How to Run a Faster Marathon

Illustrations by Chi Birmingham. Additional photography by J. Adam Huggins, Jim Wilson and Aaron Lee Fineman.

Often, you run a first marathon just to finish. After that, you start thinking about the clock. According to Running USA, the median marathon finishing times in the United States are 4:20 for men and 4:45 for women, and many aim for a sub-four or sub-five hour marathon. The good news is that the same training strategies can be used to hit any marathon time goal. Whether you’re looking to get under the five-hour-mark or qualify for the Boston Marathon, this guide is for you.

How to Pick a Time Goal

Once you pick the time you want to beat, you’ll need to map out a plan to get there.

How to Set a Goal

Do you want to set a personal record or just finish? If your goal is to beat your previous time, qualify for the Boston Marathon, or hit some set time goal, picking the right plan is crucial, and the sections below are for you. But if you’re simply looking to finish the race with your head held high no matter what the time or you’re doing this specific marathon more for the experience (a lot of runners do the New York City Marathon for just this reason), then you don’t need a plan loaded with speedwork and hill repeats or fartleks. That doesn’t mean you can’t do them, but the plan you choose is less important than if you were setting out to conquer your previous time.

What was your last marathon pace? Before committing to a time goal, calculate your average mile pace during your last marathon. Also consider your pace at the various stages of the marathon. Were you cruising until the 20-mile marker until you smashed into the Wall? Did a mid-race port-a-potty break add too many minutes to your time? Pick a reasonable pace that is better than your previous race and do the math to generate a new time goal.

What is your 5K and 10K race pace? Analyze your previous race performances, but don’t assume you can just multiply previous race times to predict your full marathon time. A marathon may look like it’s two half-marathons or just over four 10Ks, but that’s not how running math works. Previous race results can give you an idea for a goal, however, especially if you use the McMillan Running prediction calculator. If you ran a 28 minute 5K (roughly a 9 minute mile pace) you probably can run a 4 hour 33 minutes marathon (which is roughly a 10 minute 25 seconds per mile pace.

If you haven’t run a race before and are planning to run a marathon, good for you. You are brave and bold, but sign up for a few 5K or 10K races before the main event. It’ll get you used to a big race event and allow you to set a more realistic goal. Check out our How to Start Running guide to get you going.

Pick Your Training Plan

The most important question to ask yourself as you begin to train for a marathon is: “How much time do I have?” Be honest. Training for a marathon takes a lot of dedication.

There are training plans for those who can run four, five or six days a week. How to choose? If you’re time-pinched, a four or five-day plan is likely to be more appealing. These shorter plans allow for some cross-training if you don’t want to run all the time. A six-day plan is a big commitment, but it can also be very effective.

  • 4 Days


    Training Duration: 18 weeks
    Maximum Distance Run in a Week: 35 miles

    Need an efficient program that will still get you to your goal? This is it. The Hal Higdon training program is a schedule for the time-crunched. There’s a long run every Saturday, and regular mid-week pace runs, which are runs done at your planned marathon pace, that will help you build speed. (Note: Though it’s a four-day training plan, the schedule does call for some kind of cross training, like swimming, biking or walking on Sundays.)

  • 5 Days


    Training Duration: 16 weeks
    Maximum Distance Run in a Week: 47 miles

    Speedwork, hills, and the option for extra miles if you so choose? This plan has it all. This Road Runners guide is one of the three marathon programs offered by the New York Road Runners for free. It includes fartleks, tempo runs, intervals and hills during the week, with long runs on Sundays. This schedule also has a “flex” day on Mondays, where you can either run three miles, crosstrain or take a day off. If you always run on the flex day, then you’ll be running six days a week for five of your training weeks.

  • 6 Days


    Training Duration: 18 weeks
    Maximum Distance Run in a Week: 57 miles

    This training plan is designed to keep you running strong in the last 6.2 milesof your race. There’s good news and bad news for the Hansons Marathon Method plan. The good news? You won’t have to do any run over 16 miles. The bad news? You will run an awful lot each week, including 10-mile tempo runs toward the end of training. (You’ll also have to buy this book for the full training plan.)

What Makes You Faster

Simply churning out mile after mile won’t help you run a faster marathon. These training techniques will.

