Let’s get real for a moment about marathon pacing. If you’re running a marathon parts of it are going to feel somewhat unpleasant. This is true for just about everyone. However, a marathon is a long journey and the pace feels different at different points along the way. By understanding how the pace should feel at the various stages of the race, you can avoid either going out too hard or too slowly and hopefully make the tough parts go more smoothly.Before we jump into the play-by-play of the marathon, let’s reemphasize that knowing your pace is an important skill for marathon runners. Understanding what pace you can run for a specific distance is where the growth comes for most runners as they progress over time. At the beginning of a marathon runner’s experience the focus just tends to be on “getting through it” but after doing a couple of big runs, runners are more likely to start setting specific goals and it takes paying precise attention to pace to meet those goals. It’s also important to understand that the pace that we can run and sustain is scientifically related across a spectrum of distances. To say that another way, if you push yourself as hard as you can at 5K, we can calculate pretty specifically how fast you can go at various other distances. This knowledge can take the guess-work out of your pacing, but it requires a little work to get there in terms of testing yourself and then paying attention to your pace as you train and race.
So let’s say you’ve arrived at a target finish-time for your next race in a race. There are a couple of race strategies that you can use to get there — put here in the simplest of terms:
1) “I’m going to ‘wing’ it” — you can just go out and see what happens. This is the strategy for more runners than you might think. Unfortunately, it puts you at the highest risk of blowing up late in the race, because you really don’t know what pace you should be running at the beginning.
2) “I’ll go out hard and pray” — you go out hard to “bank” time for the slow-down that will likely come at the end of the race. This is also a tremendously common misconception of the way pacing works. Colloquially speaking we would say that for every minute you get ahead of your pacing capability in the first half the race, you’re going to pay for it with four minutes in the second half.
3) “I want to run a negative split” — Some people try to warm-up slowly over a number of miles and then crank up the pace in the second half. This is actually quite difficult to do in practice unless you’re talking about a very narrow negative split (or leaving a lot of time on the table). The reason as outlined below is that you become more fatigued as you go along so it feels harder to run THE SAME pace as the miles advance. This means that trying to increase the pace late in the race is pretty darn tough (but not impossible).
4) “I want to run an even pace” — The smart money is on trying to run your goal pace for the entire race. The best runners in the world execute their pacing plans down to extremely narrow margins — such as 5K splits within 1 second of each other across the whole race. We don’t all have to aspire to that sort of precision, but it certainly is a benchmark to envision what’s possible.
So how is that pace going to feel? I like to break down the race into quarters for simplicity and here’s what I say about each part of the race.
First Quarter (miles 0-6) — The first quarter of the marathon should feel fantastically easy. You should be running on a combination of sheer adrenaline and being well rested from a light week (or weeks) coming into the race. The focus of the first few miles of the marathon should be warming up and holding back to avoid going faster than goal pace. If the pace in the first quarter of the race feels too fast, you’ve most certainly gone out too hard. Happily if you are paying attention and are running the correct pace early enough you may not have done yourself in. Ignore it and you will pay for it later.
Second Quarter (miles 7-13) — The second quarter of the race should feel relaxed and comfortable. You’re running along at goal pace, not needing to push yourself hard. I see the second quarter as a game of patience and waiting for what’s to come. Your fuel and hydration levels are good now, so it should feel like you’re on the early stages of a long run. Again, this is too early to be feeling the impact of fatigue. If the pace feels too hard, you have gone out too hard.
Third Quarter (miles 14-20) — The challenge begins to mount in the middle miles. Fatigue is starting to build, energy stores are running low and your mental faculties will start playing games with you. The middle miles are the time to really focus. The pace — the SAME PACE — should now feel more difficult. This is akin to doing push-ups or other exercises. You’re starting to feel tired, but if you are running the correct pace you will be able to keep it consistent. Watch for pace drift in which you start losing a few seconds a mile here and there. This is often a simple combination of fatigue and a lack of focus. Keep a tight eye on the watch.
Fourth Quarter (miles 20-26) — Now you’re starting to feel very tired. You’re starting to push your muscles toward failure. The key here is that this is the same pace you’ve been running all through the race. If you have run the pace too hard earlier on this is the point at which you are likely to collapse or “hit the wall.” The last quarter of the race is a brute force effort of wills. You need to tell yourself that you’ve practiced your pace, you’re almost there, and just hang in there. Keep the nutrition coming, because even if your muscles aren’t low on reserves (they are) your brain needs the fuel to get you through the mental battle that’s happening now. Keep it up until the 25th mile and then you’ll likely be able to find that adrenaline again to help you get in on schedule.
The bottom line is that the trick to pacing in the marathon is that it will feel harder as the race unfolds. With that in mind, the pace at the beginning is critical and needs to be well thought-out. The best strategy is to run an even pace, knowing that the beginning will feel easy and the end will feel tough.
Good luck out there.
Coach Joe English, Portland, OR USA
for Running-Advice.com and RUN Time