If you're gearing up to run your first marathon, you're probably not new to running (and if you are, you may want to tackle a 5K first). The 26.2-mile race is no small feat, and finish times for the distance vary according to factors like age, sex and even course terrain.
For most runners, simply crossing the marathon finish line is an accomplishment worth celebrating. Before you schedule your first marathon, consider the time commitment necessary to complete a proper training plan and set some realistic, attainable goals.
How Far Is a Marathon?
At a whopping 26.2 miles (or 42 kilometers), the marathon is certainly one of the lengthier races on the average runner's bucket list. After you've tackled a 5K, 10K and half-marathon, the marathon is typically the race to follow.
But long-distance running doesn't stop there: Both the 50K (31.1 miles) and 100K (63.8 miles) races, called ultramarathons, make appearances on many runners' calendars, too.
The marathon is particularly unique, however, as its origins date back to ancient Greece, according to the Tufts University Perseus Digital Library. The legend begins in the 5th century B.C. when the Persian army invaded Greece in the city of Marathon, about 26 miles away from Athens.
Once Greece won the battle, a messenger named Phidippides (or Pheidippides) ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory and died right after his arrival, according to the legend. (But don't let this discourage you from running your own 26.2!)
The additional 385 yards or 0.2 miles were tacked on for the 1908 London Olympics so the race could finish directly in front of the British royal family's viewing box in White City Stadium, according to The Olympic Marathon: The History and Drama of Sport's Most Challenging Event.
What Is the Average Marathon Finish Time?
For its 2019 report on running, RunRepeat.com used 107.9 million race results from more than 70,000 events from 1986 to 2018. Based on the brand's analysis, done in collaboration with the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the average time it took to run a marathon, regardless of age or sex, was 4:32:49.
Certain races are famously harder than others or may attract more beginner runners. According to data from RunRepeat's 2019 report, the average worldwide marathon finish time has generally gotten slower since 1986, when the average marathon finish time was 3:52:35.
Finish Times by Sex and Age
While races have traditionally attracted more men than women, there were more female than male runners in 2018, according to RunRepeat.com. Male runners experienced a 3 percent slowdown on average each year since 2001, when their average marathon time was 4:15:13. Among female runners, marathon finishing times slowed from 1986 to 2001, when the average for women was 4:56:18. But women have since sped up by 1.3 percent on average each year.
In 2018, the average finish time for men was just under 4:30, while women clocked in closer to 5:00, according to RunRepeat.com.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the average time it takes to run a marathon increases as you get older. But what is maybe a bit more unexpected is the average age of marathon runners: Since 1986, it has increased from 38 to 40. The average marathon finish time for runners between 50 and 60 years old is 4:34; it's 5:40 for those over 70.
U.S. National Average Marathon Finish Time by Age
0 to 20
20 to 30
30 to 40
40 to 50
50 to 60
60 to 70
Fastest Marathon Finish Times
As of December 2019, the fastest time ever for a marathon on a record-eligible course is 2:01:39, recorded by Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge in the 2018 Berlin Marathon, according to World Athletics. Although Kipchoge broke the two-hour mark at the October 2019 INEOS 1:59 Challenge, these results don't officially count, as competition rules for pacing and fluids weren't followed. Still, runners everywhere celebrated the accomplishment.
Kenya's Brigid Kosgei ran a 2:14:04 at the 2019 Chicago Marathon, the fastest marathon time recorded for a woman, according to World Athletics. However, as Kosgei's results are extremely recent, her standing is still pending ratification.
World Record Marathon Times
The current marathon world records — set in 2018 and 2019, respectively — for the marathon are:
- Men: Eliud Kipchoge, 2:01:39
- Women: Brigid Kosgei, 2:14:04
Read more: 22 of the World's Best Marathons
Before Your First Marathon
While you can probably slide by with only a few quick weeks of training for a 5K or 10K distance, you'll want to devote a little more time to marathon prep. Training for a marathon requires building up your mileage slowly to ensure you stay free of injury both before and after the event, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
Depending on your current average mileage, you'll want to begin training for your marathon a few months before the big race, according to the ACE. Most training plans will require about three to four days of running each week with a long run scheduled for the weekend. Each week, add about 10 percent more mileage to your long run to prevent injury, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy.
Most plans also encourage varying your pace with tempo and speed runs, according to the ACE. Speed workouts are typically performed on a track and involve running sprint intervals of anywhere from 200 to 1,600 meters. Tempo runs involve running a little faster than your average long-distance pace. These workouts make for higher-intensity training days, so limit them to once or twice per week.
Your non-running days will likely be filled with strength-training exercise. As a runner, you may already be doing your squats and lunges in the weight room, but building your core and upper body is just as important, according to the ACE. Exercises like shoulder presses and push-ups can help you maintain good posture and fight fatigue as your runs get longer.
But it's important to build in time for your body to recover, too. Make sure you're foam rolling, hydrating, replenishing with carbs and protein and getting plenty of sleep throughout marathon training, but especially in the 24 to 48 hours after a long run or a high-intensity workout.
If Running Your First Marathon Feels Daunting, Start Here
Additional reporting by Andrea Boldt
- RunTri: "How Much Time Does It Take to Finish A Marathon? Average Marathon Finish Times"
- MarathonGuide.com: "City of Los Angeles Marathon (L.A. Marathon) - Race Results"
- MarathonGuide.com: "Disney World Marathon - Race Results"
- RunRepeat.com: "The State of Running 2019"
- INEOS 1:59 Challenge: "History Made 1:59:40.2"
- ACE: "How to Train for a Marathon"
- Tufts University Perseus Digital Library: "Frequently Asked Questions about the Ancient Olympic Games"
- World Athletics: "World Records"
- Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy: "Running: How to Safely Increase Your Mileage"
- "The Olympic Marathon: The History and Drama of Sport's Most Challenging Event"