Every runner is different, but 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. In this post, I want to share with you some tips on how to pace your fastest marathon.
The best marathon pacing advice I have ever read – which helped me run my Boston Qualifying marathon time – is shockingly simple. Divide the marathon into two segments and treat it as a 20 mile long run followed by a hard 10K run.
The first time (and several times again) I read this advice, I shook my head at it. Does that really work when you are chasing down a marathon time goal? Does this strategy only apply to elite runners who can whip out 20 miles in just over 2 hours?
Then, after reading a blog post on Run Far Girl about pacing the half marathon and applying the strategy of starting slow and finishing strong, I took almost 5 minutes off my half marathon time. I began to wonder: if it worked so well in the half marathon, how would it work in the marathon? If you are doubting this as well, trust me: this strategy works.
Treating the long run as a steady 20 mile run followed by a hard 10K is one of the most reliable methods for how to pace your fastest marathon. If you are worried about running too slow while maintaining a steady and comfortable effort in the first 16-20 miles, remember that goal pace will feel much easier on race day than in training. Usually, in training, your easy run pace will be 50 seconds or more slower than your goal race time. However, due to the taper and carb-loading, your goal marathon pace should feel just as comfortable as your normal easy pace on race day.
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 (or longer).
When you begin a long run, you ease into the run. You don’t (or should not, if you are), begin right away at a steady pace or a faster pace than you intend to hold for the run. You start easy, warm up in those first few miles.
That’s exactly how you want to start your marathon: treat the first few miles as as warm up and run them about 10-30 seconds per mile slower than goal pace. The marathon is a long race – you will have plenty of time to get on pace. In the scheme of 26.2 miles, a 10-30 extra seconds on a couple miles at the start will not cost you your goal time – but starting out at a 7:30 when you are trained to run an 8:30 could. By starting out slightly slower than goal pace, you conserve precious energy and save your legs for what’s to come.
In his master’s thesis on a statistical analysis of the pacing of marathoners at the St. George Marathon, Jared Ward (yes, the same Ward who placed sixth in the 2016 Olympic Marathon) 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 and finished 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 it works for an Olympian and statistics professor, starting out conservatively is certainly a strategy worth considering.
If your race begins on a downhill, such as Boston or California International, 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, even 12, you likely feel good and are eager to pick up the pace a bit – but running faster than goal race in the middle miles will only haunt you 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.
How to pace your fastest marathon involves staying at a comfortable effort for as long as possible in the first 20 miles. Your marathon pace will likely feel comfortable through mile 16-18. 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, of course, hinges on whether or not you chose an appropriate goal pace. Your goal marathon pace should feel relatively comfortable by the end of training. If you are huffing and puffing hard to maintain that pace on those final goal pace workouts, you may want to adjust your goals.
The Final 10K
I like to 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, but the secret of how to pace your fastest marathon comes down to holding onto pace despite the discomfort and fatigue of these final miles.
If you maintained a comfortable pace through the first 20 miles and are fueling and hydrating well, you shouldn’t hit 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.
Practicing Pacing in Training
When I coach first-time marathoners, the focus is on simply building up to the marathon distance – a huge challenge enough in itself. However, when runners come to me with a time goal in mind or the even more elusive goal of finishing the marathon strong, I prescribe a few key workouts for them.
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 – and therefore reveal to you if you have picked an appropriate race goal as well (although remember, 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, starting 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:
After the long run, tempo runs are the most important workout in marathon training. Both Brad Hudson and Jack Daniels combine marathon pace and threshold pace in workouts, which serve as the inspiration for this workout. The cutdown tempo run will train you to push harder after holding marathon pace for a while – just as you want to do in the final 10K on race day.
The workout: Warm up for 1-2 miles. Run 3 miles at marathon pace, 2 miles at half marathon pace, and 1 mile at 10K pace, with a ½ mile easy jog between each. Cool down with 1-2 mile of easy running.
Are you running your first marathon this fall or training for your fastest? Pre-register today for my fall 2017 virtual Marathon Training Group! If you prefer one-on-one coaching, you can learn more about my coaching services here.
How did you pace your best marathon?
Have you ever started out too fast in a race?