Welcome to Start TODAY. Sign up for our Start TODAY newsletter to join the 31-day challenge and receive daily inspiration sent to your inbox.
TODAY's Sheinelle Jones is running the 2023 New York City Marathon on Sunday, Nov. 6. Despite this ambitious goal, Sheinelle didn't always think she was capable of running one — but this year she decided to challenge herself to do "hard things."
“When I turned 40, I wanted to change the narrative in my head that I can do hard things, and so I ran a half marathon, and I swore I would never do it again,” she said. “It was very difficult, after it was over, my legs were like, ‘What just happened?’ And so now I just turned 45, and I’m going to try to do hard things again. And so I’m going to run the New York City Marathon," she explained on the show.
Chasing that elusive runner’s high can be a different experience for everyone. One person may achieve the relaxed state of euphoria while jogging down a street in their neighborhood while another may never experience it at all. For many runners though, this sought-after flood of endorphins is sweetest after running especially long distances, be it a 10K, a half marathon, or one of the most coveted running achievements: the marathon.
What is a marathon?
A marathon is a long-distance foot race that’s usually run along roads or walkways, but also sometimes goes through busy cities, along popular beach trails, or over hilly or mountainous terrain. Every year, tens of thousands of people sign up for top marathons such as the Lisbon Marathon in Portugal, the Marathon du Médoc in France, the Berlin Marathon in Germany, or the Boston Marathon in Massachusetts.
The New York City Marathon and the London Marathon are considered the world’s largest marathons with about 47,700 and 48,000 finishers respectively each year. These especially popular marathons are usually the hardest ones to get into, so runners sometimes have to qualify with a good time in another marathon first.
What are the benefits of marathon running?
Long-distance running has many physical and mental health benefits including improved cardiovascular health, increased lung function, strengthened muscles, increased metabolism, stress reduction, improved immune function, weight management and a decreased risk of chronic disease, according to Austin “Ozzie” Gontang, a licensed psychotherapist and the director of the San Diego Marathon Clinic. He has completed 88 marathons himself and tells TODAY.com he’s experienced many such benefits firsthand.
Michael Fredericson, a practicing physician and director of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation division of Stanford University, tells TODAY.com that long-distance running is unique from other forms of cardio as it strengthens muscle fibers, “which makes your muscles increasingly fatigue-resistant,” he says. He adds that research also shows that first-time marathoners “experience beneficial reductions in blood pressure and aortic stiffness equivalent to approximately a four-year decrease in vascular age.”
How long is a marathon?
A marathon is always measured by the same distance: 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers, though no one seems to agree on where this exact number originated. It’s known that the marathon distance of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece in 1896 was 23.6 miles, and that the distance remained varied when the subsequent summer Olympics were held in Paris, France in 1900, and in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. Things changed, however, when London, England hosted the games in 1908 and designed their marathon to start at Windsor Castle and finish at the Olympic Stadium’s Royal Box — a distance of 26.2 miles. Though that didn’t immediately establish an official distance for future Olympic marathon races, that event experienced a lot of notoriety and by 1921, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) standardized the marathon distance to be 26.2 miles, which has been the official length of how long a marathon is ever since.
Though competing in a marathon was once considered a top achievement for runners, because so many people have accomplished it, Gontang says some athletes now seek to distinguish themselves by increasing the number of marathons they’ve competed in, qualifying for ones that are especially hard to get into, or by participating in ultra running — defined as any course length longer than 26.2 miles, with most of them ranging between 50-100 miles. Some ultras are so long they span multiple days, including one of the longest in the world: a 3,100-mile foot race that the Wall Street Journal notes takes 52 days to complete.
How long does it take to run a marathon?
For first-time marathon runners, it can be less about how long it takes to run a marathon as “the goal is often just to finish the race,” says Julie Pohlad, a sports medicine physical therapist at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
For those who are running competitively, however, it can be beneficial to calculate how long it takes to run a marathon. While Gontang says marathon times vary widely “based on an individual’s fitness level, training, age, gender, weather conditions, the course’s difficulty, and many other factors,” he explains that most “elite runners” such as Olympians usually complete a marathon in a little over 2:00 hours; “competitive runners” typically take between 2:30 and 3:30 hours; and “recreational runners” take between 4:00 and 5:00 hours to complete the distance. Other groups, including more casual runners generally finish within 4:30 to 6:00 hours, while walkers or slow runners sometimes struggling to complete the full distance before the 6:00- or 7:00-hour mark, which are often the cut-off times for most marathons.
