How to Qualify for the Boston Marathon

3 Strategies to Help You Qualify for Boston


Struggling to qualify for Boston? No problem. Here are three strategies I’ve used to help thousands of runners achieve the coveted BQ.

Strategy #1: Get faster first

If you’ve been close but just can’t make the jump to your BQ time, I suggest taking a break from chasing the BQ and work on getting faster at the 10K and the half-marathon. Use the McMillan Running Calculator and input your needed BQ time. What are the equivalent 10K and half-marathon times? Can you hit those?

For example Becky, 48, had been chasing her Boston Marathon qualifying time for three years before she joined my Run Team. The BQ time for 45-49 year old women is 3:50:00 (8:47 pace) and she ran achingly close but could never hit the time. If you put 3:50:00 into the McMillan Running Calculator, it shows the equivalent 10K time is 49:01 (7:53 pace) and the equivalent half-marathon time is 1:48:17 (8:21 pace). This was Becky’s issue. She had never broken 50 minutes for 10K and her half-marathon PR was 1:49:12.

I told her we needed to stop the constant chasing of the BQ for a training cycle and re-focus on getting faster. Two things happened: first, her mind was freed from the grind of chasing the standard and she regained the fire lost from constantly missing her goal. Secondly, we targeted a 10K in 10 weeks and a half-marathon in 18 weeks. Since I felt she needed a short base plan to help clear the fatigue (both mental and physical) from the constant marathon training, we took six weeks of base and then moved to a 10K plan to get ready for the fast 10K.

It took her a few weeks but suddenly, she was on fire! Her body/mind seemed to really enjoy the challenge of speed work after all the marathon training and she ran 48:47 in the 10K (slightly faster than the equivalent performance). We then switched to a half-marathon plan for the next eight weeks and because the longer distances came more naturally to her, she crushed her PR – running a 1:47:38.

Not only had she run the times which predicted her BQ, she re-ignited her love of running and the confidence that she could do it. As you would guess, she did go on to get her BQ in her next marathon and it was an honor to watch her cross the finish line on Boylston Street.

If you are like Becky, a good strategy is to work on getting faster at shorter distances. Becky used Run Team (you can try it for free) but no matter what training you use, spend a few months getting faster and then return to the marathon for another BQ attempt. I suspect you’ll be more prepared to hit your time.

Important note: I always try to get my athletes to run five minutes faster than their BQ time. Since Boston fills up, the faster you are compared to your BQ time, the earlier you can register. Sometimes, I also find this added incentive helps athletes raise their level of commitment to the process.

Strategy #2: Fix the fade

Frank didn’t have the same problem as Becky. He could hit his equivalent 10K and half-marathon times. His problem was that he was always on pace through 18, 20 or even 22 miles, but then would slowly fade. One race, it even looked like he had it in the bag -but faded in the final two miles and missed his BQ by two seconds! Ouch!

With Frank, we used the concepts I wrote about in my article Fix the Fade. I encourage you to read it if you are like Frank. In the Fix the Fade strategy, Frank and I added longer long runs into the last 12 weeks before his marathon. It wasn’t crazy but just 2-4 miles more than he usually did in his build-up. For example, he normally had a long run of 12-14 miles when he was 12 weeks out from his marathon. For his next marathon training cycle, we bumped it to 14-16 miles. Doing this across his marathon cycle gave him more exposure to long runs and developed his leg muscles to handle the challenge of the marathon. We even added a super long run (detailed in the article) to his plan.

Next, we upped the intensity of his fast finish long runs. These challenging runs are a hallmark of my marathon training and for Frank, we worked on him mentally pushing a little harder. Sometimes, finishing faster is just about getting used to pushing when you are suffering. Fast finish long runs create a lot of physical adaptations, but I really feel the mental toughness gained may be the key benefit to fix the fade late in the marathon.

Lastly, we did Coach Angela’s Marathon Legs program. Again, it wasn’t a lack of speed hurting Frank. He merely lacked the physical strength in his legs. With Marathon Legs, he built the durability he needed.

The result? You guessed it. He didn’t fade in his next marathon and (finally) earned his trip to Boston.

Strategy #3: Update your nutrition

Marathon nutrition has evolved over the last few years. What was originally successful with elite marathoners (fast-acting sugars every 15 minutes – through sports drinks – and/or every 45 minutes through energy gels), caused major GI issues for slower runners. This plan has slowly been adjusted to focus on slow-acting carbohydrates (like Generation UCAN) for the majority of the marathon followed by adding the fast-acting sugars in the last 30-90 minutes. The GI system stays happier, which means you keep fueling, which means you don’t run out of fuel and slow down at the end. (Read my article on Marathon Fueling.)

Mariela is the perfect example for this strategy. She wasn’t like Becky. She could hit her equivalent times in shorter distances. She wasn’t like Frank. She wasn’t fading like he was. Her issue was that the gel that tasted so great at mile five made her want to throw up at mile 20. Her GI system just could not take the fast-acting sugars for nearly four hours (and she was tired of spending precious time in the port-a-john instead of in the race).

For Mariela, I changed her nutrition plan and we tested, re-tested and finally settled on the following plan: she used two servings of UCAN with electrolytes before the marathon. This was through a very thick shake ingested 45 minutes before the race. During the race, she carried UCAN with electrolytes made into a paste and stored in small baggies (like a gel) and ingested another serving every hour in the race. Between UCAN servings, she took water at the aid stations, but avoided the sports drinks causing her GI issues.

At the three-hour mark (her BQ time was 4:05:00), Mariela added fast-acting sugars as well. She took the UCAN at the three-hour mark as well as an energy gel (chasing it with water from the aid station). She then began to take a sports drink at every aid station for the last few miles (her last hour of running).

Just as we’d seen in training, it worked like a charm. Her gut was happy, which made her brain happy, which allowed her to power to the finish and get her BQ. It took some trial and error in practice to dial in exactly what worked for her, but it’s now her go-to marathon nutrition plan. It easily powered her over Heartbreak Hill and across the line in Boston.

Final Thoughts

I’ve coached well over 10,000 runners to qualify for and run Boston. I know what works so if you’ve been struggling to get your BQ, give these strategies a try and I look forward to seeing you in Boston!

PS: As always, I’m here to help. My marathon plans are available to try for free and I’m always an email away if you need anything.




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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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“I got my first Boston Qualifier today with a 21 personal record!”

– Ramona M.