“My hips hurt. And my toenails have torn. But I’m at peak training, two months away from smashing my personal best marathon time, and nothing will stand in my way. Except willpower and donuts. Also, what exactly is a good marathon time to aim for?”
A good marathon time is relative, based on the runner’s gender and age, as well as the elevation profile and terrain of the route. The absolute best times are slightly over two hours, while the average marathoner finishes in four hours and twenty-one minutes. These statistics change over time.
Breaking down the classification of marathon performance and the practical steps to improve it requires a jog through the statistics, history, and determining factors.
- What Are The Best Marathon Times?
- Memorable Marathon Times
- How To Target A Good Marathon Time
- How To Prepare For A Good Marathon Time
- What Is A Good Marathon Time?
What Are The Best Marathon Times?
We can get a sense of good times by starting at the top reviewing a set of theoretic and actual performances.
The Physiology Of A Good Time
A “good marathon time” will vary depending on several factors, including your gender and age.
Not to mention your overall fitness!
Many beginners are delighted to achieve a sub 4 hour marathon time – but your targets will change with experience.
Research in the BMC sports journal has charted a relationship between gender, age, and marathon performance. Using data from elite male and female runners, it finds a U-shaped relationship between speed and age for both genders.
Into the mid-teens, boys and girls performed similarly, after which males derived an edge. Both genders saw an improvement up to the age of twenty, followed by a slightly upward-sloping plateau to the mid-thirties. Thereafter followed a slow decline.
Sex differences increased exponentially up to twenty, remained unchanged until around fifty, and continued increasing thereafter. The difference between sexes was its lowest at forty-nine years of age, equating to an average 10.5-minute difference.
Age and gender can have an impact on the leading times in many sports, but the difference is certainly pronounced over the course of a marathon.
The marathon is an endurance event, taxing athletes to efficiently exhaust the body’s physical energy reserves. Over 26.2 miles, a marathoner will have to battle the physiology required to:
- Consume oxygen.
- Burn blood sugar.
- Break down body fat.
- Withstand repetitive physical impact stress.
The complex bodily functions required are beyond the scope of this post, but they point to the fact that the performance of the task is a function of physical attributes. And these evolve as athletes age.
The takeaway here is that while a 40 year old female racer may be able to storm clear of the 21 year old male athlete through superior fitness – it’s important to compare our times like-for-like to understand what a good target time for a race might be.
This is where age and gender graded times can be very useful.
But before we get to that, have you ever wondered what the fastest possible time for a marathon is?
We don’t suggest you add this to your training plan, but it makes for some interesting reading…
The Theoretical Best Marathon Time
In a 1991 article in the Journal for Applied Physiology, MJ Joyner estimated the fastest possible marathon time to be 01:57:58. At the time, the world record of 02:06:50 was held by Ethiopia’s Belayneh Dinamo.
This analysis was largely based on empirical studies of limits on VO2Max and lactate threshold. The first variable, a measure of the capacity to consume oxygen, is widely regarded as the upper limit on endurance performance. Lactate threshold is a partial derivative measure that tracks the intensity of exercise that can be sustained by normal means.
Other studies have reduced the estimate slightly based on different background assumptions, including environmental factors like minimal air resistance. Advances in shoe technology might need to be factored, as technology like Nike’s VaporFly has been shown to bring measurable performance enhancement.
Which brings us to…
The Best Marathon Distance Time
Has anybody gotten close to the fabled 01:57:58?
Depends how you define close!
If you’re happy to accept “give or take a couple of minutes” – then yes…
Current world record holder Eliud Kipchoge ran a distance of 26.2 miles in a time of 01:59:40.2. This was the first time that anyone has been known to cover the distance in under two hours.
In order to achieve this feat, the organizers engaged special measures including:
- A long, dedicated training cycle.
- Pre-selection of an optimal course – being a near-flat Austrian park.
- Selection of a suitable climate with a familiar altitude and very minimal wind resistance.
- A team of revolving pacers, running in a formation designed to further reduce air drag.
- State-of-the-art shoes.
