How Long Does It Take for an Ordinary Person to Exercise to Run a Marathon in Under 3 Hours?

How many kilometers should be covered in a 3-hour long run in order to achieve a certain monthly running volume? How many times a week should interval training and aerobic exercises be done? How many times should LSD (long slow distance) running be incorporated? How should core training be conducted? How should diet be controlled?

Back on the Track

Sharing a bit of my own real-life experience:

Our destination must be reached by running. It is a place that is farther, deeper, and more beautiful. Although I can’t go there immediately, one day, I must personally witness the scenery there. Until then, I will keep running. Look, after enduring the pain of this kilometer, I will be a bit closer to that world — Excerpt from the novel “Strong Wind Blows” by Miura Shion

Before this year, I never imagined that I would step back onto the track. The experiences of my high school athletic team were always something I boasted about. I was the champion of the 1500 meters in the school’s sports meet, and I came in eighth place in the municipal high school sports meet. Besides the fact that it really happened in 2006, these achievements were more often brought up when I was drinking. Every time after a few drinks, I would say, “If my knee hadn’t been injured back then, I would have definitely…” I got tired of bragging about myself like that.

First-place medal from the 2006 school sports meet 1500 meters, with a time of 4 minutes and 58 seconds

But then, at the beginning of this year, my good friend Zhang invited me to run a half marathon called “2019.” That’s when I realized the excess fat around my waist and the damage alcohol and cigarettes had caused to my cardiovascular system. Despite being less than 180 cm tall, my weight was close to 80 kg. My best time for a 5K sprint was 23 minutes and I felt pretty good about it.

Including the intermediate joining part, it was about 20 kilometers in total. We stopped the watch, and the actual time was over 2 hours.

After completing “2019,” I looked up the average half marathon times and realized that it would be a miracle if I could finish a half marathon. Conveniently, the long-distance running festival was open for registration, so with Zhang’s encouragement, I bravely signed up and started training. The training during that period was not scientific. I ran 8 to 10 kilometers at a pace of around 4:50 per kilometer, and I was already tired by the end, with my heart rate approaching 180. But I persisted in training and set a goal to finish within 2 hours and 25 minutes.

Finally, the long-awaited day arrived. April 14, 2019, my first official half marathon. My mood? Excited, to say the least. In my school days, there would be a maximum of 20 participants in a sports meet, but this time, there were 20,000 runners all starting at Tiananmen Square — it was truly exhilarating! I started from the C zone and maintained an average pace of under 5 minutes per kilometer for the first 17 kilometers. However, lacking race experience, I hit the wall at the 18-kilometer mark and ended up walking for most of the last 20 kilometers. I even felt dizzy when crossing the finish line (later I realized it was low blood sugar). In the end, my net time was 1 hour, 47 minutes, and 39 seconds. Although I didn’t meet my expectations, I was still quite satisfied with myself at that time.

Pay attention to the pace. Starting from the C zone, I wasted a lot of energy fighting for a favorable position, which led to a significant drop in speed later on.

After the race, on April 20, I participated in another half marathon in a park and finished in 1 hour, 46 minutes, and 35 seconds. Thanks to Jiang Ge, whom I met during the long-distance running festival, as he served as my pacer for the first 15 kilometers. Surprisingly, I didn’t lose much speed afterwards and crossed the finish line hand in hand with my good friend Zhang.

That’s me on the left, still a bit chubby. The photos after that will shock everyone, haha.

The main focus of training in the following month was doing aerobic workouts at a goal pace of around 5 minutes per kilometer for 10-12 kilometers. I also had one long slow distance run (actually only 20 kilometers) with a monthly running volume of about 150 kilometers. I felt that my level had improved, but I still couldn’t imagine running at a faster pace. During this time, I signed up for the Changping Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. On May 19, I finished with a time of 1 hour, 45 minutes, and 8 seconds.

I was quite happy, as I had achieved my goal at that time.

The race went well, and I want to participate again next year.

The two rabbits from the Changping Love Running Alliance set the pace at 1:45 for me. Although I couldn’t keep up after 15 kilometers, I still managed to finish under 1:45, thanks to starting relatively late. The race had many uphill and downhill sections. After the race, I discussed with them and they believed that I had the potential to achieve a time of around 1:40. Looking back on it, I agreed with their prediction at that time. However, no races in June prevented me from putting it to the test.

The 1:45 half marathon did satisfy me, but unexpectedly, the story was just beginning.

