For the last 10 years of my life, I have trained and run half and full marathons. Despite how much I love this sport, I am not a “natural ability” runner. Meaning, I have to fight like all hell to run 26.2 miles; even more so if I want to run them fast-ish. It took me 5:30 to complete my first full marathon. I’ll let that sink in. It’s a long time. It took me another 8 or so years to get that time down to 4:30 minutes. But in the last 2 years, I’ve been able to go from a 4:30 marathon to a 3:40. After a decade of running, I want to share what it took to run a faster marathon.
I want to start by saying that it has not been a linear journey. In the last 10 years, there have been graduations, a wedding, a baby, and a whole lot of moves. For a long time, the thought of finishing a marathon within the Boston Qualifying time frame seemed literally impossible. But in the last year, I’ve finally come to realize that I absolutely have the ability to run a fast marathon. The past two years of running have been a complete game changer for me. I’ve learned a lot of lessons.
Today, I’m going to share what I did to go from a runner who spent years trying to break 4 hours in the marathon, to a runner who is thiiiiiiis close to a BQ.
How to Run A Faster Marathon Time
The Mental Work
I’ve changed a lot of my actual training over the years. I learned how to do speedwork, I started strength training, and I made friends with my foam roller. And while I spent years training and running, I didn’t see any actual significant results until I started to address the way I thought about my training. Not sure how thinking impacts training? Well, let me explain what I changed and why it helped me run a better marathon time.
Believe It Is Possible
When I first started running, it was hard. Not like “oh this is uncomfortable,” more like “I wouldn’t have lasted 3 minutes during a time period that humans had to run from predators.” I had to train to run a full mile without stopping. As a young 20-something, healthy woman, it was embarrassing to say the least.
To deal with how much of a struggle it was, I made fun of myself. I talked a whole lot about how I was slow af, but at least I was running. I did this as a way to deflect how defeating it felt to have a friend not train for a half-marathon, only to finish 30 minutes faster than I did. If I acknowledged that I was slow, and poked a little fun at myself, it felt somewhat protective.
I was running distances I had never imagined I would be able to run, but instead of owning that and being proud as hell, I was making fun of myself. And I was telling a story that I started to believe. The story was that I wasn’t a fast runner, but I was strong enough to run for a long time.
My paces never changed until I realized I had the ability to change them. I remember reading a post similar to this one. One where a woman shared that it took her many years, but she eventually broke 1:45 in her half-marathon time. All because she added some speedwork into her training plan.
And while I didn’t immediately implement what she was doing, it sparked some hope. So I decided to give it a shot, and see if I could improve my speed. I spent one training cycle really focusing on putting in the effort, and my marathon PR went from just under 5 hours to just under 4:30. From one race to the next. Because I believed I might be able to.
That’s when the magic really started to happen. When I stopped telling myself I was slow and couldn’t run “fast” paces. When I stopped comparing my times to other peoples. And when I instead focused on what I could do to get to where I wanted to go. That’s when I set my sights on trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
I let go of the old story, and I embraced a new one. I would have to fight like I had no sense. But I was a Hispanic woman working in the corporate world, so I wasn’t afraid of fighting against the odds.
Once I started incorporating some speed workouts, I saw major improvements in my pacing and time. It gave me enough motivation to start to do some serious research. I started with some Yasso 800 meter repeats. Those were hard, but they resulted in some good paces.
After about a year of incorporating speed and track workouts, I stumbled upon an intense training plan. The Hansons Marathon Method. When I looked over the plan for the first time, I thought “this is insanity, this plan would take my life.” I’m a mother and a wife. With not a ton of life insurance. I wasn’t ready to leave my family just for a marathon.
But the more research I did, the more I was intrigued. The plan had a lot going for it. High mileage, intense workouts, and a whole lot of structure. After a few months of back and forth, I decided to just give in and try the plan. In just a couple weeks, I was running paces for distances I hadn’t ever thought possible.
I drank all of the kool-aide. If the Hansons were a dooms day cult, I was the woman holding the megaphone on the street corner. Encouraging every poor, unwitting soul to just come to the light and give the Hansons Marathon Method a shot.