Most people think training for a marathon is just about building up the miles so you’ve got the stamina to run 26.2 miles on race day. That’s important, but if you want to run a FASTER marathon, you’ll need to incorporate speed training into your routine. The good news is that speed training can be fun and different — and it helps break up the monotony of marathon training all while helping you achieve your time goal. Here are some of the common terms used to describe various speed-training workouts.

Fartleks: During a fartlek, you speed up and slow down at varying, nonuniform intervals. For example, run hard for two minutes, then run easy for three minutes, then run hard for four minutes and so on. You can also improvise fartleks. Run hard to that tree in the distance, jog to the next trash can, then sprint to the next tree, etc.

Tempo Runs: Different runners, and different training plans will define a tempo run in different ways. In general, it is a run done at a slightly uncomfortable pace. Sometimes they are runs done at the pace of a previous 5K or 10K. They can also sometimes be done at your projected marathon pace.

Intervals: Interval training is a proven way to increase endurance by adding intensity at set points in your run. Run a set distance at top speed, then a set distance at a slower pace to recover and repeat. Common intervals for marathon training are 800 meters, 1200 meters or 1 mile.

Hills: Improve your speed by running locals hills. Run up and down the same hill over and over again. This can be done on a treadmill using incline settings.

Pace Runs: Pace runs are workouts done at the pace you hope to use to complete the marathon.

Strength Training

Strength training is an essential part of training for a time-based marathon. You will run faster and reduce risk of injury with just a few basic exercises.

Build Muscle Efficiently

It can be hard to find the time to lift weights when you are already running four (or six) days a week. However, by targeting the muscles that you use for running, strength training can help you run faster. Also, strengthening the parts of your body that support your running can help keep injuries at bay.

Here are five exercises recommended by Jeff Horowitz, author of ”Quick Strength for Runners,” that you can do at home. Completing the whole circuit of five exercises won’t take much time, says Horowitz — about 15 to 20 minutes. Try to fit them in twice a week at home while you’re watching your favorite TV show.

For the exercises that require a dumbbell or medicine ball, use a weight that provides “moderate resistance” — heavy enough that the exercises are challenging, but not light enough that you’re just going through the motions.

Horowitz suggests working with a fitness trainer once or twice to make sure that you’re doing the moves correctly. “This isn’t trying to find a fresh, different way to hurt ourselves,” he said. “You want to have proper form to challenge yourself, but do it in a way that’s still safe.”

One-Legged Hip Raise

This exercise strengthens the gluteus medius muscle around your hips to increase your lateral stability, preventing hip injuries from the constant pounding of the road.

One-Legged Hip Raise

A good exercise to strengthen your glutes, abdominals and lower back.

Deadlift and Front Raise

This is a great all-in-one exercise that engages your lower back, hips, shoulders and upper back. It will strengthen your upper back and shoulders to help you run “taller,” which prevents back pain and gives more power to your running motion.

Deadlift and Front Raise

This exercise targets your lower back, hamstrings, biceps and triceps.

Knee Tucks

The previous exercises strengthen the muscles that support running, but this one directly works the muscles used when you run. This exercise will give you an extra burst of power with every stride.

Knee Tucks

This challenging exercise builds your hip and abdominal muscles.

Dumbbell Swings

This exercise works the obliques and transversus abdominis, muscles in your abdomen which “lock things down anytime you move,” says Horowitz. Strengthening your core with this exercise will stabilize your body and keep your body upright as you run.

Try it:

1. Hold the dumbbell with both hands and let it hang between your legs. Keep your back straight and your head up.

2. Straighten up to a standing position, pulling the dumbbell up over your head.

3. Use the dumbbell’s momentum to return to the starting position.

4. Repeat 10-20 times. 

Lateral Lunges

Lunges strengthen the gluteus medius, the muscle along the outside of your hip. When you strengthen this region, you keep your hips strong and, hopefully, uninjured.

Try it:

1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, with your hands on your hips.

2. Step out to the right with your right foot and shift your body weight over the right leg. Squat down until your knee makes a 90 degree angle. Keep your back straight.

3. Bring your right leg back to the center and repeat on left side.

4. Repeat 10-20 times.

Train Your Brain

It’s not just your body that will get you across the finish line in time. You need your brain to get you there too.

