Qualifying for the Boston Marathon: 5 Essential Steps

So you want to qualify for Boston…

And not just any old way, I bet. While there’s always the option of getting in by running for charity or some other exemption, that’s not what I’m talking about here.

No, you want to earn your way in — with your lungs, your legs and, mostly, your heart.

If this sounds like you, then you’re a lot like me. From the moment I signed up for my first marathon, I wanted more than anything to qualify for Boston.

And when I heard that they didn’t allow just anyone into the world’s greatest marathon, I was hooked on the challenge: I just had to get in.

There was one tiny problem: I wasn’t a good runner, and the training for that first marathon was so much harder than I had expected.

My training was hampered by injuries, and I finished that first marathon in 4:53, over 100 minutes slower than the time I needed to qualify for Boston.

Over the next few years, I tried so many different things in hopes of running injury-free. It was a struggle, and most of them didn’t work at all. But a few did, and over time I figured out the crucial things I needed to do – not just to stay healthy, but to eventually get fast enough to qualify for Boston.

Looking back now, with a Boston medal and finisher’s certificate, it’s hard to believe how far I actually came to get there: from being told by a physical therapist that my body “just wasn’t built to run marathons,” to the in-between period, when I had made so much progress but still needed to shave 45 more minutes off my time, to the final miles of the qualifying race, which to this day are the toughest I’ve ever run.

When I crossed the finish line of that race and knew I had finally achieved what I had worked so hard for, my wife was there waiting for me. I had played this moment literally hundreds of times in my head, and just as I always imagined it, my eyes filled with tears as I hugged her and finally got to say, “I did it.”

Can you qualify for Boston too?

I don’t tell my story of going from 4:53 all the way down to 3:09 to brag; I tell it in hopes of inspiring you. Mainly, I want it to help you question whatever preconceived limits you might have placed on what’s possible for yourself.

But what I don’t want is for my story to mislead you.

It’s natural to ask if you’ve got what it takes to qualify for Boston. While I’d never be the one to decide what’s impossible for someone else, it definitely doesn’t hurt to think about it intelligently.

The first hour of my improvement came simply from learning to avoid injury. I was a very new runner when I ran that first marathon, I made a lot of mistakes in the training, and injury kept me from doing a lot of the runs. While I was 100 percent healthy on race day, I would not call myself well-prepared.

What I’m saying is this: it’s a lot easier to make a huge improvement if you’ve got the room to improve. If, on the other hand, you’re already running very structured training, have a lot of marathon experience, and it’s a struggle to shave even a few minutes off your time – well, while you might still be able to get a lot faster, you’re probably not going to knock an hour off your time. (Although, again, I’m not going to tell you something is impossible. Far be it from me to decide what you are and are not capable of.)

Even with that huge hour of improvement on my first time, my second marathon was still 43 minutes slower than my eventual BQ time. Those 43 minutes came off, over the course of several marathons, because I worked hard, stayed healthy, and was smart about my training and racing.

If you feel you haven’t yet plateaued, then I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be optimistic that you could have an improvement like this in you.

While there are no secrets to faster running, all you need is the right training plan, and even more importantly, an approach that keeps you healthy and motivated.

“Am I too old?”

One common question is about age: lots of people ask if, “at their age,” it’s still possible to improve as a marathoner and qualify for Boston.

First, Boston wants runners of all ages to be able to run their race. So, of course, if you’re 55, you won’t be competing with 30 year-olds — each age group has its own qualifying standard.

But if you’re concerned about your ability to improve at an advanced age, consider the words of runner and author Joan Ullyot:

No matter what your age when you start running, you can expect about 10 years of improvement. That’s how long it takes to learn the game.

Hear that? No matter what your age.

And just to clarify, this doesn’t mean that after 10 years of running, improvement suddenly stops. It’s just that up to that point, improvement happens almost automatically as your body learns how it runs most efficiently – after that, you’ve got to work harder to see big changes.

With that out of the way, let’s get started on what it’s going to take for you to get to Boston.

Boston Marathon Qualifying Key #1: Determine your goal time.

As with any other endeavor, it’s important to start with the end in mind. In our case, that means knowing what time you’ve got to run to qualify for Boston.

