As cliche as it may sound, when it comes to marathons, seconds make all the difference.
Take Kenyan marathon runner, Eluid Kipchoge, for example. He came first in the 2019 London Marathon at 2:02:37, with Mosinet Geremew coming close in behind at 2:02:55 — a mere 18 seconds difference. Those 18 seconds weren’t just the result of some strange race day luck. Oh no, they were the result of some gruelling, meticulously developed training to repeatedly shave off seconds again and again and again.
That said, training to reduce your marathon time can prove to be a notoriously challenging thing for many runners across the world to overcome, with such fine marginal gains often requiring truly monumental levels of dedicated training and conditioning to make even the slightest — albeit crucial — difference.
Nevertheless, whether you are training for your first marathon or your 100th, if you’re a marathon runner, you’ll always be looking for ways to improve your time no matter what.
With that in mind, here are a few tips on how you can better your overall marathon time.
Set realistic targets
First things first, make sure what you’re setting out to do is physically possible (obviously), what you can expect yourself to achieve, and, arguably most importantly, what you can consistently sustain.
You don’t want to go setting yourself a target you can’t achieve and then be disappointed that you didn’t meet it. Likewise, if you’re setting targets that are too gung-ho without accounting for a steady increase or planning, then you’ll likely do too much too fast and be ill-prepared for your race. The name of this game is creating sensible, realistic targets.
Having a practical, sustainable training plan will make your running so much smoother and easier in the long run. Pick a milage you can stick to and that your body can endure per week alongside your daily life. Prepare well, train hard, but stay safe and sensible, folks.
Ramp up your strength training
It’s often something that runners can neglect, but strength training – like lunges and dead-lifts – can work wonders for your running, particularly if you’re in the process of training for a big race.
This is mainly because having stronger muscles means your body is less prone to injuries. You want your body to be strong as it stores more power, helping you to have better form for balance and stability alongside more powerful and impactful strides.
Have a winner’s mindset
Your mindset matters. Pay attention to it.
Training for a race (and running in general) is a massive confidence booster when it works. Working through a set of targets, seeing your time get faster and faster, mile after mile, will help you not only physically, but build up the right mindset to take on a race head on.
Even if things don’t always go right in your training, it’s all about how you react and carry on to the next stage of your programme. As any professional athlete will tell you, it’s not all rosy, and in the tougher times of your training when you’re just not hitting your stride, the ability to push on and get back to your best is a crucial factor in having a winning mindset.
Consider specific workouts
There are a variety of effective workouts designed to help you shave time off of your marathon run. Two that we recommend to every runner training for a race are tempo runs and Yasso 800s, both of which can really maximise your running potential and help to increase your stamina.
For tempo runs, begin with 5 to 10 minutes of easy running, before switching it up to 15 to 20 minutes of running at a higher rate, ideally your 10K pace. Then at the end of your run, be sure to do 5 to 10 minutes of cooling down.
Yasso 800s are a little different, but still as effective. Take your goal time in hours and minutes and convert it down to minutes and seconds. For example, if your marathon time is 3 hours, 10 minutes, then you would convert it to 3 minutes, 10 seconds. Then try running 800-metre repeats in that time and train your body at high intensity to get your stamina sky-high.
Increase weekly mileage
Increasing your weekly mileage is key to developing a better marathon time. Your increase should be managed to build steadily and slowly so as not to result in overuse injuries that halt your progress.
That way, you can work to build up your stamina and fitness whilst being careful to not overwork your body and cause potential harm to yourself. For example, you should aim to increase your miles by 10% weekly.
As an added bonus, an increase in mileage like this is not only good for your marathon training, but it has health benefits too, including strengthening your heart, muscles and legs.
Check out the race terrain
If there is a specific marathon you are looking to train for, it’s always key to do your research on the route.
This will allow you to be realistic about what your fastest time could be taking into consideration the running conditions, elevation, terrain, and more.
From there, you should try to train on terrain similar to your marathon route to prepare yourself completely for the type of marathon run you’ll be doing.
Run shorter races in the lead up to the marathon
It’s not all about going big straight away. Marathon training is a patient game of building, bettering and training your body.
Running shorter races as a build up is important so that you don’t do too much and burn out right before the big day, while also allowing you to train in smaller, effective bursts to keep your fitness high and your times low.
Try running a 5K or 10K close to the date of your marathon. This will allow you to try out your pace strategy and any gear that you use so you’re as prepared as you can be for the big one.