Mental preparation can help you run better, says Matt Fitzgerald, author of “How Bad Do You Want It: Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle.” “Running performance is limited by your perception of effort,” he says. Doing mental exercises while training and racing can increase a runner’s tolerance for perceived effort and reduce the level of effort that is actually felt while running.

There are three mental exercises you should try during your training. Try them all. Then you can figure out which works best to help you get your mind off your pain and the distance you still have to run.

First, brace yourself. Embrace the fact that you will probably feel uncomfortable, perhaps even suffer a bit. You want to expect your body to struggle to perform well.

Next, think positive. It may sound easy, but when you’re hurting during a workout, it’s easy to go negative. Instead, replace those thoughts with positive ones like, “just keep swimming,” or “been there, done that, you’ll do it again.”

Last, don’t forget to focus externally. Focus on what you’re doing instead of what you’re feeling, says Fitzgerald. As you run, try to catch or stay in contact with a runner ahead of you or maintain a specific pace. “Train your mind to concentrate more on what you’re doing than on how you’re feeling in the process of preparing for your marathon so that it comes naturally on race day,” he says.

Train Your Brain

Some mental exercises to help get you through your run.

How to Eat

Training for a marathon is indeed a license to eat more, but be sure to be smart about how you fuel yourself.

Fight the Hunger

Fact: You will feel hungry when you are training for a marathon, a feeling commonly called “runger” within running circles. However, feeling hungry all the time signals the need for a dietary change. Most runners can figure out their ideal diet through trial and error “but with some direction, the time from trial and error to success can be greatly decreased,” says Lauren Antonucci, a registered dietitian and member of the New York City Marathon nutrition team.

No matter what, you’ll have to eat more. You’re burning many more calories than you were before, and you need to replace them if you’re going to stay healthy and injury free.It’s helpful to have a wide variety of healthy snacks on hand to squash hunger. Some favorites? Clementines, homemade applesauce, dates covered in dark chocolate, pickles, feta cheese and dry-roasted, salted peanuts.

It is not uncommon to gain weight while training for a marathon. If you do, but you’re still feeling fit and hitting your time goals, it’s fine. You want to run fast and strong on race day, and you shouldn’t worry about what the scale says.

Eat Whole

When you are training for a marathon, you need high-quality nutrition. Eating too much and eating the wrong foods can lead to bloat and weight gain.

“Runners, especially long distance runners, need some sustainable nourishment to be able to heal their hard working bodies,” says Elyse Kopecky, a chef and co-author of “Run Fast Eat Slow,” which she wrote along with the Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan. “Your muscles are being broken down, and your body just needs more in order to recover faster and stay healthy.”

Kopecky suggests that you focus on eating whole, instead of processed foods, and eating what you feel you need versus tracking your food down to the calorie.

This means eating fats, such as butter, red meat, dark meat chicken with the skin, coconut oil and olive oil, which will help you feel full. Processed foods that strip out fat typically replace them with things like sugar, which leave you hungry for more.

Drink the Right Amount

Want to know if you’re drinking enough? Check your sweat rate. Weigh yourself before and after a long run and calculate the difference to determine how much weight you lost in fluid. Then, make sure to take in that many ounces of fluids during the next run.

As the weather changes, so too does your sweat rate, so adjust your fluids appropriately as the weather gets hotter or cooler.

Quick tip: If you didn’t pee during your long run, you should feel the need to use the bathroom within the first 30 minutes after finishing. If you haven’t, you are dehydrated and need to take in more fluids during your runs.

What to Eat

The foods you eat should help — not hurt — your training runs.

Before a Run

For shorter runs, don’t worry too much about what you’ll eat, especially if you’ll be running regularly paced miles, says Antonucci. Before a long run, you’ll want to consume a mix of easily digestible carbohydrates and a little bit of protein. Stay away from foods that are high in fiber (especially cereals with fiber added to them) and raw vegetables in the 24 to 48 hours leading up to a long run or you may be forced to hunt down a port-a-potty.

If you normally have gastrointestinal distress, figure out why before you start running seriously, says Antonucci. Running will only exacerbate the problem.

