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How To Improve Your Marathon Time

Amanda Wendorff

Once you've mastered the basics of running and competed in a few marathon races, it's natural to want to start thinking about improving your finishing times. If you've caught the running bug and now want to start setting speed goals, we've got you covered!

Running a faster marathon is about more than just increasing your mileage. Your speed gains will come from smart training, mixing distances and intensities while also nailing things like nutrition, recovery, and strength training. Athletes who use our training app report getting faster year after year, with consistent dedicated training.

In this article, we'll pass along some training tips to help you improve your marathon speed. Specifically, we'll talk about:

  • Training effectively for the marathon distance by using training zones
  • How to find your training zones and marathon goal race pace
  • How to build endurance for a marathon through easy and long runs
  • The benefits of speed work (interval and tempo runs) in a marathon training cycle
  • Race day and training nutrition
  • How to incorporate strength training to help you run a faster marathon

Think of endurance sports as a long game, with each season of training building on the one before. If you incorporate these running tips while also continuing to build your mileage, wisdom, and experience, you can look forward to running the marathon faster and faster over the years.

MOTTIV athlete Leighton Kuchel rounds the corner during a race near the Gold Coast in Australia.

Improve Your Marathon Time By Using Proper Training Zones and Paces

For many new runners, the initial months of training involve simply building up time on the feet and creating a habit of frequent running. Often, those early running days involve training at mostly one speed—easy—to build endurance.

However, as you build your running experience, stamina, and knowledge, it'll become important to start optimizing your training to improve your speed in all distances. To do this, try running at different intensities throughout the training cycle. In other words, running faster in some workouts and at a slower pace in others, depending on the goal of each training day and training period in general.

To vary your training appropriately, you want to have personalized training zones that will help you guide your training.

How Training Zones Fit In Your Training Program

Running training zones, or intensity zones, are like gears in a car: each one is suited best for a different purpose.

A well-written marathon training plan will include runs at a variety of intensities and some runs that incorporate multiple intensity zones in the same run. For example, you should incorporate long runs to improve your endurance and speed training to train your body to run quicker and more efficiently.

Although various coaches will define the zones in different ways, we use a five-zone method:

  • Zone 1: The lowest intensity zone, used for warm-ups and easy recovery workouts.
  • Zone 2: Endurance zone, used for building endurance over long distances, creating mitochondria, and becoming metabolically fit.
  • Zone 3: Tempo zone, used for building the ability to hold speed for an extended period
  • Zone 4: Lactate threshold zone, used for improving lactate threshold
  • Zone 5: VO2 Max zone, used to improve your VO2 Max, increase your top-end speed, and teach more muscle groups to fire.

Well-designed marathon training plans incorporate all five zones.

How Do You Find Your Training Zones?

Running zones are often based on heart rate. Calculating your heart rate zones using the correct method is important for optimizing your running performance and ensuring you are training at the right intensity.

You can use several different methods to determine your HR zones. We prefer the Karvonen Method, as it is the most accurate for the greatest number of people.

The first step of the Karvonen Method is to determine your maximum and resting heart rate.

We recommend the workout below from our training app to perform a maximum heart rate test.

Once you have your maximum heart rate, you can collect your resting rate by wearing a wrist-based heart rate monitor to bed for a few nights and looking for the lowest value recorded during your sleep. You can also find your resting heart rate by measuring your heart rate while lying down first thing in the morning and then subtracting 5 to 10 beats per minute.

Finally, enter your maximum and resting heart rates into our calculator below to get your heart rate training zones:

Finding Your Goal Marathon Pace and Training Paces

While much of your marathon training should be based around your heart rate zones, many training plans will also include interval workouts with goals based on pace—specifically, your goal race pace and sometimes faster. To get the most from these training sessions, it's good to have a sense of your target race pace.

There are a couple of ways to calculate your goal race pace:

  1. If you are an experienced runner and have raced a 5k, 10k or half marathon recently, you can use your time from that event to help you determine an equivalent marathon pace. To do this, enter your race time in the following calculator to determine an equivalent pace per mile for 26.2 miles:

     2. If you've already run a marathon, or several of them, and are now hoping for a faster marathon time, calculating your goal race pace is even easier: just take your time from the marathon race and subtract two to five percent. In time, you may find that your goal pace will get quicker, but a two to five percent improvement is a good place to start.

      3. If it has been a while since you have run a race or you would prefer to assess your paces based on your current fitness, you can calculate your running paces in a training session using a time trial test.

This test involves completing a maximal run effort over a shorter distance, like 3 kilometers (or 1.86 miles), during your training. Once you have your 3k time, you can use our Running Race Pace calculator to determine an equivalent marathon time:

Read more about how to find your marathon run race pace in this article.

