Five Ways to Improve Your Marathon Time


, by Nick Bester

Photography by: visoot

When I first started running, my marathon time was 3h 17m. I’ve now managed to work my way down to 2h 20m. There are a lot of things I have learnt along the way which I would love to share with you.

I could get into hundreds of tips to improve your marathon time, but below are some of my best:

1. Executing a good marathon is the culmination of consistent training over the previous 16, 12 or 8 weeks of training

Rome was not built in a day and the same goes for marathon training. Marathons are a long way and there’s no such thing as getting lucky on race day. What you put in, is what you get out - the magic is made in training. Race day is simply the victory lap of all the work that’s gone into it.

It’s as simple as this. In marathons where you execute a successful race, your training will have gone according to plan. If you put together consecutive consistent weeks, week after week, then you’re giving yourself a good chance of having a great race and hitting that goal of yours. You can’t just have one or two good sessions, and think you’re going to nail the marathon. It’s such a long distance that it will expose any weaknesses and on race day there is no hiding.

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I like to think of it like building a house. Race day is when you put the coat of paint over your house. Building the foundation, the base, the structure, the roof, brick by brick, is what’s done in training. Put in the work, because trust me, come race day, you don’t want to look back and think there was a lot more you could’ve done. Give yourself the best chance.

2. Set goals

Be bold but realistic. Think Big. Your goals should scare you! It’s important that we let these goals motivate us, give us drive, bring out the best in us, but we can’t allow ourselves to become so obsessive that we get to the point that it’s no longer enjoyable.

Runners at the Paris Marathon. Photography by: Gazou92

Allow goals to keep you on track but not take away our love for the sport.

Often, I find that setting mini goals en route to your main goal helps break things down and makes your main race seem less daunting. It’s always a big confidence boost when you can tick off the mini goals along the way. That way you know you’re tracking in the right direction and your dream goal starts becoming a reality.

3. Do a lot of running at goal marathon pace, with a good chunk either side too

You need to condition your body as best as possible prior to race day, getting it used to exactly what that pace should feel like so that it’s not a complete shock to the system. By doing a large portion of your training at goal marathon pace, you’re also making it clear whether this is a realistic target time or not, based on how your body is handling that speed throughout training. Remember: if you’re able to hit big portions of your runs at your target pace in training, then come race day - with tapered legs, adrenaline and the crowd supporting you - often this pace feels a whole lot easier for a big portion of the race.

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It's also important to do a session in the week that is faster than goal race pace, getting your legs turning over quicker than they usually would. These interval or track training sessions can be classified as VO2 Max work. By doing these sessions, week in and week out, it should help ensure marathon pace feels a lot easier and smoother.

Remember that easier maintenance mileage (zone 2 runs) should make up around 75 to 80% of your weekly training.

The beauty of the marathon distance is that there is always so much more to learn. It’s a brutal event, but it always keeps you coming back for more!

4. Focus on getting the last 10km / 6 miles of race day right

If you are able to nail the last quarter of the race, then you have most likely had a really good day. Marathons only start at 30kms or 26 miles. I’m consistently reminded of this every time I do one. This is the part of the race where the magic is made, where the going gets tough and the tough gets going.

A great way to get this right is by doing progression runs through training, or long runs where you pick up the pace for the last half an hour. You are teaching the mind and body to progress as the run goes on.

When it comes to race day, you’re much better off starting at a slightly easier pace and finishing strong. This way you’ll be comfortable for a much bigger portion of the marathon. Nothing is more motivating than overtaking people and if you’re able to sustain your pace, or even better, increase it slightly within the last quarter, you’ll be guaranteed to overtake a whole lot of runners.

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The mindset at the very start of the race should be thinking about that last quarter. That way it will allow you to hold back in the beginning and save those necessary reserves for when you really need them. A marathon is a long way and a whole lot more time can be made up in that last bit, compared to if you had to lose time by going out too fast.

If you’re feeling good – hold back. If you’re feeling really good - hold back. If you’re feeling amazing - hold back.  If you’re feeling incredible with the last 10kms / 6 miles - then gradually start picking up the pace.

Elite runners at the New York City marathon

5. Pick a race strategy that suits you best

We are all different and what works for one person might not necessarily work for another. That’s why it’s important to try different things within training, so we know what works best for us come race day. It’s also just as important to reflect on each race and look at what went right, but most importantly learn from what didn’t go right.

The male marathon world record was run with a slight positive split, while the female world record was run with a slight negative spirit. Clearly this shows that there is no right or wrong way to run this race.

Often, I find that equal to negative splits have worked best for me in the past. By running the marathon this way, you’re ensuring that you’re comfortable for a big portion of the race. Of course, it’s going to get tough, but by that stage you’ve saved your legs.

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Try training in the same vein as your race strategy in order to get your mind and body as best conditioned to what will happen on race day as possible.

I hope some of these tips can help you. The beauty of the marathon distance is that there is always so much more to learn. It’s a brutal event, but it always keeps you coming back for more! Perhaps it’s the fact that when you finish, you always think there’s something you could improve on, or perhaps it’s the fact that it gives you a purpose, a drive and you feel slightly empty without it. Whatever the case, it’s tough, beautiful and we need to respect it, but not fear it!

Onwards and upwards,

Coach Nick

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