While the Hansons plan has been magical for me, what I think is most important is the consistency of the training. I really went all in on the plan. I ran the plan as written, I focused on recovery, and I made core workouts a begrudging priority. Following such an intense plan lead me to take the training seriously, and this was the magic sauce for me.
Instead of running the same route a few times a week, throwing in a little unorganized speedwork, and building my long run, I had a true plan to follow. If I wanted to survive Hansons, I had to do all of the other things that were important to marathon training. I had to make my goals and my training a priority. And as exhausting as this was, I am so glad I did it.
Related Post: Halfway Through Hansons
A solid training plan needs to be consistent, but varied. It needs to build not just long run distance, but overall weekly mileage in a reasonable manner. It needs to include some runs at goal race pace. It needs to include cut-back weeks for recovery. And it needs to be challenging. You have to have some skin in the game, in the form of time commitment.
If you can build a training plan on your own that meets all of the requirements, you have everything you need to be successful. If you are more like me and need some additional structure, I’d encourage you to check out the Hansons Marathon Method. If you want to know more about the plan, take a peek at my Hansons Marathon Method Review
Following the Hansons program forced me to take my training seriously. It also forced me to look at my weaknesses, and tackle them head on. As opposed to my preferred method of looking directly in the opposite way and proclaiming things like “I’m just not a fast runner.”
Well, of course I wasn’t a fast runner. I hadn’t ever taken the time to examine the possible causes for the reasons that I struggled to run fast-ish. I didn’t want to acknowledge that my form kind of sucked and that I hadn’t ever practiced holding an uncomfortable pace for more than 800 meters.
Because if I acknowledged those things, it meant I had two options. Work hard to improve my weaknesses, or take ownership of the fact that I just wasn’t doing the work.
Just like everyone has strength’s, every person has weaknesses. No matter how high their level of natural ability. It’s intimidating to really acknowledge what those weaknesses are, because the ego doesn’t like the level of vulnerability involved. But if you are able to let go of that ego, and really take stock in what could use improvement, something amazing can happen.
YOU CAN WORK ON IMPROVING THOSE WEAKNESSES. Incredible, right?
Some common weaknesses that I’ve seen in clients past include limited core strength, lack of mobility, and not understanding pacing. It’s completely possible to work on improving these weaknesses individually, but having a coach might help you speed up the process. Instead of taking seven years to improve your marathon time, you can probably do it one.
Sometimes being as stubborn and cheap as I am has consequences.
Ask For Support
This last one was not easy for me. I am clearly not a fan of acknowledging my weaknesses, and for a long time I felt like asking for help was broadcasting my lack of strength. Truly strong people don’t need any help from anyone, right?
Related Post: Lessons Learned From a Decade of Working Out
This kind of thinking is a big part of why I saw so little progress for so many years. I didn’t ask for advice from seasoned runners. I was too embarrassed. I didn’t consider hiring a coach. I thought it was a waste of money.
And most importantly, I didn’t tell my husband what I wanted to do or tell him how he could support me. I didn’t want to say out loud that I wanted to Boston Qualify, because I thought I’d be embarrassed if it didn’t happen. So instead, I repeated the story that I ran just for fun, and running for fun doesn’t require much support.
Once I was honest about the size of my goals, and the amount of work it would take to accomplish them, I gave my husband the ability to actually support me. And because he’s a keeper, he stepped up to the plate (and hit it out of the park if I’m honest).
He set up my coffee the night before tough runs. He encouraged me repeatedly to go get a massage or set a chiropractor appointment. He told me to go to bed early, and he took my kid to the park so I could take a nap Saturday afternoon.
Not being honest with what I wanted to do, and what I needed in order to make it happen, robbed both of us for years. It robbed me of the ability to really chase what I was dreaming about. And it robbed my husband of the opportunity to show up for me.
It hasn’t been all rainbows and Netflix dates since I expressed my goal, but it has been way better than driving myself insane.
Why do I share these things first? Because without the inner work, none of the physical work would have happened in an effective way. The only reason I was able to drastically change my training and achieve significant results was because I did the inner work first. Then, I did the rest, and everything clicked into place.
The best piece of advice that I can give about running for beginners is to work on the mental aspect of training, first.
