Steve Smythe, who has run a sub-3:00 marathon in five different decades and hopes to achieve it in a sixth, shares his experience of training for a marathon for 45 consecutive years and preparing a suitable schedule
My first marathon was back in 1976 when I had just left school and every year since I have done at least one marathon a year, including London every year since 1984 (missing just 1983 but I did another marathon that year instead).
My early marathons were based on the available training books at the time and later I was lucky enough, through my position of working in the media, to speak with many of Britain’s top marathon coaches such as Alan Storey, Bruce Tulloh and Cliff Temple and speak to leading marathoners in the 80s and 90s such as Hugh Jones, Mike Gratton, Steve Moneghetti, Eamonn Martin and Richard Nerurkar.
In 1993 I helped prepare an athlete for their first international marathon and later took over from Tulloh as the person in charge of marathon schedules for Runner’s World.
My best marathon is a 2:29 and as a M45 I won a British Masters title, ran 2:43 as a M50 and ran 2:56 in 2017 at the age of 58, 41 years after my first sub-3:00, which while no longer a world record span is the longest sub-3 span by a runner in Britain or Europe.
There are a few important things to consider when you embark on training for a marathon.
- How many weeks do you want to train for the event?
- What target time do you consider is possible and what time would you be satisfied with?
- How many days a week do you want to train?
With regards to point 1, training tends to be over 12 to 15 weeks.
If you were already very fit, possibly on the back of an autumn marathon, you could get away with a 12-week schedule but if you were starting more from scratch, you will probably want a 15/16-week schedule.
Target time (see table below)
With regards to your target time, this would be influenced by your past marathons if you have experience.
If you previously ran 3:10 off an average of 50 miles a week, then a sub-3:00 might be feasible with 65 miles a week.
Other factors in your target would be what your 10km and half-marathon PB is.
For example, if you have a half-marathon PB of 1:30, then a 3:00 target is unrealistic but 3:15 should be an attainable target.
I think it is always best to have at least two targets as you start training.
One being a target that excites you at the start of the training and one that is meaningful – that could be sub-2:30, sub-3:00 or sub-4:00.
A secondary target might be more realistic but one that would still give you a sense of achievement for a job well done.
You may even bring a third target into the equation nearer the time, if training runs had not gone as well as planned or you had picked up an injury.
The target might also be dependent on how much training you can do. Even if you have a 1:20 half-marathon PB, then a sub-3:00 might still be difficult if you can only run three to four times a week.
That brings us to point three. The more days and miles you train, then the fitter you will get and the faster you can run but the more training runs you do, you increase the tiredness and the chance of injury and illness.
If every time you try and run six or seven times a week, you succumb to injury, then you might be better trying to survive off four to five times a week and aiming for a slightly slower time.
Injury and illness will undoubtedly be a potential minefield to any training schedule.
The most important thing of any training schedule is to get to race day in reasonable health and having carried out the vast majority of planned training.
Most runners at some stage in their marathon training will have to deal with illness and if not a full blown injury, a minor niggle that might require a few missed days of training or at least a few easier days or weeks.
This is only an estimate. The 10km time does give a suggestion of marathon potential but only if a runner trains fully for the marathon.
It is generally expected that the difference in paces required increases as your target pace is slower.
For example, an international runner may just have 15 seconds difference between their 10km and marathon mile pace but a prospective four-hour marathoner may be a minute a mile slower.
