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How Long Does It Take to Run a Marathon?

The marathon race/distance originated to celebrate the run of Pheidippides, a Greek soldier who ran from the battle of Marathon to Athens, coming to tell of the victory. It is run over a distance of 26.2 miles or 42.1 kilometers and a common question is “How long does it take to run a marathon?”

The fastest official marathon record was smashed in 2 hours 1 minute and 39 seconds, by Eliud Kipchoge. The average time is considerably slower for the amateur athlete. Although the average marathon finish time will depend on many factors like sex, age, and fitness, the average marathon completion time is considered to be between 4 and 5 hours.

Record and Average finishing times

Over the years, the fastest times for men and women have inched in closer blurring the different race speeds between genders. As of December 2020, the difference between male and female marathon record-holders is only 13.5 minutes. 50 years ago, the difference was over 50 minutes. As women have been allowed to compete their times have come down dramatically.

The world record for men has changed hands 8 times since 1999, coming down by 4 minutes. The last seven records were broken at the Berlin Marathon, now considered the fastest course in the world.

Average marathon finish times have increased over the years

What is interesting about the average times for all official marathons is that it has been increasing over the years. From 1986 to 2001 the average marathon finish time increased from 3 hours and 52 minutes and 35 seconds to 4 hours and 28 minutes and 56 seconds. This increase has since slowed only inching up another 1.4% to 4 hours and 32 minutes and 49 seconds.

The reason for the increase is the greater number of amateurs now running marathons. Newly organized events happening every year giving more and more people the chance to run a marathon.  Generally, these non-elite athletes are not as well prepared, thus bringing down the overall average finish time for a marathon.

The only anomaly in the data relates to the average women’s time, which has come down by 4 minutes since 2001, as more and more good quality female runners join the sport.

Peak running age

In a study from 2010, it was stated that the peak running age is between 20-24, after which average times start to slowly decline. Perhaps unsurprisingly the biggest gaps between the age brackets begin to appear as we reach the 60-64 category. Between the ages of 35 and 49 there is little difference. The 40-44 age category is actually slightly faster than the 35-39 category.

Pacing is key

To complete a marathon in the best possible time, it is important to find a pace that works for you. The best-paced races are ones where you maintain a consistent time for the majority of the race. Rather than start out too fast or save too much gas for the end of the race (positive and negative splits).

As mentioned, the average rate is between 4 to 5 hours, so a good running pace is considered to be around 10 minutes per mile. The key for the individual is to establish a marathon pace (race pace) and build that into their training. You should anticipate slowing off slightly in the later parts of the race when fatigue will kick in. This is particularly likely for a first-time runner.

As your experience grows over multiple marathons, you’ll understand the pace you can sustain and adjust how you run.

The average marathon pace does vary by sex. Men average between 9 and 11 minutes. Women average between 10 and 12 minutes.

Training schedules

Whether you are an elite runner, a seasoned amateur, or a marathon newbie, a well-structured training plan is critical for a great race. Although there are a lot of training schedules available online to help you, the first step in marathon training is to understand your pace and goal finishing time.

Often the best way to judge this for a new runner is looking at times for shorter distances like the half marathon or a 10-kilometer run. You will use this to give you a likely time for the marathon and then beginning training accordingly.

Most marathon training schedules last for a 16-week period, starting relatively simple in terms of difficulty and distance. They usually build up until the last 2 to 3 weeks before race day at which point you begin to taper (shorten your long runs and build in more recovery gradually) and really get prepared for the race itself.

How long does it take to train for a marathon?

Most schedules suggest running 4 to 5 times a week, over varying distances, which will gradually increase over the weeks leading up to the race. This is all about building up what people call your base mileage or ‘getting miles in your legs’. This is vital physical and mental preparation.

Over a training week, you will normally focus on multiple shorter distances and one longer run. This longer run will be key to judging your race pace and level of fitness for the big race.

Most people will run below race pace for most of the training runs, normally about 30 seconds below the expected mile pace. At least one of the shorter distances you run at the fastest expected pace (goal marathon race pace).

Types of runs

Tempo

Popular with beginners, this involves running at an even tempo for a few minutes, normally just below your goal race pace, then a few minutes at a slower pace. Repeat this several times over a run.

Tabata

This involves 20-30 second bursts of speedrunning with 10-20 seconds of rest or slow running. Often used by those looking at adding pace to their running.

Interval

The most common training run involves a 10-minute warm-up jog, followed by 5 minutes of intense running, then 5 minutes of moderate jogging. Repeating 5 times before another 10-minute jog at the end. This is ideal for building strength and stamina.

