Posted by: Joe English | September 18, 2007

Training: More thoughts on late marathon miles

I received a number of inquiries – and had more people talk to me at workouts yesterday- after reading my earlier piece called “How should I feel after running a 20 miler?” Most of the questions revolved around one sort of nebulous topic: if the last few miles of the marathon are going to be so hard, then should I do something different to prepare for them?” I had to think a lot about these questions and I’m going to do something that I don’t often do: just give you some random thoughts on the topic.

First, when I spoke about the later miles of a marathon being a real struggle, I did not necessarily mean that you’d be forced to stop and walk. I think about my own experiences and there are often times when I’d express the later stages of a marathon as “one of the hardest things that I’ve ever done”, yet I’m still running at my target goal pace. Truthfully, if you’re running right at your limits, then the pace is going to feel harder and harder throughout the race, but you may not actually be slowing down.

Think about doing push-ups. If you start doing push-ups, your body feels heavier and heavier. You aren’t actually getting heavier, it just feels that way due to the fatigue in your muscles. Running is the same. As you get deeper into the race, your legs are getting more and more tired, requiring you to really work to maintain your pace – even if that pace is going to stay the same.

I’ve often taken splits at every mile in a marathon and, although I’m struggling, I look down at those splits, thinking that I’m slowing down, yet I’m not. This is where you need to be dialed-in to your pace. You really need to have learned to run that pace. The external feedback of the watch just confirms that you’re still running at that pace when you’re getting too fatigued to do it only by feel.

The optimal way to pace a marathon is to run exactly the speed at which you would run out of gas right when you hit the finish-line. Not two miles later and definitely not six miles earlier. This concept requires you to really understand your capabilities. But if you do understand that pace, then you’ll find that you can run a particular pace from start to finish, hitting every mile at that pace, and as you get into the later miles of it will still “feel” harder and harder. As the race starts winding down, you’ll be “holding on” and really have to push yourself to keep things going. And when you hit the line, you’ll know that if you’d run any of that race any faster, you wouldn’t have made it at that pace.

That’s what it means to run right on the knife-edge of your capabilities and there are risks to doing that. Chris McCormack, the champion Ironman triathlete, once said that he was EITHER going to set a new record or DNF. Those were the options. No in between. He knew that by pushing himself to his limits, he’d either get it just right and set a record or he’d flame out in trying. But that was a risk that he’d take in order to try to get the record.

I’ve had numerous marathons that have played out just like this. When I review the splits of those races, every mile is within seconds of my pace goal. And when I hit those last few miles, I was hanging in there to keep it going. In Sacramento last year at the California International Marathon, I recall thinking in the fist third of the marathon, “this pace is right on, I could pick it up.” In the second third, it was “I think I can maintain this pace for the rest of the race.” In the last third, I was thinking, “hang in there!” When I crossed the finish line, I recall thinking that I could not have gone one more mile at the pace. Period. At the same time, I know that if I had gone faster anywhere along the way, I would have flamed out before the finish-line.

All of this is to say that your particular struggles in a marathon are going to be directly related to both the way you pace yourself and the quality of your training. The closer you come to your capability without going over it, the more difficult it will be to keep going at that pace in the later miles, but you’ll be able to do it. If you run faster than your capabilities you simply will not be able to maintain the pace through the whole race. Run slower that your capabilities and you’ll have an easier time.

Picking a pace to run in a race is much more complicated topic. It starts with your goals for that particular race; the pace at which you’ve run your training runs; the depth of your training; and factors related to the race itself, such as the weather and the terrain. The best pace to run is one that you can sustain from start to finish. How challenging that pace becomes in the later miles is related to all of these factors that I’ve just listed off.

This is a topic that is in some respects particularly hard to describe to first time marathon runners. The experience is often unlike anything people have done before.

I’d like to invite some of our more seasoned runners to comment here and tell us what you think about this topic. How hard have your marathons been in the last miles? How close have you come to your capabilities in terms of your pace? What do you wish you’d have known about the later marathon miles before you did your first race?

As always, good luck in your races and please post your questions and comments!

Related Posts:
How should I feel after running 20 miles?

Race report: California International Marathon 2006

Coach Joe

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  1. […] To read more on this topic, click here for a follow-on article “More thoughts on late marathon miles.” […]

  2. Joe,

    I wouldn’t count myself among your more seasoned runners yet, but I do think you’ve captured the issue very well. Of course, the broader issue you bring us is pacing in general, which applies to races of any distance.

    I’m a second year runner and have been training in a very disciplined manner for the better part of two years now. Entering the fall, I am just now coming back to various races and distances for a second time. Suffice it to say that my progress has been significant over the past year such that setting target race paces has taken considerable thought. I simply don’t have years of races to draw upon. I have been using the McMillan calculator for pacing and found it amazingly accurate.

    Here’s an example. Three weeks ago, in my first race of the fall season (a 5k), I set an aggressive goal of 21:00, down from about 24:15 last year. Various readings I had taken along the way suggested that 21:00 was aggressive, but in the realm of the possible. Well, of course, I went out too fast for the first mile, and flamed out a bit in mile 3. That pacing error clearly cost me a bit and I ended up posting 21:17. Fast forward to last weekend for my 1/2 marathon for which McMillan suggested I could achieve 1:38:30 or so. First off, I really did not think I could complete 13.1 mi at 7:38, but it was a great morning and I had tapered well reasonable well, so I went for it. I started off with the appropriate pace group, but let myself drift ahead in the first two miles, which were downhill. Of course I ended up with a faster group. Things were going exactly as you stated for the 1st third. Comfortable. Felt I could have notched it up. I didn’t though. I let the faster groups pull away until I was at the back of the 7:15 – 7:30 group. Still slightly faster than target, but they were actually a little behind by my watch. I let them pull me through mile 10. At that point, I couldn’t quite hang with them. That middle section was definitely harder. Going from comfortably hard to just plain hard. As I look back at my splits, my times were amazingly consistent, though. For the last 3.1, things were really tough. I honestly laid it all out and posted a net 1:37:03, down from 1:59:57 last year. Somehow I had achieved a 7:25 pace. In any event, your description was spot on.

