Running a Faster Marathon

In December 2010, I ran my first marathon. It took me 5 hours, 37 minutes, and 39 seconds.

In April 2011, I ran my second marathon. It took me 4 hours, 24 minutes, and 54 seconds. That means I cut my finish time by almost 75 minutes. (That’s an average pace that is more than 2 minutes faster per mile.) Since I crossed the finish line at Big D two weeks ago, I’ve been wondering, “How did I do that?” Now I’m no expert (most of my knowledge comes from my own experiences), but I have some guesses.

How I did that (ran a faster marathon):

Log the miles – When I signed up for my first full, I had yet to run a 10k. Of course, I ended up running much farther than that in training, but I was a newbie, a total newbie. By the time I ran my second full, I had almost two and a half years of consistent running under my belt. I had run fast, slow, in rain, in shine, on sand, on consecutive days, and with a few vacations in between.  You don’t have to run every single day (I sure don’t!), but you should run regularly if you are looking to improve your time. And if you are a first time marathoner, don’t get hung up on your finish time.

Logging the miles.

Run long runs slowly - Running slowly sometimes feels wrong, but it is oh-so-right. I knew that I was supposed to go slowly when I trained back in 2010, but sometimes my mind got the best of me. I’d think things like, “I’m running 15 miles today! I wonder how fast I can do that? Wow! See, I’m fast!” and “Oh, if I speed up now I’ll finish x number of miles in under x number of minutes.” It might be hard, but don’t go fast! Take your time, build your endurance. I never really was able to do this until I joined the Dallas Running Club. (See below.)

Run with others - At my first DRC meeting, a speaker got up and rambled on about how there is evidence that those who run with other people in training end up improving their times more than those who train alone. I sat there thinking, “Whatever dude. I don’t even want to run faster. I just don’t want to run really far by myself.” I  had two years of mostly solo running experience. When I signed up for Big D, I knew I needed support. (No way was I running 20 miles solo or any such nonsense.) Best decision ever! I didn’t end up making a new BFF out of my running buddies, but they helped me immensely! I stayed consistent with my long runs, we ran slowly (and my pace leader kept an eye on how fast we went, so I didn’t even need to worry about it.), they shared race strategies and fueling tips. It was just plain fun to run with them. I also started running with a coworker on weekdays. Again, it was someone to hold me accountable. And wouldn’t you know? Running with those people did make me faster.

With fellow-DRC runners after the Tal Morrison 15k.

Race – During Big D training, I ran a total of 7 races ranging from 5k to half marathon in distance. I don’t think everyone needs to run that many races, but a little racing during training is a good thing. It gives you a chance to push yourself and see the strides you’re making in your pace. It also breaks up the monotony of training. Having a race (and race swag) to look forward to every month helped keep me motivated.

Take on tough courses – The worst race (in terms of difficulty) that I ever ran was the Livestrong Austin Half Marathon, but this race gave me more confidence than any other race. If I can survive those hills, I can do anything. Hill training sucks, but it pays off. Whatever is hard for you (hills, heat, rain) if you can find a way to get in some experience during training, it pays off on race day.

There are a few notable things I left out, and that’s because I didn’t do them. I didn’t do any speed work, I didn’t cross-train, I didn’t do any strength training. I find that when I take on too much, I get overwhelmed and run the risk of quitting all together. I kept my training plan simple: run a few times a week, go slow on the long runs.

One of the advantages that I had was lots of room for improvement. (I don’t think my next marathon will be 75 minutes faster than this one. That’d be a BQ!) The biggest thing I took away from my marathon experience: anyone can do it. Yes, anyone. We can’t all do it fast (whatever that may look like to you), but if you train, if you follow a plan, if you really want to, you can run a marathon. Happy running, friends!*

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19 thoughts on “Running a Faster Marathon

  1. I’ve been pondering a second marathon and these tips are really helpful. I know the slow long run is the way to go, but it just seems to strange. However, I guess it’s true that your race pace is generally faster than training runs because of, among other things, the adrenaline. I hope adrenaline can last 4+ hours. Between your great PR and Craig’s PR (12 minutes or so) at his Boston Shadow run, I’m itching for my own PR.

    • Ugh, that’s me; wrong user name. I don’t know why WordPress does this…and it links to a blog that doesn’t even belong to me.

    • Running another marathon is an itch that you must scratch! I really think the slow long run is the biggest contributor to my improvement. I don’t know why it works, I just know it works.*

  2. Such a great and inspiring post Amy! I am so proud of you for your accomplishments on Mary #2! (I’m still working on going through all your posts so sorry i haven’t commented on them yet). But I’m just happy to hear that you rocked it!

  3. Girl, this is great news. Of course I don’t think I can possibly do worse than my first marathon. I’m really looking forward into getting into a rythmn with running again and following a training plan. I do plan to do cross training but probably no strength. I can’t wait to see what you do on a full (or half) after you get some good speed work in there, I bet you speed up big time!!!

    • “I can’t do worse than my first marathon,” was me, too. I had nowhere to go but up. I think your FIRST plans sound good. I’ve never done that, but I will say that I ran less this go around, and I did run faster.*

  4. I have absolutely, positively not even an ounce of interest in running a marathon. But I think your plan definitely applies to any distance that is a personal challenge (like for me, a 10-miler or half marathon). Good advice. And look how much you learned! Isn’t life grand?

    • I agree, this could work for a half just as well as a full. My half time really improved during training. Interestingly, last year I trained for a half from Jan-April and I did regular speed work. My time improved but not by a whole heck of a lot. While training for my full this Jan-April, I took 10 minutes off of my half PR with no speed work. I don’t know if it was just that I needed to build up my endurance, or if it has more to do with slowing down my long runs, getting in tough courses, etc.*

  5. Your incredible improvement from your first to your second marathon was literally beyond my comprehension. You have SO much to be proud of!!!!!!

    This post was EXTREMELY helpful for me as as a first-time marathoner this fall. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and experience – it’s so valuable. I definitely struggle with doing long runs slowly. As you said, it just does not feel right at all, and it makes me feel like I’m going to get used to the slow pace and slow down even more overall (when I’m already so slow to begin with). And I’m still debating whether or not to train with a group or train solo, but I’m definitely taking into account your success with training in a group!

    Please do keep sharing all the great advice – it is very, very much appreciated!!!

    • I was nervous to join a running group because I didn’t know if I’d be “fast enough” or if I’d get along with the people, but having people to run with has made such a difference!!!

      Congrats Amy :D

      • I agree! I ran for all of 2010 and all of 2011 solo because I was scared of joining a running group. It ended up leading to a huge improvement in my running, and I found myself saying, “I wish I would have done this sooner!” *

  6. Most important to running a faster marathon, on top of long runs… Practice the pace you want to run!

  7. Great post! I ran my first full marathon in February and am looking to do another at the end of the year, after tri season settles down. It’s great to see some tips to better my time from first to second marathon. :)

    • You’re already a Speedy Gonzalez, but I bet you’re second full will be faster. I wonder if marathon running is like the SATs: all things being the same, you are guaranteed a better outcome the second time around? Hm.

      Good luck with tri season! I admire anyone who can be baller at more than one sport!*

  8. that is an awesome accomplishment!! You have some really great tips in this post, thanks for sharing. I haven’t been running lately and I need to get back to it. I decided a year or so ago to do a 5k. I trained for it and loved it. Then I just sort of fell out of running. I occasionally do a two mile jog, thanks for the motivation to get started again :)

  9. That is quite an impressive difference in times! I’ll have to apply your advice to half marathon training because I have no intention of running a marathon. I’m a terrible running blogger.

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