“Time is an illusion,” said comedy science fiction writer Douglas Adams. “Lunchtime doubly so.”
Time spent running a marathon does different things, depending on who you are. Which is as close to science fiction as most human beings will ever get. And quite possibly also as close to comedy.
If you haven’t trained enough for the marathon you’re running, there’s every chance that however long the world says it takes you, it will actually take an eternity of red hot, screaming muscle pain and burning breath.
If you’ve trained just enough, it will feel like a rehearsed, well-choreographed dance, where you’re in the zone for just exactly as long as you thought you’d be.
The point is, there is no single answer to the question of how long it takes to run a marathon, any more than there is a single answer to the question of how long it takes to live a life. There will be factors of genetics involved in any individual’s specific answer.
Factors of health. Factors of fitness for the task at hand. Factors of commitment to the task at hand. And, in life and marathons both, factors of how much easier it would be to simply give up at any point and drop dead.
The fastest professional runners at the peak of their marathon-specific training can run a marathon (that’s 26.2 miles, for the chronically uninitiated) in around 2 hours.
No, really, they can.
That’s fairly obviously just over 13 miles per hour. Or just over a fifth of a mile every minute of those two hours.
We’re Getting Slower
Many, many slower, less honed, toned, and trained runners will take 6 hours or more. Even that equates to over 4.5 miles per hour, though on a minute-by-minute basis, that’s the rather more approachable-sounding 7/100ths of a mile per minute.
Between these extremes come most people. The seekers after truth at RunRepeat.com announced in 2019 (before the world got complicated in terms of people panting out large clouds of breath over potential spectators) that the average time it took people who signed up to run a marathon to actually run one, was 4:32:49.
Depressingly, they also announced that marathon runners – and male marathon runners in particular, had never been slower. In 1986, they said, the average finish time was 3:52:35, meaning that in the intervening 35 years, runners appeared to have lost 40 minutes and 14 seconds of average performance time.
It seems overly pedantic to wonder about the 14 seconds, but the fact that it now takes on average 40 minutes longer to run a marathon than it did in the Reagan era seems like a cause for concern, whatever your politics.
Reasons For The Decline
There is a method in the madness of their findings though, because there are several factors that impact how long it takes a person to run a marathon, including:
- The age and sex of the runner
- Leg-length and number of strides run over a given period
- The state of health of the runner
- The amount of training they have done before the marathon
- Where the marathon is being run, and
- The goal-orientation and mindset of the runner
In case this last point needs explaining, if you’re running a marathon to achieve an impressive time, you will run it with a focused strategy in mind for achieving that time.
If you’re running a marathon because you’ve turned 50, or beaten cancer, or are raising money for a charity cause, you don’t need a time strategy, and so probably won’t use one. All you need then is a completion strategy, which doesn’t need to be much more complex than dogged, unbeatable determination and sufficient hydration.
It turns out that some of these factors were at work to explain the extra 40 minutes it took the average marathon runner in 2019 to run 26.2 miles, compared to their fellows a couple of generations earlier.
1. Firstly, the average age profile of marathon runners had increased. While the average marathon runner was 35.2 years old in 1986, by 2018, they were 39.3. Sure, 4 years might not seem much of an increase, but it’s worth noting, because as well as never having been slower, RunRepeat said this meant the average marathon runner had never been older either.
2. And by charting the degree of travel to events, rather than, for instance, local marathons being run by local runners, RunRepeat extrapolated that the reasons people were running marathons by 2019 had changed significantly since the mid-1980s too.
Whereas in the ‘Have It All’ decade, more marathon runners were obsessed with getting a particularly good – and a particularly boastworthy – time in any marathon they entered, by 2019, far more runners in marathons were raising money for charities, achieving personal milestone-goals and the like.
The strategy had shifted for more people in any given crowd of marathon runners from time-based to completion-based. Naturally then, times slipped and suffered.
There’s something evocative about this and what it says about our society. But let’s put it aside for a moment, knuckle down and face some facts. If you’re trying to run a marathon in the best time you personally can manage, there are some things to address.
Very few people, now or in the 1980s, have ever run a marathon in under 3 hours. In fact, most runners are very unlikely to run a marathon in under 4 hours.
