How to Run a Faster Marathon

After you've run your first marathon, you may be thinking that you want to improve your time for your next marathon. If you're hoping to run a faster marathon, try some of these tips:

Do More Training at Marathon Pace

A healthy couple runs before sundown in the streets of the city.

Andrew Rich / Vetta / Getty Images

Newer runners tend to run the same pace for every run. Runners looking to improve their time should broaden their pace separation (the difference between easy pace and race pace or interval training).

But if you're shooting for a certain marathon time, you'll need to focus more on your goal race pace. You definitely don't want to run your entire long runs at marathon pace (MP), but it helps to run the last one-third to one-half of your long run at your anticipated marathon pace.

Running at MP towards the end of your run is good training because you'll be picking up the pace when your legs are already fatigued. And if you can run at your MP (or faster) in those last few miles, that's a good indication that your goal time is realistic.

Increase Weekly Mileage

Running more miles each week strengthens your heart and adds more capillaries to deliver more blood to your muscles, improves your leg strength, and builds your mental strength—all of which help you run faster and longer. Just be careful that you don't increase your overall mileage by more than 10% per week. Bigger jumps in mileage can lead to overuse injuries.

Do Mile Repeats

Mile repeats are one of the best speed workouts you can do to run a faster marathon. Try working mile repeats into your training every other week or so, starting with two to three repeats and working your way up to six repeats. Run them at about 10 to 15 seconds faster than your realistic goal marathon pace and recover (at an easy pace) in between repeats.

Instead of sticking with mile repeats only, vary your intervals. For example:

  • 12 x 400 meters
  • 6 x 800 meters
  • 3 x 1 mile

Choose the Right Race

This may seem like common sense, but if you want to run a faster marathon, pick a marathon that's known for being fast. Some runners choose scenic marathons like Honolulu and then find out that the course is not fast, either because of hills, weather, or crowded conditions. Do your research and find out the elevation on the course, typical race day weather, and whether crowds may slow you down.

Practice Nutrition and Hydration

Your first marathon may have been sabotaged by numerous stops in the porta-potties. To avoid wasting time on pit stops, make sure you're eating and hydrating properly during your training so that you don't try anything new on race day.

Avoid foods that are known to trigger runner's trots and don't drink so much that you have to constantly stop to urinate. Be sure you know how to prepare the day before your marathon.

Get Familiar With the Course

Study the course profile on the marathon's website and find out how many hills you'll be facing and at what miles. If you know when to expect hills on the course, you'll be prepared mentally and you can pace yourself properly for them.

If you're running a local marathon, try to do some long training runs on the marathon course. In addition to being good physical preparation for the race, having run on the actual course will help you feel more mentally prepared.

Run Yasso 800s

Yasso 800s are a popular workout among runners who are trying to achieve a specific marathon goal. Take your marathon goal time in hours/minutes and convert it to minutes/seconds—so a 3 hour 10-minute marathon would be 3 minutes 10 seconds. Then try to run 800-meter repeats in that converted time. (Running Yasso 800s and mile repeats in the same week is not recommended.)

Run the Tangents on the Course

Even though race courses are measured accurately, many racers run a longer distance (and therefore a slower finish time) by following every curve in the road. A tangent is a straight line that just touches a curve, so the concept of "running the tangents" is to run the shortest distance possible by running straight from one curve to the next.

Run a Tune-Up Half-Marathon

Doing a half-marathon four to six weeks before your marathon is an excellent way to find a realistic time for your marathon. You can plug your half-marathon time into a race time predictor calculator and determine an achievable race pace. Knowing what pace you should be running during your marathon will help you avoid going out too fast and fading in the later miles.

Don't Skip Rest Days

Many runners who are shooting for a faster marathon time assume that running hard almost every day will make them faster. Rest is critical to your recovery and injury prevention efforts, so don't forget to take at least one day off completely each week.

Your muscles actually build and repair themselves during your rest days. If you run every day without taking recovery days in between your hard workouts, you don't give your body a chance to build itself to be stronger.

Include Tempo Runs in Training

Tempo runs help you develop your anaerobic threshold, which is critical for running faster. To do a tempo run, start with five to 10 minutes of easy running, then continue with 15 to 20 minutes of running near your 10K pace. Finish with 5 to 10 minutes of cooling down. If you're not sure what your 10K pace is, run at a pace that feels "comfortably hard."

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.