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.
How to Pace 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 the goal is to run your fastest marathon, 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.
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 your body and mind are tired. 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.
How did you pace your best marathon?
Have you ever started out too fast in a race?