Q&A: How Do You Structure Your Marathon Training For Success?

Question From Richard

Hi Neil,

I’ve been lucky enough to get a slot at next year’s Brighton Marathon. As you know from our previous conversations, I’ve completed a few marathons but feel this time I’d like to make an effort to run sub 3:30 and to potentially use this then as a springboard to achieving a Boston qualifying time in the future.

I was wondering how you would structure a campaign to achieve this and what races would you use as a build up? Big question I know but thought it was a good one!

Thanks, Richard

Response From Coach Neil Scholes

Hi Richard

I think your word “campaign” is a good one as long distance running requires a significant commitment to training. I think also that this training should take place over a far greater period of time than most people, or the running media, traditionally regard as required.

In terms of time I personally would look to be giving myself a period of around 6-7 months. Most people tend to think in terms of 12-16 weeks but I don’t feel this is enough time to elicit any significant physiological changes. It also does not allow for illness (I almost guarantee you’ll get a cold before Brighton!) and does not allow for enough time to undertake the build up races I would like to see.

Key Build-Up Races

I’ll deal with the race structure first off as this helps us set out the backbone of the plan: When I was aiming for the Rotterdam Marathon in April 2013 I started training specifically for it in September 2012. This then allowed me time to build the training sensibly and to factor in a number of key races that let me know specifically as to how I was progressing and where my run pace actually was. This in turn informed my race pace which was vital for race day.

It is critical to determine the pace you train at based on current fitness and a good way of doing that is running a shorter race and utilising one of the many pace calculators available.

In terms of specifics I ran 10k races in September and October, I ran a 10 mile race in December and Half Marathons in both January and February before the Rotterdam Marathon in April. You can see straight away that programme of races would have been difficult if not impossible to achieve in a 12 week build up and thus I would not have truly understood what sort of shape I should have been in to achieve my finish goal, which on that day was sub 3:00.

The schedule of races that I utilised as alluded to above would be a similar one that I would recommend for yourself and that is why I would be recommending you start on this month.

Weekly Structure

In terms of weekly structure I would look to progress you up to perhaps running 6 times a week over 5 days; so that will entail one double run day and two rest days a week. That structure would of course contain the classic long run which would build but also one or two appropriate ‘speed’ sessions. These sessions would be mixed in with other runs to achieve the necessary volume and resilience.

The Long Run

Most runners understand the requirement to run long if training for the marathon distance. It develops the resilience that you will require come race day. In terms of pace during this long run I would look to mix race pace runs in with slower runs but ensuring that those slower runs are not too slow. I feel if you run too slowly in every long run then it just makes race pace efforts seem to strenuous.

For a sub 3:30 attempt the maths is easy; you need to run 8:00 per mile pace as this gives you a 3:29:45. For me that is a little close for comfort and would like you to be running 7:50s. To that end we might put a ceiling of around 8:20 on some but not all long runs and others may be a mix so a 12 mile run might look something like 4 miles at 8:20, 4 miles at 7:50, 4 miles at 8:20 for example.

Speed Work

I would also to look to introduce into your plan one or two very appropriate ‘speed-work’ sessions. These would be designed for you and your ability and would be very specific for your goal. Additionally, the experience you will gain from these faster-paced training sessions, coupled with the race plan I alluded to above, will enable us to plan and implement a smart race day strategy by running at the appropriate pace.

Progress does take time depending on, running experience, the ability to stay injury-free, along with the choice of the specific types of speed workouts we integrate into your training.

Another great reason why I start my build up in September for a Spring marathon!

The key is therefore to start now. It’s almost October and therefore now is the perfect time to get that formal structure and coaching plan in place in order that you can achieve your goal.

I hope this helps. Keep smiling.


Image via Kate Fisher

Last updated on March 2nd, 2021.


  1. I would just like to ask if you think it possible that many ordinary middle of the pack runners , by working too fast and also too long could actually do their best work in training and never discover their true potential on marathon race day?