|10km time||Marathon potential and minimal half-marathon target|
|27:00 (4:21 miling)||2:00 (4:35) and 58:00 (4:26)|
|28:00 (4:31)||2:05 (4:46) and 60:00 (4:35)|
|29:00 (4:41)||2:10 (4:57) and 62:30 (4:46)|
|30:00 (4:50)||2:15 (5:09) and 65:00 (4:57)|
|31:00 (5:00)||2:20 (5:20) and 67:30 (5:09)|
|32:00 (5:10)||2:25 (5:32) and 70:00 (5:20)|
|33:00 (5:20)||2:30 (5:43) and 72:30 (5:32)|
|34:00 (5:29)||2:35 (5:55) and 75:00 (5:43)|
|35:00 (5:39)||2:40 (6:06) and 77:30 (5:55)|
|36:00 (5:48)||2:45 (6:17) and 80:00 (6:06)|
|37:00 (5:58)||2:50 (6:29) and 82:30 (6:17)|
|38:00 (6:08)||2:55 (6:41) and 85:00 (6:29)|
|39:00 (6:17)||3:00 (6:52) and 87:00 (6:38)|
|40:00 (6:27)||3:05 (7:04) and 89:00 (6:47)|
|41:00 (6:37)||3:10 (7:15) and 91:30 (6:59)|
|42:00 (6:46)||3:15 (7:26) and 94:00 (7:11)|
|43:00 (6:56)||3:20 (7:38) and 96:00 (7:20)|
|44:00 (7:06)||3:25 (7:49) and 98:30 (7:31)|
|45:00 (7:15)||3:30 (8:00) and 1:40:30 (7:40)|
|46:00 (7:25)||3:35 (8:12) and 1:43:00 (7:52)|
|47:00 (7:35)||3:40 (8:24) and 1:45:00 (8:00)|
|48:00 (7:45)||3:45 (8:35) and 1:47:30 (8:12)|
|49:00 (7:54)||3:50 (8:47) and 1:50:00 (8:24)|
|50:00 (8:04)||3:55 (8:58) and 1:52:00 (8:33)|
|51:00 (8:14)||4:00 (9:09) and 1:54:00 (8:42)|
|52:00 (8:23)||4:05 (9:21) and 1:56:30 (8:54)|
|53:00 (8:33)||4:10 (9:33) and 1:58:30 (9:03)|
|54:00 (8:43)||4:15 (9:44) and 2:01:00 (9:14)|
|55:00 (8:52)||4:20 (9:55) and 2:03:30 (9:26)|
|56:00 (9:02)||4:25 (10:07) and 2:06:00 (9:37)|
|57:00 (9:12)||4:30 (10:18) and 2:08:00 (9:46)|
|58:00 (9:21)||4:35 (10:30) and 2:10:00 (9:55)|
|59:00 (9:31)||4:40 (10:40) and 2:12:30 (10:07)|
|60:00 (9:41)||4:45 (10:53) and 2:15:00 (10:18)|
Once you have decided on a race date, a target and have decided on how many days a week you can train and for how many weeks you want to train then you can start planning.
For a 15-week schedule for the London Marathon (on April 26), you will need to begin on Monday January 13.
The last two weeks will be a taper (easing back the training after gradually building up) so you have around 12 weeks to gradually increase the training load so the highest volume will be towards the end of March and beginning of April.
The obvious target of the training is to prepare yourself to run 26.2 miles by a mixture of long runs, speed work and tempo runs over many months.
Undoubtedly the most important training session is the long run – usually carried out on a Sunday.
The traditional method is to increase the distance and also make some adjustment to the speed.
For a runner with a sub-3:00 target for London, this would be a possible build up over the 15 weeks.
I have suggested a pace but some runners may prefer a slightly faster or slower pace.
|Sunday Jan 19||13 miles at 7:45-8:00 minutes a mile|
|Sunday Jan 26||15 miles at 7:45-8:00|
|Sunday Feb 2||17 miles at 7:30-7:45|
|Sunday Feb 9||19 miles at 7:45-8:00 with middle 5 miles at marathon pace|
|Sunday Feb 16||20 miles slow at 8:00|
|Sunday Feb 23||15 miles slow but last 5 miles nearer HM pace|
|Sunday Mar 1||Half-marathon race|
|Sunday Mar 8||20 miles at 7:30|
|Sunday Mar 15||21 miles at 7:15|
|Sunday Mar 22||18 miles at 7:30-8:00 - with second half at marathon pace|
|Sunday Mar 29||23 miles at 7:30 pace|
|Sunday Apr 5||20 miles at 7:30 pace|
|Sunday Apr 12||15 miles with last 3 miles at marathon pace|
|Sunday Apr 19||10-12 miles with a few miles at marathon pace (6:50)|
|Sunday Apr 26||London Marathon|
If your target is around a minute a mile faster (2:30) or a minute a mile slower (3:30) or two minutes slower (4:00), then simply adjust the long run pace accordingly by the same amount.
