How to Pace Your Fastest Marathon

How to Pace Your Fastest Marathon

The marathon presents a significant challenge of endurance to each runner who toes the start line. While training, fueling, hydration, and weather all play a factor in how you do on race day, the common downfall of most marathoners is pacing. Starting out too fast, hitting the wall, and slowing down over the second half derail the goals of many marathoners. However, slowing down is not inevitable. Along with proper training and fueling, you can approach the race with a pacing strategy to run your fastest marathon.

The marathon is almost a wholly aerobic event. You use minimal anaerobic energy pathways during the race. In order to run your fastest marathon, you want to delay the onset of any metabolic by-products that can cause fatigue. These by-products are produced when you run above your aerobic threshold (when intensity shifts from easy to moderate). The problem is, many runners run faster than this in the first half of their marathon because they feel so good from the taper. Of course you feel good! You trained, tapered, and carb-loaded. You are riding on the adrenaline of race day.

The solution: approach the marathon as a 20 mile long run (starting easy, working to moderate) followed by a hard 10K progression.

Why This Marathon Pacing Strategy Works

If you are worried about running too slow in the first 16-20 miles, remember that goal pace will feel much easier on race day than in training. In training, your easy run pace will be one to two minutes slower than your goal marathon pace. Due to the performance-enhancing benefits of the taper and carb-loading, your goal marathon pace should feel very comfortable at the start of the marathon

Depending on the course, your training, and the day, you may run equal splits or you may run slightly negative splits. The goal here is simply to avoid running the second half of the race slower than the first by conserving energy at the start and pushing your hardest after the 20 mile mark.

Start Out Conservative, Finish Strong

One of the biggest mistakes made in marathon pacing is starting out too fast. It’s a simple error to make: you are tapered, rested, carb-loaded, and excited. However, starting out too fast in the marathon can set you up for hitting the wall and struggling over the final 10K.

When you begin a long run, you ease into the run. You should not begin right away at a moderate pace. You start easy, warm up in those first few miles, and then settle into a comfortable effort.

That’s exactly how you want to start your marathon. Pace the first few miles as a warm-up and run them about 10-30 seconds per mile slower than goal pace. In the scheme of 26.2 miles, 10-30 extra seconds on a couple of miles at the start will not cost you your goal time. However, starting out at a 7:30 minute mile when you are trained to run an 8:30 could add several minutes to your finish time. By starting out slightly slower than your goal pace, you warm up properly and delay fatigue.

In his master’s thesis on a statistical analysis of the pacing of marathoners at the St. George Marathon, elite runner Jared Ward determined that a conservative start is the marker of a successful marathon. Ward found that marathoners who started out at a conservative effort slowed down the least during the second half. As a result, these runners finished the marathon with faster times. Ward concluded, “marathoners seeking to improve performance would be to pattern pacing after what the elite and experienced runners are doing–start the race more conservative.”

If your race begins on a downhill, such as the Boston or California International Marathon, be careful to control your pace over the first few miles. By controlling your pace and still starting out slightly slower than goal pace, you will conserve energy and avoid trashing out your quads early in the race.

The Middle Miles

Even if you treat the first few miles as a warm up, the middle miles tempt many runners into getting greedy about their pace. At mile 6, 9, or even 12, you likely feel good and are eager to pick up the pace a bit. However, running faster than goal race in the middle miles will only slow you down later.  

Treating the race as a 20 mile long run with a hard 10K reduces the temptation to speed up in the middle. When you run a 20 mile long run, you keep the pace comfortable throughout the middle miles. Do the same on race day: keep your effort comfortable and your paces right on goal pace. Resist the urge to speed up a bit once you are warmed up.

When pacing a marathon, you want the first 20 miles to feel easy to moderate. You want to keep yourself feeling comfortable for as long as you can. You will have plenty of opportunities to run hard in the final 10K. Focus on maintaining a steady pace and enjoy the race at this point.