At the end of May and beginning of June, I tested myself in a 5K and a 10K. I finished in 21 and a half minutes and 46 minutes, respectively. Compared to the beginning of the year, I had made some progress and gradually began to think about breaking 20 minutes in a 5K. Perhaps it was because of my previous experience as an amateur athlete that my competitive side was fully aroused. After joining the Ju Yi Running Club, I met many runners who completed half marathons within 1:20 and full marathons within 3:10. I realized that I had nothing to boast about. I recognized that I was faster than runners without a foundation, but I still needed time to regain my competitive state. So, I began attending various training camps: the Chinese Athletic Association at Peking Union Medical College Hospital, adidas' running camp, and Longyuan at Guang’anmen. During this time, I learned about interval training (in retrospect, it was an upgraded version of the pyramid training I did in high school, but I just didn’t have that name back then).

On June 15, at a small race organized by adidas, I broke 45 minutes for the first time in the 10K, finishing in 44 minutes and 20 seconds.

The one in the middle is Captain Luo Rui, a former middle-distance runner. This was the first time we met, and he helped me a lot in subsequent training.

On June 19, there was a little episode. Since it was almost my birthday, my wife gave me a pair of Nike Zoom Fly sneakers. Coincidentally, Nike was recruiting people for the Beijing Marathon during those days. I saw the recruitment advertisement and felt that the three criteria were beyond my reach. However, I still loudly announced on my social media that I would target those standards. At that time, even I didn’t expect that, less than four months later, I would easily achieve all three goals.

The Nike Zoom Fly sneakers have already run almost 600 kilometers and have accompanied me through most of my tempo training. They are the most comfortable shoes I’ve worn.

Actually, those were just the minimum requirements for the Beijing Marathon. Remember those three standards? Now I’m going to break each one of them.

In July, I continued alternating between interval training and tempo runs. When work got busy, I would go for a 5K tempo run in the evening (at a pace of around 4:10 per kilometer). On the weekends, I would drive to the adidas running camp in Aosen to do 10 to 15 kilometers. Finally, on July 23, I participated in the Longyuan Running Camp’s 5K test. Before the test, I was pondering whether I could run a steady sub-20-minute 5K. To my surprise, I completed the test in 18 minutes and 56 seconds.

The result was based on lap times, so there was no overestimation, haha.

I won first place and received a small prize. Shiying, the first-place female runner, and Teacher Liang, who brought their team of 2:53 marathoners, gave me a lot of advice. I am grateful to them!

On July 29, I participated in the Buick Running Club’s team race. We barely won a gold medal (our team finished within 24 minutes of the first-place team). This race made me realize the difference. By that time, I had become a bit conceited, thinking that running 12 kilometers at a 4-minute pace was already remarkable. But when I saw the first-place runner’s skill, I was still far behind. It was a coincidence that the winning team was led by Teacher Liang, Shiying, and their running group. As a result, I vowed to achieve revenge in the upcoming Beijing race in autumn.

The result sheet shows a pace close to 4 minutes, with a slight drop in speed due to the hot weather.

The medals are quite beautiful. Only the top 12 teams received gold medals.

In early August, during a Yasso 800 interval training session organized by Longyuan, I was able to complete it at a pace of around 3:35 per kilometer. On August 11, Luo Rui organized a 1500-meter test. I was highly interested because that was my event during my school days. The test result was also surprising: 4 minutes and 51 seconds (with a faster first half and slower second half). It proved that I had surpassed my best high school time. I couldn’t believe it myself. After the test, I felt that I hadn’t run enough, so I led my teammates to complete an additional 3000-meter test in about 12 and a half minutes.

This test completely restored my confidence and surpassed my past self.

On August 20, during a training session with Luo Rui, who was an excellent middle-distance runner in the past, he pushed me to my limits for the first time. I finally understood the level of sub-three marathoners: they maintain a steady pace, possess strong core and leg strength, and have a standard running form (later, I learned about various strategies before and during races, but that’s another story). I am grateful to Luo Rui for his advice during these two months, and I hope to have the opportunity to run with him in a race.

Although I was discontented with being pushed to my limits, I eventually reached the level of Luo Rui.

At the end of August, my training became more systematic. In order to improve speed, I made sure to keep my weight below 70 kg and reached a monthly mileage of about 250 kilometers (almost no junk mileage). At that time, Dong Ge, Mie Mie, Dong Ge, Wu Hao, Xiao Hui, and Yao Ye formed our own training camp. We each created an ABC training plan in our group chat, motivating and pushing each other to progress at a rapid pace.

