What is a good time for a marathon?

We can’t all be an Eliud Kipchoge or Paula Radcliffe but getting a good marathon time is still a big motivator for any runner. Whether you’re building up to your first 26.2 miles or have competed in a couple before, getting an above average time on the clock feels good and helps you push for your personal best.

There are a few different ways of figuring out what counts as a good marathon time. Let’s look at some different ways you could measure yourself and set targets.

1. Aim for the very best

The world record for marathon times are 2:01:39 for men and 2:15:25 for women. Elite men tend to average about 2:05:00 and elite women tend to score around 2:22:00. However, unless you’re a very serious runner indeed, these scores will be out of reach for most. Indeed, only the top 5 per cent of runners complete marathons in under three hours . So unless you’re a professional runner, three hours or less would make for a very good marathon time.

2. Aim for the global average or above

Another way of approaching your marathon time is to aim for the global – or marathon-specific – average. The global average time for a marathon stands at around 4 hours 21 minutes – with men’s average times at 4 hours 13 minutes, and women at 4 hours 42 minutes. Beating one of these scores would mean that your time ranks above average.

Alternatively, you could look into the data for average finishing times on the specific marathon you’re signed up to – some UK marathons are known to be ‘slower’ than others.

3. See which percentage bracket you fit into

A different way to compare yourself to others is to look at which proportion of running times your final time falls into. The following table* will help you figure out where your run falls on a sliding scale:

   Men  Women
Less than 3 hours  4%           1%
Less than 3 h 5 min  18%  5%
Less than 4 hours  43%  21%
Less than 4 h 5 min  64%  43%
Less than 5 hours  81%  65%
Less than 6 hours  97%  91%

*sourced from Marastats and Trinity Mirror

So, for a man, anything under 4 hours could be considered a good marathon time, putting you in the top 43% of runners. For women, a time under 4 hours and 30 minutes would similarly be very good.

4. Compare how you stand against your age group

Focusing exclusively on differences between men and women can be a little simplistic – and your age group will also play a big factor in your running times. Perhaps counterintuitively, many (non-elite) marathon runners actually improve as they get older – up to around age 50, before their times slow down again. With more experience, you may actually start to get better times, with younger, less experienced runners tending to empty the tank faster. In any case, this pace calculator will help you see where you stand on average for your age group.

5. You’re only really racing yourself

While it’s handy to know about averages and percentile ranges, the number that matters most is your personal average running time. Rather than comparing your race against others, it’s often more valuable to focus on beating your own personal best and improving your figures over time – the sense of achievement from beating your own PB is, for most people, the most rewarding factor. So, set your stopwatch and keep your times written down somewhere safe!

Improve your chances of getting a good marathon time

When you did your first marathon you were probably just thinking about getting over the finish line. However, with more experience, you can start building your training plan up to improve your overall time. Here are some tips for improving your marathon time:

  • Be tactical by choosing ‘faster’ races Some marathons are known as being faster, while others are slower due to typical weather conditions, number of straight stretches vs. bends and other factors.
  • Amp up the mileage while training The further you run, the stronger your heart and muscles get. And that means you’ll be better able to run faster, longer and stronger.
  • Figure out your pace in advance Pace is obviously crucial in improving your marathon times. Figure out what your average pace per mile needs to be and stick to your plan.
  • Get to know the route While preparing for your marathon, spend some time familiarising yourself with the route – including hills and what mile they come at. This means you’ll be mentally prepared and any difficult sections won’t come as a complete surprise.
  • Rest! Don’t be tempted to skip rest days in your quest to get an especially good marathon time – failing to rest and repair is counterproductive and increases your risk of injury and fatigue.

With the right foundations, a strong plan, running shoes and equipment in place, you’ll be set to run a strong marathon – and get your best time.