This pacing strategy hinges on the appropriateness of your marathon goal pace. Your goal marathon pace should feel relatively comfortable by the end of training. Marathon pace is primarily aerobic. If you are working very hard in your final marathon pace workouts, you may want to adjust your goals. 

The Final 10K

Think of the final 10K as not just a hard run, but as a hard progression run. Each mile becomes more and more difficult, so you need to increase your effort with each mile to stay on goal pace or run slightly faster. Not every mile will feel good. The secret of how to pace your fastest marathon comes down to holding onto pace despite the discomfort and fatigue of these final miles. You put in the work in training and are capable of pushing yourself, even if it is uncomfortable.

If you maintained a comfortable pace through the first 20 miles and have fueled well, you shouldn’t hit the wall. (Here’s more on how to fuel to avoid hitting the wall.) The final 10K will not be comfortable no matter how well trained you were, but you can still finish strong despite this discomfort. Have some mental strategies to help you run through the aches and pains that settle into the body after running for 20 miles.

In the final mile, push as hard as you can. Try to pass as many runners as possible. This tactic provides a distraction from the discomfort and can help when you want nothing else but to slow down.

Practicing Pacing in Training

For first-time marathoners, the focus is on simply building up to the marathon distance. The distance is a huge challenge enough in itself. However, when you have a marathon goal, learning to run fast on tired legs is a valuable skill. These workouts train fatigue resistance and the ability to tolerate physical discomfort, both of which are key skills for your fastest marathon.

Since every training plan is developed solely for the individual, the mileage and frequency vary – these workouts are examples, not prescriptions. Please adjust all workouts for your current fitness and goals. Once you know your pace from marathon effort workouts, consult this chart to get a sense of your marathon finish time.

Workouts to Help You Pace Your Fastest Marathon

Progression Long Run:

The progression long run is one of my favorite workouts for marathon training. This type of long run will train you to hold onto to your goal pace when fatigued. It will also help determine if your marathon goal pace is appropriate. (However, bad workouts happen in training – so consider overall patterns in your training).

The workout: On a 16-18 mile long run, run the first 10-12 miles at an easy pace. Be mindful to start out slow and controlled for the first couple miles. Run the final 6 miles at your goal marathon pace. Choose terrain similar to that of your goal race.

Cutdown Tempo Run:

Multi-pace workouts add an extra challenge in training. This workout increases the intensity of a normal marathon pace run. The cutdown tempo run will train you to push harder after holding marathon pace for a while. This workout mimics the marathon pacing strategy on a smaller scale.

The workout: Warm up for 1-2 miles. Run 18 minutes at marathon pace, 12 minutes at half marathon pace, and 6 minutes at 10K pace, with a 3 minute recovery jog between each. Cool down with 1-2 mile of easy running.

For more information on marathon pacing, listen to episode 6 of the Tread Lightly Podcast! Amanda of Run to the Finish and I discuss various marathon pacing strategies for heat, hilly courses, etc.

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29 Responses

  1. I remember hearing that advice before I ran my first marathon. It helped me wrap my mind around running 26.2 miles when I had only run 20 miles as my longest run leading up to the race. I definitely agree that its better to start out conservatively!

  2. What fantastic advice! I will say that the idea of running 20 easy miles followed by progression 10k does sound scary but if I was in training right now it would seem more doable. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to put it into practice.

    1. Thank you! It does sound scary – but those training runs do help. I know one day you will be able to put it into practice now that you’ve figured out what was wrong!

  3. This is fantastic advice. I went out too fast on my last marathon and completely fell apart at the end. But I do think it’s important to train for negative splits so thanks for ideas on how to do that.

