Top 5 Tips for Qualifying for the Boston Marathon

For many of us, qualifying for the Boston Marathon (aka achieving a BQ) is the Holy Grail. It’s like the Olympics for the common runner and as someone who has qualified for and run Boston, I can attest that it was one of the greatest marathons of my life.

Having coached over 10,000 runners to a BQ, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to make it happen so here are my top 5 tips.

Tip #1: Get Fast!

Assuming you’ve already looked at the qualifying standards, your first step is to put your BQ time into the McMillan Calculator (or use the special Can Your BQ? Calculator) on McMillanRunning.com.

Then, look at the equivalent 10K and half-marathon times. Can you already hit those? If not, I recommend you spend a training cycle getting faster at shorter distances.

For example, if a runner with a BQ time of 3:45:00 puts this into the McMillan Calculator, she will see that the equivalent 10K is 47:57 and the equivalent half-marathon is 1:46:55.  If she hasn’t hit those times, then I’d have her take a training season to work on getting faster at both of those key distances.

Read my article on Building Your Next Training Cycle (see Scenario #2 or #3) for how I recommend sequencing your training to get faster at shorter races. Then you can carry that new fitness into your next marathon training cycle (Scenario #1).

Getting faster at the 10K and half-marathon is a big help in getting your BQ and is often the final piece of the puzzle for runners who have been chasing a BQ at marathon after marathon after marathon. The faster you are, the more comfortable goal marathon pace will feel.

Tip #2: Build stronger legs

Runners focus a lot on cardiovascular fitness but the biggest limitation in the marathon is leg fatigue. If you’ve run a marathon, you know this to be true and it’s the reason that uber-fit marathoners can barely walk after the race. There is simply a lot of muscle damage when you take 30 to 50 thousand steps over 26.2 miles!

To build strong legs that can handle that kind of abuse, you can do several things. First, run consistent mileage. Runners who avoid big drops in weekly mileage and train fairly consistently from week to week build great leg strength. So, if you have struggled to get your BQ, then I would suggest you avoid wide swings in your mileage.

Another idea for building leg strength is to use a four-week cycle of two weeks at your normal mileage, one at an “up” or increased mileage level (to build more leg strength) and then a “down” or decreased mileage week to allow recovery before starting the rhythm again.  For example, if your normal training mileage is 40 miles per week, then you’d shoot for 40, 40, 45-50 and then 30-35 miles as a good four-week rhythm.

Too often, runners say, “I’m going to run 10-15 more miles per week for this marathon.” I find this approach often leads to injury and/or isn’t sustainable. Instead, sprinkle in the higher mileage weeks and make sure they are always followed by the extra recovery provided in the down week. This usually works very well to help athletes be more consistent in their mileage while also getting in some higher training volume weeks to build leg strength.

Second, do leg strengthening work like Coach Angela’s Marathon Legs program. You don’t have to become a weightlifter, but her innovative eccentric loading exercises create legs that can handle the pounding. We routinely hear from our runners that use the Marathon Legs program that they no longer fade late in the race and can hold their pace all the way to the finish line.

Third, do some longer long runs. I wrote about this years ago in my Fixing the Fade article. The idea is that you simply need to get in some longer long runs and keep your long runs slightly longer across your marathon cycle. Again, this is less about building cardiovascular fitness and more about building fatigue-resistant legs. The more time you spend on your feet, the stronger you’ll be.

Fourth, hit the hills. Uphill and downhill running has always been a path to success for runners. Across your training (especially in the early stages), run hilly routes as often as you can. Get comfortable challenging yourself to run better up and down. It will pay dividends on race day. In my Building Your Next Training Cycle article, you’ll see I even recommend a specific hill plan as part of your prep before the marathon plan.

Fifth is the art of the fast finish long run aka running fast on tired legs. This is the icing on the cake for leg strength and you can read my Marathon Long Run article for full details. For nearly 30 years, I’ve used fast finish long runs to not just build cardiovascular fitness but to build leg strength. Getting your legs to keep moving when tired is a very big key to getting your BQ.  Perform three to four fast finish long runs across the last eight weeks before your next BQ attempt.

Tip #3: Find Your Optimal Fueling

Racing a marathon requires fueling but you will not find a subject for which there is more confusion. There are so many opinions and given that every digestive system is unique, what works for your training partner may not work for you.

Get it wrong, though, and you can kiss your BQ goodbye. You’ll fade late in the race or spend precious seconds in the porta john along the course.

