A Veteran's Perspective on Sub 3

O vanity of vanities! A chasing after the wind of sub 3.

I know, I know. To some, the difference between 2:59:59 and 3:00:00 is but arbitrary. Is it a standard that we whimsically set up just so that we can have the bragging right? Some cannot understand what the fuss is all about. But if you are one struggling to sub 3, you'd know. It is a world of difference. 

And yes, I know, having that prefix of 2 instead of 3 doesn't necessarily place you in the same class as Dennis Kimetto (WR 2:02:57); Nevertheless, it still feels so darn good! The victory's sweetest when the struggle's the greatest. And sub 3, is no small feat. It has been estimated that only 2-3% of the marathon population ever achieve this. Bragging rights? Well, a well deserved one, absolutely. 

But what goes up must come down….

Still relishing in the elation of 2:59:45 done just two weeks ago, it takes some serious effort to get back down to earth. With two major runs lined up: Boston in April and Gold Coast in July (thanks to my overzealous planning!), it’s time to slowly crawl back to the reality of training. Yup! The body just doesn’t train itself.  

What is my aim? Some would naturally say: More sub 3s! Honestly? I will try not to be too quick to answer that. Perhaps never. If there is one thing I've learned from the years of struggle to this eventual sub 3, it is this: SHUT UP and just train. Talk is cheap. In this case, I will keep my silence. Lest I ensnare myself.

Yet, knowing that my training, which has so far proven to be ‘unconventional’ in the ‘worst’ sense; I needed to see if there were some identifiable traits that had been keys to my recent sub 3. The only way is to compare notes with those who have done it too. Thanks to google, I found a number of websites covering this topic. Made some comparison and here’s my take on it….

The majority of these write ups are from folks who achieved their sub 3s pre-40s (usually in the 20-30s). Hardly any were written by the likes of me who achieve their virgin sub 3 at a 'ripe' old age of 46! Well, there are actually some links out there featuring ‘chronic sub 3s’ veteran runners but I suspect these peculiar people have always done sub 3s throughout their running days from the get-go. 

So this presents a problem.

If you are a runner in your 20-30s, the majority of these websites are for you. And they generally give pretty standard and salient advices on training towards sub 3. Not hard to come by at all, but training with them is quite another issue.

But if you are a veteran and you are like me, struggling to sub 3 at this age, my take is that you should formulate your own training regime. You can always use the above programs as a reference. Here’s a good example. (Hal's) But you need to tailor make it to suit yourself. 

The High Mileage Myth.

Just for example, the high mileage that most programs prescribe is between 65-85 miles per week. That is roughly 100-135 km per week. This is OK for a 20-30 year old body. But for a veteran, you must have that indestructible self-healing capability like Wolverine or Deadpool, or else you may be heading towards some serious troubles in the long run…My suspicion is that most of us don’t have that mutant gene in us. So let’s just tone down on the mileage.

I would say that the max one should perhaps aim at is 85km. That is a modest estimation. And this is on a peak week taking into account perhaps a 30-32km LSD. I say ‘aim’ at because on average, I don’t do more than 60km unless I consider a 42 km race as a training day….

Intensity kills.

The second point is that of intensity. Again, this is a matter of what the tendons, joints, muscles and ligaments can endure. They have been more than faithfully putting up with our constant abuse for the past 20 years or more, now if you are still asking them to do sprint workouts like in the good ole days, I seriously don’t know how much longer they can put up with you. Some days, when I indulged in my youthful fantasy of sprinting to the finish alongside some younger counterparts, these parts almost disintegrated under the pressure. Again, ask yourself: Am I Wolverine?

Adequate Recovery. 

That all said, it does not mean you cannot do interval or fast tempo that requires you to run beyond that MP. But recovery is the key. Alternate the days. I have learned to cut myself some slack whenever I feel I need more time to recover. Take an extra day off or just do something else like play badminton with your 10 year old. Take it easy. Recovery is as crucial as running a good solid tempo.

For a veteran, I guess the most important point to take home is: Do your utmost to keep it to a minimum; enough just to get results. This means quality workouts. No junk mileage. This takes some practice and discipline. And I suspect that most of us overachievers have that problem. We tend to overdo. I used to be one.

100% Specificity.  

