How I improved my marathon time by 32 minutes

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

I ran my first marathon in 2019, where my goal was to finish in under 4 hours. My time was 3 hours and 56 minutes. A few days after the race, a friend asked “will you run another marathon?” and my answer was a quick “no”. However, a couple of months later I signed up for a half-ironman — with the ultimate goal being to do a full ironman later that year or the following year. So eventually I had to run again, and I needed to make some changes in my training. The Ironman events that year were canceled/postponed, but I got to run a marathon instead.

Analyzing what I did wrong and the changes I made

I started mapping out the things that went wrong during the years prior to my first race. Some of the things were:

Wrong shoes.

In 2018 I got shin splints all the time, so I went to the store and tested for pronation/supination and bought expensive shoes that were for one of those (can’t remember which one). The problem was that I bought some kind of “all-around” Nike shoes. They were called running shoes, but as with most mainstream shoes — they are designed for “lifestyle” as well. The sole is harder etc. to last longer.
In 2020 I heard about Hoka One One, and decided to try the Rincon model. I still use that model as my daily running shoe, so you can say I liked them.

Wrong shoe size

In 2019 I ran in size 43 (EU), and in 2020 in size 44 ⅔. In 2019, I lost a couple of toenails whereas in 2020 I didn’t lose a single one. I also learned that your feet swell up during a marathon so you want to go up one size.

Tied my shoes wrong

Before 2020, I tied my shoes really tight. That’s one of the reasons for the shin splints.

However — the biggest thing was that I didn’t enjoy the training as much as I should have, and I was running “wrong”.

So in 2020, I started making my long runs really easy, and my intense runs really short.

In 2019 my long runs were always based on pace, I was basically always running as hard as I could. That ended up hurting my legs because I went too fast to control how I was touching the ground (which I think is important when you’re starting out). It also made me dislike the runs because I was always exhausted. When I saw “150-minute run” on my calendar, I wasn’t excited at all because I knew that I would be suffering for at least two hours.

In 2020 I started doing my long runs based on heart rate. Staying in zone 2 the whole run (for me around 140–145 bpm). For people unfamiliar with the zones, zone 2 is about 60–70% of your maximum effort. It’s basically a run where you can hold a conversation the whole time.

This was really challenging in the beginning, I had to start from scratch and leave my ego at home. I was running at around 6min/km pace, which felt really slow (compared to what I’ve been running before). But I trusted the process, and later that year I was running at just above 5min/km at the same heart rate. But the biggest change was that because I had to run so “slow” in the beginning, I really focused on how I was running(how my feet hit the ground). Besides that, these were runs that were nice and relaxing because I didn’t get out of breath like the previous year.

Race 2019

I also mapped out what went wrong in the actual race in 2019:

  • Not enough leg strength
  • Fuel and hydration
  • Didn’t stick to a pace

The race had pacers, so I started out running with the 4-hour pacer. A few minutes in, I ran past him because it felt too slow. Then I was on my own. I didn’t check the pace from my watch, I just made sure to stay ahead of the pacer. But my pace went up/down all the time.

I didn’t bring any nutrition, I thought that I would consume whatever they provided along the course. Bad move. At all the water stations they served some kind of sports drink, so I ended up drinking that at almost every water station. I had never tried that sports drink before, and during a race is not a great time to test nutrition. My stomach didn’t like it, so it was hurting the last ~20km. Every now and then they served bananas and pickles, and I stopped at every station and ate as much as I could because I was hungry and didn’t have enough energy.

Because I wasn’t properly fueled and hydrated (before the race), and because I didn’t have enough leg strength — my legs were cramping like crazy at the end of the race. There was even one pretty steep hill where I had to walk because I couldn’t run.

Race 2020

So in 2020, I trained the legs by running more uphill, both sprints and longer runs (and all the biking probably helped as well). I made sure I consumed enough electrolytes, starting a couple of days before and having the last electrolyte drink just before the race. Those two things resulted in no leg cramps during the race.

For on-course nutrition, I consumed 4 energy gels. I had tested them before the race, so I knew that my stomach wouldn’t get upset by them. I mapped out when and where to take them: around every 45 minutes, just before a water station. Then one or two cups of water at every water station.

As for pace, I knew that I needed to keep at least 5min/km pace — but should keep around 4:50min/km just to make sure, in case I slow down at the end of the race. I also studied the course and mapped out where I should be after every hour — just so I would know how I was doing during the race.

Everything went exactly as planned, and I crossed the finish line after 3 hours and 24 minutes, 32 minutes faster than the previous year. Without actually training for a marathon. It’s always nice to cross the finish line, but this was something special — just because I focused so much on improving the things I had done wrong in the past, and executing them exactly as planned.

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Andreas Westerlund

Andreas Westerlund

Endurance athlete, digital nomad, nerd. Just a normal guy trying to figure out fitness, business, and life. https://www.andreaswesterlund.com