    1. I think there are people who leave their races on the training ground. I think competitive athletes find it hard not to try and “win” the Wednesday night track session, or to “win” the training camp. It’s a very individual thing so training with others encourages you to keep up. I do think it’s difficult for athletes to just say I’m running easy and really mean it. I recent had an Achilles niggle and the best thing for those is not to ice and rest but to keep them warm and moving, so 30 min easy runs are entirely appropriate. I spoke with a friend of mine who is a former pro triathlete and he asked what pace I was running these at, when I told him 8 min/mile he explained that as a runner I couldn’t help but try and maintain a decent pace and I shod be going easy at 10 or 12 min per mile.
      So yes I do think that with an inappropriate training plan or a competitive nature, even if only competitive with ourselves, or by having to do that last one track session, we can definitely leave our race on the training ground.

  2. interesting article and agree with the pacing based on racing and the 7 months build up. However the long run pace guidance is too fast, running at marathon pace then 20-30 secs per mile slower is still a very hard workout where the long run should be slower and not testing in terms of pace, especially if you are basing the pace on race efforts. Eg if you are hoping to run 6 min miles, running 6.20 on a training run on tired legs is way too fast

    1. Hi Hywel, I actually think you make a good point and if you are the Hywel I know then asking about 6 min per mile pace and faster is entirely appropriate. If you are not then it’s still a good point. This protocol worked very well for me to run around 6:40 pace ie sub 3 but the curve will not be a direct proportion. So Kimetto won’t run a 5:00 min per mile pace and call it easy. What I was trying to get over, and possibly not well enough, is that running too slow and then wondering why you can’t avhieve your goal is something I see all the time. I think that slow runs have their place in any training programme but also training in this 30s slower than MP also does. So sessions like 4 miles @30s slower, 4 miles @MP, 4 miles @30s slower really work well as a session. Within the week there is absolutely the need to conduct slower pace work, relaxed runs and runs without GPS where you actually just enjoy the process. I didn’t get that across well enough do appreciate your comment.

  3. DearNeil
    I am doing a spring marathon VLM and struggle to find any advice on what training and structure there should be leading up to xmas. There are plenty of 16 week plans after this point .but i am struggling to know how to pitch the training. I have done a half marathon in 1 43 and a marathon in 4hrs 12. i am to reduce my marathon time to 3 40-3 50 if possible.
    many thanks

    1. Hi Lucy
      I don’t do plans as such because one sizes NEVER fits all but your question is a good one as you are looking to start now which is entirely appropriate. I would maybe look at a back bone of races, a 10k in October and November and a 10 miler in December, to bring you to a point where you are in good shape to race a half in Jan/Feb. with that backbone you can hang sessions on it to build your resilience up so that the longer stuff to come in the new year is conducted on a stable platform of consistent training. If you are interested in coaching to achieve your goal then give me a shout.

  4. Wise words, I think I possibly fall into the trap of running my additional run workouts a little too hard and my long runs not hard enough (I’m slowly learning). I quite like the idea of a double run day and getting an extra days rest also.
    If I might comment on Lucy’s question, there are 24 week plans out there , but you could just apply the principles described above. Look at the type of work your plan requires from week 1 and use the 8 weeks prior to build up to that level and maybe do a test race ( 5k or 10K) to guage your training paces.

  5. Greta article. Done 3 marathons this year (my only ones); fastest in 3.25 in llanelli in april; two in novemebr (2 weeks apart) at 3:30 & 3:32. Really after a 3:15 good for age pace. Gone off too past in first one and died in second half; hence slowed at start in 2nd one, but still ran otu fo gas; so went even slower and mroe disiplcined in 3rd and still couldn’t keep going. Half pb 1:32; 10k 40:37. It seems that whatevr time I begin teh race at I still lose getting on for 20 mins in second half.

    Wondering if it is a specific muscle group or what?

    Think my fuelling was ok. It was something like this in teh 3rd race (sat 10am race): Friday eve Pasta & beef meal; also drunk a 500ml Lucozade sport Friday (and Thursday); Sat am: 6.15 porridge & coffee & a beetroot (!); between 7-8am 500 ml Lucozade sport; 9am half a banana and coffee; immediately pre-race a Gu gel; Race (can’t remember exactly): approx. 5-6 miles water and gu gel; 9-10 miles gu gel followed by electrolyte; 12-13 sis caffeine gel; 18 caffeine gel; 22 half banana, gulps of Lucozade sport.

    Normally use a runers world schedule which takes long runs up to 22 miles.

    Any thoughts woudl eb very welcome.

  6. Hi,
    I was wondering whether you would encompass any strength training into your marathon training schedule, if so what kind of structure would it have?

    Also whether you would or would not include strength training, what would be your reasons?