It’s safe to say that if you achieve your sub-4 goal, you will fall within the top third of all marathon runners. That’s incredible! And a great reminder that this isn’t going to be easy.
How many gels do I need for a 4 hour marathon?
Whatever you determine to be optimal in training. Some of you might only need one gel per hour while some of you might want three! I typically aim for two per hour, supplemented with a few more calories throughout the race in the form of electrolyte drink.
What tends to happen throughout a marathon is that it’ll get harder and harder to get gels down. They will start sounding less and less appetizing with each passing mile. So be militant with your plan from the start, and stick to it for as long as you can.
What I recommend is testing out different quantities during your long runs and tempo runs and decide for yourself how many to take. My one piece of advice would be that if you are at all debating the number per hour, err on the side of more rather than less.
Once you find yourself in a calorie deficit, it can be hard to dig yourself out.
Is a sub 4 hour marathon hard?
For the vast majority of runners out there, the answer is yes, running a sub-4 marathon is a very challenging feat.
To give some perspective, sometimes it can be fun to hear what celebrities have been able to complete your desired goal so here’s a quick list: Ryan Reynolds (3:50), Will Ferrell (3:56), Sarah Palin (3:59), Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers (3:41), Ashton Kuchar (3:54), Abby Wambach (3:44).
But not Oprah. No, Oprah never broke the 4-hour barrier. She ran 4:29 but likely inspired more people to run the marathon than almost any other person in history. Good on her!
So yes, sub-4 is hard, but doable. If Buddy from Elf (Will Ferrell) can do it, I like your chances. But 9:09 per mile is not a jog. You have to earn this one but I truly believe that nearly anyone can break four hours with enough training, determination and resilience. You included!
My Closing Thoughts
There you have it. Are you feeling psyched? Ready to run through a brick wall? I hope so!
To part, I’m going to give you my final piece of advice. I recommend taking a few tangible steps of commitment and up the ante. RIGHT NOW. If you haven’t done so yet, swipe that credit card and register for the race.
And if this marathon training scheme is your little secret, it’s time to put it on blast: tell your friends, tell your family, post it all over the internet. You are not just running a marathon, you are running a marathon and you’re going to do it in under four hours!
Buy the shoes, buy the GPS watch, buy the cute hoodie with thumb holes in the sleeves. Whatever it takes! You can’t put a price on the value you’ll receive if you see this dream through.
I believe in you 100%. Now you just have to get out of your own way, start believing, and take on the plan one day at a time. I’m here for you if you need me. Feel free to reach out at chaseparnell (at) gmail.com.
Send me your questions. Send me a status update. Send me a finish line celebration photo! I love to hear when my athletes find success using our tools. Your ability was there all along, you just needed a little structure and a nudge to get you there.
Trust the process, listen to your body, work hard, and have fun. You got this!
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Chase is a USATF Level 1 certified running coach. He has experience in both online and high school cross country/track coaching. You can find his writing in Trail Runner and Ultrarunning Magazine. As a lifelong runner with over 50 marathons and ultra marathons under his belt, he has learned the art and science of running by experience, sometimes the hard way. He is most proud of completing Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 100 mile trail race in the Alps, or his 2:35 marathon personal best that he is intent on lowering to sub-2:30 before Father Time crushes his dreams. Find more from Chase at his blog, Treeline Journal.