There will be personal factors that determine where your minimum possible time will sit – some will be tweakable, others not.
But one fundamental constant that can probably be improved for all runners when they move from a completion-based mindset to a time-based strategy is training. Almost everybody, and certainly everybody running a 4-hour marathon or more, can benefit from a refinement of their training regime.
How Training Correlates to Marathon Times
Training properly – training more effectively, if you like – can transform your marathon performance. That means not only how long it takes you to run 26.2miles, but also, often, how you finish it.
Do you want to run every step, or do you want to flail and stagger and walk your way over the line, begging for oxygen, mercy, or the sweet oblivion of death?
If you want to run every mile, the first step to proper training is the right mental attitude.
Respect The Mountain And Climb It Anyway
Make no mistake about it, 26.2 miles can become a monolith in your mind. The sheer, irreconcilable distance of a marathon can be overwhelming. But the moment you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of it is the moment you agree to do less than what you can in the face of it.
Acknowledging the enormity is to have the first line of your excuse ready. Sure, I didn’t achieve the time I wanted, but it was 26.2 miles, after all.
Think like that and the marathon beats you simply because it’s bigger than you are.
The way to defeat the sheer magnitude of a marathon is to train properly. And to train properly, you first have to think properly. Yes, it’s 26.2 miles. So what? It’s a task, that’s all. The key to accomplishing tasks is preparation, commitment, and dogged determination to do the thing in the right way.
So, if we’re not going to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of a 26.2-mile running race, what do we do?
A Race Against Time
First, remember the importance of that word. Race. When you train, you’re not training just to achieve the feat of running 26.2 miles. That’s your completion-based mindset talking. You are training to race 26.2 miles. Not, in almost all cases, against a specific and personal opponent.
No, you’re racing, very literally, against time. That means having a strategy that will let you cover x distance in y time. It does not mean you are sprinting. A marathon is almost the complete opposite of a sprint, and if you try to sprint a marathon, it wins, you lose, case closed, no questions asked.
But remember we mentioned a factor in determining how fast the average runner ran a marathon was where the marathon is being run? That’s key. Know your route. Know its inclines, its declines, its long flats.
Think of it as the difference between going out for a drive to the mall, and competing in a NASCAR race. If you’re just driving to the mall, you don’t need to take notice of the condition of the road, you know you’ll get there and that’s your goal.
If you’re racing NASCAR, you need to know, you need to intimately understand the terrain you’re running on, because that’s the knowledge that will underpin your time-based racing strategy.
Long flats? Put on speed, pick up time because you know you have a long incline ahead. Use that time to power through the incline without dropping back. Knowing the course of your marathon, its particularities and pitfalls, will allow you to plan how you’re going to run your race to beat it, to complete it in the time that you want, not the time it forces on you.
Ironically perhaps, the second thing to do is to acknowledge the scale of 26.2 miles. Not in a way that overwhelms us, but in a way that lets us do enough preparation and training to tackle it with a time-based strategy. Because in all probability, most people don’t do enough training for a marathon.
Hard fact #1 for you. If you’re running less than 40 miles a week at the peak of your training, your marathon time will be significantly down on what it would be if you were running 50 miles a week at peak training.
Run more in training and it gives you the strength, the stamina, the breathing, and not least the mindset to put your racing strategy into practice on the day of the marathon.
Also, train realistically. While it’s probably too much to say you should run as much of the actual course ahead of the day as you can, you can certainly prepare in training by tackling the kinds of terrain you know you’ll encounter on the day.
Never make the mistake of thinking there are just rest days, easy days, and long runs. Get yourself used to running inclines, declines, gradients, and straights. That way, you can train to be ready for the race at hand.
Why Age, Sex And Gender Play a Role in Your Marathon Time
A marathon is an endurance sporting event open to everyone simultaneously, irrespective of age, sex, gender, and even technical running ability. Weirdly then, age, sex, gender and ability differences all play into the marathon time achieved by individual runners.
First, a note on terms and troublesome binaries.
Age, we understand in simplistic terms. Irrespective of outliers, where, for instance, physically fit 60 year-olds perform feats that physically unfit 20 year-olds can only dream of, we make a blanket assumption that as we get older, our marathon times will increase.
