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How to run a sub-3h marathon

SuuntoRun — 30 November 2016

A sub-3h marathon. When you cross that line, you can call yourself fast, and feel good about it. We got in touch with running coach Aki Nummela to get some useful tips.

Helsinki, Finland, based running coach Aki Nummela is no stranger to transforming weekend warriors to competitive runners. His company, Runner’s High, coaches hundreds of runners through clinics and private coaching every year.

“There are no quick wins in marathon running,” he says. “Many marathon runners only focus on mileage and actually train to be slow. And there’s no point in doing so. It is impossible to run a sub-3h marathon if you can’t keep up that pace for 10 kilometers. Versatility in training is very important for long distance runners."

Running a marathon in under three hours is a serious challenge: Some talented runners can make it with very little training. For many it is simply impossible. Suunto's training database actually reveals that 10% of 30–40-year-old men run a marathon in 3 hours, and the top 10% of women clock in about 15 minutes slower.  

For reference, let’s take a look at what our numbers tell us. The top 10% of men 30–34 run a marathon in 3.00.08 and top 10% of men 35–39 run in 3.00.31. The top 10% of women 30–34 run a marathon in 3.16.34 and top 10% of women 35–39 run in 3.13.59. The times are based on over 25,000 marathons.

“A sub-3h marathon is a serious goal,” Nummela continues. “Most who set out to reach it are already established runners who know their level and have experience in running marathons. Random goals simply don’t work. You need to start with your current form and progress step by step within your own abilities. There are no short cuts.”


Reaching the goal depends a lot on the past, too. If you already have trained well your progress will be slower than for someone who hasn’t put too much effort in structured training yet.

“When the base is strong, there’s no need to cover maximum amount of miles. Trying to add more miles in our busy lives may just wear us down before the week’s key workouts,” Nummela says.

“For some of my athletes it has come as a surprise that there may be less weekly training hours in their plan than before. But cutting mileage by half does not automatically drop performance.” 


“Many marathoners are afraid of running fast” Nummela says. “But you need to start fast to have a fast time. Picking up the pace during the run is very difficult.”

A sub-3 hour marathon equals a pace of 4min17sec per kilometer, “but don’t get stuck running with the 4'20 pace in training,“ Nummela reminds you. “You need to build the speed capacity and once you’ve got this, you can add more marathon specific workouts in your plan. “

Nummela says that taking a good look at the times 3-hour marathoners have ran in shorter distances will give you a good idea where you are at. “If you can run 10 kilometers in 37 minutes, the pace needed to run a marathon in under three hours will feel easy.”


A classic workout for marathon is a progressively paced 30–35 km long run. “This workout should be finished off with your actual marathon pace,” Nummela says. “But keep in mind that this is a hard one, like a race, and proper time for recovery is needed.”

He also suggests running half marathons. They are not only great workouts – they’ll also teach you a thing or two about racing.

In addition to long runs, Nummela always makes his athletes run shorter intervals, too. Something like 6 times 1000 meters (at 5.000–10.000m race pace) and 4 times 2–3 kilometers  (at 10.000m–half marathon pace) are great practice for fast, efficient marathon running.

At the end, he always stresses changing it up: “Versatility is the key. After a long hard one I suggest running something different, like the 6x1km mentioned earlier, so that the stimulus is different every time. Otherwise your progress will slow down.”


Coach Nummela thinks that both pace and heart rate are valuable info to runners. In training HR will prevent you from going too hard.

“But feeling is also very important. One should not look at the data on the sport watch too much either. You will need to learn to listen to your body and its signals, too.


Goals are important – but you should be prepared to adjust your goals if needed.

“Running a sub-3h marathon depends a lot on the day’s form and conditions as well. If for example the race day is extremely hot, it is only wise to back off a bit. It may be smarter to run a 3:10 marathon than to end up on a drip. Be agile in your running and your thinking and you will eventually reach your goal.”

“And once you have trained right, and are in great form, all you have to do is go out and do it. Then reaching your goal is easy.”