The weekly long run is normally saved for the weekend for most amateur runners and will gradually build up over the weeks towards 20 to 22 miles at the training schedule’s peak. After this, you will spend 2-3 weeks tapering down your runs in the lead up to the race. The last week being the lowest, as people conserve energy for the big race itself.

The long-run is a critical element of the training schedule because it increases mitochondria production, increases capillaries in your legs, and increases your glycogen stores. These increases gradually allow your body to adjust to long-distance running and the actual marathon race.

The final element of the training schedule that must never be forgotten is rest and recovery. Too often, people try and run too much, but rest allows muscles to repair and build. It is critical that you include specific days when no activity is happening and you have periods of training runs for slower pacing to build a recovery on the go.

Getting faster

Strength Train

One tip for improving your speed is actually not about running training but building in other forms of strength and power training, to improve your overall chances of running faster and sustaining that. Weightlifting, resistance training, and forms of bodyweight training are considered great additions to your scheduled running.

Run With Friends

Another great marathon training tip is to run with friends or with running groups/clubs. First, you are surrounded by other runners, who can advise on your running style.

The other benefit is that running with others and in crowds has the effect of pulling people along. It is why pacemakers have been used for years in world record attempts for most distance running. In the race itself, you will get this benefit from other racers. If you can incorporate running in groups into your training, you will find yourself going faster in training.

Fueling

Fuelling is key. You will need to eat healthily, but you also need to fuel properly for training runs. Work out how much liquid you need, learn the pre-race food that works for you, and what to carry with you during longer runs. It is important to test this out early in your training, this is not something you want to be messing with close to the race day.

Marathon Training – Starting From Scratch

For the complete novice that’s new to long-distance running, it’s possible to prepare for a marathon over the typical 16-week training schedule. However, this assumes a level of fitness and running practice coming into week 1. Therefore, to properly prepare for a first marathon, consider the following

  • Start running. Obvious, but before you even consider a training schedule, just begin going for fun runs. Run around the local park, run locally around roads. Just build up a routine of running a few times a week so your body is used to it. (How often should a beginner runner run?)
  • Once you’ve built a solid running base, 20-30 miles a week, you will be ready for your marathon training to begin. But before you formally start, it is always a good idea to get a check-up with a medical specialist.
  • Build-in smaller races early on before training for the marathon. The 5K is a great first race. You will be able to compare training running from race running. As you continually increase your race distances to the 10K and half marathon, your body will start to acclimate to the stresses of racing. This acclimation will prepare you for your marathon race day.

Once all this is considered, a newbie runner can begin the marathon training journey.

Marathon Cut off points/times

Although all races are different, the general cut off point for marathon races is normally 6 hours. This is the point when the course is closed and things need to be packed up, roads cleared, and generally allow the organizers (very often full of volunteers) the chance to leave. 6 hours is normally enough for someone to walk a large part of the race.

Although people may find it frustrating and annoying that cut off times exist, it is worth remembering that many of the people involved are volunteers. Also, the course covers roads or land that is publicly accessed, so it’s hard to keep it clear for too long.

For a longer detailed post about how long marathons are open, check out: How long do marathons stay open for runners?

Half the distance but not half the achievement

For many, the journey towards a marathon is achieved over a series of increasing distances. It’s not unusual to complete a 5-kilometer race, then a 10-kilometer run, and finally the half marathon. It feels like a huge achievement and it’s possible to train for it over a 10-week period, so the training feels more obtainable.

The average times for the half marathon are just over 2 hours, meaning it’s a goal of many first-timers to get under the 2-hour mark and really feel like you have achieved your goal.

Many will target a 9 minute per mile average, giving you a little leeway towards the end of the race. Because of the shorter distance, many strategies involve going out a little faster because holding on towards the end is easier.

The last great barrier of running

On 12th October 2019, world record holder Eliud Kipchoge completed a specially arranged marathon course in Vienna in 1 hour 59 minutes and 40 seconds, breaking the fabled 2-hour barrier. The race is not officially recognized because it was run around a 6-mile circuit on specially designed, tree-lined streets, with multiple sets of pacers used throughout.

Although this record is not recognized as an official race or record, it is the first time in human history that someone has completed the distance under 2 hours. This new running record will be a target for all runners for the official record at some point in the future.

References

https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/marathon/a27787958/average-marathon-finish-time/

https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/average-marathon-time

Coach Scott is a published author and RRCA certified running coach (Level 2). He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 14th half marathon race. 

 To sign up for a FREE half marathon training schedule, log sheet, and pace predictor CLICK HERE.

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How Long Does It Take to Run a Marathon?
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