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How I took 38 minutes off my marathon pb

Yes, it’s true – in a little less than a year I took 38 minutes off my marathon pb, and here’s how.

Perhaps you’re like me, or like I was back then. You’ve done a bit of running and a lot of races at 5k, 10k distance, a few half marathons and a small handful of marathons. However, the marathons are a huge disappointment.

Perhaps that’s overstating it. No matter what my finish time, I’m always delighted to have finished a marathon. But still, you can’t help that twinge of disappointment when you put your race times into race prediction calculators, and your actual marathon time is out by not just a few seconds, but more like 20 minutes.

This was me, and it was so frustrating. Especially as I stuck to the plan (one of those plans I found on the internet for free). Well, kind of. I stuck to it when I didn’t have anything better to do, like work, or go out partying. Oh, and I never did the strength parts (if the plan had them), and you can forget about stretching… So basically, I eschewed any advice I got hold of from the apparent experts who knew about running marathons, and devised my own approach to preparing for a marathon, and then I was disappointed with the result.

“Don’t be disappointed about the result you didn’t get because of the work you didn’t do.”.

It’s been a few weeks since the olympics finished, and as I write this article I’m reminded of a TV documentary that showed just before the olympics about Mo Farah and his training. The one thing that was mentioned time and time again, by him, by his family, and by his training partners is that he always works hard. The results he gets don’t just come to him by magic – he does the work to get there.

Importantly, when he changed from an ‘also-ran’ to a medallist, is when he made a big change in his life to put his training first by moving to Oregon to train under Alberto Salazar. From here, not only does he run a lot, but the change in strength training, in what he does in the gym can be linked to his huge success.

So let me tell you a story.

At the end of 2012…

What was possibly the worst year of my life, as it was the year my dad died (see article on depression). Toward the end of 2012, I had a trip planned to New York to run the New York Marathon, but because of my emotional turmoil, my body had fallen apart and I was in no shape to run. The marathon was cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy. As the year came to a close, I did my usual reflection on the year that had passed and planning for the time ahead.

The last 3 years of my life had been consumed by my dad’s illness and death, and I needed something else to focus on. I so wanted to be a marathon runner, not just a marathon participant, and I knew that I had a sub 4 hour marathon time in me, but clearly had been going about it the wrong way.

In my research and study of goal-setting, and my own past experience of life, I knew that a goal would not become reality if there was not some emotion attached to it. And this is when I realised a sub-4 marathon didn’t really mean anything to me. Whilst it would have been quite a challenge, it wouldn’t even have gotten me a London Marathon Good for Age place.

As I was talking to more and more runners, I realised that fairly normal people were able to achieve the GFA and the main difference between me and them was that they ran a bit more, and talked to other runners a lot more (as opposed to others who had run that race once 10 years ago).

At the time, I got involved in the Runner’s World Forums where a competition was taking place where 5 runners would be trained by professional coaches to run the Paris marathon. One of these runners was Sarah (@mia79gbr), and her goal was to achieve a Boston Qualifier – sub 3:35 is what she needed. I took part in the forum and we chatted a lot on twitter. And I’m pleased to say that Sarah, the Celebrity runner is one of my best friends now, and was my inspiration. If she could do it – an ex-overweight smoker with a young child and a job, then surely I could too. (She also keep an absolutely brilliant blog about running which you can read here).

Sarah and I partway around the Saltmarsh 75 ultra

Sarah and I partway around the Saltmarsh 75 ultra

At the same time, on the runner’s world forums, I met another of my best friends, also called Sarah, also a runner who was aiming for sub 3:30 in the London marathon. At the time, Sarah had been running for about 2 years, and I questioned, why, when I had been running for 5 years, why wasn’t my goal to run a 3:30 marathon. It seemed completely un-achievable.

Sarah and I picking up our race numbers for the 2015 London Marathon

Sarah and I picking up our race numbers for the 2015 London Marathon

But I kept speaking to these people, and I was completely in awe of the marathon runners. Another one, who was known on the forum as Shady Ady, had a brilliant video filmed of him where he glibly said ‘I Run so I can eat’ – he was also going for sub 3:30… And Malcs too. Adrian was especially interesting, as his other race times were fairly similar to mine. He seemed to have a similar goal of seeing the world by running, and I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that at the time, his marathon pb was fairly disappointing compared to what he felt his potential was.

I learned from speaking to these runners and their coaches, as well as other more seasoned runners on the forums who were going for 3:15 (omg) and sometime in December, I presented my race pbs to one of the coaches and said, could I do what Sarah’s doing? Could I get that Boston Qualifier? He didn’t say no. In fact, here’s what he said:

The speed has to be improved and then you have to do much harder marathon training with the improved speed being utilised

To run around 3:35 you probably need to get that 5k time down to around 22, the 10k down to close to 45 and the HM to 1:38 and that not going to happen straight away..
You probably need to work on the speed through the summer and then aim to get the marathon down to 4:00 in the autumn and then take it from there.

