Image Of A Group Of Marathon Runners Working On How To Improve Marathon Time

10 Ways To Improve Your Marathon Time

BY Karen Meadows

Whether you're a first-time marathoner or you're looking to improve your time, these 10 tips can help you reach your goal. Learn how to train smarter, eat better, and recover faster for a faster marathon.

For many runners, running a faster marathon is a major goal. Achieving it may be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. With some simple considerations to your training, scheduling, and recovery, you’ll be set up to have your fastest marathon yet.

1. Include Two Long(ish) Runs in Your Weekly Schedule

Long runs are any run longer than two hours or 16 miles, whichever comes first. They build endurance and grit, both of which are necessary to run a faster marathon. Add some quality running in the middle of one of these longer efforts if you want to practice running harder on tired legs.  

2. Consider Losing or Reducing True “Speed Work” 

The bread and butter of marathon training are the long runs and running miles at planned marathon pace. Speedwork in marathon training involves a cost-benefit analysis. If you run too fast in training, there is a low positive effect on your marathon training compared to the likelihood of injury. Be judicious when adding it. Instead of speed work, add strides to your easy runs. Strides are short bouts of running at one mile to 3k race pace and help with running economy and form.

3. Increase Your Mileage (Gradually) for a Fast Marathon Time

Elite athletes run lots of miles because racing performance improves with increased mileage. To avoid injury, make sure your build-up is gradual. Pay close attention to how you feel and take extra recovery days if you need to. Increasing your mileage is one way to increase aerobic capacity, but not everyone can handle a bigger training load without succumbing to injury, burnout, etc.  

4. Be Specific in Your Training

Limit the number of quality run workouts you do each week. Be careful how you incorporate harder workouts into your training plan. As a general rule of thumb, most athletes can tackle two to three quality workouts every seven to 10 days depending on their age, injury history and susceptibility, and running background. Space the hard runs two to three days apart to allow yourself adequate recovery between hard bouts of training.  

5. Make Easy Runs Easy and Hard Runs Hard

When I write “easy run” into a training plan, you would be amazed at how many times an athlete runs this workout only about 30-45 seconds slower than their race pace. I call this “training in no-man’s land.” If you fall into this no-man’s land of running your easy runs a little too hard, you will utilize too much energy and prolong recovery. You will be too tired to hit your pace on the next hard workout, or you will have to work too hard, resulting in fatigue for your subsequent workout. Make sure your easy runs are an easy effort, so hard sessions goals can be met.

6. Limit Races That Are Longer Than 15K

Racing longer distances takes away valuable training time, even if your taper is short.  You still have to recover from the hard effort, and there is always a risk of injury.  Be careful when populating your schedule with races during your marathon buildup. This is especially true of those longer than a 15k, unless you plan on running them as training races in lieu of a workout.    

7. Train On Terrain That’s Similar to Your Race

Although it’s important to mix up the on surfaces you run on, you should spend the bulk of your training running on the surface and terrain you will be racing on. For example, if you train on flat surfaces in mild weather, it might be inadvisable to choose a hilly race in a humid climate. 

8. Avoid Destination Races for Your Qualifying Marathon

It’s fun to fly cross country and race a marathon, but there is a lot of money (and time) invested if, say, the weather is unfavorable or you get sick a week before. I encourage my athletes to target a few marathons that are drivable, and as race day approaches, we watch the weather and make the decision to race about 2 weeks out.     

9. Invest in Strength Training and Cross-Training

Everyone’s running can benefit from a strong core, but masters athletes should be keenly aware that the risk of injury goes up as they age. If you aren’t sure what strength moves to add, hire a personal trainer with a background in running or follow me on Instagram @coachkaren30a for some options. Include movements like the single-leg deadlift to increase your range of motion and improve ankle strength.

Also, invest some time cross-training to build endurance while limiting the risk of injury. Cycling, swimming, and hiking are all great ways to increase your endurance without much, if any, impact. I have found that adding a solid 3-month block of bike and swim training to my athlete’s training plan leading into a marathon buildup produces strong marathon results.

10. Prioritize Recovery Time

Fitness gains occur during the recovery phase. Your muscles need time to grow back stronger; help them by investing in massage, ancillary work, and baths with Epsom salts. Training adaptations occur during rest or active recovery. It takes about two weeks for the body to realize fitness gains, which is why marathon taper plans typically start 14-21 days out from your last hard effort. Value your rest days and easy recovery workouts. 

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About Karen Meadows

Coach Karen is a USAT and USA Track and Field Certified Coach and Personal Trainer who achieved success in running, finishing on the podium from the 5K to the marathon distance.  She has run  more than 50 marathons including multiple Boston Marathons.  She has competed in all triathlon distances and has qualified for ITU Long Course, Duathlon and Ironman 70.3 World Championships.  She has coached athletes to the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, ITU National Championships, The Boston Marathon, and personal bests.   She lives in Panama City Beach where she trains with her athletes extensively on the Ironman Florida and 70.3 Gulf Coast race courses.  She can be reached at and can be found showcasing functional strength exercises to improve strength and mobility on Instagram @coachkaren30a.

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