“Overall, the average time to finish a marathon is 4:30,” says Pohlad. She adds that women average 4:45 and men average a time of 4:20.
The world marathon record for men was set by Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya at the 2022 Berlin Marathon where he completed the full distance in just 2:01:09. The world record for women was previously shared by two women — Brigid Kosgei at the 2019 Chicago Marathon and Mary Keitany at the 2017 London Marathon. While Keitany completed the distance in 2:17:01 and Kosgei finished in 2:14:04, the record was accepted by both women because Kosgei’s race consisted of both men and women and Keitany earned hers as a “Women Only” event.
Both records were very recently beaten, however, as Tigst Assefa of Ethiopia just completed the Berlin Marathon on September 24 with a time of only 2:11:53.
How to estimate your marathon time?
Though estimating how long it takes to run a marathon can be beneficial for setting realistic goals and developing race-day strategy, different runners use different methods and formulas. Gontang recommends starting off by measuring one’s “baseline performance” through running a shorter race first. “This provides a recent performance metric,” he says. From there, one can use any number of formulas or prediction calculators to estimate what their marathon time might be.
He says the most popular formula was developed by research engineer Pete Riegel and follows this equation: T2=T1×(D2/D1)1.06T2=T1×(D2/D1)1.06. In this formula, T1 = time for the known distance, D1 = overall distance of the completed race, D2 = distance for which you want to predict the time and T2 = predicted time for D2. If that sounds confusing, Gontang explains it like this: “If you’ve run a half-marathon (21.1 km) in 1:45 and you want to predict your marathon time (42.2 km), plug in the numbers: T2=105×(42.2/21.1)1.06T2=105×(42.2/21.1)1.06 and it will leave you with an estimated marathon time of approximately 3:42:30.
Another simpler formula to consider would be to multiply how long it takes to run a single mile and then calculate that pace over the distance of a marathon. “For example, if you were running at 7 minutes and 30 second mile per-hour pace, then you should complete the full 26.2 miles around 3:16:38,” explains David Herzberg, a physical therapist and owner of Launch Physical Therapy and Sports Performance Center in Phoenix. He adds that such a formula requires you to maintain a similar speed and tempo for 26 miles strong, however.
Other factors to consider when estimating how long it will take to run a marathon include factoring in any known injuries or physical limitations, any parts of the course that may be especially difficult for you, and how much time you’re able to commit to preparation and training before the event. “At the end of the day, a pace predictor is helpful to establish a goal time,” Pohlad, says, “but remember that each marathon you run is different, so it’s just as important to know your body and how your body feels when running.”
Fredericson adds that one also cannot underestimate the importance of accounting for age. “Numerous studies have shown that runners gradually lose their speed and running capabilities after age 40,” he says, so it’s important to take that into consideration when estimating performance time.
Interested in running a marathon? Here’s how to get started.
If the idea of running a marathon excites you, the experts have some great tips to get you started along with some good reminders for experienced runners. Gontang suggests investing in proper gear, establishing clear goals from the get-go, and training with both running exercises and a range of resistance training workouts to keep all your muscles and joints strong. “This will reduce the risk of running-specific injuries,” he says.
Pohlad echoes that even mild injuries can manifest as a problem later if not properly dealt with. “It is recommended to do a checkup with your doctor or see a physical therapist if you have any prior injuries before beginning a running program,” she advises.
Absent such injuries, marathon and ultra-marathon runner Steve Vrska recommends starting out gradually before trying to take on a full marathon. “Work on gradually building your mileage that you do for shorter distances each week as well as your long runs,” he says. From there, you can try out shorter races like a 5K, 10K, or half marathon as you build up endurance levels. He also recommends finding a local running group on social media or by calling a local running store. Fellow runners, he says, are great at providing motivation and they’re “happy to share their knowledge and experience with you.”
Once you’re ready to commit to a marathon, Herzberg stresses the importance of training at least 16-20 weeks before the marathon date to “properly condition your body for the long distance.” He also suggests planning for proper nutritional needs and getting plenty of water. Fredericson says such training can be helped “by working with a coach or by following a structured and slowly progressive marathon training program.”
Pohlad recommends preparing mentally as well. “Marathons are not only tough physically but mentally, and being prepared for the tough mental part of the race is key whether it’s at the half-marathon mark or the 22-mile point,” she says. “There is always a hard part of the marathon, so be ready for it.”