    I now have 6 weeks to recover get in a couple more of long weeks and taper before my marathon. I expect the effort to be just as it was last week and just as you have described. But then again, that’s 100%. The last third could have been much easier if I had taken it easier. For my marathon (the Marine Corps), I’ll target sub 3:25:00–again, based on McMillan. Last year was 4:25:00 or so. Then, it’s 3 more weeks until the JFK 50! I only hope I can recover reasonably well in so little time. I’m not intending to race the 50, though. Just finish!

  3. James provides a great example of paying very close attention to pacing.

    Note that in James’ half-marathon example, he’s talking about a difference between 7:30 and 7:25 per mile – just a few seconds per mile- and it sounds like he ran an even-split race.

    This is the ideal way to set yourself up for success: understanding the fine lines between how fast you can go and how fast is too fast.

    I hope we’ll get some more folks to chime in on this one.

    Coach Joe

  4. Ok,
    I’ll add some observations and thoughts on this.

    The marathon is certainly unique to a degree. Pacing is the critical factor. IF yes IF you have trained appropriately and really KNOW your goal pace and DON’t get carried away and you’ve done all your “homework” then… and only then… the last miles will feel tough. But, if you do not do all these things you will suffer. There is only a 2% margin of error in pacing before you will “pay fo rit” later. Just 2% too fast and you are almost guaranteed to lose all the seconds you gained and far more by the end.

    Now, in my opinion, desptie the distance, I don’t view the miles any “trougher” than a 5k, 10k or half marathon or the final 300 of a mile race or the final 200 of an 800! If you press your limits… it’s gonna hurt some! Now, the discomfort you feel is different in the 800 versus teh marathon.. but it is just as real. There is no special pain in a marathon.

    I have seen it a million times (ok maybe not quite) people won’t hurt as much in shorter races only because they won’t test themselves to the degree a marathon does. It’s just that you suffer for a longer (or shorter) period of time IF you truly go for it.

    The other big difference of course is due to the distance, the actual cellular damage is more dramatic with the length of time you are out there. That means it takes more time to recover and the discomfort lasts longer…. much longer.

    In any case, if you don’t pace yourself appropriate to your conditioning… you’re in for pain. And if you run according to your conditioning, you’ll feel discomfort late in the race – regardless. If you didn’t… you aren’t pushing.

    Coach Dean

  5. Coach Joe,

    I definitely don’t consider myself a seasoned runner, but I was pleasantly surprised when I reviewed the results of a half marathon that I did in March. Even though I felt as if I was starting to slow down somewhere around mile 10, it turned out that I was running in a pretty consistent pace throughout the race. That turned out to be the pace that I grew so used to running when I trained on a treadmill.

    I had hoped that I could do the same – run with a more or less consistent pace – for my marathon in May, but that did not happen. Somewhere along mile 17, my knees began to hurt a lot, possibly due to the continuous pounding, and that slowed me down drastically, especially during the last 5-6 miles. I was feeling that I had the stamina to run at a faster pace, if not for the pain in my knees simply that prevented me from actually “running”.

    This leads me to a series of questions that are not directly related to the topic of this post. I understand the importance of getting the right shoes for one’s running style and the gradual increase of mileage. 1) What are some of the common causes of knee pains? 2) Are there some exercises or running techniques that you would recommend, which would help the knees get used to the stress it is subjected to during long runs? 3) Assuming a course with both rolling hills and flats, how should one plan his/her run on race day to avoid getting pains in the knees?

  6. Andie,

    In case you’re checking back to this post, here is an article on running injuiries that may answer some of your questions about knee problems:

    I’ll try to answer your other questions soon – as soon as I’m back on-line.

    Coach Joe

  7. Andie,
    One thing I can tell you regarding the knee pain is that if you did not experience on the treadmill then that is one critical issue. The good thing about treads is that you can get your training in when otherwise you might not. However, there is a natural “give” or shock absorption to a tread. What happens is that you don’t get fully conditioned over time to the “pounding”. Your body can make the distance without pain but training is specific… my first recommendation is more miles on the road. Second, if you have not had a foot-strike analysis done (some running stores do this for free) get it done and make sure you have the right shoes for YOU. There is no such thing a a prefect shoe. They are all excellently made and designed. But, they are in “families” of shoes (control, pronators, etc.) and your foot strike dictates which is most appropriate for you. There will be many different makers who make shoes in that family. Third, rolling hills rarely causes knee pain. However, if you have to run on one side of the road throughout the race, that means you are favoring one side… that indeed can cause knee and other pain because of the camber in the road.
    Coach Dean

  8. Andie,
    Another thing about knee pain is that Iliotibial band issues can feel like knee issues. And that might be why the hills are aggravating it. Stretching the IT band and hill training might be helpful.

    The treadmill also forces you to change the way you run, I would equate it to being more like running on ice.

  9. […] See also: More thoughts on late marathon miles […]

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