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How to Break the 4-Hour Marathon Barrier

BY Hal Higdon

Is a sub-4:00 marathon your goal? Are the tips for breaking this marathon barrier any different than for breaking 5:00, or 6:00? Yes, and no.

Is a sub-4:00 marathon your goal? Are the tips for breaking this marathon barrier any different than for breaking 5:00, or 6:00?

Yes, and no. The training tips that work for the fastest runners often work equally well for those of you towards the back of the pack. Thus, if you have a Personal Record of 4:05 and need only a little improvement to snip five minutes off your time, I can help—and so can my followers on social media. Recently I posted a request on Facebook to find out what training tricks worked for those whose PR’s are 3:59:59 or better. Here’s what my Facebook fans told me.

Be consistent: Brandon Perlow, 26, a public speaker from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, ran a 4:10 one spring at the Los Angeles Marathon. That fall, he nailed a 3:56:30 at Marine Corps. “I really got into the habit of not missing any runs, and if I had to, I quickly rearranged my calendar to reschedule them. But losing 15 pounds also helped.”

Commit yourself: “Get a good plan and stick to it,” advises Kevin Bradford, 49, a professor and coach from London, Kentucky. (Kevin uses my training plans.) “You must be committed.”

Train faster: Interval training, tempo runs, hill repeats, fartlek are among the methods you can use for achieving speed. Sheri Sadler, 50, a paralegal from Scottsdale, Arizona, says, “Push yourself. Running a too-easy pace won’t cut it. Get out of your comfort zone.” Sadler had a string of 4:20-plus marathons, then got serious, aiming for negative splits in long runs. She now has three sub-4:00’s and is heading to Boston for the second time.

Train further: Jacqueline Simon Gunn, 45, a clinical psychologist from New York City, increased her weekly mileage by adding extra miles: 4-mile runs became 6-mile runs; 5-mile runs became 7-mile runs. “It made me stronger, hence faster,” she says, adding, “It did wonders for my 5-K and 10-K times too.”

Hire a coach: “Having a coach is wonderful for guidance and accountability,” says Jill White, 48, an emergency room nurse from Ashland, Ohio. “Find someone to say, ‘You can do this.’” White has not yet nailed her sub-4:00, but promises to report back this spring.”

Widen out: “There is no one single approach that will ensure you hit your goal,” claims Nick Gould, 50, a business development manager from Dubai. “It’s more a positive collision of everything: endurance, speed, recovery, rest, diet, race strategy, combined with as much tunnel vision as you can find.”

Plan ahead: Stewart Mackay recommends that you go into the race with a plan. “Devise a race strategy, which allows you to start slow and finish fast.” Stay on schedule for your plan all through the race.

Slow down: Yes, I know we just said to seek speed, but there’s also a time to slow down. John Donahue, 49, a Raynham, Massachusetts runner who works in financial services, tells us to slow down—not in the race, but in the long runs. John completed the Disney World Marathon in 4:31, running his long runs at 9:50 pace. For Marine Corps, he slowed his long runs to 10:30 pace and ran 3:59:03. “Sure, the long runs were slow and tedious, but I felt more refreshed for my midweek workouts.”

Partner up: Seek support from other runners. Tania Conwell, 37, a registered nurse who works in Philadelphia ran that city’s marathon with an American Cancer Society team, says, “Adding meaning to the miles made them fly by.” Consider also joining a pace team, she advises.

Don’t despair: Christina Spindler Berta, 34, a civil engineer from Cheyenne, Wyoming, lost a PR attempt when a blizzard caused the cancellation of her first-option marathon. Her second-choice marathon did not go that well, but she shrugged off this “failure,” saying: “Define your own level of success. Own your accomplishment, even if you miss that PR.”

Hal Higdon’s latest book is 4:09:43, about the Boston Marathon bombings. Pre-order a copy here.

The Complete Marathon Training Guide

Complete Marathon Training Guide

Training Guide

This guide is designed to be used as you train for a marathon, with in-depth information on every part of the process. Each chapter is packed with tips, workouts, and insights from expert running coaches, to give you all the tools you need to succeed.

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About Hal Higdon

Hal Higdon is a Contributing Editor for ‘Runner’s World‘ and author of 34 books, including the best-selling ‘Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide’. He ran eight times in the Olympic Trials and won four world masters championships. Higdon estimates that over a quarter of a million runners have finished marathons using his training programs, and he also offers additional interactive programs at all distances through TrainingPeaks. Hal uses TrainingPeaks to power his interactive marathon and half marathon training plans — check out more of Hal Higdon’s training plans on his website.