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How to run a faster marathon: 17 proven factors that decide your marathon time

Do you want to run a faster marathon?

If the answer is "yes", then read on.

In this blogpost we will take a closer look at 17 factors that all influence your marathon performance.

And of course, all 17 factors are scientifically proven, which means there is solid evidens that they play a major role for your marathon end time.

But the best news is, that you can improve all 17 factors and thereby increase your chances for a new PB dramatically.  

So let's dig in. 

Internal & external factors

We can divide the 17 factors into so-called internal and external factors.

There are 14 internal - and 3 external factors.

To keep it short and simple. An internal factor is a thing you can change in your body, while and external factor is a something outside of your body, that influences your marathon pace.

Since there are a lot of internal factors, they play a decisive role for your marathon performance, but do not underestimate the external factors.

Actually, improving all of  the internal factors significantly does not equal a personal best, if you make an "external" mistake. 

We can categorize the 17 factors for faster marathon running as follows:

  1. Factors related to your marathon training
  2. Factors related to your nutrition
  3. Factors related to supplemental training
  4. Factors outside of your body

You should concentrate on the factors, that are influenced by your training and nutrition. 

Start by focusing on the factors, that you find easiest to change. 

1: Get more oxygen with a better heart stroke volume 

The stroke volume of our heart is decisive for oxygen and blood transport in our body. 

The higher the stroke volume, the more oxygen can be transported directly to our muscles and other important tissues.

The amount of oxygen we can consume is called our VO2max, and so improving your VO2max is advantageous, when you want to run a faster marathon. 

Scientific research shows that high intensity training, e.g. intervals, very efficiently increases heart stroke volume.

In a study by Frederic Daussin a significant improvement in stroke volume was found in untrained subjects after 8 weeks of intervals. 

In comparison there was no improvement when doing moderate intensity running.

Likewise a Norwegian group of researchers found a significant improvement in moderately trained runners after 8 weeks of intervals. 

Does this mean that only high intensity training can be used to improve your stroke volume?

Probably not! 

But it might take a bit longer and several years of continuous training to see the same results compared to a more high intensity approach. 

Since most studies are of shorter nature such a hypothesis has not yet been tested. 

Improve your stroke volume with intervals

A great marathon training plan ought to include high intensity training e.g. intervals.

Normally I recommend an interval length of about 1000-3000 meters for marathon runners.

However, shorter intervals can be included, especially earlier on in a training period, where training is less specific. 

3 classic and easy-to-remember interval sessions for marathon runners are:
  • 6-8 x 1000 m <1½ min jog>
  • 4-5 x 2000 m <3 min jog>
  • 3-4 x 3000 m <5 min jog>

Pace should be from 10-30 seconds faster than planned marathon pace. 

If you find the pace easy on a great day, you can shorten the break between the intervals or increase the pace during  jogging.  

2: Correct pacing leads to a faster marathon

In order to run your very best marathon all observations and experiences show, that you have to run at an even pace throughout the marathon or a so-called negative split.

A negative split simply means, you are running the final half of the marathon faster than the first half. 

Although most marathon runners know the importance of a moderate pace to begin a marathon, a substantial amount of runners still go out too fast. 

In one recent study from 2015, the mean slowing from the first to the second half of a marathon was 15.6 percent for men and 11.7 percent for women. 

Corresponding to roughly 7-8 minutes for a male 3h30min marathon runner, and 5-6 minutes for his female counterpart .

Now, you might say that this slowing is due to inadequate marathon training and has nothing to do with pacing. 

But even well-trained runners (sub 3:00 for men/sub 3:22 for women) 20% of men and 15 % of women failed to maintain pace in the above study. 

Notice also, that across all training levels (and distances for that matter) women pace better than men! 

This could indicate that men are taking more risks than women or they simply overestimate their capability. 

How to find your exact marathon pace 

In order for you to keep an even pace throughout the marathon, you need to know exactly what marathon time you can expect to run. 

The best way to do this is to run a half marathon race 4-6 weeks before your marathon goal. 

When estimating your marathon time, simply double your finishing time and add 10 minutes. This time should be within your capability, if you have followed a good marathon plan. 

Many serious marathon runners have a dream goal, that they want to achieve. 

If you are one of them (which you probably are), another option would be to plan a marathon trial of 28-32 kilometer (or 17 to 20 miles) 5-6 weeks out. 

Both weather and course should be similar to the conditions you meet in the race itself.  

In this trial your aim is to run at your planned marathon pace. If you hit this pace in the trial, you should be able to maintain it for the whole marathon. 

The reason being that you will have undergone a 2-3 week taper period that freshens up your legs and body.  