I would be leaving out a big part of the story if I just said that I changed my mentality, and BOOM I was running faster. My mentality and how I approached training improved a lot of things, but it wouldn’t have had the results without the physical work. So here are the tactical things I did to improve my marathon times.
When I started to take my training plan seriously, I knew I needed to start taking recovery seriously as well. The Hansons plan was not set up so that I could just do my runs and then live my life. In order for me to stay injury free, and be able to get up from my desk during the day, I had to incorporate a solid recovery plan. Here’s what that looked like for me:
Stretching & Warming Up – Before each and every run, I did a lunge matrix and some dynamic stretching to get everything warmed up. Before track, tempo, strength, and long runs, I added in some glute and hip activation.
After every run, I did 5-7 minutes of stretching. Just to shake things out a little. I spent 15 minutes doing a short yoga sequence at least 2x a week. I used my favorite Yoga YouTube channel, Yoga with Adrienne, for this last piece.
Massage – I used our Hypervolt at least 2-3x a week to help workout muscle knots in my calves, quads, hamstrings, and hips. My husband was kind enough to help me out with this one. I also rolled around on a foam roller at least 3x a week to work things out as well.
Chiropractor Care – I saw my sports chiropractor about once a month. Honestly, I wish I had done this a little more frequently. The chiropractor I see does physical adjustments, but also some soft tissue work, and I think I would have benefited immensely from going 2x a month regularly.
Sleep – After a few weeks in the training program, getting enough sleep was not a challenge for me. I was freaking exhausted. It was a rare day that I stayed up past 9:30pm. It wasn’t super exciting, or great for my social life, but my body needed the rest to repair. And I’m not in the habit of fighting sleep.
Related Post: Weekly Recap: 11.17.19 – Cumulative Fatigue
Remember how I talked about how I actively worked to strengthen my weaknesses instead of ignoring them? A big part of that involved focusing on strength training, in a few different ways.
Core work – I have never been a fan of core work. It brings me back to my ballet days and being ordered to do 100 crunches for who knows what actual reason. Plus, it’s uncomfortable. But despite my disdain, I was able to force myself to commit to 10-15 minutes of core exercises 3x a week.
I did a few different routines that I found on Pinterest, and I did them in front of the tv to try to trick myself into forgetting that planks suck. I scheduled my core work on my rest day, my tempo run day, and Sundays. These are the days that I don’t go to CrossFit, and it felt easier to fit in the core work here.
CrossFit – This was something I didn’t hate. I like CrossFit. Maybe not while I’m actually mid-workout, cursing and sweating and hating my coach. But afterwards, I’m glad I did it, and it’s usually fun to push my physical limits. I included CrossFit workouts 3x a week, and I think it’s the only way I would have regularly included strength training into my routine.
I scheduled my CrossFit workouts on my two weekly easy run days, and my track workout day. I didn’t want to schedule CrossFit on my rest day, my tempo runs (because I sometimes felt like death for hours after), or my long run days. This is just what made sense for my schedule.
Speedwork is hard, and it hurts. But if you want to run faster, at some point it is inevitable that you will need to start incorporating speedwork into your weekly running schedule. For me, I had to accept that these workouts would be hard and painful before I started them. The mental work comes first, right? Once I accepted my fate, I followed the Hansons plan, and this is what it included
Track & Strength Workouts – Once a week, the program includes a track or strength workout. For more explaination on what these are, check out this post. Both of these types of workouts helped make my legs, hips, and glutes stronger, and gave me the ability to improve my pacing abilities.
Tempo Runs- Honestly, I think the tempo runs were the most important part of the actual program for me. I hadn’t ever spent time learning how to pace myself. I ran a pace I thought I could maintain for as long as I could maintain it. But having specific workouts at my race goal pace taught me what it felt like to run that exact pace, so that come race day I didn’t need to check my Garmin every 3 minutes.
I knew what it felt like to run an 8 min mile. I knew when I was going a little too fast, and I knew when I needed to pick things up. I also knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I’d having some painful moments. Having that little internal metronome during the Dallas Marathon kept things moving for me.
No training plan can be executed with crappy nutrition. This doesn’t mean you need to diet or eat exclusively organic foods, but it does mean you need to ensure you are getting enough calories and vitamins to support your training.