While endurance is the most important factor in determining what time you will ultimately run, speed endurance will also be a major factor.
If you have a fast target – say 2:30 or 3:00 – the required mile pace is respectively around 5:40 and 6:50 and doing that pace for 26 miles will only happen if you can run significantly quicker at shorter distances.
I personally like to run interval training every Tuesday and I will vary the distances of the interval.
For London, I would do the following:
|Tues Jan 14||6 x 800m at 5km pace with one to two minute recovery or 200m slow jog|
|Tues Jan 21||15 x 400m at 5km pace with one minute to 90 seconds recovery or 200m jog|
|Tues Jan 28||5 x 1600m at 10km pace with two minute recovery or 400m jog|
|Tues Feb 4||6 x 1000m at 5km-10km pace with one to two minute recovery or 200m slow jog|
|Tues Feb 11||8 x 800m at 5km pace with one to two minute recovery or 200m slow jog|
|Tues Feb 18||16 x 400m at 5km pace with one minute to 90 seconds recovery or 200m jog|
|Tues Feb 25||1 mile at half-marathon pace, 12 x 200m relaxed at 5km pace, 1 mile at half-marathon pace|
|Tues Mar 3||3 x 2000m at 10km pace with two minute recovery or 400m jog|
|Tues Mar 10||10 x 800m at 5km pace with one to two minute recovery or 200m slow jog|
|Tues Mar 17||20 x 400m at 5km pace with one minute to 90 seconds recovery or 200m jog|
|Tues Mar 24||5 x 1600m at 10km pace with two minute recovery or 400m jog|
|Tues Mar 31||8 x 1000m at 5km-10km pace with one to two minute recovery or 200m slow jog|
|Tues Apr 7||8 x 800m at 5km pace with one to two minute recovery or 200m slow jog|
|Tues Apr 14||15 x 400m at 5km pace with one minute to 90 seconds recovery or 200m jog|
|Tues Apr 21||1 mile at marathon pace, 12 x 200m relaxed at 5km pace, 1 mile at marathon pace|
The session could be on a track or even firm grass, road or trail but remember a road surface is more destructive on the legs when running fast.
In theory, this sort of regular training should mean you are more relaxed and comfortable during the marathon and longer runs when you are running at a slower pace.
Interestingly, the 800m session gives most runners a rough idea of their marathon potential.
For instance, a potential sub-2:30 runner should be able to average inside 2:30 for his 800m and a sub-3:00 runner be inside 3:00 and a sub-3:30 runner inside 3:30.
Sometimes this might overestimate someone with significantly better speed than endurance or undervalue a runner lacking in natural speed but it should certainly be in the vicinity of the target time.
Running at marathon pace is difficult – a 26-mile run at marathon pace can take months to recover from and while there is some suggested work at marathon pace at the weekend, this should be minimal or you won’t recover to be able to do reasonable training during the week and potentially will lose more than you gain.
The suggested Tuesday speed sessions are at a far faster pace than you will need for the marathon but you should be doing some running at closer to half-marathon or marathon pace.