  4. I think the best advice is to tailor your pacing strategy to the specific demands of the course. The general advice about how to pace marathons is sound, but it’s not one size fits all. There are some courses that just don’t lend themselves to a fast final 10K, unless you’re an impeccably-conditioned top level athlete. My fastest marathon to-date was a slight positive split, because it was run on a course where the first half is easy and flat and the second half is full of big rolling hills that will add fatigue even with a conservative start. I had to shift strategy from running negative splits to running even splits and hanging on in the second half. Planning pacing around the course is so important. Aaaaand this is also why most people don’t choose hilly marathons 🙂

    1. It’s not one size fits all – but on those courses that finish on hard hills, you still want to think in terms of effort and conserving effort for those hills to minimize slowing down. I do agree that planning for the course is key, but conserving effort over the first half will never hurt! 🙂

    2. This is for real. I ran NYC, all set to pace myself, but between the hills of the bridges and some messed up GPS on my watch, my paces were erratic and undependable for much of the course. (The happy ending is that I tuned in to perceived effort, held back enough and finished strong with negative splits. Not my first marathon so I had some instincts and tools to make the best of it.) I try to warn people that it can happen and ways to cope when you don’t have a great sense of your real pacing.

  5. Yes!! Such a great post! The fastest marathons that I have run have been the ones where I followed this strategy and went for the negative splits at the end! I cannot wait to continue to follow your Boston Marathon journey!

  6. I like that strategy! During my last marathon, I kept trying to slow down in the beginning. It’s so hard to go slow with all the adrenaline, but that is something I need to work on so I don’t burn out later on.

    1. Thank you! If you do sign up for another, we will definitely make sure you train to run this way! And the second one is always easier to pace – knowing you can finish one builds a lot of confidence!

  7. Great post about pacing! I’ve heard the praises of running this way very often, but I’m still not sold on it! I feel like no matter how slow I might run, I still wouldn’t have much energy after 20 miles. One of these days I’ll try this plan though! I’ve gotta believe you aren’t all just selling us a good story 🙂

    1. I thought the same thing, but it’s amazing how much of a difference it can make (combined with fueling lots). It’s not like there’s energy abounding, but it is easier to push on that final 10K!

  8. Ah. I’ve always wanted to try that approach, to start slow and finish strong, but so far I haven’t been able to rein it in; I get too worked up. I really should discipline my mind and emotions though! Because I KNOW I’d be more successful.

  9. I love these tips, especially the part about the 10k being a progression run! It definitely feels harder with each mile, even if your pace is slowing down.

    I’ve made the go out too fast mistake a few times and try really hard now to start conservatively and negative split in pretty much every distance except the 5k!

  10. Right on point! I ran my fastest half marathon by starting conservatively – and I really had to force myself to hold back. The final 5K of that race felt incredible and I finished strong.
    My fastest marathon time was back in 2008 where I actually qualified for Boston but I made the mistake of keeping up with the pacers (who started out too fast) and paid for it at the end and was fortunately to BQ. This will be the strategy I’ll use in racing Chicago this year and aiming for a strong finish!

  11. Thank you so much for this blog – I am about to run London Marathon my 4th marathon and I am determined to take this approach. I’ve never tried it before so its a risk but “banking time” at the start has never worked well for me as I’ve always slowed right down in the last 10k. I’ll be happy with 3.30-3.40 – the closer to 3.30 the better (goal pace 8 min mile or 5 min KM.) Thanks

  12. This is great advice, Laura.
    I think I will use this for my ultra on Sunday. It’s 56k, so I will view it as a marathon with a fast 14k at the end.
    I hope I can do what you suggest in those final miles – pass as many runners as possible to distract myself from the discomfort!

  13. Any thoughts on pacing a Midwest (US) summer AM marathon? Especially for 4-5hr marathoners. Seems running with an equivalent effort (even with proper hydration/fueling) throughout would lead to significantly slower paces as the temperature rises from (say) 60F at a 7:30AM start to 80F by noon, and a thus a planned positive split. Or is that flawed logic?

    1. Hello! For a hot weather marathon, you will want to start a bit more conservatively than in a mild weather marathon. The rationale is that you want to avoid too much sweat loss and core temp increase early. I recommend practicing cooling techniques during the race such as dumping cold water on head/neck. The marathon pacing podcast episode has some great info on this exact question:

      Best of luck on your marathon!

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