This so called quality workout requires specificity. I used to think that in overcompensating my weekly mileage, the training for ultra distance would sling shot me to better time in my marathon. Yup, you guess it, I improved on the endurance part. But not the speed endurance. They are two different thing. You need to be specific in the distance you train for. And since we veterans are no longer young bloods, we don’t have that luxury to ‘experiment’ and make mistakes. Heaven knows these mistakes will be costly and sometimes, irreversible. Some of you know what I am talking about.

You have to be marathon specific too. Train for a specific route that has a unique elevation. For instance, Boston vs Gold Coast. Two very different terrains that requires totally different approaches to training. The former would require more time on hill training like hill intervals, downhill techniques as well as LSDs on hilly terrain. If you don’t train for it, you are just undermining all your effort. I suppose this is a given for any marathoner. But if you are a sub 3 chaser, you know that those minutes and seconds add up so easily. You cannot afford to blunder it.   


As for training specificity, I mentioned speed endurance earlier. I find that spending more time on tempo worked quite well for me. The workout usually takes up to 45-50 minutes per session. And this includes the warm up and cool down. So, that is not time consuming at all. The reason I feel this makes more sense is simply this: you spend more time in the zone where you are supposed to be able to handle the MP comfortably. And when you teach your body to adapt well to it, it doesn’t suddenly become a shock to the system when you ramp up the speed on race day. For that, I also incorporate time trial a few weeks before a marathon to get my system ‘in gear’ and accustomed to the pace I hope to achieve. The key is sustainability. Scientifically, tempo which is also called LT (Lactate Threshold) training, is designed for raising our tolerance to fatigue. Logically speaking, it enhances your ability to endure a longer distance. There are many speedsters out there that can do very impressive 5km/10km/Half marathon timing. But when it comes to marathon, they fade away beyond 30km largely because their training does not specifically deal with this aspect. 

To make my point, I am not a fast runner. My 5km is ~18-19 min; 10km ~ 40 minutes and Half 1:27. But I have discovered that you don't really need to be fast. The answer is: do more tempo. Based on these numbers, by right, I should not even be sub 3 material. At best perhaps a very borderline 3:00 ++. But it only proves that perhaps we shouldn't get too hung up on the conventional 'wisdom', but hone in on what works best for you as a veteran runner. You may not be fast, but nevertheless, to master that sustainability or speed endurance is quite achievable.

Stay Flexible.

Some advocate exercises to increase the flexibility such as yoga etc, I personally just do more stretching as part of the compulsory warm up routine (and cool down as well) to make sure these parts are as supple and compliant as possible. Stay flexible. But you don't have to bend it like the gymnast. Keep it in moderation. It is a crucial 'little' point because flexibility helps prevent injuries. Especially for us masters.  


The next point I find most relevant to me as a masters runner is: read your body well. Learn to run by effort. Don’t rely too much on GPS. Know the difference in effort between a 4:00, 4:10 and 4:15 pace. Believe me, it will pay off. Why do I emphasize this? I think we need to slow down when we feel the excessive strain on ourselves. Even 20-30 year old can misread themselves and suffer demise. What more folks like us?

A caution though: One of the trap of running by effort is to mistake that as running by feel. You can feel great but still keep your effort level in check. Feeling too elated can sometimes jeopardize the run. You end up going out too fast and we have heard all too often how that story ends…

Your Weight Issue.

It is conceivable that losing the extra pounds would help you go faster. And I have toyed with that idea for the past 6 years. But in reality, having seen my own weight fluctuate between 63-66kg like a yoyo, for us masters, my conclusion is that one should not get too hung up over it. While it is good to try to maintain an optimal weight, what it is more relevant is knowing what constitutes that weight. You want to lose the fat, but you don't want to lose the muscle bulk. And this requires a careful balance of eating well, adequate rest, as well as training smart. Some recommend high protein low carb diet etc. It is still a controversial topic which requires more evidence. I personally don't subscribe to that. But as always, keep everything in moderation because at our age, the weight just piles up so easily. But one practice I have always held on to is this: I eat to run, not run to eat. Keep it simple. 

Final Notes. 

Race strategies? I suppose you can use any formula that suites you. Mine is to fuel adequately. I use a gel every 5km. This is a guide. If you find that too much caffeine doesn’t go well with the bowels, then get those without. As for pace, never bank on time. Best way is still to keep it as even paced as possible. Forget about trying to do negative splits. That happens only in La La land. 

Personal note: It’s about what connects the dots for you. Especially if you are a veteran sub 3 chaser, the dots can sometimes lead you a bit ‘off’ the commonly charted path. But do spend some time to discover more about what makes you more efficient. The key is not being fast. But be efficient and keep it sustainable. And stay injury free. At all cost.