In spite of the excitement caused by the success on what was Kipchoge’s second attempt, the performance does not qualify as a marathon time. Some of the reasons are:
- Marathons are races, but Kipchoge was the only participant in his successful bid.
- All runners are required to join the marathon at the start, but Kipchoge’s pace-setters rotated in batches of seven, dropping in and out of the race in turns.
- Marathoners are required to fetch fuel off stationary tables, whereas Kipchoge was fed by seconds on bikes.
These factors make his performance hard to replicate in a competitive marathon but vindicate the theory of how much improvement is physically possible.
The truth is that for most of us, a good marathon time may be TWICE as slow as Kipchoge’s record.
To finish inside 04:00:00 is a great achievement; to beat 03:30:00 is a sign of a gifted and dedicated runner.
Gender And Age-Graded Marathon Times
Consistent with the physiology, data from competitive marathons shows performance rising to a peak in the early-mid thirties for both men and women and then declining steadily.
The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest and one of the six premier international events. Entry into the marathon requires age and gender-graded qualifying time in a qualifying marathon. Boston age grades are regarded as thresholds of excellent performance for athletes in gendered age bands.
The data below gives an indication of what these top-range finishes look like (Boston qualifying times appear in the last column), as well as the current global record holder for that age band.
|35-39||Kenenisa Bekele Beyeche||Ethiopia||02:01:41||03:00:05|
|40-44||Mark Kiptoo Kosgei||Kenya||02:07:50||03:10:00|
|45-49||Kenneth Mburu Mungara||Kenya||02:12:47||03:20:00|
|50-54||Titus Mamabolo||South Africa||02:19:21||03:25:00|
|55-59||Piet van Alphen||Netherlands||02:25:26||03:35:00|
|65-69||Derek Turnbull||New Zealand||02:41:57||04:05:00|
|35-39||Mary Keitany Chepkosgei||Kenya||02:17:01||03:35:00|
|40-44||Lydia Cheromei Kogo||Kenya||02:22:11||03:40:00|
|60-64||Bernardine Portenski||New Zealand||03:01:30||04:20:00|
Memorable Marathon Times
Tucked amongst the best times are some marathon performances that deserve (and duly receive) special mention. They are not necessarily superlative shows but leave an impression that inspires as much as any world record could. We note a few here.
The First Marathon Time
According to legend, the first even happened when Pheidippides, an Athenian soldier, ran the twenty-five miles from the Greek town of Marathon (whence the race’s name) to Athens to convey the news of the defeat of the Persian army. On accounting “Niki!” (“Victory!”), he suffered the worst finish-line bonk, dying on the spot.
The Greek historian Herodotus notes that at the start of the war, a trained messenger (that’s what endurance athletes were good for in the pre-SMS era) of the same name ran the two hundred and fifty miles from Athens to Sparta to request military assistance. This ultramarathon took two days. There is no time for the mythical marathon in the popular imagination.
The First Official Marathon Record
In the first modern marathon, taking place in London in 1908, Italy’s Dorando Pietri arrived three hundred and fifty yards from the finish line in 02:44. In training for the race, he had completed a twenty-five-mile run in Carpi in 02:38.
Unfortunately, the organizers had seen it fit to start the race at 2:33 PM on a blistering (by London standards) afternoon. The result was that Pietri succumbed to dehydration, falling repeatedly and taking an additional ten minutes to cross the line.
He crossed first and was crowned the first marathon champion until rivals complained about aid he’d received from marshals who helped him back to his feet. The complaint succeeded, and America’s Johnny Hayes became the first recognized champion with a time of 02:58:18.
The Fastest Barefoot Marathon Time
In August 1960, Adobe Bikila was an unknown athlete who won the Addis Ababa marathon in 02:21:23, faster than the contemporary Olympic record. He was duly elected to represent Ethiopia at the Rome Olympics the next month.