The Washington Post says that most elite runners hit their peak of running potential in their mid-30s, whereas more amateur but still dedicated runners can continue to hit their peak performance into their 50s.
But the assumption of decline is why most marathons are banded by competitor age, to reward excellence within a group of similar competitors, whether those competitors are under 50, and likely to still be achieving marathon times of 4-5 hours, or whether they’re older than that and on the whole likely to be finishing in longer times.
Sex and gender get us into troublesome territory because they don’t mean the same thing, are nothing like as straightforward as has generally been accepted, and curiously enough, both have an effect on marathon times.
Sex is a collection of biological differences frequently used to define people on a biological binary – men or women. Reality is a lot more complex than this simple binary, and many people think, act and identify as something other than the sex with which they are identified by others.
They will frequently though retain the physiological distinctions of sex that led them to be misidentified initially – including, for instance, greater or lesser lung capacity, the arrangement of the pelvic bone, and greater production of one stimulant hormone or another.
Gender is a description of the socially defined roles we ascribe to those identified either as men, women, girls, boys, or gender-diverse people. For instance, it is not a sex difference that men have traditionally gone out to earn a wage and women have nurtured children.
It’s a gender difference – a difference of expectation, rather than a difference in genuine physical aptitude. Gender roles are increasingly fluid and no longer subscribe to a particular binary.
It is biologically true that, for instance, people externally identified by others as male at birth will go on to have a larger lung capacity and produce more testosterone (a hormone which triggers aggressive and competitive behaviors) – irrespective of their true natures as signaled by their self-identification.
They have been too simply identified in previous years as the all-encompassing collective, ‘men.’ Likewise and opposite, ‘women.’ Intersex people, with some or many ‘identifying’ characteristics of both sexes are an important element in this dynamic, but have rarely as yet been statistically important in terms of trends on marathon times.
RunRepeat reported in 2019 that marathon times for both men and women had slowed down in recent years, but that they had done so at different, sex-specific rates. Women, it said, were slowing down more than men.
Men’s finish times had increased by 27 minutes from 1986-2001, but after that, the increase slowed to just 7 minutes between 2001 and 2019.
Women’s finish times had been increasing faster between 1986-2001, but since then, women had been finishing faster, essentially gaining on men. Confusingly, RunRepeat defines these as gender differences, rather than sex differences.
Research by Robert O. Deaner, Rickey E. Carter, Michael J. Joyner, and Sandra K. Hunter has recently suggested there is a robust sex-based difference between ‘men’ and ‘women’ in terms of their performance slowing in individual marathons, speculating that ‘The sex difference in pacing could reflect physiological differences, such as men’s greater susceptibility to muscle glycogen depletion or women’s skeletal muscle showing lesser fatigability.’
Where things get interesting – if confusing – is that equally scholarly research by Calvin Hubble and Jinger Zhao has suggested that there may also be a gendered element to marathon pacing and performance prediction.
The upshot of this is that both we as observers, and ‘men’ and ‘women’ themselves, expect women to be less successful in this kind of competition, and that men are overconfident as a result. This, Hubble and Zhao contend, leads to men slowing their pace in marathons, while women push on at a more consistent pace.
Ultimately, whether one of these is accurate or both, it’s up to us as runners to push all these might-be advantages and social overconfidences out of our heads.
To train as if the race is not against men, or women, or others of our age. The race is against time, and if we’re going to achieve the best time of which we are capable, it’s down to us, our training, and our race on the day.
Some Marathon Courses are Faster Than Others
Once we’ve accepted that biological differences of age, sex and training level can have effects on the length of time it takes to run a marathon, it should make sense that not all marathons are created equal. Sure, we understand that the actual route of a marathon course will make it more punishing to run some than others.
The more, and the steeper inclines you have to deal with in any 26.2-mile stretch, the more testing that marathon is going to be. But beyond that – anyone know the effect of altitude?
Let’s take a look.
Fairly literal bottom line – Run a marathon at sea level and it will take you less time than it would to run a marathon at altitude, irrespective of whether you trained in exactly the same way, for exactly the same length of time.
It may not equate to an enormous, earth-shattering difference, but if you were to run the same marathon at sea level, and at, say 5,000 feet, you’d take in the region of 11 minutes longer to run it at altitude.