All the best to you! I hope this helps in some ways. And if I can do it, so can you! 


  1. Hi Francis,
    It's me again! haha! I can't stop myself from jotting down notes reading your latest selfless sharing on your perspective on sub 3. :) So much to learn from this post alone. Thank you! And you truly belong to the 2-3% of the marathoners in the sub 3 category!! Envy you and wish to call you sifu! haha!

    Some points I have further picked up in addition to your weekly training program from your previous posts which are important to me:
    - speed endurance (spending more time on tempo) - which I never do at all since I started running end 2010. MUST include into my training from now onwards.
    - power gel every 5km. (does this mean you take 8 power gels for a 42 km race?)
    - constant pace - forget about the lala land negative split. :)
    - time trial before race
    - train for a specific route that has unique elevation

    I still have some other questions:
    - may I ask what's your average cadence? 190 spm?
    - may I ask what's your breathing method? Is it 2 in 2 out? Do you use nose to inhale and exhale or use mouth also (if so, for both inhale/exhale?)
    - may I ask if you do lots of core exercise?
    - may I ask how do you NOT hit the wall at 30km? (my speed drop miserably after 30km... sob sob)
    - what is your pre-race day nutrition?
    - how about your race day nutrition before the race? Bread or anything?

    My apology for asking so many questions. There are simply so many things to learn from you. Please forgive me for the lengthy comment.

    Thanks for giving hope to older veteran like myself. :) Look forward to seeing your sub 3 in Gold Coast and Boston!!!

    1. Hi Vincent,
      Thanks for the generous comment though I am far from qualified to be anyone's sifu. I am still learning as I go. And most of the above are from years of trial and error. But one thing is to learn to make the program work for you. Not the other way round.
      To answer some of your questions, I will try my level best to do it though there are more qualified people out there that can give you all the technical advice. I am just sharing my perspective based on what I have tried.

      I have paid attention to my running form at some stage of my learning curve. This one is a bit tricky. One of the issue is that of cadence. They say you should fall in around 180. But mine is a bit lower than that. Truth is, my cadence changes much from moment to moment based on effort and elevation. So, I cannot be too sure what it is but my guess is it is somewhere below 180. I suggest getting some assesment from RunTEch in KL. They can help you on this.
      Breathing wise, there is no fix way. I have tried some of the methods but ultimately, the idea to is involve your diaphragm as much as possible. This deep breath requires conscious effort. My method is usually 3 steps to a conscious exhale, deep inhalation immediately after the exhalation (done during the next 3 steps). This will alternate the placement of the footing too. I breathe through the nose and mouth mostly. This one is largely dependent on the effort as well. When I am tired, I tend to 'hyper-ventilate' to compensate for the apparent O2 starvation.
      Core is becoming quite the emphasis now. I think it is something that I should do, but not enough of. I am just lazy! Hahaha! I think perhaps just once a week should be ok. That said, I do the occasional sit up and plank too. (Very occasionally!) But good point, it is relevant especially for those with a weak core.
      As for not hitting the wall, that's every marathoner's concern. I think it boils down to the tempo runs that you seldom do. Spend some time there (2 runs per week) and see the difference. Also adequate fueling may also help towards that wall issue. Yes, I consume up to 7-8 gels per marathon. It helps you to eliminate the issue of hypoglycemia. Especially important when the glycogen storage depletes at around 25-30km.
      Pre-race day nutrition: 3 days prior to starting, I tend to take 25% more carbo in all my normal meals. I prefer food that I can easily digest such as rice. As for race day, 2-3 hours before the run, I gobble down mostly plain bread or rice balls if I can get my hands on it. The important thing about proper fueling is that you should not feel hungry at any stage. And as for the gels, never wait until you sense the fatigue coming on. That is usually too late....

      Well, I hope I have adequately answered some of your questions.

      All the best to your next run! Like I said, it is all down to making it work for you. What may be OK for me, may not be for you. Find out how your body ticks. ANd you will nail that next run.

