How I Went From No Running To a Sub 3 Marathon in Two Years

This post is the first in a new category, titled Training Theory. The idea behind this category is to write about the various terms, theories and principles of training that runners often adhere to when constructing their training plans. Hopefully, reading the future posts in this category will give you the knowledge that will make you more confident about your approach to training because you understand not just the hows but also the whys.

Instead of diving straight into the theoretical principles and the science and physiology that explains them, I want to start this section off by giving a detailed look into how I accomplished what is a big goal for many runners as they get started with running: Complete a marathon in less than three hours.

Before proceeding to the details of how my training progressed, I should note that everyone is different. What worked for me may not work for you, and vice versa. That said, I don’t think I am particularly talented or genetically gifted when it comes to running. To the contrary, I seem to require relatively high mileage to run similar times many other runners do with moderate mileage. You may need more time or less time than I did to build up to a sub-three-hour marathon or a similar age and/or gender graded time. I do believe everyone is capable of getting to that point, but it will take patience and consistent training over time. The idea here is to give you a good look at what exactly it took for one particular runner.

My Training Background

Apart from giving the local track and field club a go for a couple of weeks, and then quickly deciding that it was not for me, back when I was a tween, I have no background in the sport of running. I did, however, grow up playing football (that’s soccer for you Americans reading) and remained active at a reasonable level through my teens. Through the first half of my twenties, I continued to play at a regional level, for the social aspect and to remain physically active.

Having left football behind for good in 2010, I dabbled a bit in various activities over the next few years. I had my first go at running in 2012, running a 46:15 10k off of very little training. But I found that it was not something I enjoyed, so I stopped. Instead, I went on to try road cycling, a project that literally ended in a crash after a few months. In all honesty, I didn’t do much to stay in shape through these five or six years, and my dislike for being so utterly unfit was the most important force driving the decision to make a change in 2016. That, and the fact that I had moved to a small suburb where I knew absolutely nobody, and I couldn’t really think of a better way to get to know people than joining a local running club.

2016: Small Beginnings

The very first run logged on my Strava account happened on January 30th, 2016. I ran 12k at an average pace of 5:58 min/km (9:36 min/mile). It clearly took a lot out of me, because I needed more than a month of rest before I put my running shoes on again. In the following months, I only ran sporadically until I finally managed to establish a habit. Had someone told me at that point that I would run a 2:58 marathon exactly two years later, I would have laughed them off. Running a marathon, or any race for that matter was the furthest thing from my mind at that point. The only reason I ran at this point, was because I was appalled by the shape I was in.

Having finally made running a habit, I managed to stay with it from this point. Well, more or less, anyways. A big motivational factor for me at this point was being part of a local running club, and joining up with them on a weekly basis. It’s difficult to envision me sticking to regular running at this point if I hadn’t been part of that social setting, and I can’t overstate just how much I recommend joining up with other people when you start out with running.

Through the second half of 2016, I ran the following monthly mileage:

June ’16: 50 km / 31 miles
July ’16: 46 km / 29 miles
August ’16: 79 km / 49 miles
September ’16: 112 km / 70 miles
October ’16: 68 km / 42 miles
November ’16: 77 km / 48 miles
December ’16: 57 km / 35 miles

Not exactly a linear progression, but I believe this period with moderate mileage was important to get my body used to running again and reactivate the aerobic base I had built playing football throughout my youth. For the most part of this period, I averaged one or two runs per week, with a third run interspersed every now and then. I didn’t vary my training much, and most of the runs were moderately hard compared to the shape I was in.

2017: A Guy Who Runs Becomes a Runner

I remember the exact time I got the idea to sign up for another race: My local running club puts on a race every fall, and in February of 2017 our ordinary session was replaced with a “Winter Edition” of the race. There were no chips or official times, just a bunch of runners lining up to run through a 10k course together. My time in the wintery conditions, as per my GPS watch, was 45:16. It had taken more than half a year of regular running to get back into similar shape I had been almost five years back. Still, it was a real confidence booster for me, and I decided to try my hand on another race.