Being influenced by me, my friends also started running and are making rapid progress. Dong Ge on the far left is already approaching a half marathon time of 1:40.

In mid-September, during the training camp at Peking University, I met Cong Shen and Xiao Hao. The biggest gain from this training was that I started writing training diaries. Recording my experiences helps me improve faster.

Write a bit every day to improve faster.

The Peking University training camp had five sub-three-hour marathoners. I hope to have more opportunities to train with them during the winter training period.

Remember the Black Horse standards I mentioned earlier? At this point, I began challenging those goals. The first one I conquered was the 10K. On September 22, on a Sunday after work.

However, that was just the beginning. Surprisingly, the next goal I achieved was the full marathon. Many so-called experienced runners always warned me: “Marathons are tough, and your first one won’t go smoothly” (and I admit that was true). Nonetheless, I insisted on running a full marathon on October 6. Yao Ye agreed to pace me, and off we went. I finished in 3 hours and 1 minute.

Looking back, I realize how unnecessary that was, haha.

Yao Ye took this photo for me right after the marathon. I was exhausted.

The process was certainly tiring, but I didn’t hit the wall because I was conservative in the early stages. This gave me a false sense of confidence, thinking that as long as I finished within 3 hours, I wouldn’t hit the wall. That’s the main reason I didn’t make further progress in Tangshan.

On October 13, at the Pinggu Half Marathon, my goal was to break 1:24, which I easily achieved. By then, I had accomplished all three Black Horse standards. The course was about 400 meters longer than usual, so my actual time was a bit over 1:21. I hope to break the 1:20 mark next year.

The sprint photo, my second time crossing the finish line since July; I felt pretty good about it.

Winning prize money for the first time in an official race was very exciting.

Finally, the last battle of the season, the Tangshan International Marathon, arrived on October 20.

There was only one goal: breaking three hours!

To bring a perfect end to the racing season in the second half of this year!

First, let me say that the result was good.

I took advantage of my age and placed tenth in my age group, and I even received 200 yuan in prize money.

But in terms of the process, I didn’t do well enough. My ego had swelled, achieving a half marathon time of 1:24. I held a sub-4-minute pace for the first 30 kilometers, but then I saw the gap between me and the top runners. I lost my stride and my mentality collapsed. The earlier 10-minute advantage I had created was squandered. I should view “breaking three hours” as an interlude on my journey of progress. I still have a long way to go. I need to guard against arrogance and impatience, focus on a more scientific approach to training, improve my leg, hip, and core strength, and aim for a comprehensive upgrade during the winter training period.

The three of us crossing the finish line are also part of the “Breaking Three” group. We all experienced a tough summer training to achieve our current results.

The medal is quite beautiful, with red powder filling the entire rose.

My story has come to an end, but winter training has just begun. Next year, I will meet a brand new version of myself.

Actually, I have never really had a blank period in my running journey. I have always had a pair of running shoes on my shoe rack, and I would go for a run every month. Zhang didn’t actually introduce me to running last winter; he awakened the dormant fire in my heart. Facing the strong wind, I run against it and move forward. I hope to continue getting stronger and fulfill the dreams I left unfinished more than a decade ago.

How long does it take to break the three-hour mark in a marathon?

The amount of time it takes for an average person to train and break the three-hour mark in a marathon varies from person to person. Some runners are able to achieve this feat in their first marathon, while others may require 1-2 years of training to do so.

In 2019, the total number of participants in marathons in China reached 7.1256 million, an increase of 1.2956 million compared to 5.83 million in 2018, representing a year-on-year growth of 22.22%. The number of participants in certified races reached 4.2391 million, accounting for 59.49% of the total number of participants, an increase of 0.5775 million compared to 2018, representing a year-on-year growth of 15.77%. According to the finish time statistics of certified races in 2019, the total number of finishers in marathons and half marathons was 1.3747 million, with a cumulative total of 0.9069 million finishers and a cumulative finish rate of 62.84%. The number of finishers in marathon events in 2019 was 0.2622 million, a growth of 22.35% compared to 0.2143 million in 2018; and the number of finishers in half marathon events was 0.6447 million, a growth of 17.88% compared to 0.5469 million in 2018.

The report shows that in terms of performance, the overall average finishing time for marathon events in 2019 was 04:25:40, with the average finishing times for men and women in the marathon events being 04:22:11 and 04:41:58, respectively. The overall average finishing time for the half marathon events was 02:15:02, with the average finishing times for men and women being 02:11:00 and 02:25:15, respectively. In 2019, a total of 9,703 male runners finished the marathon within three hours, an increase of 67.47% compared to 2018; and a total of 1,806 female runners finished the marathon within three hours and twenty minutes, an increase of 63.44% compared to 2018.

