The Art — And Science — of Marathon Pacing

Whether you use a standard or GPS watch or simply run by feel, knowing your pace is important — especially during longer races. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Is Even Pacing The Best Marathon Pacing Strategy?

The fact that most of the fastest men’s and women’s marathon times ever recorded involved negative splits would seem to be strong evidence that negative splitting, or at least even pacing, is the optimal marathon pacing strategy. One of the world’s top experts on pacing strategies, Ross Tucker, Ph.D., finds this logical irrefutable.

“I’m a big believer that there is such a thing as ‘natural selection’ when it comes to performance,” he wrote in an e-mail. “In other words, if the very best athlete runs a negative split, then that is most likely the optimal way [for everyone] to go about it. Because given that hundreds of world-class athletes are racing, time will eventually ensure that the optimal strategy is settled upon. If a positive split were better, I have no doubt that all the great athletes would be going out and doing it, simply because it works.”

However, just because even pacing seems to be the optimal pacing strategy for the world’s best runners doesn’t mean it’s automatically the best pacing strategy for you and me. There’s a large and possibly crucial difference in the fitness levels that elite and non-elite runners bring to the marathon event. It’s plausible to me that the more modest a runner’s fitness level is, the more likely it is that he will achieve his fastest time by running somewhat aggressively in the first half and then “hanging on” in the second half. Put another way, it’s plausible to me that the smaller the difference between the most comfortable pace a runner could sustain for 26.2 miles and the fastest pace he could sustain for the same distance, the more likely it is that a slightly positive pacing pattern would produce the best overall result.

Even the winner of most 100K ultramarathons runs a positive split, due to the extremity of the distance. Perhaps the standard marathon distance is almost as extreme for the average runner as the 100K distance is for the very best ultrarunners, making a positive split almost unavoidable. Just maybe, the average runner would have to hold back so much in the first half to run a faster second half that it’s just not worth it. If so, the average runner is better off just trying to avoid a precipitous decline in speed in the final miles.

I had an interesting marathon experience that increased the plausibility of this notion in my mind. I ran the 2007 Sacramento Cowtown Marathon as a training run. My goal was to run slightly under three hours, or approximately 12 minutes slower than I felt capable of running at maximum effort at the time. I wound up running the first half in 1:28:48 and the second half in 1:27:20. Despite restraining my pace from start to finish, I felt surprisingly fatigued in the last few miles.

RELATED: Developing A Better Sense Of Pace

Was I wrong in having believed I was capable of running a 2:48 marathon at the time? I don’t think so. I believe I could have run the first half of the marathon some four and a half minutes faster than I did and still hung on to run the second half at about the same pace. Because my fitness level was relatively modest at the time, simply finishing a marathon at a comfortable pace was going to take almost as much out of me as finishing it as fast as possible, therefore “saving energy” for the second half was probably not the optimal pacing strategy (or would not have been had I been aiming for maximal performance).

It is pure speculation on my part to suggest that modestly fit runners will typically run their best marathon time with a slightly positive split, where the second half marathon is run between, say, one second and two minutes slower than the first half. It would be very difficult to test this hypothesis scientifically. And there would be little point, because most runners will complete the second half of a marathon slightly slower than the first half even when they consciously aim for perfectly even splits, so my advice to all marathon runners is to try to run even splits. If you’re trying to break the world record, you will have to actually run even splits or possibly a negative split, whereas if you’re the average runner you should be content if your second half split is less than two minutes slower than your first.

You may also have to run even splits or better to lower your own personal best finishing time if you have run multiple marathons and lowered your personal best time to a point near your genetic limit. In this case, you are now more like an elite runner than an average runner.

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