Recently, the group in Boston governing the marathon changed the qualifying standards. Here’s the list of current age-group qualifying times:

It’s important to note that these times are what you must run simply to be eligible for registration. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get into the race: registration is offered to the fastest qualifiers in each age group first, and it’s gradually opened to more qualifiers for as long as spots remain.

For example, to get into Boston 2012, you had to beat your qualifying standard by one minute and 14 seconds. There’s no telling for sure what that number is going to be in the future, but in Run Your BQ we’ll explain the qualifying standards and registration process in more detail, and you’ll be able to connect with us and others in the forums to help determine a “safe” time to shoot for.

Also, notice that the qualifying times become less stringent as you get older. If, say, you’re 34 and you think it’ll take you two years to get down to your goal time, you should actually be targeting the 35-39 age group time, which will be slightly easier to achieve.

(Jason Fitzgerald explains the registration process more thoroughly in this article: Qualifying for Boston: the Thrill of Running a BQ Marathon.)

What if you’re still a long way from qualifying?

If you’re not yet close to your BQ time, you’ll probably want to sketch out a long-term plan for getting to Boston, fully realizing that it will change with each new marathon you run.

While Boston will be your ultimate goal, the intermediate marathons will be steps to get there. Keep in mind that as you get faster and realize more of your potential, your improvements will be smaller, and that’s perfectly okay.

To give you an example of a realistic rate of improvement, here’s what my progression looked like, after running my first marathon in 4:53.

 

Marathon #

Approx. Improvement

Difference

2

61 minutes

Improved form to avoid injury in training

3

16 minutes

Increased mileage, varied training paces

4

12 minutes

Strengthened core, focused on speedwork and hills

5

4 minutes

Chose faster course, ran smarter race

6

10 minutes (BQ!)

Improved diet, ran long runs near race pace, fast course

 

It’d be nice to say I planned it this way from the start, but in all honesty, I had no idea at what rate I’d improve. In fact, with every new training program I started, I had in the back of my mind the hope that I could qualify for Boston in my next race.

But even with that hope, I was realistic in my expectations. I’d set training paces based on my current fitness level, and by race day I would have a realistic picture of what I could achieve that time around.

If pressed to give a rule of thumb, I’d say that 10 to 15 minutes of improvement per race is a “reasonable” amount to shoot for during your first few marathons, 5 to 10 minutes in later ones. These estimates assume you’re taking a full 4 to 5 months to train for each race, and actively seeking out ways to improve your fitness level – not just repeating the same thing you’ve always done, unless it has consistently delivered for you.

Boston Marathon Qualifying Key #2: Develop a mindset that pulls you toward your goal.

Of everything I did to improve my time by so much and qualify for Boston, it’s the mental game that I credit the most. A strong mind is what will allow you to view your failures as stepping stones along the way, and what will compel you to get outside and train, even when the rest of you is saying, “I just don’t feel like it today.”

If you set your goals and commit to them effectively, willpower won’t be an issue. If you’re so strongly focused on your outcome of qualifying that it becomes your must, and not just a should, training will become like brushing your teeth — not quite as easy, of course, but a non-negotiable thing that you do without question, outside of your normal decision-making process about how to spend your time.

Finally, it’s crucial that you convince yourself that you can do this, and that you will. I’m not a big fan of the “law of attraction” idea that you only need to think about something enough for it to become real, but I’m a huge advocate of the idea that thinking of yourself as the type of runner (and person) that qualifies for Boston will cause you to behave the way that’s required for you qualify for Boston.

What I mean is that in your “default” mindset, you might be easily discouraged by things like the weather … say you’re coming home from work, planning to run that night, but then you notice it’s drizzling. Suddenly, some part of your mind grabs onto the idea that a little rain is a valid reason to hang in and watch TV instead.

Soon this rogue thought has taken over your entire mind, and it seems completely reasonable that since it’s raining, it’s fine to stay in. You deserve a break anyway, right?

