How to Run a Sub 3 hour Marathon on 25 miles a Week

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In my last post I described what minimal run training is, and why more mileage isn’t always the key to running faster. In this post I’m going to get into the details about how I’ve used minimal run training to run two sub 3 hour Marathons, 2:55 and 2:57, while averaging less than 25 miles per week.

I started minimal run training out of necessity. In the past, I suffered with constant injuries, burnout, and fatigue. I needed to find a way to make running sustainable. At first, I wasn’t planning on setting any personal records, but as my training progressed, I kept getting faster. Even though I was training less, my times were improving.
 

Some Basics

I start with the basic premise that the human body is an organism that adapts to specific stress. If you want to bench press more weight, you need stress your body in a specific way by adding more weight to the bar. The same goes for running. 
 
If you want to run faster, you need to stress your body in a way that is specific to that event. For example, if you’re preparing for a marathon, which do you think would be better: running 1 mile a day for 26 days, or running 26 miles and then resting for 25 days

Both ways of training will give you the same number of miles, but I would argue that the later is more specific to the marathon and will help you run faster.
 
If you’re like me, your body can only handle so much running before you end up with an injury. By training in an intermittent fashion, you push your body to the edge, then allow your body to recover and get stronger.
 

Stress + Rest = Adaptation

With this type of training, the goal is not to follow a particular program, or schedule, but to optimize performance by maximizing adaptations to specific stress. To do this you need to listen your body, and focus on running workouts that are specific to your race. In the case of the marathon this will be your long run. 
 
Typically, a marathon program will have you run long once a week, at a slow pace, gradually increasing the length of your run each week. Throughout the week are other workouts that focus on speed, or speed-endurance.
 

Minimal Training for the Marathon

With minimal training, you want optimize your long run by running at your goal marathon pace or faster, followed by taking as many days as necessary to fully recover. Think of training more as a series of repeated all out efforts. I’ve found that it can take as long as 2-3 weeks to fully recover from a 16-24 mile run done like this.
 

Listen to Your Body

What should you do in between your long efforts? That depends on how you are feeling. This might mean taking complete rest days or going out for short easy runs at a comfortable pace. Try to go for a short 10-30 minute run at a comfortable pace if you are feeling up for it. 

If you are feeling recovered between your longer efforts, but not quite up for another one yet, you could try working in some speed with a shorter faster run, or by including an interval session. 

If I am feeling somewhat recovered, but not quite up for another long run, I will include a medium run of 8-13 miles at a pace that is slightly faster than marathon pace.


Race Your Way to Faster Times

Another option with the minimal approach is to include a series of progressively longer races in your build up to your marathon. Doing your runs like this gives you a great way to estimating your current marathon fitness from your most recent long run or race. Simply plug in your time to a race time predictor. This will give you a sense of your progress. 
 

Psychological Advantage

Another advantage of training this way is that you will know exactly what to expect come race day. You will have trained yourself both physically and mentally for your race. In your build up to your marathon, you will have done a series of tapers and race-like efforts. You won’t have to guess what you’ll feel like on race day after a 2-3 week taper, because you’ve essentially been doing it in your training. 

 

Example Schedule

Here is an example of the previous 8 weeks leading up to my most recent Marathon of 2:57.

  • Week 1
    • Key workout: 10 miles @ 6:02/mile
    • Weekly Mileage: 23
  • Week 2 
    • Key workout: none
    • Weekly Mileage: 28
  • Week 3
    • Key workout: 18 miles @ 7:09/mile (very hot/humid)
    • Weekly Mileage: 25
  • Week 4
    • Key workout: 13 miles @ 6:11/mile
    • Weekly Mileage: 26
  • Week 5
    • Key workout: 20 miles @ 6:27/mile
    • Weekly Mileage: 34
  • Week 6
    • Key workout: none 
    • Weekly Mileage: none (sick w/ flu)
  • Week 7
    • Key workout: 12 miles @ 6:30/mile
    • Weekly Mileage: 22
  • Week 8
    • Key workout: 8 miles @ 6:30/mile
    • Weekly Mileage: 18
  • Week 9

Average weekly mileage for previous 8 weeks = 22 miles/week

 

Will This Work For You?

 

Is this the best way to train? It’s probably not going to work for everyone, but it works for me. It gives me plenty of time to do other things I enjoy. The intense efforts followed by long recoveries have allowed me to stay injury free and continue to improve.

It is certainly unconventional and has its limits. But if you are pressed for time, or have been struggling with injuries, it may be worth a try.

 

 

Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good

You don’t have to give up on running a marathon or other race, just because you can’t follow the prefect training plan. Don’t be afraid try different approaches to training and find something that fits your lifestyle.

If you’d like to read more about my approach, buy my book on Amazon.
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Published by

Aaron

Paleo lifestyle enthusiast, Minimalist runner

10 thoughts on “How to Run a Sub 3 hour Marathon on 25 miles a Week”

  1. This is exactly what I do and it works!! I go cycling on none running days to help with recovery but the only difficulty is to not keep eating ie keeping your weight down

  2. Makes a lot of sense, Aaron, however, your base 8 weeks prior is already a sustained run for 16K at a 3.43 pace, which indicates you may have been ready for the sub-3 marathon prior to these 8 weeks, and you have just maintaining it in the lead-up to the marathon. So my question would be: how did you get to that level of fitness 8 weeks prior to the marathon?

    1. Absolutely agree with this comment. The title of the article is very misleading (perhaps intentionally?). It suggests that he got to sub-3 hour marathon shape BECAUSE of the 25 miles/week running for 8 weeks, which doesn’t seem to be true based on the run paces for the first week. Week 1 running 10mi @ 6:02 is a VDOT of 58, an equivalent performance of a 2:48 marathon. What’s the running plan that got you from a 4-hour marathon to a sub-3 hour marathon? I’d like to know if that can be done on 25 miles a week.

  3. Hey Aaron, I very much appreciate this. I’m nearing my 5th marathon and 5 days of running/week is beating me up. I am looking for something similar to this. My question for you, though, is about the other runs between the described Key Workouts. Week 2 is 28 miles but no key workouts. I don’t understand what you do there. 3 easy runs of roughly 9 miles each? No strides or tempo runs? Thanks for anything else you can offer to help fill in the blanks!

    1. Mike, everything other than key workouts is just easy running of whatever you feel 20-60 min, throw in some strides if feeling good. Don’t worry about weekly mileage. I’ll have to look over my training log for that week and get back to you. For now I’m writing more about it and working on a book on training at lowmileagerunning.com

  4. Thanks Aaron… I realize that is part of the paradigm shift…. It’s not an absolute structured running program where every workout is tailored. It’s focused on the less frequent key runs and the timing is based on your recovery. The miles in between, now that you explained it again, are rather simple and easy running. I appreciate it!

  5. Hi Aaron, I’m a firm believer in your theory.On February 17th,I’ll be 61 and for the last 2 yes after an absence from running I only run 1 hour EZ on one day and 1.5-2hours on the other.Yoga midweek.I’ve ran a few marathons on the low 2:20 range,but cannot commit or handle the intensity.I try to include tempo,speed in the 24hr run on treadmill.

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