Together with a friend, I decided to sign up for a half marathon that following fall. The goal was to complete the half in less than 1:45, and I knew I had to keep running to have a shot at doing that. So I kept running, despite the fact that I didn’t particularly like running. It was the social aspect, and that I enjoyed running outside in nature, that made me stick to it. In my mind, I also started toying with the idea of running a marathon. Being on a roll, it seemed silly not to capitalise and get that bucket list item out of the way. But that idea I had had of running one in less than three hours seemed like a pipe dream.

My monthly mileage for the first half of 2017 was:

January ’17: 100 km / 62 miles
February ’17: 82 km / 51 miles
March ’17: 170 km / 106 miles
April ’17: 162 km / 100 miles
May ’17: 186 km / 116 miles
June ’17: 200 km / 124 miles

Throughout this period my training got a little bit more structured. I ran an interval session at least every other week, and through spring I participated in a local weekly trail race series where I got to spend five to eight kilometres every week at around threshold effort. Most weeks I ran three times, twice on weekday evenings, and once every weekend. I started to make the weekend run longer, bit by bit, and towards the end of the period, I added a fourth weekly run.

Runner at Nordby, Ski, Akershus
A Sunday long run in the spring of 2017.

Then, on June 11th of 2017, everything changed. Our daughter, our first child, was born and lived only for a week before we lost her again. What happened afterwards was the very thing that inspired this blog, and the topic of my first post. For reasons explained in that post, running a marathon became extremely important for me in the aftermath of losing her. I had to do it for her. And, more than that, I found that running actually helped me cope with the loss. It gave me a moment of respite; a quiet time where the heavy feelings didn’t weigh as much as they normally did.

So in the months that followed, I kept on running. And that half marathon I was planning to run in September? I adjusted the goal for it. Might as well find out what sub-three-hour marathon pace feels like, so I aimed to finish it in less than an hour and thirty minutes. You can read the full report from that race here. In the lead-up to that half, I probably scaled up my training more than what would be advisable. While running two hard sessions per week, an interval session and a threshold session, I kept adding on mileage. But my body held up, and I got through it without injuries.

After racing the half, I decided to take a full week break from running. To my surprise, that was a hard thing to do. Not only did I feel antsy, as you often do when dropping regular physical activity, but I couldn’t stop thinking about running. I thought about running, and I read about running, and I dreamed about running. While I can’t tell you exactly when it happened, that was the moment I realised that I now liked to run. It was no longer something I did just to maintain fitness, and to realise some random bucket list goal. Now I ran because I liked to run and because it had become a part of who I was. I had become a runner, and that’s something I consider a gift from the daughter we lost. It would never have happened had it not been for her. How could I not go all in on it after that?

At this point, I knew that I would be running my first marathon the next year and that it would be the one I ended up running in June. After mainly trying to maintain fitness through a 10k in October, I went all in on base-building. My weekly peak mileage at this point was 80 km (50 miles), and to have a shot at finishing a marathon in less than three hours, I knew I had to get that up. So I stopped doing workouts and spent the remainder of the year building mileage with easy and moderate running.

My monthly mileage for the second half of 2017 was:

Juli ’17: 307 km / 191 miles
August ’17: 338 km / 210 miles
September ’17: 204 km / 126 miles
October ’17: 252 km / 157 miles
November ’17: 357 km / 222 miles
December ’17: 324 km / 202 miles

My weekly schedule throughout this period consisted mostly of five to six runs per week, and as already mentioned, the last few months I only did easy and moderate runs. This was to increase mileage without the added stress from workouts, and considering I got through it unscathed I would say that it was a winning strategy.

Man at top of the mountain Breitind at Senja
I got off the roads, too, during marathon training, and here I am at the top of the mountain Breitind at the island of Senja, Northern Norway

If there is one thing I would change from this training period, it is that I would prioritise cross training in the shape of core strengthening exercises. I think that would have made me a stronger and more efficient runner going into the marathon training period, and perhaps I would have been able to keep it up through marathon specific training as well. And, even if I did avoid injuries, I still believe these types of strengthening exercises are important for injury prevention.

2018: The Year of the Marathon

2018 started much the same way 2017 ended; easy running to build my base capacity in preparation of the upcoming 18-week marathon specific training block starting in the middle of February. In addition to running, I also spent most of the weekends at the start of the year cross country skiing. I believe this to be near perfect cross training for running, and as per Advanced Marathoning, Pete Pfitzinger agrees! It was also important for my motivation to get out in the woods and enjoy the winter, rather than being stuck inside doing long runs on a treadmill.