But if you’ve conditioned the belief that you’re on a mission to qualify for Boston, and that it’s inevitable that you will eventually do it, then something changes in you. When you walk around feeling that confident all the time, the thought that rain is a reason to skip your workout doesn’t even occur to you. Training is your must, so you find a way to make it happen. No matter what.

So how can you develop a rock-solid mindset?

That’s a big question, and it’s one that I could talk for hours about (and I plan to, in the Run Your BQ forums with our members). But for the purposes of this blueprint, I’d say that two key steps are the 20 percent that gets you 80 percent of the results.

1. Write down your goal and why you want it so badly, and why you can make it happen.

If you’ve never written down goals before, start now. Write down a sentence that promises yourself when you’re going to qualify (and even where, if you’ve thought about that). Below it, write out all the reasons why you are absolutely going to make this happen, and what it would do for you as a runner and as a person if you were to achieve such a huge goal.

Don’t forget to include some reasons why you know you can do this, perhaps some examples of things you’ve done before that at one time you would have thought impossible, to give yourself some solid references to back up that this isn’t some pipe dream.

2. Take action that commits you to it.

Commitment can happen in your head, but it’s a whole lot stronger when you bring it into the real world.

So often, we keep our goals to ourselves because we’re worried about being humiliated if we fail. This is the exact opposite of the most effective way to handle your goals.

So get over it. Let others know that you plan to run Boston one day. Do it for the exact purpose of making the alternative of failure a lot less appealing, and that of success the far better option.

Post it on Facebook. Tell your friends and your spouse. Make a friendly wager with someone if that helps. Whatever will motivate you.

You can go a lot further with this if you want. Some people find visualization useful, while others do better with a saying they repeat to themselves while they’re pounding out hill repeats. Experiment with different ways of conditioning the belief that you will qualify, and find what works best for you.

But if you do nothing else, having a written goal (complete with reasons why you must and why you can qualify), along with some committing actions, will lay the foundation of the mindset you need to earn yourself a Boston bib.

If it’ll take several marathons for you to get there …

Even if you’re still several marathons away from qualifying, the above process is useful to help you keep the big picture in mind. While you may decide you need to train for a time that’s halfway between your ultimate goal and where you are now, you always want to be aware of the overarching reason for any intermediate goals.

That said, intermediate goals can be extremely important. If you’re in four-hour marathon shape and you go out and start training at the paces in a three-hour marathon plan, you’re going to get frustrated and, worse, injured. So think big, but train for a level that’s just beyond where you are now.

Boston Marathon Qualifying Key #3: Build a solid foundation to avoid injury.

If you’re constantly suffering setbacks due to injury, you’ll never be able to build momentum it takes to make massive improvements.

Case in point: my qualifying marathon was my third marathon in a year’s time. By contrast, my first four marathons were separated from each other by at least a year, because I was so beaten up by the end of each training program that I needed a few months off.

No two ways about it; you simply must stay healthy if you’re aiming to take a lot of time off your marathon.

Have you ever found that you can train without any issues until you hit a certain mileage, maybe 25 to 30 miles a week, but beyond that you always seem to get hurt?

If you have, it’s likely that these overuse injuries are the result of a weak foundation. Before you even do marathon-specific workouts, it’s important to build a foundation you can depend on to hold up under pressure. That foundation has two major components:

  1. Your aerobic fitness, or endurance.
  2. Your structural fitness, or strength.

The good news is that since these complement each other but don’t conflict, you can build both components at the same time.

To build aerobic fitness, you mainly want to focus on easy mileage – and when I say easy, I really mean it. If you can’t easily carry on a conversation while you’re running, then you’re running too fast for this type of training.

But this isn’t to say you should neglect harder workouts: at the other end of the speed spectrum is very fast running, like strides or hill sprints. They only need to last about 8 to 25 seconds, so they’re really short and actually aren’t very hard. But sprinting at your max effort, or close to it, is incredibly beneficial to marathoners.

Most runners haven’t tried strides, surges, or hill sprints, but they’re a low-effort way to get big rewards from your training. You’ll develop a more efficient stride, help prevent injuries, and best of all, your harder workouts will become easier.