To get started on finding your best fueling strategy, make sure you read my article on Marathon Fueling. The new method (detailed in the article) is by far the best for most of us. It reduces GI distress, simplifies the fueling process yet gives you a big boost of energy over the last hour – a recipe for an easy BQ.

The key, of course, is to experiment (to find what works) and then PRACTICE IT in race-like conditions.  In all of your goal pace workouts, fast finish long runs and tune up races (half-marathon and longer), you should use your fueling strategy so you know it will work on race day at your BQ pace.

Once you are comfortable with your race fueling, the next step is to begin to employ the No Fuel / Slow Fuel training strategy to further build a body that has lots of fuel on board (more full muscle glycogen stores) and is more efficient at using that fuel (better fat burning). NOTE: This strategy is not for new runners. It is for experienced marathoners who are trying to run a faster marathon.

Tip #4: Embrace Suffering

Marathon suffering is a shock to most of us in our first marathon. We are used to the fatigue in a 5K, 10K or half-marathon but the suffering in the final few miles of a marathon is an entirely different beast. As such, you must get used to that kind of suffering. You must even begin to look forward to it as you know it is the key to staying on pace late in your race (often the missing ingredient to getting your BQ).

I use two concepts to help BQ seekers embrace suffering. First, you actually want suffering at the end of your long runs.  After all, if you are trying to BQ, you’ve probably already proven you can finish long runs.  But now, to get your BQ, we want them to provide a greater mental stimulus.

We know that those last few miles of long runs where you are tired, complaining and just want the run to be over are an absolute requirement to build your ability to suffer, so don’t try to avoid them. Embrace them.

In your next marathon training cycle, look forward to getting tired and know that it is during those few miles where you are very tired that you should smile and push. This is precisely where you build the mental toughness and coping strategies needed in the race. And as you get more comfortable being uncomfortable, you can even seek ways to make it more uncomfortable (see my No Fuel / Slow Fuel article for details).

Second, the fast finish long runs (mentioned before) provide a great chance to get used to suffering and develop coping strategies for it. Again, pushing when tired is what you need to practice in training. In a fast finish long run, you will greatly ramp up your mental intensity to run faster over the last few miles. In your marathon, you will do the same thing but this time, you will greatly ramp up your mental intensity just to maintain pace – the key to avoiding the late race fade. The fast finish long run is one of the few workouts where you can really feel the same effort it will require at the end of your marathon.

Runners new to the McMillan system are often puzzled by my thoughts on suffering. After all, when you first start running, all you try to do is avoid suffering. You take walk breaks. You use lots of gels.  You even cut runs short when you get really tired. But hopefully you can see that we must get ready for the demands of the race and my experience is that runners who are comfortable with suffering are ones that can keep going late in the race.

When I won the National Trail Marathon Championships, I told myself that I was going to smile the entire race. And the more it hurt, the more I would smile. I was well trained. I had great exposure to suffering and a good set of strategies to deal with it. I found that my “smile through the pain” mantra totally changed how I approached the last few miles. I flew through those miles and I attribute a lot of the championship title to having that mantra.

Tip #5: Perfect Pacing

The final piece of the puzzle is proper pacing. I have an entire video devoted to proper marathon pacing and you can watch it here. In it, you will learn that an even split (the same time for the first half-marathon and the second half-marathon) or slightly negative split (slower pace for the first half-marathon than the second half-marathon) is the best strategy in order to race your fastest.

It’s easy to understand but I still see BQ seekers fail in the execution. Here are the rules:

  • Don’t start too fast. You’ll burn more for your limited carbohydrate stores if you are faster than goal pace in the first few miles.
  • Be smooth in your pacing. No big swings in pacing.
  • Judge your time based on the race’s mile/kilometer markers, not your GPS watch. You can use your watch to monitor pace between markers, but the race’s marks are the most important marks.
  • Don’t get greedy! Marathon pace is supposed to feel easy for 15-20 miles. Avoid the desire to “bank time” and run faster because you are feeling good.
  • Change your brain. You will necessarily have to up your mental intensity by a lot just to maintain marathon pace late in the race. It can seem weird to have to push so hard just to maintain pace but that’s what will lead you to a BQ. You will simply have to bring out your superpowers late in the marathon. We all do.

Make sure to watch my marathon pacing video and then commit to executing your pacing strategy on race day.

Final Thoughts

Follow these five tips and I’m confident you give yourself a great shot at getting your BQ. I’ve used them thousands of time to help runners get to their BQ. See you in Boston!

As always, let me know if I can be of any help.


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