In the weeks leading up to marathon day, do at least one long run starting at your marathon’s start time. This will help you figure out how to shift your normal pre-race meal for race day. The New York City Marathon has a notoriously late start, for example — it also always corresponds with the end of Daylight Saving Time, meaning that a lot of runners are starting to run when it’s really their lunch time. They will most likely eat a different kind of breakfast than they would for a race with a 9 a.m. start.

During a Run

During a long run, you’ll want three things with you: carbohydrates, fluids and salt. Most sports drinks have all three of those.

Try eating and drinking something every four miles (or more often if the course is difficult and hilly). If this leaves you feeling sapped, sick or both, test something new — whether it’s a new food, drink or timing — for race day.

Pre-packaged sports gels or energy chews can provide your in-race carbohydrate intake. If you prefer these, Antonucci suggests drinking water with them to ensure that your body absorbs it quickly. She also recommends carrying salt pills, especially in hot and humid races, because most energy foods don’t have the sodium you’ll need.

When race day approaches, bring the drink, gels and food you like best. Race organizers may not provide exactly what you prefer and often they use powder-based mixes for sports drinks that may not be mixed to the right consistency.

After a Run

What you eat after a short run doesn’t matter much, but after long runs, Antonucci suggests eating a mix of carbohydrates and proteins within 60 minutes after your finish, even if it’s just enough to hold you over until you can eat a full meal.

Chocolate milk is a great post-run snack, but granola, especially when combined with fruit and whole-fat yogurt, can provide a quick hunger fix before you hop into the shower.

Prevent and Recover From Injury

If you run enough, injuries will happen. How you manage those injuries will determine if you get back on the road tomorrow or six months from now.

Stretch it Out

Dynamic stretching, a technique that allows you to stretch your muscles while your body is in motion, can be very valuable to runners. As opposed to stretching while remaining still — think old-school toe-touches — stretching while in motion has been shown to increase power, flexibility and range of motion. The dynamic stretch called the straight-leg march is especially good for your hamstrings and gluteous muscles.

Roll it Out

Your muscles are going to ache during training. Foam rollers are effective in helping you roll out these sore spots. Using your body weight to lean into a roller in a particular spot can relieve pain and ease muscle tightness in a way that stretching cannot, especially in your hips, quads and calves. Another popular tool to roll out sore muscles is The Stick. With this tool, you exert pressure through the apparatus, while rolling it up and down against a sore muscle. For tough-to-reach areas, like your feet or back, rolling them against a golf ball or tennis ball can do the trick.

Massage it Out

While you can accomplish pain relief with a foam roller at home, a massage therapist can often push your muscles further than you would on your own. A sports massage is not a relaxing massage, but it is designed to break up knots. It may hurt a little bit in the process, so communicate with your massage therapist if something hurts too much. Look for a professional who has earned a certificate in sports massage therapy, but if you find yourself sore or bruised three days after a massage, find another practitioner.

When You Are Sick

If you are sick above your neck — a head cold, sinus infection or allergies — you can most likely run and be fine.

If you are sick below your neck — like a chest cold — you’ll want to give your lungs a rest.

lf you are sick to your stomach, especially if you are depleted and dehydrated, don’t run. Get better first, then be on your way.

If it’s something contagious, keep your run outside. You don’t want to spread your illness throughout the gym.

Not sure if you feel up to it? Run a half mile. If you’re fine, keep going. If not, turn home (and you’ll at least have gotten a mile in).

When to See a Doctor

When training for a marathon, you are certain to have your days of soreness and fatigue. A lot of small pains and soreness can be resolved with rest, ice, compression and elevation. (Use the acronym R.I.C.E. to help you remember.)

Taking time off may make you anxious and worried about hitting your goals, but your top priority should be to get to the starting line healthy. If that means taking two or three days off to rest a sore hip or a turned ankle, so be it.

But when is rest not enough? You should see a doctor if:

You are in acute pain.
You can’t put weight on the injured area.
After 10 to 14 days of rest, the pain hasn’t lessened or gone away.

Common Running Injuries

Tendonitis and Tendonosis

Tendonitis is the inflammation of a tendon, which is what attaches bone to muscle. Tendonosis is more extensive damage to that tendon. These injuries can happen almost anywhere in the lower body for runners, but common spots are hips and feet. If you have either of these you will feel a dull ache, especially when you try to move the affected joint.