Be sure to take rest days
A vital part of training for any marathon is resting – even if you feel like you want to carry on.
Rest days are crucial, and marathon runners should aim to take at least one day off per week. Not only will this aid your recovery and reduce the risk of injury and burn out, but resting will also allow you to build your muscle strength.
Resist the urge to overwork yourself — it’ll save your body energy and strength in the long run that could just be the difference in seconds and your personal best.
Train at marathon pace
Whilst you should not do your whole run at the fast pace, it would be beneficial to run the last third at marathon pace.
This is when your legs are already fatigued and will help you to train your mental and physical endurance.
Of course, take care when doing this particular exercise, for the last thing you want is to push too hard and cause harm to your body.
Focus on your hydration and nutrition
Remembering to drink regularly throughout the race will prevent you from slowing down, whereas not drinking enough early on will result in hydration issues later.
Bbe careful of overhydrating as this could lead to hyponatremia — which can cause nausea, a lack of balance, and headaches. That said, being concerned about suffering from hyponatremia can often lead to runners trying to overly avoid drinking too much liquid, and as a result, suffer from dehydration instead which can be just as detrimental.
Make sure you drink the right amount of fluids to keep your body moving effectively. Work out the amount to drink in your training programme and carry that knowledge into your race.
Additionally, on the nutritional side of things, consuming carbohydrates will help to keep your energy level up and assist in keeping your pace steady. They are therefore great to consume ahead of races.
You could also consider training with the same drinks and carbs as a practice to gain an understanding of when you need an energy boost and maintain a level of consistency with regards to hydration and nutrition in your training programme.
Control your breathing
The way you breathe when you run is greatly important in maintaining a good rhythm and consistency, but that’s no secret to most runners.
There are a few staple ways to control your breathing which will help you conserve energy and stamina and ensure you’re fully prepared to see out your marathon just right.
For example, try to maintain a 2:2 breathing rhythm. This is where you take two steps (one left and one right) whilst breathing in, and two steps (one left and one right) whilst breathing out. This allows you to maintain a steady rhythm and identify if you are taking too many or too few breaths.
When nearing the end of the marathon, you may benefit from switching to a 1:2 rhythm, which means taking one step breathing in and two steps breathing out.
Alternatively, you could adopt a 2:1 rhythm throughout, where you would take 2 steps (one left and one right) breathing in and one step breathing out. This approach will allow you to increase your oxygen level to 60 breaths/minute.
Of course, it would also be greatly beneficial to practice these breathing techniques in your training regime before your marathon to figure out which rhythm works best for you.
Concentrate on streamlining
You want to make your running style as effective and economic as possible to make you not only go the distance but excel at it too.
As such, you should try to simplify and streamline your form to be the most effective it possibly can. It’s all about marginal gains, and sometimes, even the smallest positional changes can make a big difference.
For example, try to keep your chin slightly elevated and focus on something in the distance. This keeps your neck in line with your spine.
Additionally, keeping your ears in line with your shoulders is also important to maintain the correct posture and help keep you in good shape. This keeps you streamlined and makes it easier to maintain your pace consistently.
Increase your stride width
Running with a narrow stride increases your risk of Iliotibial Band Syndrome — a pain on the outside of your knee often suffered by runners. This is because your legs are more likely to face inwards, and place a strain on the iliotibial band.
To reduce the risk of injuries like this one and others, and allow you to run faster, you may find that widening your stride width can be a great help.
Here are a few exercises you can try to do this:
- Run for 30 seconds with a short break in between and repeat 6 times, focusing on feeling the glutes activate.
- Do 3 sets of 15 squats, pressing down with the outer edge of the foot. Aim to corkscrew your feet into the floor facing outwards but avoid moving your feet, and you should feel the stretch in hips and glutes all the way through the squat.
- Try squats with a resistance band tensioned around the ankles, ensuring the knees do not roll inwards and drive the knee out to tension the band.
- Sit into a squat position with a resistance band tensioned around the ankles before performing a sideways ‘crab walk’ and maintain band tension, alternating the leading leg.
Try taking walk breaks
Taking walking breaks early in the marathon helps you from starting too fast and running out of energy too quickly.
Walk breaks serve as a way to conserve your energy, fluids and muscle capacity, meaning that later on when other runners are slowing down in the final 6 miles or so, you will be able to pick up and maintain a quicker, steadier pace.
You should aim to take a one-minute walking break every two to eight minutes throughout the race, walking at the easiest pace possible to allow your leg muscles to relax.