How I train for sub 4 hour full marathon

First of all, I would like to clarify that I'm not the fastest runner, nor am I a podium finisher, nor am I an expert in running, and nor do I have any professional background / certificate in running.

I'm just an average joe that you will find on the street who picked up running at end of 2010 "pursuaded" by colleagues and friends to accompany them in their training for their Penang Bridge International Marathon 2010.

From accompanying my friends to run, to joining my first ever running race end 2010, to completing my first half marathon mid 2011, then to completing my first full marathon a year later (2012), it has been a long, fruitful, enjoyable 6-year running journey to date.

To date, I have completed 20 full marathons, out of which 7 were within sub 4 hours. I could only achieve my first sub 4 hour full marathon only after 4+ years of running. Such a long time! But something once thought impossible, but now it has become a reality. I know that to some, my time is not fast enough. And to many, sub 4 hour full marathon seems beyond reach.

But as a late boomer who started running only after 40, I would like to testify that if there is a will, there is a way. But behind it, there were lots of pains, learnings, struggles and sacrifice.

I would just like to take this opportunity to share my humble personal running experience here on how I train for my sub 4 hour full marathon. My approach might have been different from others. Even though it works for me, it might not work for you. Anyway, I just hope the somehow it might be useful to someone out there who strives to achieve better times in running - be it sub 6 hours, sub 5:30, sub 5 hours, sub 4:30 or sub 4 hours.

5 key training elements to faster full marathon

1. increase running cadence 

When I first started running end 2010, my ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin got very tight or inflamed.  And I usually ended up having ITB (Iliotibial Band Syndrome), one of the most common overuse injuries among runners. Therefore, for the first 2.5 years of running, I used to run only a few months in a year. For the remaining months, I had to rest to treat my overuse injury ITB. So sad! :(

My ITB got me into doing some research on how to have an injury-free running. And that's when I got to know about importance of cadence.

What is cadence? It's basically the total number of revolutions per minute (RPM), or total number of beats per minute (BPM), or total number of steps per minute (SPM).

My running cadence during ITB time was around 170-180 BPM. I suspect that as I increased my speed, my BPM also dropped to 165 BPM range. And I ended up landing on heel even more creating unnecessary impact on my knee resulting in forming of ITB.

With the help of metronome and running music with specific BPM,  I managed to gradually increase my running cadence from 170-180 BPM to 190 BPM.

I train myself to have a consistent running cadence at around 190 BPM throughout the distance - be it downhill, flat road or uphill; fast or slow. Increased cadence has truly helped me to have an injury-free running and make my long distance running more efficient.

2. breathing pattern (2:2)
Many runners develop a 2:2 pattern of breathing, meaning they inhale for two (2) foot strikes and exhale for two (2) foot strikes. Some develop 3:3 pattern of breathing, meaning they breath in for three (3) steps and breath out for three (3) steps.

I see some runners inhaling with nose, but exhaling with mouth.

As for me, I have trained myself to apply 2:2 breathing pattern following my 190 BPM running cadence. And I use my nose to inhale and exhale (mouth closed during exhaling). I have found that running with my mouth closed has allowed me not to feel thirsty too quickly or my throat to feel dry fast. In a sense, it's more "energy saving" and efficient for endurance running.

3. Low mileage quality training (32 km - 42 km per week)

From what I read, to run a faster ull marathon, a runner usually needs to clock a weekly mileage of min 56 km (35 miles) during training. Some runners even run up to 96 km (60 miles) per week.

Theretically, the more weekly mileage a runner covers, the better prepared he /she is for a full marathon. And the chances are, he / she will run a faster full marathon too.

As for me, I don't have much luxury to clock a high weekly mileage. Therefore, I focus on low mileage but quality training.

Here is my weekly low mileage training program and schedule:

Program 1 (32 km per week)

weekday training on treadmill at 1.5 inclination (3 km ; 4 x per week)

first 500 m     : 10 km / hour (6.00 min / km pace)
500 m - 1 km : 11 km / hour (5.27 min / km pace)
1 km - 2 km   : 12 km / hour (5.00 min / km pace)
2 km - 3 km   : 13 km / hour (4.37 min / km pace)

Sunday long distance training (20 km ; 1 x per week)

0  - 10 km        : run as fast as I can as if running a 10km race
10 km - 19 km : run slower than first 10 km but still run as fast as I can as if running a half marathon.
19 km - 20 km : run as fast as I can to finish the training despite the tiredness and exhaustion.