In Rome, he bought a pair of shoes but cut the break-in period fine. The shoes were overtight, giving him blisters. Thumbing his nose at “nothing new on race day,” he showed up unshod on the day, grinding out Sergei Popov’s world record by 0.8 seconds, in a time of 02:15:16.2
Apart from his temporary threat to the shoe biz, Bikila ushered in an era we now take for granted – the dominance of East Africans in the marathon.
The Oldest Marathon Finisher Time
The “Turbaned Tornado,” Fauja Singh is a British marathoner and practicing Sikh of Punjabi descent. An incorrigible procrastinator, he started running at the age of eighty-one. Eight years later, he ran his first marathon, finishing in a time of 06:54.
He holds a number of unratified records, including the only supercentenarian to complete a marathon, having finished the Toronto Marathon in 08:11 at the age of one hundred.
Who said running was just for young athletes?! Many of us are only getting started at 40!
The Youngest Marathon Finisher Time
Budhia Singh started running marathon and ultramarathon distances at the age of three. At the age of five, he ran a forty-mile ultramarathon from Puri to Bhubaneswar, in a time of 07:02.
Budhia’s natural ability was attributed to an unusually low heart rate, but the celebration of his abilities was tempered by questions of second-rate care. By the start of his teens, he had stopped running.
How To Target A Good Marathon Time
Elite performances provide an unhelpful guide to excellence for amateur runners.
Even champion athletes judge their own performances on a relative basis – considering their baseline performance. This is the appropriate approach, ensuring that your target is realistic, albeit challenging. An unrealistic challenge increases the risk of injury while guaranteeing failure.
The first step is to get a history of your performance in shorter races. The appropriate target is derived by decaying your rate at one of these shorter distances. A simple rule of thumb is the 10k10% rule:
- Get the finish time of your best recent 10K (6.25mi) run. (e.g. 01:08)
- Add 10% to the total time (01:08 = 68min, =10% = 74.8min)
- Divide by 10. That’s your target pace per kilometer. (7.48 min/km)
- A marathon has 42.2 kilometers. So multiply the pace by 42.2. (315.656)
- Convert to a race time: 05:15:39.4
That’s a good time for you. You have pretty good chances of improving it, as long as you remember that it is your target time.
If you really want to improve your chances of a PB, it helps to choose a suitable course. One that is flat, and held in suitable weather.
See our guide: 10 of the fastest marathons in the world.
How To Prepare For A Good Marathon Time
Armed with a realistic target, what remains is practice. A few factors will enhance the process:
Don’t give yourself time to lose fitness. Equally, overcompensating for time lost will cause injury. Training is the conditioning of your body – do this continuously.
Preparing for a marathon takes about six months. If you’ve not run at all before, build up over smaller distances.
The marathon requires expending your body’s limited energy reserves over a long time. This requires efficiency – using as little energy as possible to achieve the movement. Supporting your body optimally allows this. Key elements of posture are:
- Cadence: Your feet should touch the ground at a rate greater than one hundred and seventy strikes per minute.
- Tilt: Leaning slightly forward improves the efficiency of movement.
- Stride: Marathoners cover less ground per stride than sprinters.
- Swing: Use small arm swings to maintain balance.
Preparing for a good marathon time involves training endurance as well as speed. Key elements of a marathon training plan are:
- The Long Run: The cornerstone to your training is a long weekly run of twelve to fourteen miles. Perfect for building stamina.
- Interval Training: High-intensity interval training improves your aerobic performance.
- Core Training: Strengthening the core muscles helps maintain posture over the full marathon distance.
- Nutrition And Rest: Recharging the body is a core part of training, as it is during recovery that training benefits accrue. This is especially true after you have completed your marathon.
Finding a coach, either online or at a local running club, pays dividends. Free online training programs are available for runners of different levels.
What Is A Good Marathon Time?
The only thing between you and a great marathon time is twenty-six miles and three hundred and eighty-five of the longest yards in history. But realistic target-setting, consistent, structured training, and race-day discipline will bring you over the line.
The exact time to aim for is all relative – based on your age, gender, current fitness level, and how much time you’re willing to dedicate to the hard miles.
Use our training pace calculator to plot your big race.