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How To Run A Sub 4 Hour Marathon

Amanda Wendorff

Running a marathon in under four hours is a significant achievement that marks a runner as someone who has moved well beyond the beginner stages of distance running into the intermediate and possibly towards advanced levels. Achieving this milestone requires not just a commitment to regular training but also a strategic approach to every aspect of your preparation, from pacing to nutrition and even mental fortitude.

In this article, we'll pass along some training and racing tips to get you ready to achieve a sub four hour marathon. 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
  • Key types of workouts that will boost your ability to run sub-4
  • How to incorporate strength training to help you run a faster marathon
  • Race day and nutrition
  • How to pace the marathon
MOTTIV app user Matt Lewellen is spotted mid-race while wearing a hydration vest to keep him going during a hot-weather race.

What It Takes To Run a Marathon in Under Four Hours

Breaking the four hour barrier in the marathon is one of the most popular goals among experienced runners. But what will it take to run that time?

In order to run a marathon in under four hours, you need to maintain an average pace of approximately 9:09 minutes per mile (or 5:41 minutes per kilometer) throughout the 26.2 miles (21 kilometers). This is a fast pace and requires not only aerobic endurance but also the ability to maintain a consistent speed over a considerable distance.

Run a Sub 4-Hour Marathon 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 and start setting lofty goals, it becomes more important to start optimizing your training to improve your speed by running at different intensities throughout the training cycle.

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 Marathon Training Plan

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 of distances up to 20 miles 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, creating mitochondria, and becoming metabolically fit so your body can burn fat as fuel.
  • 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.

If you have the big goal of being able to run sub four hours in the marathon, your training schedule should include runs that touch all of these 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 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 some workouts with intervals with goals based on pace—specifically, your goal race pace and sometimes faster.

Here are a couple of examples of race pace workouts:

  • Mile repeats: Four to eight times 1 mile done at your goal pace, with one to two minutes of easy jog as recovery.
  • Progression runs: Sessions where you build your pace in steps. For example, five miles starting at 10 seconds slower than marathon pace, and getting a little faster each mile.

To get the most from these training sessions, it's good to have a sense of your target race pace and equivalent paces for shorter distances like the 5k, 10k, and half marathon.

If your goal is to break four hours in the marathon, that will require a 9 minutes, 9 seconds per mile pace, or 5 minutes and 41 seconds per kilometer pace for the whole distance. Based on our race pace calculator below, the equivalent paces for shorter distances are:

  • For 5k: 8 minutes, 17 seconds per mile (5 minutes, 9 seconds per kilometer)
  • For 10k: 8 minutes, 36 seconds per mile (5 minutes, 20 seconds per kilometer)

If you are aiming for a time other than exactly four hours, there are other ways to estimate your goal pace:

  • 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 race pace calculator above to determine an equivalent pace per mile for 26.2 miles.
  • 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.

Carefully Build Your Mileage With Lots of Zone 2 Running

Whether you are aiming for a sub 4-hour marathon or just trying to get faster, the most effective way to improve your marathon time is the same: consistent training and building 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 4 Hour 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, stay injury-free, and keep running consistently over a long period.

How To Make Sure You're Running in Zone 2

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.

The best way to ensure that you stay in Zone 2 is to monitor your heart rate using a chest strap or arm-based running strap paired with a smartwatch.

Speed Work For the Sub-4 Hour Marathon

If you have a big goal like running a marathon in 4 hours or less, adding different types of training, like speed work, to your marathon training program will benefit you greatly. 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.

We suggest two main types of speed work for sub-4-hour marathon training: 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.

Although the details of speed workouts can vary significantly based on your specific training plan,  most interval workouts involve running at paces in Zones 4 or 5, which is at and above your 5k race pace. For a runner aiming for a sub-two-hour marathon, that would be about 8:17 per mile (5:09 per kilometer).

The Benefits of Running Intervals

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

  • Improved ability to maintain speed and good form
  • 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 marathon training plan will incorporate interval runs about once a week.

Tempo Runs in the Sub-4 Marathon Training Plan

Another useful form of speed work, especially for marathon runners with a goal finish time of 4 hours or less, 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.

For marathoners, some longer tempo runs can be done at your goal pace for a marathon -- 9:09/ mile or 5:41/ kilometer for those hoping to break through the 4 hour barrier. Race pace miles will train your body to sustain the comfortably uncomfortable intensity that a fast marathon requires.

A few example tempo run sessions for the aspiring sub-4 hour marathoner are:

  • 45 minutes continuous at your goal marathon pace, or 9:09 per mile.
  • Four to six repeats of 1 mile at your marathon pace minus 5 to 10 seconds per mile, with 3 minutes of easy pace jogging between repetitions.
  • Four repeats of 10 minutes, starting just a bit slower than your goal marathon pace and getting faster with each interval.

A Word of Caution About Running Speed Workouts

While speedwork can boost performance, it comes with its share of risks if not approached with care. The high-intensity nature of the interval and tempo sessions can put a significant strain on your muscles, tendons, and joints. The risk of overuse injuries, such as shin splints or runner's knee, can increase if these workouts are not balanced with adequate rest and recovery.

Incorporating speed work into your marathon training plan requires a thoughtful approach. Start by gradually introducing these sessions into your routine, allowing your body time to adapt to the increased demands.

Incorporate Strength Training

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

There are seven measurable benefits of strength training, 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
  • Improved hormone profiles
  • Reduced muscle loss, a key factor associated with aging well
  • Better mood

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 Sessions

In order to run your fastest over the marathon distance, you should take in sources of carbohydrates, like sports gels or chews, during the race. In a long-distance event like a 26.2-mile 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 that you are going to do on race day, you should be sure to practice taking in nutrition during your training. Use your long training runs to try out different gels, chews, sports drinks, etc. Particularly as you get closer to race day, also make sure that you are consuming sports nutrition in the same quantities that you will in the race. As a general rule of thumb, try to get in at least 30 grams of carbs per hour, but use your long runs to determine if you need more or less.

Race Day Pacing to Run a Sub 4

Once you've put in all the training to prepare for your best marathon finish, the final piece of the puzzle becomes executing the race with a smart pacing strategy.

For a marathon, your best bet is to run a relatively consistent pace throughout the entire race or even get a little faster. This means starting at a pace that feels controlled and sustainable rather than going out too fast and risking fatigue or burnout in the later stages.

A common pacing strategy for experienced distance runners is a slight "negative split," which means trying to run the second half of your race just a bit faster than the first. To target a four-hour finish, aim to run the first few miles at a pace just a few seconds slower than your goal pace of 9:09 minutes per mile. This conservative start conserves energy and allows you to gradually settle into the race, assess how you're feeling, and adjust your pace as needed.

As you progress past the halfway point, if you're feeling strong, begin to gradually increase your pace, aiming to shave a few seconds off each mile. This incremental increase in pace throughout the second half of the race should feel challenging yet manageable, allowing you to push through the final miles with confidence and strength.

In the last 3 to 4 miles, focus on maintaining or slightly increasing your pace, digging deep, and aiming to finish with nothing left in the tank. It's crucial to stay mentally strong during these final stages, reminding yourself of all the great training and effort that have brought you to this point.


For many runners, it doesn't take long to progress from rookie marathoners to competitive runners with dreams of running a four-hour marathon.

In this article, we've offered some great tips to help you break the 4 hour barrier:

  • 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 run
  • Adding strength training into your marathon training program
  • Finding sports nutrition products that work for you and trying them in training.

With a good mix of endurance running, intervals, and strength work, together with smart pacing and nutrition, you can look forward to the post-race celebration of your new sub-4 marathon personal record.

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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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