Note: no power gel but only isotonic drinks during training and bananas (before and after run).

Since March 2016, I have added another 10 km to my Sunday run to make the weekly mileage of 42 km per week, still short of the 56 km per week standard weekly mileage required of a full marathon training.

Program 2 (42 km per week)

speed training on treadmill (3 km ; 4 x per week)

same as program 1.

long distance training program (30 km ; 1 x per week)

0  - 10 km        : run as fast as I can as if running a 10km race
10 km - 18km : run slower than first 10 km but still run as fast as I can as if running a half marathon.
18 km - 29 km : run slower than first 18 km but still try to maintain the pace as much as possible.
29 km - 30 km : run as fast as I can to finish the training despite the tiredness and exhaustion.

Note: no power gel but only isotonic drinks during training and bananas (before and after run).

4. run more hills

I suck in hills! And usually in full marathon races, I run very slow up the hill. That prompted me to put in some extra effort to make up for my slowness in hills.

Therefore, I have added hills into my Sunday 30 km training since March this year.

Occasionally I follow some friends to run at Genting Sempah, which is 15 km uphill all the way.

Most of the time, I run alone from Lake Garden to Seri Hartamas, then from Seri Hartamas to Mount Kiara to Seri Hartamas, then take the triple hill route back to Lake Garden. I have chosen to run the tough triple hill route (last 12 km of my 30 km weekly run) because I thought it would be a good training for me.

I am usually very tired, exhausted, and running at very slow pace by the time I reach Bukit Tunku hills. But I still force myself to run the triple hills back.  I thought it's also a good way to strengthen my legs and toughen up my mental strength at same time.

5. strength training (core and legs)

During weekday morning gym before my 3km treadmill run, I also do some strength workouts more specific to strengthening my core and legs. 

Of course, I also do workouts for other parts of body but for running purpose, I specifically do my core and leg exercises on alternate days with different variations.

Core exercises
planking, leg raises, situps, cable crunch, etc

Leg workouts
barbell squat, body-weight squat, dumbell split squat, etc

might or might not work for you...

There you go, my humble sharing on my weekly training program for full marathon running. :)

Again, I would like to reiterate that this is based on my own personal experience and my experience might have been different from others. I'm not sure if it will work for you or not, but currently, this is what my training program is.

As I learn every day on running techniques, etc, I hope to continue to find new ways or better ways to run - especially if it helps to create an injury-free, efficient running. I know that as my age is catching up, my speed will continue to slow down. In a longer run, I just want to have an injury-free, efficient running life so that I can run until my golden years and not be plagued by knee injuries, etc.

As for the speed, I got to respect the ageing process. :)

But for now, I still hope I can improve on my speed or at least keep the sub 4 hour as consistent as possible - until one day I know I need to slow down... ha! ha!

Written on: 2016.10.15



  1. I know what I'm doing wrong. ALL OF IT! You do ALL this?!?!? Oh well, I guess I'm kissing the sub four goodbye. *sad face* This is hardcore. Might I ask how tall you are? Does cadence also depend on your height? Wouldn't a shorter person naturally have higher cadence because their gait isn't as long? And what are isotonic drinks? These are great tips...I'll have to try at least one... Maybe I'll be able to shave off two minutes hehehee :o)

    1. Hi Savitre, You are so so sooooooo funny! :) I'm sure you do some of it right! :) And I 'm sure you will be kissing the ground at finish line after you complete within 4 hours one day. :)

      I'm 172 cm or 5 foot 8 in. my knowledge in running is rather limited. But i will share as much as I can based on my experience.

      Actually cadence doesn't depend on height. I see some tall guys run at high cadence and lower cadence. but of course, you are right - a shorter person naturally will have higher cadence according to his/her height.But perhaps the cadence can still be increased.

      Isotonic drinks - I believe it's called sports drink in the US? It's high in simple carbohydrates that offer a fast and efficient source of energy. It also includes electrolytes - minerals, such as sodium, potassium, chloride and calcium, which tend to reduce as you sweat through exercise. :) It is usually provided at the water stations / hydration stations during races and triathlon events. I'm sure you have drank them before but just different name! :)