3: Better nerve signalling equals faster running

Our muscles need nerve signals in order to work. 

In recent time several Finnish studies have showed, that improvements in nervous system efficiency can lead to better endurance running performance - including a faster marathon time.

When our nervous system is more efficient , it enables us to produce more power using less muscle mass. 

Translated into everyday language it means that you are using less oxygen at a given pace. You improve your running efficiency. 

When you utilize less oxygen at a given pace, it is likely, that you postpone fatigue, meaning you'll be able to keep your desired pace for a significantly longer time.  

An extremely important challenge during a marathon race.

Strengthen your nerve signalling with strength - and sprint work 

If you want to improve nerve signalling, you have three options. Heavy strength training, sprint training and plyometrics. 

All three methods come with pros and cons.  

Speed work

Sprint training is the easiest methods to get started with. It doesn't require, that you are taught a special technique and you can just go out on the road and do your sprinting.

However there is a risk of injury, especially if you are prone to muscle strains or even worse tears. I also don´t recommend sprinting, if you have problems with your achilles tendons. 

3 easy-to-do pure sprint work-out for marathon runners are:
  • hills: 10-12 x 80-120 m (6-10 % gradient) <3 min rest>
  • flat: 10-12 x 80 m sprinting <3 min rest>
  • flat: 6-8 x 120 m sprinting <3 min rest> 
Plyometric training

Plyometrics is also known as jumping, bounding or skipping exercises. These exercises must be done with maximum power in order to have an impact. 

If for some reason - often injury or fatigue related - you cannot exert maximum power in the various exercises, don't even bother doing them. 

Plyometrics doesn't require any equipment and can be done on just about any surface that is even.   

The downside is that plyometric exercises come with an injury risk, even if you begin with low-intensity starter exercises as rope jumping. 

As a marathon runner the aim is not to be a super jumper, but to run a faster marathon. Therefore I recommend you do no more than three exercises that are low to moderate intensity. 

5 easy-to-do low intensity and moderate intensity exercises are:
  • rope jumping (2-3 x 30-45 sec) <1 min rest>
  • box jumps (3-5 sets of 5) <1 min rest>
  • frog jumps (3-5 sets of 5) <walk back rest>
  • two-legged stair jumps (3-5 sets of 5) <walk back rest>
Heavy strength training 

Strength training requires you to invest more time and money into your training, because you need gym access (or at least gym equipment) and practice sound technique in the exercises. 

Basic barbell exercises for the legs and whole body should be used, avoid machine exercises. 

If you have good technique, the injury risk is actually quite low and even aids in general injury prevention. 

5 great barbell exercises for marathon runners are:
  • Power clean
  • Power snatch
  • Squats
  • Lunges

Reps and sets should be kept low e.g. 3-5 sets / 3-5 reps with long breaks of 3-5 minutes between sets. 

By doing heavy - low volume lifting, your nervous system gets more efficient, while not gaining any muscle mass. 

4: Less fat means less "dead weight" 

Our body needs fat in order to function, but having too much fat can negatively impact your running performance. 

The reason being that the vast majority of the fat we posess, doesn't aid our performance. It simply acts as "dead weight". 

Several studies have shown a link between running pace and fat percentage in male and female marathon runners. 

The best performances are found in marathon runners with low fat percentage. 

Hardly a surprise! 

However, it is more interesting to know exactly how much time you can shave of your marathon time by reducing your fat percentage. 

A study by Giovanni Tanda and Beat Knetchtle indicates, that male marathon runners with a fat percentage of above 25 percent, worsen their marathon time by more than 30 minutes!

If you are a male marathon runner you can run a faster marathon by lowering your fat percentage in the range of 10 to 15 percent.

For female marathon runners, recommendations are a bit more diffuse, since studies in this area have been lacking i detail.

If recommendations for female marathoners correspond to their male counterparts, fat percentage should be around 20-25 percent.   

Reduce your fat percentage without losing muscle 

If you need to reduce your fat percentage without losing a lot of muscle mass, it is essential, that your body is in a moderate energy deficit. 

If there is no energy deficit, you will not lose weight. If the deficit is too big, there is a big risk that you will also lose muscle mass - especially because you are a runner.

A calorie deficit of 300-500 kilo calories pr. day is my recommendation for most marathon runners.

You ought to start reducing your fat percentage early in your training plan for two reasons.

Firstly, a longer time frame gives you more time to lose fat, meaning you can lose less fat pr. time unit. 

Secondly, once you begin real marathon specific training with long grueling runs, you will not want to be in a big energy deficit. 

Long + 2 hour training runs are going to be painfully hard, if you are in energy deficit.  

Now, there are an abundant of very specific nutrition strategies around, when you want to lose fat.