    2. Dear Francis,
      Again, thanks for your generous sharing of running tips. Really appreciate it. I'm sure not only me, but all other readers who are also inspired by you will learn great tips here.
      Breathing - belly breathing; 3 exhale including 1 quite inhale! wow! something unheard of! Let me try this Sunday. :)
      Tempos - yes yes - I shall go against the boredom of running on treadmill to do it cos i don't have the luxury of running outdoor on weekday due to work commitment. Usually I could only run max of 3km on treadmill then I feel very very bored. lol! Mental strength straining and tempo training simultaneously!! Will visualize your success to motivate me!! :)

      Thanks also on the cadence and nutrition tips.

      You truly reap what you have sowed!! Such hardwork and sheer determination!

      Thanks again, Francis!! I hope one day to give you "good report". :) Cheers.

    3. Vincent, in case you misunderstood the breathing method, it is not 3 exhale. That would be impossible. Instead, what I meant was: For every 3rd step, I exhale through the mouth. Immediately followed by a deep inhalation through the nose and mouth while taking the next 3 steps. Repeating the cycle. I hope you get this, in case you pengsan. :)

  2. Hi Doc!

    Very good read. Thanks for sharing. Low mileage of 50 to < 80km/w indeed work wonders for one aiming for a 3 hr marathon, with one caveat – it is reserved for one who has been consistently training for years with appreciable cardiovascular and musculoskeletal strength and conditioning. Nonetheless, in my opinion, mileage < 80km/w with focused workouts is sufficient to bring about great improvement year after year of active marathoning and a 3 hr marathon is not elusive. I personally prescribe to this methodology consisting of quality workouts with plenty of non-running active rest. I have tried using a high-mileage approach of > 80km with a combination of low and high intensity runs, and rest days with easy runs. But weekly high mileage placed too much stress on my legs which compromised my supposedly true workouts that require fresh legs and focus. And you are right, even though I am one decade younger than you, =) I could feel that my body handles stress quite differently every year. So, yes, listen to our body. Pace is just a number, and our body condition varies from day to day. Sleep deprivation (rest), mood (emotions), not eating enough (nutrition), cardiac drift due to temperature and hydration status etc. – these factors can determine and affect our pace for day’s workout. Hence, you said it right. If we are not careful, we may go beyond what our body can handle (especially when we deliberately exhibit our alpha man ego) and this calls for trouble. Take care or preclude these exogenous factors well, and the fast-sustainable pace coupled with good running form will come to us. Go by effort and know the effort well. This will help us on race day – and I believe you agree with me on this. A prominent scientist once told me, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. But PERFECT practice makes perfect”.


    1. Thanks Alex, good point. There should be a strong base. But most runners who are in that region already have a reasonable base. I must confess that my LSDs had been rather lacking for the past 2 years. Therefore, strong base or not, I guess I made up for them from races and the tempo runs. I totally agree with you on the other factors that affect us day by day like sleep, temp etc. The main thing is to listen to our body and not be stubbornly obsessive about a routine. Go by effort because on the race days, it matters most. Hope you have registered GC, see you there!

  3. More inspirational stories. And his training method is 'simple' but not at all easy. But if it worked for him, this just proves that training for marathon does not have to fit a mould. It can be very unconventional yet effective nonetheless. Learn it from this master. Check out the website below.


  4. Hi doc,

    Another good read & thanks for sharing. Hope to be inspired.

    I found plenty of good points, some of which I could subcribe into my daily trainings/routines towards my goal of becoming a better runner, and hopefully a sub 3 runner like yourself.

    From what you have written, we do share some similarities,
    - we're about same age,
    - have almost the same 5k, 10k & 21k time...though that can't be said of my 42k..haha, sub 3 still remains elusive to me 😅😅
    - I also do low mileage, low intensity (not by choice, but becoz of slow recovery...yeah, we ain't young anymore & don't carry Wolverine genes).... the difference is, I participate in many weekend races, so I guess those are part of my speed training. Besides, if I'm not in races during weekends, I'll go cycling which can also be considered as my LSD.

    Some of the things I don't do, but has been an eye opener for me:
    1)ADEQUATE RECOVERY: Unlike you, I hardly take a rest day except after a very hard race: and that makes me sometimes feeling very lethargic even running/jogging at my tortoise pace..and also not giving the body to adequate time to heal.
    2) SUSTAINABILY: Perhaps I do too little tempo run in my training. My pace will always drop off drastically for the 2nd part of the race for FM.
    3) STRETCHING: Something I know is useful to prevent niggling injuries but have been very lazy to incorporate....haha

    Since we have some similarities, ie: age, speed, weekly mileage - what worked for you may also benefit me in my chase for the elusive Sub 3, though I'm still far off the mark at the time being...haha. I will try to incorporate some if the things you've mentioned & hopefully able to connect the dots one day. 😃
    That's being said, everyone is different. What works well for someone may not for another. It is about finding how to connect the dots

    As you mentioned: The key is not being fast. But be efficient and keep it sustainable. And stay injury free.