As you do these more intense workouts, you’ll start to build structural strength that will allow you to handle more miles without injury. But running isn’t quite enough – it’s also important that you do some dedicated strength exercises (not too many, I promise!) that will prevent your core and leg muscles from fatiguing before your lungs do.

If you haven’t seen these ideas before, and you’ve done only basic marathon training workouts up until now, I’m sure you can see what a difference more sophisticated training could make. But unfortunately, there’s too much bad marathon advice on the web that is too simplistic and even incorrect. It doesn’t include comprehensive advice like this – and that’s why most runners get hurt frequently.

Why form matters

Lots of runners ignore their form completely. With other sports, it’s obvious that your natural movements might not be the most effective ones, but with running, we have a tendency to think we already know how to do it just fine (after all, we’ve been doing it all our lives, right?). But there are a few reasons why form is something worth paying attention to if you’re serious about getting faster and qualifying for Boston.

First, many runners run in a way that’s just begging for injury – they take a long, slow stride, then come crashing down on their heel, essentially hitting the brakes and sending a major impact up through their legs with each and every step. While barefoot running didn’t play any role in my getting faster, learning to run like a barefooter – shorter, quicker strides that land softly on the midfoot – certainly did.

Second, if you’re making a lot of unnecessary movements (say, an exaggerated arm swing that goes side-to-side across your body), then you’re wasting energy. You want to develop a stride in which every movement serves a purpose, because over the course of 26.2 miles, tiny energy leaks accumulate and add precious minutes to your time.

The simplest way to improve your form right now

Personally, I don’t find it useful to have a million things to think about when I’m running. Not only does it feel awkward; it’s not fun either.

So my approach to form is a more intuitive one, focusing on a few simple keys that tend to cause everything else to fall into place.

None is more important, as far as I’m concerned, than running with a quick cadence. I’ve written plenty on my website about the importance of taking 180 steps per minute, and the wonders it did for my form and my ability to stay healthy as I worked toward my Boston qualifier.

Simply put, running at such a quick stride rate (or one close to it — there’s nothing magical about the exact number 180) forces you to take faster, shorter steps than most runners naturally take. This is what I mean by running like a barefooter.

Of all the advice I give on my website, it’s this single tip that is responsible for more “oh my gosh, thank you!” emails from ecstatic runners than any other.

It takes some practice to get used to this faster cadence, and the method I used to train myself to do it comfortably is more detailed than I can fit into this “bird’s-eye view” report on getting to Boston. But if you want to feel what it’s like, go out for an easy run and just focus on taking three steps per second and stepping lightly, as if you’re running on eggshells or broken glass.

There’s more to form than this, but honestly, you don’t need to stress much about it. Rather than forcing the proper form, if you just focus on a few fundamentals like the 180-steps idea (and a few others that we introduce in Run Your BQ), the brain starts to learn how your body runs most efficiently, and it gets better at recruiting muscle fibers to do the work.

With enough time and enough miles, your form will improve and running will become easier and even more enjoyable, almost without any effort on your part.

Boston Marathon Qualifying Key #4: Upgrade your diet.

It’s easy, as runners, to slack off when it comes to what we eat. What marathoner hasn’t said to themselves at one time or another, “It’s okay for me to eat badly because I run so much”?

Even if you already eat pretty well, don’t neglect diet as a source of huge potential improvement as you train to run your BQ.

For marathon running, your diet affects your performance in two major ways:

1. What you put in your body affects how quickly you recover from workouts.

The faster you can recover, the sooner you can get in another quality workout. If you can get three hard workouts in per week instead of two, for example, you’re obviously much better off.

2. Your diet affects your weight, which affects your marathon time.

You know what it feels like to hold a 10-pound dumbbell, right? It’s not a lot, it’s not hard to lift, but you definitely notice it. Now how would it feel to have to carry that dumbbell for an entire 26.2 miles?

While carrying 10 extra pounds of bodyweight wouldn’t be quite so awkward as having to lug that dumbbell around, you can see what I’m getting at. How much faster could you run if you lost some bodyfat, which doesn’t contribute at all to your strength?

To answer the question, a good rule of thumb is “two seconds per mile per pound.” That means for each pound of weight you lose, you can expect to take close to a minute off your marathon time, assuming you maintain your strength.

