No matter how many times you run a marathon, the same question arises during training: how fast will I run my marathon? This article explains how to set a marathon goal pace, including if it’s appropriate for you to have a goal pace. At the end, you can reference a marathon pace chart to see where your goal pace lines up with a finish time.
Should You Set a Marathon Pace Goal?
For first-time marathoners, the goal of the marathon is to finish. Realistically, this means that many first-time marathon runners will run the race at their normal training pace.
Intermediate to experienced marathoners have the experience to set a marathon time goal. However, marathon experience does not mean you are required to set a time goal with every race. You may choose to run some marathons as experience races or race by effort without having a set time goal.
How to Set a Marathon Pace Goal
Assess Recent Training
The best time to set a goal marathon pace is not at the start of a training plan. Rather, the best time to set a goal marathon pace is approximately 1-3 weeks prior to the race. Fitness builds over course of a 16-20 week marathon training cycle. (Not sure how long you should train for a marathon? Read this article!)
Your fitness at 16 weeks out from a marathon is not predictive of what you are capable of running on race day. You can use recent workouts and races to inform training paces at the start of a training cycle. However, goal marathon pace should be based on your fitness. Your fitness may improve by 4% over a course of a training cycle or just 1%, based on a multitude of factors. You will not know that rate of improvement for marathon-specific fitness until the final few weeks of training.
Complete a Marathon Pace Workouts in Peak Training
Many coaches (including myself) develop benchmark workouts to assess an athlete’s fitness leading into a race. These workouts may provide a more accurate assessment of fitness than a shorter race, since they are done at marathon pace. Going into these workouts, it should be understood that bad workouts happen. One marathon pace workout may go very poorly, but that is not predictive of a poor outcome on race day.
These marathon-pace workouts are not intended for first-time marathoners. These workouts require experience in marathon racing and a high level of fitness to complete safely.
Sample Marathon Pace Workouts: These workouts double as a significant training stimulus, so they should be done approximately 2-3 weeks prior to the race. These runs should be fueled well to provide adequate energy and minimize muscle damage before the race.
- 4/3/2/1 miles at marathon pace (final mile slightly faster if feeling good), as part of a long run
- 2 x 5 miles at marathon pace, with ½ mile jog in between, as part of a long run
- 10 miles continuous at marathon pace (on its own or within a long run of 15-18 miles)
In these workouts, it is crucial that you are honest about your effort. Marathon effort should feel steady and sustainable. The intensity is not as light as easy, but definitely not hard enough that your breathing is noticeably more labored. If you notice your breathing or rate of perceived exertion (RPE) approach that of a threshold run, you need to back off – even if the pace is slower than threshold pace.
To find your marathon pace, look at your average pace in multiple workouts at marathon effort. Then, use a marathon pace chart or pace calculator to determine the corresponding finish time with your goal marathon pace.
Do Marathon Pace Calculators Work?
There are dozens of calculators that attempt to predict marathon pace. In my years of coaching experience, I have not observed one that is consistently accurate for every athlete.
- VDOT Calculator: You input a recent race time and the VDOT calculator provides equivalent race times. This calculator estimates marathon pace as ~15-30 sec per mile faster than threshold pace. In my experience, this calculator ends to estimate about 5-8 minutes faster than many athletes will actually run. Very slow-twitch athletes are an exception and may be closer to estimated times.
- Reigel Formula: Multiple a recent half marathon time by 2.085 to estimate marathon time. Tends to estimate faster than many athletes will run.
- Vickers Formula (Slate.com): Multiple a recent half marathon time by 2.19. The Slate.com calculator accounts for average training mileage. However, in my observation, mileage-based estimates are much slower than some runners achieve, especially runners who excel at longer distances.
For an example of how these calculators vary, I will use a sample from my own racing experience. Obviously, that is an n=1, but it provides an idea of how calculators are not as predictive as real-life training.
- Half Marathon time: 1:38:12 (7:29/mile)
- Average Weekly Mileage in Training: 41 mpw (range: 39-54 miles)
- VDOT estimate: 3:24:13
- Reigel: 3:24:44
- Vickers: 3:35:10
- Slate.com: 3:45:13
- Marathon pace in training: 7:55/mile avg
- Race finish time at CIM: 3:29:43 (8:01/mile avg)
You can see that none of the formulas accurately predicted marathon time. However, pace in training was the most accurate in predicting marathon pace on race day. (My Garmin recorded 26.3 miles for the race, so I lost some time on tangents.)
Marathon Pace Chart
This marathon pace chart calculates your paces based on the marathon finish time (if you want a chart based on goal pace, see here.) To use this chart, pick your goal marathon finish time; the corresponding paces are what you would need to run to finish your marathon in that time. All paces were calculated using the VDOT Calculator and assume you are running 26.2 miles.
Sometimes, due to GPS error or poor tangent running, your watch may record greater than 26.2 miles on a certified course, so your pace may need to be slightly faster to hit a goal marathon time.
|Marathon Finish Time||Pace (Min/mile)||Pace (min/km)|
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