    *On my personal note: Remember to enjoy journey & cherish the moment while chasing our dream, if in the end even if we failed - at least we tried.
    We have already won big by being healthy & staying fit!

    1. Yes, Calvin. Indeed it is not a one size fits all. We will have to work out what works for us. That is what makes marathon training so interesting. In my above comment, I gave a link on a Japanese veteran's unusual training routines. I am very inspired by it. I guess it all boils down to taking special care to avoid injury. Wear and tear from over racing is a danger and it can certainly impede your progress towards sub 3. May have to cut down on the weekend races. Haha!
      But what you said is right: Enjoy the journey & cherish the moment while chasing our dream. The greatest benefit to this would be a healthy lifestyle. Therefore it is all the more important to learn the way to make this sustainable. It is not just a matter of chasing a target goal. It is doing it the best way possible without jeopardizing our health.
      I believe you have what it takes to sub 3. You just need to balance out some your training. It is definitely within reach.

  5. No.. there's no Wolverine in La La Land..
    and being sub-3 in marathon is not story like in Beauty and the Beast..
    I feel that you have addressed almost all issues related achieving a high standard marathon running - mileage, intensity, recovery, specificity, etc. Together with experience, it all make up the ingredient for excel. One need to find the suitable ways for oneself. I once read, the best training is using the least training to achieve best results.But then, how we know the right balance is for ourselves to experience.
    I can't agree more on specificity and sustainability. I attempted multiple times high mileage training but in fact average at a lower mileage. Currently I just wish I could be more consistence in running.

  6. Yes, I agree Kent. "least training to achieve best results" is in fact a matter of efficiency. And for a master, it matters a lot. Have a read through this link.


    His method is very unconventional but I think the key is that he can learn to read his body so well through the same routine year after year. We tend to try EVERYTHING under the sun. And in the end, we aren't even sure what really worked. He stuck to his winning formula and was consistently efficient. Much food for thought. I think my tempo runs was similar to his 5x1K. (I frequently do 3x3km with increasing paces) It really helped me read not just my pace accurately, but also my overall condition.

    Perhaps instead of focusing on high mileage, switch to doing more tempos. It will not only help with minimizing the injuries, I believe it will yield higher efficiency. Of better still, try Hosaka's method. :) All the best in GC!

  7. I'm nowhere near your standards, Francis but that's a very good read. I agree that for someone my age and trust me, I am aged, the quality rather than quantity training method suits me best instead of piling on the mileage week after week. This old body takes all that much longer to recover and heal these days. In my lead up to Seoul, which incidently is tomorrow, I'm glad that I've brought myself here uninjured. I was very careful with my training and concentrated more on the quality tempos and intervals with the rest being easy sessions. We'll see how that successful that was tomorrow.

    1. Yes, the time now is 9:25am in Seoul. And your marathon is well on the way as I am writing this. With much anticipation, I eagerly await to hear your outcome. It has been years in the making and I am feeling the tingling excitement as though I am myself doing the run! Hope this will clinch the result that you have been working towards. I am increasingly convince that training regime really requires our careful introspection instead of just following the mass crowd. It is really about listening to the body and working with it. All the best Nick!

  8. Hi Francis, firstly congratulations on your sub-3! I have been following your blogs for some years, and am truly inspired by your running. I am a Boston qualifier aspirant... still some way off with a PB of 3:23, and have just turned 'veteran'. Your latest perspective above is extremely timely and useful for me. I am intrigued by your point on spending more time on tempo runs. If you don't mind sharing, can I know what is your tempo pace and/or your typical workout? Thank you so much for sharing!
    Best wishes,

    1. Thanks CK. Yes, the tempo runs, in my experience, works well for me. But I have to caution that not all will benefit from the same approach as it largely depends on what your strength and weakness are. For instance, this is based on the assumption that you have been doing marathons for a while and you have built up a fairly strong base. (Meaning aerobic base). Then the focus on tempo will help tie up the 'loose ends' so to speak. I am more than happy to share my workout routines with you. Do drop me a line at my email add: francisyeng@hotmail.com. And I will try my best to answer your query.


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