This is science, not mystic sorcery, and any Google search for “running altitude calculator” will let you see what you would have run, had you run your marathon at sea level.
Any significant elevation gain acts as a drag anchor on your race time. Why should that be the case? Mostly, it’s down to ease of breathing and the amount of oxygen available in the blood going to the muscles at any time.
At sea level, it’s easier for the lungs to work, and more oxygen gets into the bloodstream. If you run a marathon that includes the equivalent of a mountain, or even a particularly aggressive hill, you’ll find your time starting to drop away in relation to the elevation.
We mentioned the importance of checking out the course ahead of running the marathon, right? While it’s by no means the only good that can come of that sort of preparation, understanding where those extra minutes will go before you run them will help you to plan a more time-efficient race.
Of course, there’s an upside…erm…downside to this fact too. If you run a marathon where the elevation above sea level significantly drops over the course of the 26.2 miles…guess what happens?
Mm-hmm. Want a personal best, find yourself a marathon that runs mostly from high elevation down towards sea level. Sure, running that kind of marathon for that kind of purpose might be thought of by some boring people as ‘cheating’ or at least ‘gaming the system.’ But frankly, who’s to know?
If the marathon’s official, it will be on a USATF-certified course. After that, the effect of moving towards sea level is a little special secret between you and physics.
Predicting Your Personal Marathon Time
So – the amount of time it takes to run a marathon depends on your age, sex, possibly gender, commitment, training plans, track knowledge, and altitude.
You name it, it probably plays a part. That means what you have is something scientists call a ‘fuzzy number’ for how long it will take you specifically to run a marathon, within reasonable finishing time boundaries of between 2.5 – 6 hours as a recreational runner.
At some point during those 210 minutes, your finishing time probably lies. But is there anything you can do to hone in on the most likely window of completion within that 210-minute span, before you run the race for the first time, and place your first genuine performance marker against it?
That’s quite the range. So, what you probably want to know is how long it’s going to take YOU to run a marathon.
There are a few things you can do. If possible, you can use your recent race times on similar courses as a benchmark, then train intensively over similar training courses to reduce your time.
If you don’t have a handful of reliable recent race times to go on, you can train yourself in similar terrain over a ‘magic number’ of miles.
1 mile would be too short a distance from which to realistically extrapolate a time, but if you train hard for 5 miles, 10 miles, or the numerically convenient 13.1 miles, and add a variable for fatigue and pace-fading, you can extrapolate with reasonable confidence the sort of time you’re likely to achieve given your current form.
Here Comes The Math
As an example, say you raced 10 miles in 1 hour 40 minutes. That gives you a speed of 1 mile=10 minutes.
From there, you can extrapolate running 20 miles in 3 hours 20 minutes (twice the distance, twice the time). 6 more miles would be three-fifths of 1 hour 40 minutes, which equates to another hour, for a time of 4 hours 20 minutes.
0.2 miles would be an additional 2 minutes, (because the time-per-mile would be 10 minutes, so one-fifth of that would be two minutes), giving you a final time of 4 hours 22 minutes – or 262 minutes.
At a rate of a mile every ten minutes, that self-evidently equals the distance of a marathon. Naturally, you’d then need to apply a reasonable fatigue factor, which would increase the time again.
It’s worth mentioning that there are plenty of online calculators for these variables – and they can add in other elements like terrain characteristics too, to get you more realistically close to your likely race time.
Of course, two things are important to remember here. The first is that you should probably be aiming for a faster time than 1 mile every 10 minutes. And the second is that none of this happens on its own. You need to be training, getting more miles in per week if you want to push down your race time.
Depending on what level of runner you are when you begin training to run a marathon, that can take anything from 18 weeks to half a year. Never be overwhelmed by the size of a marathon, but never take it too lightly either.
Run Your Best Race
Train long, train hard, and above all, train smart, so you can understand when you can push hard on a section of the race, and when you need to conserve energy and just make sensible, paced progress.
Get yourself an idea of what your likely time is, and then you’re not just aiming to complete the marathon, you’re aiming to run it.
To race it. To run the smartest and best race you can, and to surprise both yourself and your predicted time, so that for you at least, it doesn’t take as long to run a marathon as expected.