This will obviously vary depending on a lot of factors, of course, but you can see why the “I can eat whatever I want since I run so much” excuse has no place in a BQ training program.

The only hard and fast diet rule

I wrote a post on my blog about healthy eating where I pointed out that a lot of seemingly “extreme” diets work. But as soon as you get excited about one, you hear about another that’s completely opposite of the first, and people claim it works just as well!

Look at the Paleo diet and the plant-based diet, for example. Both have some world-class marathoners and ultrarunners in their camps. And yet at first glance, they appear to focus on completely opposite principles — while the Paleo diet is high-protein, high-fat, low-carb, most plant-based diets are low-protein, low-fat, high-carb!

How can such drastically different diets both produce not just healthy people, but elite athletes even?

The answer is that although these diets appear very different, there’s one key element that they — along with any other healthy diet in existence — have in common: they both focus on whole, unprocessed foods. Of all the diet advice out there, that’s the most important.

Around workouts is the only acceptable time for processed food

Just like every other “hard and fast” rule, this one’s got an exception: immediately before, during, and after your workouts, processed or very sugary foods can be helpful.

Have you ever heard the phrase “earn your carbs”? Basically, it means that after a tough workout, it’s okay to eat the kind of sugary, low-fiber carbohydrates you shouldn’t eat other times. Especially during the race itself, they can help jump start the marathon recovery process.

Like anyone else, I have cravings for foods like white bread and rice, and sweet drinks like juices and sports drinks, and I like the balance of getting to enjoy them after workouts. But some people prefer to keep even their sugary carbohydrates natural (e.g., fresh dates instead of Gatorade), and that’s fine too.

Boston Marathon Qualifying Key #5: Perform on race day.

Even with all the other pieces of the puzzle in place, none of it matters if you don’t execute on race day. It doesn’t take many mistakes to derail a race, and when you’re trying to BQ, every second matters.

There are three main elements of success on race day, when it matters most.

1. Preparedness covers everything leading up to the moment when the starting gun goes off, with the exception of what you eat.

How you slept the night before, making sure you’ve got everything you need with you, what to wear for the conditions, your pre-race routine of warming up, and whole lot more – they all contribute to your eventual result. You should have a night-before and morning-of routine that you’ve rehearsed several times before your long runs, and you want to replicate that as closely as possible on race day.

2. Fueling is about the nutrition you’re taking in that will be so crucial to a successful BQ.

The foods you eat in the week leading up to your race, and more importantly, the night before, the morning of, and during the race itself, have a direct impact on your performance. There are guidelines to follow regarding nutrient ratios, the hydration and electrolyte balance, and timing.

But more than anything, proper fueling comes down to having determined, through trial and error, what works for your body and what leaves you pulling off for Porta-Pot stops and losing valuable time.

3. Strategy encompasses how you plan to navigate the course and vary your pace to run the fastest race you’re capable of running that day.

Your decisions about whether to run with a pace group, how you’ll save your quads on a long downhill start, and how much you’ll slow down at water stops, all play a major part in whether you run your BQ, or head home wondering when you should try again. And, unlike simply training for a single goal time, the nature of the new Boston qualifying system means that you’ll have to make many of these decisions on the fly.

If you’re feeling great in the first half of the race, do you go all-out and aim to beat your qualifying time by 10 minutes? Or do you play it safe and run the BQ-minus-5 that you’re pretty certain you can run if you just maintain your pace? Decisions like this are the difference between lining up in Hopkinton in April, or watching it at home on TV.

What’s the next step?

Run Your BQ is a coaching program, training resource, and community of other runners who want to improve their marathon and qualify for Boston. Coached by 2:39 marathoner Jason Fitzgerald and 3:09 marathoner Matt Frazier, this members-only program has hundreds of runners who share your goals.

With video demonstrations, a forum for members, over 25 lessons (more added regularly!), and monthly live Q&A calls with the coaches, RYBQ is fast becoming the web’s most comprehensive marathon training program.

Want to get more advice on how you can qualify for Boston? Enter your email below and we’ll send you some great free content, along with updates when we’re ready to open Run Your BQ to new members.

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