Every April, thousands of runners toe the starting line of the Boston Marathon. For many, it’s a tough road to get to Hopkinton. Beyond committing to hours of training, runners must run a qualifying marathon time — and that still doesn’t guarantee they’ll gain entry into run the iconic race.
For the 2019 Boston Marathon, runners accepted to the race had to have a marathon time of four minutes and 52 seconds faster than the actual Boston qualifying (BQ) times. That left more than 7,300 qualifiers unable to run the race, despite meeting the required time limits.
This isn’t anything new. The gap between the qualifying time and acceptance cutoff time has been growing since 2014, when the gap was a minute and 38 seconds.
Based on this trend, the Boston Marathon recently decided to adjust qualifying standards for the 2020 marathon. Now, qualifying standards will be five minutes faster for each age group.
If you’re still chasing that unicorn, don’t let the new, tougher standards discourage you. Plenty of runners have successfully dropped their times by minutes to hours to reach that qualifying standard.
While there’s no training regime guaranteed to get you that BQ, there are a few tried-and-true strategies that have helped runners close the gap and toe the starting line of their dreams.
Run more miles
Strava, a social fitness network, took a look at its user data to analyze the running habits of more then 30,000 marathoners — 7,164 that qualified for Boston and 24,330 that didn’t make the cut. What separated the two groups of runners?
One major difference was the total number of miles run in the 12-weeks leading up to a marathon. On average, Boston qualifiers ran nearly twice as many miles as non-qualifiers.
Similarly, a survey of 125 Boston qualifiers confirmed that few runners qualified by running low mileage. For the year leading up to their qualifying race, most runners ran over 1,000 miles.
Run at an easier pace
It seems counterintuitive, but to run fast, you have to run slow. Melissa, a running coach who improved from a 4:18 marathon to a recent PR of 3:07, says that slowing down made a major difference in her training — and going too fast is a common error. “You could end up getting burnt out or worse, injured. Taking easy runs is really important and allows your body to run harder next time,” she says on her Instagram.
Strava’s data revealed that in general, Boston qualifiers ran more miles at an easy pace. Male qualifiers only ran 15% of their runs at marathon pace, while non-qualifiers ran 57% of their runs at a qualifying pace. The numbers are similar for females — qualifiers ran 23% of runs at marathon pace, while non-qualifiers ran 63% of their miles at that pace.
Incorporate speed work
Dale finished her first marathon in 4:13 — but she knew she could do more to get faster. According to her blog, “I didn’t train with a group, I didn’t do a lot of speed workouts, and I didn’t think a BQ would be attainable any time soon.”
Following that race, she made several adjustments to her training, including taking speed workouts seriously. Two years later, she ran a 3:33, and within another year, a 3:30, securing her spot at Boston.
She’s not alone. In the survey of Boston qualifiers, 84% of respondents said that speed work played a role in their qualifying time.
Clean up your diet
Over the course of seven years, Matt of No Meat Athlete decreased his marathon time from 4:53 to 3:09, successfully qualifying for Boston. He attributes his improvement to several key strategies, one of which was cleaning up his diet — which, for him, meant becoming vegetarian. With the change, he dropped a few pounds and “became a clean-burning machine.”
You need the right mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat to achieve optimal performance and recover well. While adopting a vegetarian diet isn’t for everyone, you should evaluate how you’re fueling your body and make sure what you’re eating is helping you progress toward your Boston qualifying goal.
Yes, training to run a Boston-qualifying marathon time requires lots of miles and speed work, you won’t get far without prioritizing recovery as well.
Sarah, a runner and registered dietician who improved her marathon time from 3:42 to 3:31 in just six months, took two days off from running per week. “It was too much stress on my body to do more than 4-5 days of running per week,” she explains in a blog post.
All that hard work you put in pounding the pavement creates microscopic tears in your muscles. It’s only when you rest that those tears can recover and build muscle. If you continue to train without taking the proper time to rest, you risk injury or illness from wearing your body down.
But there’s more to recovery than simply not running. A few of Sarah’s recovery strategies include stretching, foam rolling, ice baths, Epsom salt baths, massages, and sleep. It’s also critical to hydrate properly — both following a hard training run and on rest days. With magnesium, tart cherry, and potassium, Nuun Rest is a great option to promote muscle relaxation and recovery.
Above all, qualifying for Boston requires commitment and hard work. But by embracing these strategies, you’ll have a better chance at improving your time and achieving that ultimate goal: a Boston qualifying time.