Eating Enough Throughout the Week –This was another area I hadn’t previously taken very seriously in training cycles past. I generally eat somewhat reasonably healthy. My diet is fairly balanced, and I tend to eat more whole foods than processed. But I know I have a tendency to under-eat, because I don’t always recognize when I’m hungry.
This is something I talked a lot about in my post on Running Nutrition. So instead of ignoring the fact that I am prone to under-eating, I chose to track my meals in MyFitnessPal to ensure I was eating enough. I used the calorie estimation on my Garmin as a sort of benchmark, averaged it out over 7 days, and made sure I ate at least that amount.
Some days I realized I was hungrier and I ate more. There were a few weeks where I didn’t track at the beginning of one training cycle, and I noticed I was not recovering well. I tracked for one day, and saw that I just wasn’t eating enough. Once I made sure to prioritize eating enough, my recovery improved pretty drastically. And I was able to run my workouts without completely dying.
Practicing Race Day Fueling – Just like it was important for me to practice goal race paces, I also needed to practice my race day fueling. GI distress is a real B, and sometimes it’s unavoidable. But I knew I had a much better chance running strong and not having stomach issues if I got my stomach used to eating while running.
To accomplish this, I practiced my race day fueling plan during my long runs and tempo runs. I bought my fuel of choice (Honey Stinger), took it with me during these runs, and tried to take it around the same mile mark I planned for my marathon. My stomach can be fairly sensitive, and I think getting it used to eating while running was really helpful for me on multiple marathons.
I’ve shared that I had a lovely habit of getting sick right before a big race. I think some of this was mental, but I also think a big part was that I didn’t take myself seriously enough to prevent getting sick during my tapers. I changed that in my last two marathons by making a few changes to my last month of training.
Ran outside as much as possible – To get as much sunlight and vitamin D as I possibly could. I didn’t do every single run outside, but I made it a priority.
Rest – Once I started tapering, I didn’t give myself a pass to rest less just because I was working less. I made sure to keep up my habit of getting 8 hours of sleep, and I think this really helped my immune system.
Hydration – I’ve read that drinking water can help flush out anything that you don’t want hanging around in your body. I’m not a doctor, or a scientist, but I figured there wasn’t any harm in being as hydrated as possible. So I drank a lot of water in my last month of training.
Took my allergy meds – In Texas, Cedar Fever is insane. And I am someone who doesn’t tolerate the a**hole tree well. In the fall and spring months, my allergies go wild. While it isn’t an issue by itself, it usually leads to sinus infections for me. So while I’m not a fan of taking OTC medications regularly, I sucked it up and took a daily Zyrtec, and magically I didn’t end up with a sinus infection!
Cold Fighters – There were a couple of times in the last month of training where I felt like I was potentially working on a cold. Colds are fine. But for me, in the last month of training, I knew coming down with a cold made me likely to wind up with an upper respiratory infection. I’ve seen it happen before at least 3 marathons for me.
So this past year I decided that in the last month of training, if I felt a cold coming on I was going to actively fight it. I’m not saying everyone should take the same approach, I’m just saying it worked for me. When I felt myself getting stuffy and feeling crappy, I took an elderberry supplement called Sambuccol along with Zicam.
I can’t say for sure that these two things made any sort of actual difference, but I can say that I went from getting sick before every single race to running two back to back marathons without getting sick once. So, that’s all I really need to know.
So, those are all the things I changed up to improve my marathon times. It’s a lot. But like I said, I went from running a 5:30 marathon to running a 3:40. You don’t cut almost two hours of marathon time without some pretty intentional work. For me, it was worth it. I have big goals, and I want to give myself every opportunity to reach them.
Changing how I thought and talked about my training was huge. I couldn’t have implemented the changes to my training without the inner work of acknowledging what I wanted and believing I could make it happen. But once I did, the changes I made to my training gave me actual results.
If you have big running goals, I’d highly recommend working with a coach. It took me almost 8 years to figure out what I needed to change, and a coach probably could have helped me learn these things in a quarter of the time. If you’re looking for a coach, have questions about how to find the right fit for you, or just have general training questions, please shoot me an email. My contact information is right here on my Contact Me page, and I’d love to hear from you.