Spend Time Building a Solid Base of Mileage

As with all endurance events, the most effective way to improve your marathon time is to run consistently and build up your training volume over weeks, months, and years. The best way to build your volume in a way that trains your body for endurance and also keeps you injury-free is to keep the majority of your running fairly easy, with your heart rate in Zone 2.

How Does Training in Zone 2 Help You Run a Faster Marathon?

Zone 2 runs are the building blocks of all running training plans for races from 5ks to long-distance races like full marathons and marathons. This is because low-intensity runs create physiological adaptations that are key for running faster and allow for more training. Specifically, Zone 2 training:

  • Builds mitochondria: Mitochondria are the body's "powerhouses." They take in nutrients from food and transform them into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a usable energy source. Zone 2 runs are particularly effective in creating mitochondria.
  • Improves running economy: Studies have shown that runners who include lots of Zone 2, lower-intensity running into their training have a better running economy. A runner with a better running economy can go further with the same amount of energy as one with a lesser running economy.
  • Lowers stress on the body: Low-intensity Zone 2 running is much easier on the bones, muscles, and connective tissues than more intense paces. By staying in Zone 2, you'll be more able to gradually build your weekly mileage and keep running consistently over a long period.
MOTTIV app user Kathy Humml goes for a Zone 2 training run in the Scottish Highlands on a cloudy, rainy day!

How To Make Sure Your Zone 2 Runs are Easy Runs

With all of the benefits of Zone 2 running, it's no surprise that most running coaches will suggest that when training for a marathon, you should spend at least 70 to 80 percent of your training in your Zone 2 heart rate range, running at a low intensity. It may seem counterintuitive that you need to run slow to go fast, but this is based on scientific evidence and the experiences of many runners.

The best way to ensure that you stay in Zone 2 is to monitor your heart rate using a chest or arm-based running strap paired with a smartwatch. Although many smartwatches now include heart rate sensors, wrist-based heart rate monitors are generally less accurate than chest or arm straps.

A lot of runners run too hard and struggle to keep their heart rate in Zone 2. These tips can help you to keep your heart rate low:

  1. Start your runs with some walking and transition into an easy jogging pace.
  2. Allow the heart rate to build to your Zone 2 range slowly.
  3. Once you've reached Zone 2, focus on maintaining a steady pace. If you're running a hilly route, you may need to walk up the hills to keep your heart rate low enough. That is okay!

Over time, you'll find that your body will get used to the Zone 2 intensity, and it will become easier to dial in the right heart rate and maintain a consistent pace for your training runs.

If you do not have a heart rate monitor, you can also run by perceived effort - or, by listening to the body. When you're running in Zone 2, you should be able to breathe steadily and even carry on a conversation. If you find yourself gasping for air or your muscles start burning, slow down - you've likely exceeded Zone 2.

What Weekly Mileage Should You Run?

As we've shown, one of the biggest benefits of Zone 2 training is that it will allow you to build your mileage leading up to the race gradually. But how much mileage should you aim for?

There's no such thing as the perfect mileage; like many questions about running, the answer is "It depends." The biggest things to consider are 1) how many miles you are currently running and 2) how soon your race is. Other considerations include your history of running injuries and how much time you have to train.

As a general rule, you should increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent per week. Wherever you're starting, add running time slowly and carefully. Most of this increase can come in your weekly long run, which should gradually build in length through your marathon plan.

While there's no official "minimum mileage" to meet before running a marathon, studies have shown that running at least 23 miles (or 37 kilometers) per week will help to lessen the risk of injury during training. Running 30 to 40 miles per week is a very common training load for successful marathoners, while more experienced runners may run much more (even over 100 miles per week for the very elite!)

Add Speedwork To Your Marathon Training

Once you've built a good endurance base by spending time in Zone 2, it's time to start adding higher-intensity running. As discussed above, lots of low-intensity running is important for building mitochondria in muscle cells. High-intensity running then teaches the body to use those mitochondria to run fast.

There are two main types of speedwork we suggest: classic running intervals, and tempo runs.

What are Running Intervals?

To incorporate high-intensity training, try interval workouts. Intervals are short durations (30 seconds to 8 minutes) of fast running alternating with periods of very easy running or walking. An example might be six repeats of two minutes at a hard pace with a one-minute easy walk or jog in between.

Although the specifics of speed workouts can vary significantly based on your running goals, most interval workouts will be in Zones 4 or 5, which is at and above your 5k race pace. For these fast runs, keeping an eye on your pace rather than your heart rate is best.

