How to improve your marathon time

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So you want to know how to run a faster marathon? Well the short answer is dedication, focus and pushing yourself to run faster for longer than you ever have. The longer answer below involves time, commitment and a little pain (but not too much if done correctly.)

Stick to these strategies and that new time will be well within your grasp.

1. Set your marathon goal

When setting goals for long distance running, it’s important to be realistic. If your current marathon time is 4:30hrs, don't leap to a goal of 3:30hrs. Aiming for something like 4:10hrs, or 4hrs dead on would be much more achievable, while still requiring some serious training.

2. Find a plan that works for you

So you've decided on your target time? Great, now you need a plan.

There are many marathon training plans out there. No plan is the same - they all have differing workouts and weekly mileage volumes - however, they all have one thing in common; a mix of session to help you run faster, further.

Most plans will gradually increase the number of total weekly miles each week, peaking around 3 weeks before your marathon date.

They will also include at least one long run each week, usually on a Sunday, which builds up to 20-23 miles in the final stages of training. These runs are without doubt the most important part of your training so try not to miss or shorten them. Build up gradually, increasing the work load by 10% per week.

There are many plans available on the internet. However, its often a good strategy to join one of the many running clubs within the UAE, such as Abras or Dubai Creek striders. Many of these clubs will have groups of like minded people training for a marathon. They will be following a plan so consider joining a club and training in a group- it can be a lot more fun than training by yourself.

If you feel you can afford it then get a coach!

3. Manage your time well

It takes a lot of time to train for a marathon. If you're running 40 miles per week, that's around five and a half hours a week of training (at 8 minute miles, longer at a slower training pace).

Be realistic about how much time you have to 'give' to marathon training. We all have other commitments such as work and/or family. If you want to achieve your goal then sacrifices will need to be made by both you and those around you. Whether early morning, pre-work alarms, lunchtime runs, going for a run while the kids are at a club or missing out on that night out because you have to run 10 miles on a Friday evening. You CAN reach your goal but it will take willpower and effort.

Treadmill running is much underestimated. If you have a busy travel schedule you can keep up your training by going to the hotel gym and knocking out either a long steady run or an interval session. Likewise if you have a gym near your office or home clock in some miles or do a specific workout.

The beauty of running is that the only thing you need is your running kit and a pair of shorts. You can run from the front door or from your hotel. If you travel use it as a way of discovering the area!

4. Build running stamina

The science bit.

Running uses a combination of aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Aerobic energy is where oxygen is delivered to your muscles; the air from your lungs is pumped by your heart through blood vessels and capillaries to your muscles. Your longer runs (anything over 13 miles or 90 minutes) make your body better and better at delivering oxygen to you muscles in this way. When you repeatedly run long and slow, your body adapts, your heart gets stronger, your lungs deliver more oxygen and you expand your network of capillaries.

In the early part of your training these long runs are a vital part of building the endurance needed to run for 26.2 miles - it's called 'building your aerobic base', your ability to run a long way, comfortably.

It is essential to build up the long run gradually. Increase the distance by no more than 10% per week. If you are training for a full marathon then your longest run should be around 22-23 miles but you don't want to just run 26.2 miles comfortably!

You want to do it in a specific time. Which means you will need to have a target pace. For example, if you want to run your marathon in 4 hours then you're going to have to train your body so it adapts to be able to run for 26.2 miles at an average of 9:09 minute per mile or 6:52 minute per mile for a 3 hour marathon.

So if the first 6 weeks of a 15 week plan involves building your aerobic base, weeks 7-12 involve training your body to run at your target pace.

You really want to try and do this twice per week in one 'shorter' run and one longer run. So for example on the Wednesday you would start by running 10 miles - 3 mile easy pace warm up, 4 miles at target marathon pace (say, 9:09/mi), 3 mile cool down. Then the next Wednesday, 3 mile warm up, 5 miles at target pace, 2 mile cool down. By week 12 you'd be running 12 miles on a Wednesday with a 2 mile warm up, 9 miles at target pace, 1 mile cool down.

The same on your long Sunday run, you want to be building up so that by week 12/16 you're running at least 15 miles at your target pace with warm up and cool downs at the beginning and end.

We also recommend to run a half marathon in the build up to the full monty. Pick one about 2 months before the real thing and use it as your long run training run. You should be able to run it slightly faster than your marathon pace. It is also recommended to run a couple of faster 10Km races to build speed endurance. An easy session to keep in your back pocket as a base set to check your progress is 6x1km with 1 minute recoveries. Do it once per month and calculate your average times.

5. Marathon nutrition and rest

If you want to run a fast marathon, then don't overlook the importance of your diet and sleeping habits. Fuel and recovery are integral to your performance not only on the big day, but also throughout your training. Be sure to eat and rest well following your training runs. See our separate blog on nutrition.

The mantra 'listen to your body' is never truer than in marathon training. If you feel over tired or have a slight injury, then rest is usually the best cure.

6. Find a nice flat fast marathon

The distance of 26.2 miles is not the same everywhere! If you want to achieve a personal best time then don't choose a marathon with 3,000ft of climbing!

They don’t come any flatter than Dubai and taking place in January when temperatures are cool, give you an excellent opportunity to get that PB.

We caught up with long distance runner Anne-Mari Hyryläinen who set her own PB of 2:28:53 at the Dubai Marathon in 2018 to get her tips on preparing yourself for a PB. 

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