Of course, you can read a weekly summary of all my training for the year in the training logs section. But, for posterity, I will give a short recap of my training here. The monthly mileage totals for the first half of 2018:

January ’18: 379 km / 235 miles
February ’18: 294 km / 182 miles
March ’18: 449 km / 279 miles
April ’18: 413 km / 256 miles
May ’18: 480 km / 298 miles
June ’18: 226 km / 140 miles

My choice of marathon training plan was the 18 weeks, 55-70 miles per week plan for Pete Pfitzinger’s book Advanced Marathoning. With my goal marathon taking place in the middle of June, marathon training began in the third week of February. At this point I felt fit and ready to go, and, having had several weeks with overall training time well above the peak of the training plan, I was convinced of my ability to handle the load.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is probably fair to say that I underestimated the added load of workouts and faster long runs. As early as four or five weeks in, I was struggling to keep up. But if marathon training feels easy, you’re probably not doing it right. Throughout the 18 weeks, I was able to hit the prescribed paces (based on my marathon goal time) or faster for more or less every single up-tempo session. The only times I had to slow down compared to the plan was when I altered the schedule and added races that weren’t initially part of the plan.

All in all, I feel like I made the right choices, both in terms of which plan I decided to base my training on, and how I prepared for it. I felt right at the edge of what I was able to handle throughout the marathon training period, without suffering any injuries or significant mental setbacks. That is probably the best you can ask for when preparing for a marathon. As for how the marathon went, well I gave that away with the title. But if you haven’t read it already, you’ll find all the details about how the race unfolded in the race report.

Can You Train Like I Did?

Like I mentioned at the beginning, we are all different, and ultimately you have to figure out what works for you and your body. That said, I think there are some key takeaways from my experiences that are transferable to most runners only starting out, whether you are aiming to run a sub-three-hour marathon, or just want to get into shape:

  • Start Out Slow: If I had tried to jump straight into marathon training, I don’t know whether my body or my motivation would have broken down first. Probably both, and at once. Even if you have lofty goals, you have to take the long view when getting started running. Get your body and mind used to running before you start thinking about entering races and time goals.
  • Establish a Routine: Motivation is fickle, and those moments of inspiration will only take you so far. When those vanish like dew before the sun, it’s the habit that will get you out of the door on a rainy afternoon. If you know that you run on Tuesdays, you run on Tuesdays. Make your schedule non-negotiable, so that you don’t give yourself a chance to back out of a run.
  • Join The Running Community: Joining the local running club was one of the most important things I did to make a habit out of running. I enjoyed meeting up with other people for a run, and it also made me feel accountable. When you’re part of a group, you show up for a group run. You can also turn to the internet and join a virtual running community to share your endeavours with others. I have been, and still am, an active participant over at both r/running and r/artc. Both are great communities where I’ve learned so much of what I now know about running.
  • Consistency is The Foundation For Improvement: How you feel will vary from day to day, and in the short term, you won’t notice the improvements you are making. You simply have to trust the process and remember that consistent training over time is what yields results. One of the most appealing things to me about running is that there are no shortcuts. To get into shape, you have to put in the work, over days, weeks, months and years.
  • Improvement is Motivating: Once running has become a habit and a part of your life, you want to start thinking about how you’re improving. Test yourself in a race, or repeat certain workouts from time to time. As you’re improving you will probably feel more motivated, and it is time to start thinking about how you can adapt and add to your training to realise your long-term goals.
  • Let Your Body Tell You What it Can Handle: Over the past year, I scaled up my training in a pretty drastic fashion. While I had no guarantees that my body would be able to handle such an increase in load, I believe that it was awareness and listening to the signals my body gave me that let me steer clear of injuries. If I noticed a particular niggle or irritation that lasted beyond a couple of days, I would always seek information on how to treat and alleviate the strain. And if the pain persisted, I would never hesitate to take a couple of days off. Listen to your body when increasing your training load, and adapt to the signals you receive.

Those are the main takeaways from my own experiences in going from no running to a sub-three-hour marathon. If you have been a runner for a while, or even if you’re still working on establishing that habit, what have you found that works for you? Share your tips with the rest of us by leaving a comment below.