The best day for the tempo running in my view is Thursday.
|Thurs Jan 16||5 miles acceleration run - ie for sub-3:00, miles of 8:00, 7:40, 7:20, 7:00, 6:40|
|Thurs Jan 23||2 miles at marathon pace, 1 mile slower, 2 miles at marathon pace|
|Thurs Jan 30||9km of alternative pace at steady 30 secs slower than marathon pace, half-marathon, marathon per kilometre|
|Thurs Feb 6||10km alternating half-marathon pace and a minute a mile slower than marathon pace every 3 minutes|
|Thurs Feb 13||10km at marathon pace with 30 secs faster every 5 minutes, then 30 seconds slow jog then back to marathon pace|
|Thurs Feb 20||6 miles acceleration run - ie for sub-3:00 marathoner, miles of 8:10, 7:50, 7:30, 7:10, 6:50, 6:30|
|Thurs Feb 27||5 miles steady to relaxed with 8 x 1 minute bursts at half-marathon pace every 4 minutes|
|Thurs Mar 5||3 miles at marathon pace, 1 mile slower, 2 miles at marathon pace|
|Thurs Mar 12||12km of alternative pace at steady 30 secs slower than marathon pace, half-marathon, marathon per kilometre|
|Thurs Mar 19||12km alternating half-marathon pace and a minute a mile slower than marathon pace every 4 minutes|
|Thurs Mar 26||7 miles acceleration run - ie for a sub-3:00 marathoner, miles of 8:00, 7:45, 7:30, 7:15, 7:00, 6:45, 6:30|
|Thurs Apr 2||3 miles at marathon pace, 1 mile slower, 3 miles at marathon pace|
|Thurs Apr 9||10km of alternative pace at steady 30 secs slower than marathon pace, half-marathon, marathon per kilometre|
|Thurs Apr 16||5 miles acceleration run - ie for sub-3:00, miles of 7:30, 7:15, 7:00, 6:45, 6:30|
|Thurs Apr 23||3 miles steady with five 1 minute bursts at marathon pace|
Medium long runs
While the Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday runs are the most important training runs of the week, it is also worth getting a medium length midweek run in on the Wednesday.
Like the long runs, this should be gradually built up but on a cycle with some easier weeks and coming between the Tuesday and Thursday sessions, should be at a comfortable pace.
|Wed Jan 15||50 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Jan 22||55 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Jan 29||60 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Feb 5||65 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Feb 12||70 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Feb 19||75 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Feb 26||60 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Mar 4||65 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Mar 11||70 minutes at 45 seconds a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Mar 18||75 minutes at 45 seconds a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Mar 25||80 minutes at 45 seconds a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Apr 1||70 minutes at 30 seconds a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Apr 8||60 minutes at 30 seconds a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Apr 15||50 minutes at 30 seconds a mile slower than marathon pace|
|Wed Apr 22||30 minutes at one minute a mile slower than marathon pace|
Saturday sessions are generally easier, coming the day before the key training run each week, but a lot of runners like to run a cross-country race or a parkrun.
If you do have a tough cross-country run on the Saturday, it is suggested you take it slightly easier on the Sunday and cut the pace or the distance.
Monday and Fridays runs are optional and should be easy recovery runs at best of between 30 minutes and a hour but many runners take the day off or do alternative exercise such as cycling, swimming or gym.
If you want to get extra mileage, and can take more training, then you could do an extra run of 30-45 minutes every weekday morning and a short run every Sunday afternoon.
Another way of increasing mileage is to run to and from the track or your speedwork venue, if practical (for example, 3 miles away).
Listen to your body
While a detailed schedule is good, it should be looked on as just a guideline.
Adjust if you have an illness or injury or are struggling to run the suggested training times or suddenly realise you are in better form than planned and can up the pace of the training runs or speed sessions.
The suggestions given are on the basis that you have already done some base training. If you are starting from a low level of fitness, you will have to start far more gently that I have suggested and aim for a slower time or later event.
Don’t forget on the long runs that preparation is almost as important as the race itself.
Hydrate and fuel well before the run and if need be take drinks or gels during the run to combat fatigue or dehydration.
I only suggested one definite race date within the schedule but some runners prefer two half-marathons in the build up though one of them can be run just at marathon pace.
It would not do any harm to have a break from the slogs of long runs and instead run a 10km and make use of the hopefully increased fitness in your marathon build up.