The Fix: Since these injuries are caused by overuse, rest can help. So can strengthening the muscles in the affected area so they place less stress on the tendon. Tendonosis typically requires longer periods of rest (and may end your training). If you try to run through it, tendonosis can often lead to a stress fracture.

Stress Fractures

Stress fractures occur when a muscle is so fatigued it stops absorbing the stress that running puts on your body. Instead, that job is sent to the bones. With too much stress, the bone fractures a little. For runners, stress fractures can happen anywhere along the lower body, from your pelvis down to your feet. They are much more common in women, especially if they are not menstruating, said Dr. Kathleen Weber, director of primary care/sports medicine and women’s sports medicine at Rush University Medical Center. (Women who aren’t menstruating often have decreased levels of estrogen, which can impact bone strength.) Stress fractures will cause localized pain when you run and sometimes when you walk. They are often caused by running too much without sufficient rest, increasing intensity too quickly or running on a hard surface, like concrete.

The Fix: Rest. No way around it, said Weber. Stress fractures require significant time off and will end your training.

Runner's Knee

Patellofemoral pain syndrome, also known as runner’s knee, is irritation where your knee cap hits the thigh bone. It will cause pain under your knee that is difficult to pinpoint and can feel worse after sitting for a prolonged period of time. Sometimes runner’s knee is a result of your body structure, if your feet pronate or if you have fallen arches. It can also be caused by weak muscles in your thighs or tightness in the hamstring or calves.

The Fix: Stretching can help lengthen your hamstrings and calves. Strength training exercises for the quads and hamstrings can also help. If your runner’s knee is caused by your feet, buying specialized shoes for your foot problem can help.

Iliotibial Band Syndrome

Sometimes called IT-band syndrome for short, iliotibial band syndrome is an inflammation of the ligament that runs from your thigh to your shin. It’s a very common injury that causes pain on the outside of the knee or in your hips, caused by overuse.

The Fix: Rest, along with stretching or strengthening the hips, quadriceps and gluteous muscles can help. (Try the one-legged hip raise!) If you tend to run on the side of the road, check if it’s angled down to the sidewalk. Running on an angled street can create an imbalance between your legs that causes your IT band to stretch, causing this syndrome. Take your runs to flatter ground.

Plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is a common foot pain caused by inflammation in the band of tissue that connects your heel to your toes. If the underside of your foot screams when you take your first morning steps, you have most likely developed plantar fasciitis.

The Fix: Stretching your feet will usually help. You can also wear a splint at night to keep your foot stretched as you sleep.

Treat Plantar Fasciitis

A simple stretch can alleviate this common foot pain. 

Thick or Black Toenails

The onset of ugly toenails in runners is caused by shoes that don’t fit correctly. Compression socks can also contribute when they add too much pressure to your toes. “If you were to do the same activity with your hands day after day, you’d get calluses. Same thing with your toenails,” said Dr. Tracey Vlahovic, associate professor at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine. Thick toenails happen most often in a second toe that’s longer than a big toe.

The Fix: Affected toenails eventually fall off, so be patient. In the meantime, find better-fitting shoes. If your toenail doesn’t start to grow back, you most likely damaged the nail matrix. See a podiatrist or physician for advice.


Blisters can happen as a result of poorly fitting shoes. They can also occur when you start to increase your speed or distance.

The Fix: You can drain blisters, but make sure you apply rubbing alcohol to your skin and what you’re piercing it with. Vlahovic says to leave the outer skin of the blister on because it protects the raw skin underneath.

If blisters keep occurring, figure out what’s causing that friction: Look at your shoe fit, and your socks. If you’re wearing cotton socks, stop. If you’re wearing socks with sweat-wicking material and are still having problems (especially if you sweat a lot), Vlahovic suggests trying socks with silver or copper fiber, which is best at wicking sweat. You can also apply lubricant like Body Glide to your feet before running. Medical tape can also help.

About the Author

Jen A. Miller is the author of "Running: A Love Story." She’s been writing about running for The New York Times since 2010.

Twitter: @byJenAMiller