On March 19, 2023, there were 1,262 runners who broke the three-hour mark in the Wuxi Marathon. He Jie (“20730”) and Yang Shaohui (“20749”) both broke the Chinese men’s marathon record. On October 29, 2023, there were 2,402 runners who broke the three-hour mark in the Beijing Marathon. This shows that the number of runners who achieve this feat is increasing.

Even though the number of runners who break the three-hour mark in marathons is increasing, it is still not easy.

“Cai Y” achieved a personal best time of 3:50 in the 2016 Dongguan Marathon. Subsequent full marathon performances have been concentrated around the 3:5X mark. The long-term goal is to break the three-hour mark, but currently the target is to qualify for age group exemptions in different races, with a tentative target time of around 3:15.

Breaking the three-hour mark in a marathon, which is 42.195km, requires an average pace of 4:10 per kilometer. For runners who usually maintain a pace of 5-6 minutes per kilometer, it is extremely challenging.

Currently, the monthly running volume is approximately 200km, with around 20 runs of 10km each. The average heart rate is 160+ and the average pace is between 5:30-6:00 per kilometer. It is not easy to achieve the goal of breaking the three-hour mark with this level of training.

Some runners are able to break the three-hour mark with a monthly running volume of 200km, while others may need to run over 300km per month. It depends on the individual’s aerobic capacity.

Especially for the general population, aerobic training requires a significant amount of time and energy. It is also important to pay attention to daily diet and weight control, as well as incorporate 2-3 core strength training sessions per week.

Indeed, there are many experienced runners on Zhihu who have achieved the goal of breaking the three-hour mark. Their daily training routines, such as interval training, tempo runs, and long slow distance runs, can be reference points for others.

The time it takes to break the three-hour mark mostly depends on one’s daily training routine. If someone has natural running talent, they may be able to achieve this goal in six months. For the average runner, it may take about a year of preparations, including summer and winter training, and the actual results will be put to the test in the following spring.

“Cai Y”: A mediocre programmer for nine years, a novice runner for ten years, and currently an insurance broker focusing on family protection, education and retirement planning, premium medical care. WeChat Official Account: “Runner SCY”. An active family financial planner who will accompany you on the journey to wealth.

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The Importance of Preparation and Conditions

In the words of an ordinary person:

Before talking about running 10 kilometers in 38 minutes, there is something else to discuss.

If you can’t even run 5 kilometers in 20 minutes, any plan is meaningless.

You can’t think that if the top runners in the country finish around 2 hours and 10 minutes, you can hope to be just an hour slower.

Breaking the three-hour barrier either requires a strong foundation in professional middle-to-long distance running from an early age, or the ability to handle training volume that ordinary workers simply cannot guarantee in terms of time.

It is not just a matter of method, it is even related to your economic conditions and family background.

The Rare Talent for Long-distance Running

Anyone who can run a marathon in under three hours is no ordinary person. They must have exceptional talent for long-distance running, perhaps even being the one in a hundred enthusiasts who possess such ability.

The title of the answer could be: Differences in Age Groups

How old are you?

The general classification is also divided by age groups.

Below 20, below 25? Or like me, over 40.

We are all ordinary people, but the differences can be huge.

For those under 25 with talent, one year of hard work can make a difference.

It’s hard to say for average people.

Maybe you’ll be injured first.

The Importance of Running Training Strategies and Perseverance

According to the running YouTuber Heiying TV, based on his experience, running a monthly mileage of over 350 kilometers can greatly increase the chance of breaking the three-hour mark in a marathon after training for a year. Of course, the ability to achieve such a monthly mileage is also a reflection of running capability. Forcing an increase in mileage without sufficient ability will only lead to injuries. When it comes to running, the most important thing is to be able to persevere and then address any weaknesses.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

The average person cannot enter the realm of sub-3-hour marathons. The training volume required is immense, and injuries are common. Currently, there are only about twenty to thirty thousand people in the entire country who have achieved a sub-3-hour marathon time, which is even fewer than the number of graduates from Tsinghua University and Peking University.

Of course, if you were to ask an average person to quit their job and devote themselves full-time to marathon running, with a monthly salary of 10,000 yuan, professional team guidance, and comprehensive coverage for medical expenses and nutrition fees, there would still be hope.

Training takes about two to three years

It takes about two to three years, and it’s not just about exercising, but training is required.