Steve Smythe has 40 years-plus experience of bettering marathon time targets and he gives his thoughts on what’s required to improve certain marks from sub-2:00 to 4:30
Running sub-three used to be my speciality. I first achieved it in my first marathon in Harlow in 1976 and last did so in Seville 2017, which at the time was a world record span of 40 years. Two Americans have now done better but I can claim that I have one thing in common with Sir Mo, as I am a European record-holder of sorts.
This year’s London Marathon will be my 38th in the capital and I currently have an average of 2:52 for London and 2:49 overall for my 72 completed marathons. The averages will be getting slower every race but hopefully in my 44th consecutive year of marathon training, I can pass on what is required for each major time target.
Most people if running London would have already chosen a time target, which might not necessarily be one of the obvious half-hourly targets.
It is likely to be based on previous marathon times, then adjusted on how much training was achieved and specifically the number and quality of long runs and any recent half-marathon times and then further adjusted to take into account time lost in training through illness and injury.
Unfortunately, most London runners had to predict their times back in 2018, and if you have gained fitness you will have to start in the same pen which relates to your prediction, but if you are now aiming for a slower time, you can move down a pen.
Weather conditions might require minor adjustments to targets. Last year’s London was very hot and meant many runners were way down on their original expectations.
This year, heat will not be a problem but the wind (especially as it is a strong Westerly) could mean slower times.
As for the race itself, pacing is important. Obviously even pace is the best option but you may need to make adjustments because of the crowded start, the course’s hills (the downhill third mile gives you some time in hand), wind direction and traditionally how strong you are in the closing miles.
Being successful for achieving a target is dependent on picking a target that is attainable and then getting the pacing right and not suddenly allowing the occasion and adrenalin to override your previous judgement in what was possible.
The race has some very experienced pacers who are good for assistance but don’t overly rely on them as they may have started behind you and as they are usually capable of much faster than the target time might be prone to run faster than target time occasionally which they can easily cope with but a runner on the edge may not fare as well.
SUB-3:00 (6:52 per mile)
Last year 1113 broke three hours in hot conditions but 1935 did it in 2017, which is a far better example of typical London conditions so you roughly need to aim to come in the first 2000 positions to achieve this target.
Note 10 runners ran 3:00:00 or 3:00:01 that year but it is quite crowded throughout the 2:59s with 173 finishing in that minute – roughly three a second.
The average halfway time for those in the 2:59s was 1:28 with a fastest of 1:14:39 and a slowest of 1:30:42.
Most runners aiming for this target will have run a half-marathon time inside 1:25 or even better low 1:20s and a 10km inside 40 minutes.
The final runner to break 3:00 ran an 83 half-marathon in his build up and 39 for 10km that year.
On even pace runners should pass 5 miles in 34:21, 10 miles in 68:42, 15 miles in 1:43:03, 20 miles in 2:17:24, 25 miles in 2:51:45.
SUB-2:30 (5:43 per mile)
My own experience suggests this target is 60 times as hard as breaking three hours.
55 did it from the main race and 45 in the elite race in 2017.
Of those who ran 2:29 on the main start, the average halfway time was 74:00, the fastest was 70:52 and the slowest 74:50.
Most runners aiming for sub-2:30 would have run a half-marathon close to 1:10 and around 33:00 for 10km.
The final runner to break 2:30 had a 71:30 half-marathon and 32:30 10km time from the year before.
On even pace runners need to run 28:37 for 5 miles, 57:15 for 10 miles, 85:52 for 15 miles, 1:54:30 for 20 miles and 2:23:07 for 25 miles.
SUB-2:15 (5:09 per mile) or 2:15:25
Only 15 runners broke 2:15 in 2017. 10 did it in 2018.
Paula Radcliffe’s women’s world record has already stood for 16 years and could stand for another 16 as no other woman has broken 2:17.
Radcliffe was a 30:00 10km runner and had incredible endurance to hold a pace longer than any other woman.
Only a handful of women have run quicker than 30:00 for 10km and most of the other women in the sub 2:18 range have run the half-marathon around 65 minutes.
Generally, a runner wishing to break 2:30 will have to have run 30:00 for 10km and 65 for a half-marathon.
The runner closest to 2:15 in 2017 went through halfway in 66:41 and ran 64:27 for a half-marathon and ran 30:01 for 10km though has a 29:22 PB.
On even pace runners need to run 25:45 for 5 miles, 51:31 for 10 miles, 77:17 for 15 miles, 1:43:03 for 20 miles and 2:08:49 for 25 miles.
SUB-2:00 (4:34 per mile)
A few years ago, very few would believe that the world record would now be 2:01:39 but Eliud Kipchoge’s superb Berlin run means that the pace he managed is less than four seconds a mile down on the sub-2 target and he also ran a 2:00:25 paced run at Monza.
The sub-two is certainly closer than it was but a runner aiming to achieve that target would probably need to be able to run well inside 27:00 for 10km and low 57s for the half-marathon.
It’s worth noting that of history’s three fastest 10,000m runners – Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat – the latter two set world records at the marathon but only have respective bests of 2:03:03, 2:03:59, 2:04:55, which tends to suggest a low-26 10km may be necessary for a sub-2 attempt which does look many years away.
Runners attempting to break two hours would need to run just over 28:20 for each of their 10km splits.
SUB-3:30 (8:00 per mile)
6336 runners broke 3:30 in London in 2017. Note it is much busier around this time and 650 runners finished in the three-minute span between 3:27 and 3:30 at around four a second.
Of those who ran a time of 3:29, the average halfway time was 1:42, the fastest time was 1:23:55 and the slowest was 1:47:38.
Runners aiming for this time usually have times of around 1:35 for the half-marathon and 43:00 for 10km.
On even pace runners need to run 40:04 for 5 miles, 80:09 for 10 miles and 2:00:03 for 15 miles, 2:48:19 for 20 miles and 3:20:22 for 25 miles.
SUB-4:00 (9:09 per mile)
13383 runners broke 4:00 in London in 2017 and 1000 runners finished in the three-minute span between 3:57 and 4:00 as finishers are at the peak around this time with runners finishing between five and six a minute.
The fastest time for those who ran 3:59 at halfway was 1:19:48 and the slowest was 2:04:28 with the latter going 10 minutes quicker on the second half. The average was around 1:56.
Runners aiming for this time usually have PB times of around 1:45-1:50 for half-marathon and 47-50:00 for 10km.
On even pace, runners need to run 45:48 for 5 miles, 91:36 for 10 miles and 2:17:24 for 15 miles, 3:03:12 for 20 miles and 3:49:00 for 25 miles.
SUB-4:30 (10:18 per mile)
20,567 runners broke 4:30 in London in 2017 and 800 runners finished in the three-minute span between 4:27 and 4:30. At a rate of between four and five a second.
The quickest time of those who ran 4:29 was 1:50:00 and the slowest was 2:20:05 – the latter going 10 minutes quicker on the second half but the former slowing 50 minutes. The average was around 2:07 and runners were slowing much more in this span than the others.
Runners aiming for this time usually have PB times around 1:55-2:10 for half-marathon and 53:00-60:00 for 10km.
On even pace, runners need to run 51:31 for 5 miles, 1:43:03 for 10 miles and 2:34:34 for 15 miles, 3:26:06 for 20 miles and 4:17:38 for 25 miles.
» Click here for our online guide to Sunday’s London Marathon and see the April 25 issue of AW magazine for our full previews