The Benefits of Running Intervals

Running intervals are a game-changer for marathon runners. They have many benefits, including:

  • Improved ability to maintain speed
  • Practice with your pacing strategy
  • Mental preparation for your running races
  • Improved efficiency at faster paces
  • Improved ability to clear lactate and run longer at a faster pace

A typical week training plan will incorporate interval runs about once a week.

Getting Ready to Run A Good Marathon with Tempo Runs

Another useful form of speed work is the tempo run.

Tempo runs can be thought of as "comfortably hard runs" where you push the pace but not so hard that you can't sustain it. Tempo efforts are often completed at paces between your 10k pace and half marathon pace—a pace that feels challenging yet manageable. In terms of heart rate, tempo runs should have you in Zones 3 and 4.

A couple of examples of tempo and marathon pace run sessions are:

  • 30 minutes continuous at your goal marathon pace
  • Four repeats of 1 mile at your marathon pace minus 5 to 10 seconds per mile
  • Three repeats of 10 minutes, starting at about your marathon pace and getting faster in the next two repetitions

Incorporating tempo runs into your training plan is like adding a turbo boost to your engine. These workouts get you comfortable with being uncomfortable, train your body to process and clear lactate more efficiently, and help you become very familiar with how a marathon pace should feel.

A Word of Caution About Speed Workouts

Speed work, while beneficial for boosting your performance, comes with its share of risks if not approached with care. Some runners have fallen into the trap where they may receive a small benefit from adding speed work to their routine and then begin to think it makes sense to do more and more. This is not a good idea!

The high-intensity nature of the interval and tempo sessions can significantly strain your muscles, tendons, and joints. If these workouts are not balanced with adequate rest and recovery, the risk of overuse injuries, such as shin splints or runner's knee, can increase. Hence, it's crucial to remember that speed work should be a spice, not the main ingredient of your training plan. Limit speed work to up to 20% of your total training volume.

This is an exercise in one of the strength training videos included with every training plan inside the MOTTIV training app.

Incorporate Strength Training

One of the most significant ways to improve your performance for runners is strength training. You'll improve your race performance and general health by incorporating strength training.

There are seven measurable benefits of strength running, which have been supported by plenty of studies:

  • Measurable race performance improvement
  • Improved running economy (using less energy at every pace) and ability to maintain running form when fatigued
  • Better body composition (lower fat and higher muscle)
  • Improved hormone profiles
  • Reduced muscle loss, a key factor associated with aging well

Strength training will not only reduce your risk of injury, but it will also improve your running economy and range of motion, allowing you to move forward more efficiently and forcefully.

For more information on incorporating strength training into your running, see our guide to Strength Training for Runners.

Practice Your Race Day Nutrition in Training

Because of its length, it's beneficial to eat fast-acting carbohydrates, like sports gels or chews, during the race. During a marathon race, your body will burn through fat and the carbohydrates stored in your muscle cells as glycogen. Once that glycogen is used, the body will simply no longer be able to perform. Taking in carbohydrates as you run can prevent that dreadful feeling of hitting the wall and boost your performance.

Like anything you will do on race day, you should be sure to practice nutrition during your training. Every runner has a favorite product, and many have found through trial and error that there are products that don't work for them. Use your long training runs to try out different gels, chews, sports drinks, etc.

Step Up To Intermediate & Advanced Training Plans

Once you've mastered the basics of marathon training, incorporating endurance runs, interval training, tempo runs, and strength work, you can try one of our Intermediate or Advanced training plans. These training plans will include more miles and race-specific intervals, which will help you run your fastest marathon yet.

Here are a couple of simplified examples of the types of intermediate and advanced training plans you can find in the MOTTIV app.


If you've completed your first marathon race and are now hoping to get faster, you can add plenty of things to your training plan that will improve your speed and endurance. In this article, we've offered some great tips to run faster, including:

  • Calculating training zones, race pace, and training paces
  • Using training zones to structure your training
  • Running the majority of your miles in Zone 2
  • Incorporating interval training and tempo runs
  • Adding strength training into your marathon training program
  • Finding sports nutrition products that work for you and trying them in training.

Adding variety to your run training plan can make a big difference in performance benefits and make your training leading up to your marathon more enjoyable and challenging. With a good mix of endurance running, intervals, and strength work, you can look forward to plenty of marathon personal bests.

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Amanda Wendorff

| Author

Amanda Wendorff is a professional triathlete, focusing on the 70.3 and 140.6 Ironman distances. In the last several years she’s competed in multiple gravel bike races. Top Achievements: Top 3 Ironman Ireland and Ironman 70.3 Coquimbo, Multiple time top-5 finisher, 3rd Overall at Moran 166 Gravel Race in Michigan, Age group podium at Gravel Worlds, Big Sugar, and Ned Gravel in first year of gravel racing.

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