I am not going to advocate a specific "lose x amount of fat in x amount of days" strategy, because I believe a long term approach using sound nutritional principles is the way to go. 

Use these 5 basic principles to reduce your fat percentage:
  • Reduce your intake of carbs by half and increase your protein intake correspondingly 
  • Drink plain water and strongly limit your intake of beverages with calories
  • Eat plenty of vegetables for lunch and dinner - should fill up half the plate
  • Avoid candy and snacks in the house, if it is in the house, you'll just eat it 
  • Get your fat primarily from oils and fish 

Honestly, if you follow these principles you will lose fat and weight without thinking too much about the amount you are eating and you don't need to do excessive calorie counting.

5: Body weight has an impact on your marathon time

Since running is a weight-bearing discipline, your body weight has a major impact on your marathon performance.

If you want to run a faster marathon, focusing a bit on shredding some extra kilos might be a way to go. 

Your body weight has a direct impact on several important factors, three of them will be discussed below. 

A high VO2max depends on your body weight

Our VO2max is a product of how much oxygen our body can consume divided by your weight. 

Therefore, any weight loss will result in an improved VO2max, even if your body does not get better at consuming oxygen. 

As an example, if an 80 kg person loses 5 kilos, it will shave of a massive 15 minutes over a full marathon distance - all else equal.  

The higher your body weight, the more heat you produce

During a marathon your muscle work produces a lot of heat that needs to be removed, otherwise you will overheat.

When you overheat, the body shuts down, and you will bonk very badly. 

Therefore, it is very advantageous to reduce heat production, especially in hot weather conditions where heat removal is strongly compromised.  

The amount of heat you produce depends on your marathon pace and body weight. The higher your body weight, the more heat you produce.

Since you probably don´t want to slow down, because you have a goal to reach, the body weight becomes the one thing, you can do something about.

Reduction in body weight equals reduction in load

A marathon runner who runs a 3h30min marathon hits the ground about 35.700 times during the run. 

The impact force is 2-3 times his or her own body weight. 

A marathoner with a body weight of 80 kilos needs to withstand 2.856.000 kilos during the distance. That is an awful lot of stress for tendons, ligaments and muscles. 

If this runner loses 5 kilos, muscles and tendons "only" needs to withstand 2.677.00 kilos. Still a major load, but reduced by over 200.000 kilos. 

Create a good and healthy weight loss 

The method is by no means "bullet proof", but I do recommend using the body mass index (BMI) as a starting point for your weight loss. 

If your BMI is 22 or more, you will most likely benefit from reducing it by 3-4 points.  

It will still keep you in the "healty" range, but minimize the load you are carrying around.  

Use the strategy for fat loss in point #4 in order to reduce weight.

6: Increasing your small blood vessels leads to better endurance

Small blood vessels called capillaries surround all of our muscle fibers. 

These capillaries carry oxygen and nutrients to our muscles and remove waste products such as carbon dioxide. 

More capillaries means a more efficient this flow of oxygen and nutrients into our muscles and better remove of waste products.

Theoretically, there should be a link between capillary density and running a faster marathon.

In a legendary Swedish study from 1981, the researchers proved, that marathon performance was related with capillary density. 

Since then, a number of other scientists have found the same relation between the amount of capillaries and physical performance. 

Fortunently, you can improve the amount of capillaries via training. But how?

Research indicates, that low to moderate intensity training is the preferred way to go, if you want to improve capillary density (the amount of capillaries). 

Train long and slow to improve marathon endurance

You ought to include long slower runs in your marathon training - probably not a surprise for most marathon runners. 

There are marathon philosophies out there, that almost completely omit long runs from training. This is one of the reasons, I don't really like these philosophies for marathon training. 

It will take several years of high training volume to reach your peak. Improving capillary density is a long "grind" without short cuts.

Long run strategy for your next marathon training plan

The long run is a grueling training session, even if you run it at a slow to moderate pace. 

So it does require you to build the mileage steadily over the course of the whole training period in order to avoid injury and staleness.

The following is my recommendation for a long run build-up, that I normally use in my marathon training plans:

  1. More than 20 weeks out: 15-20 k (9-12 miles) medium runs @ marathon pace +45 sek
  2. 20 to 12 weeks out: 20-30 k (12-19 miles) long runs @ marathon pace +20 to 45 sek
  3. 11 to 4 weeks out: 25 to 35 k (15-22 miles) long runs @ marathon pace to 45 sek 

The general idea is to slowly build up mileage, then add more pace later in order to make the longer run more specific to your goal marathon pace.

It is a good idea to cut back on the mileage every 4 week (running time 90 min)  in order for the body to recover adequately.