Tips on how to run a sub 4-hour marathon

Aiming for a marathon in under 4 hours

Picture this; as you’re running towards the finish line you can see the clock ticking…3:58, 3:59. How do you break that elusive 4-hour barrier? Check out these tips to help you revise your marathon personal best and become a member of the sub 4-hour club. Remember though that a sub 4-hour marathon is as much about the right preparation as how you execute the race itself.

Written by Louise Damen

Louise is a two-time England Cross Country Champion and a former European XC Trials winner. She has also represented GB at various international events and her marathon PB is 2:30:00.


To produce a peak performance you need to taper your training to ensure that you feel invigorated both physically and mentally on race day. Your longest run should be done 3-4 weeks out from your target race, giving you enough time to recover fully. In the final 2 weeks you should decrease the volume of your training but maintain the frequency so that you don’t feel sluggish on race day. Your last key workout should be 10 days before the race.

Carbo charge!

If you want to avoid hitting the wall and missing out on your sub 4-hour target then you’ll need a smart fuelling strategy. It is vital that you start your marathon with maximal reserves of glycogen. This is because the amount of glycogen that your body can access from its reserves is actually less than you need to complete 26.2 miles. Your body makes up for this shortfall by also relying on fat as an energy source. However, in order to burn fat, your body needs carbohydrate.

You should aim to start your carbo-load three days before your race. There are various methods of carbo-loading, some more extreme than others, but the safest method is to eat a high carbohydrate diet during these final three days, together with a reduction in the volume and intensity of your training. This should be enough to ensure that your glycogen stores are fully stocked up.

Try to ensure that all of your meals and snacks during this period contain good quality carbohydrate. To do this you will need to reduce your overall protein and fat intake slightly. You should make a conscious effort to eat more carbs than normal but don’t stuff yourself to the point where you feel bloated and uncomfortable. 

Sports drinks containing high levels of carbohydrate are a good option if you’re worried about eating slightly larger volumes of food but be sure to hydrate with some water too. It’s also a good idea to avoid high fibre foods, so opt for white pasta, rice and bread rather than wholemeal varieties.

Stick to your guns and nail your pace judgement

Good pace judgement is crucial if you want to minimise the risk of hitting the wall. Don’t be tempted to deviate too much from your planned pace and run faster, even if you feel good. At faster speeds your body relies more heavily on glycogen as a source of fuel and less on fat, so if you run too fast in the early stages of the race, you run the risk of depleting your glycogen stores sooner. 

The smartest marathon runners are those who are able to spread their effort across the whole of the race. This means that you should feel as if you have to hold yourself back during the first half. If you’re looking to break that all-important 4-hour barrier then you should aim to get to the half way mark between 1:55 and 1:58. This will give you a slight buffer against slowing down in the second half of the race but without risking early glycogen depletion.

Stay Positive

The psychological aspect of marathon running should definitely not be underestimated and a positive mind set can go a long way in helping you to realise your sub 4-hour goal. Try using some positive self-talk during the race to help keep you focused and to banish any negative thoughts that may start to creep in. This involves replacing any negative thoughts with positive ones. For example, ‘I can do this’. 

You can also develop a positive mantra that you repeat to yourself throughout the race. Choose a word that you identify with. It could be something like ‘relax’, ‘strong’ or ‘smooth’. Good luck and happy marathoning!

Picture credit: David Acosta Allely /

Comments (3)

  • badgerdave 'I am still haunted by my 4 hours 29 seconds best time!! Will beat it eventually!'

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  • Simo429 'You'd think someone with that level of experience would have a grasp about the science of 'carbo loading'. As said your body has a finite supply of glycogen, if you have tapered properly but maintained your regular diet you have in essence carbo loaded so what is going to happen when you eat that high carbohydrate diet? Its going to make you retain water and anything that you can't store as glycogen will be stored as fat so you are going to have more mass, do any of us want to be heavier on race day?'

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  • KyleKranz_dot_com '@ Simo429 - Carb Loading can make your body store extra glycogen, which I'm assuming you know but will clarify for the readers. Of course not going crazy and living off of Voodoo Donuts the week before a race and calling it "carb loading" is wise, but the extra glycogen and water you store can be helpful during a race. '

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