(At the time, my race pbs were 5k 24:01, 10k 52:50, Half 1:59:03, Marathon 4:33).

So, Step 1 – Set an Exciting Goal

It was going to take a while to get that marathon time down – probably 3 years. If I did that I could qualify for the 2016 Boston Marathon – I could do it before I turned 30. So that was the goal – qualify to run the Boston marathon before I turned 30.

Step 2 – Figured out what was stopping me

For me I had 3 main issues:
1)I wasn’t able to train consistently because of injuries/illness
2)I would often miss training due to low energy
3)In the longer races, pacing was a problem – setting off too fast without being able to maintain it – in fact my mile splits in my first london marathon varied from 9 minute miles to slower than 12 minute miles

Step 3 – Fix those things

How could I stop injuries? Get the right trainers, stretch and foam roll regularly, incorporate strength training into my routine.
How could I address energy levels? – Address nutrition both with healthy eating, and with sports nutrition – make sure I was well fuelled ahead of key training sessions.
How could I train consistently? Commit to the goal – don’t miss training unless the excuse is legitimate
How could I fix pacing? Monitor my runs. At first I did this with an app, but eventually I got a garmin, and this really transformed my running. Suddenly I was actually able to do the long run slow and gain the benefit from that.

These things all linked into a fitter and stronger runner, and in May 2013, I ran the Halstead Marathon in 4:18. So a little over 5 months of consistent training from almost a standing start had delivered me a 15 minute pb. And this was crucial.

Step 4 – have stepping stones with goals

My goal for the Halstead marathon was actually sub 4:15, so I missed it by a few minutes. However, this was a learning opportunity. What went wrong during the race that I could improve upon? One important lesson is that it was quite a hilly course at a time of year it was likely to be hot. My next marathon was Manchester – in the north west in early April, so more likely to be cool. Plus, the course is completely flat.

Step 5 – Keep doing what’s working and change what isn’t

This is why those stepping stone goals are so important, as they can give you information to change.
Whilst Halstead Marathon was a big improvement on my previous races, I still had pacing issues and fuelling issues too. I still ‘hit the wall’, albeit later in the race.

Step 6 – Learning

After the Halstead Marathon, I started my Sports Nutrition training, and my training to be a personal trainer. This new found knowledge of sports nutrition and exercise physiology meant I was even more capable of making sure I showed up for training, and it helped me to understand why strength training was important, and what strength training would be important for marathon running.

Step 7 – Stay Focused

By the time I ran Manchester Marathon, I had stopped working in the city and started working in fitness at Virgin Active to gain some experience. I was also planning our wedding, which was just a few weeks after the race. There was a lot of change in my life that would have made it easy to give up on the goal, but I was convinced that I was going to get my London GFA at Manchester marathon, and I didn’t give up on that goal. In fact the training was usually welcome diversion from the stress of it all.

Although I do remember doing a 20 miler one morning before starting an 8 hour shift where I would mostly be on my feet picking up weights, and not able to eat all that much. That was a fun shift (not!)…. But good training for the final miles of the marathon.

When I ran the Manchester Marathon, it felt like everything went right. There were tough parts, for sure, and I feared I had gone a bit too fast, but I was able to hold pace until about mile 21, so actually was in pretty good shape. You can read my race report here – Manchester Marathon race report.

Step 8 – Run a race that the course is short


Whilst I was ecstatic at a 38 minute pb, and I came in ahead of what I thought I was going to run (3:42), it turns out the course was short, and in the last few months because of this short measurement my official time has been adjusted from 3:39 to 3:41:33 – so completely in line with my prediction. Everything really did go right in this race, and if I were to pick one thing that contributed the most (other than favourable conditions on the day), it would have to be the strength work.

Working full time in the gym with relatively short breaks meant I would use my lunch break to lift weights. Plus, teaching quite a few classes each day, especially the core strength class meant I had multiple strength workouts each week. As a result, I didn’t experience cramp during this race, and I didn’t pick up any injuries either.

If you want to learn more about strength training and incorporate it into your marathon training, then why not sign up for online coaching. Information here.


What about you? Have you ever experienced a breakthrough in your running? What would you say has been the main contributing factor? Post in the comments below.

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Angela Isherwood

Angela Isherwood is the founder of I Run Success
She is a REPs Level 3 Personal Trainer, a Run England Running coach, and a multiple marathon runner. She is a London Marathon Good for Age runner, a Boston Marathon Qualifier, a parkrun Run Director and Trainer for Goodgym Colchester.

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