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

How Can We Improve Our Marathon Pacing?

Effective race pacing may be defined as actually completing a race with the fastest time one is capable of completing a race. Let’s now take it as a given that every runner should try to run even splits or better in a marathon, although actually running a slight positive split might yield the fastest finishing time for most runners. What measures can you take to improve your ability to complete your next marathon with the fastest time possible? Here are five:

Run More Than One Marathon
The more familiar a specific racing experience is, the more effectively the brain’s teleoanticipatory mechanism will be able to do its job. If you’ve done it, or something very much like it before, then your brain will be able to compare the feedback it receives from your body and the environment to similar past experiences and make good calculations about the fastest pace you can safely maintain between your current location and the finish line.

Everyone agrees that nothing can prepare you for the fatigue you experience in the final miles of your first marathon. But after you have had this experience, you are better able to pace yourself effectively in future marathons. Most of this learning happens on a subconscious level. Your brain-body makes its way through your second marathon with a better sense of how you should feel at any given point in the race.

So treat your first marathon as a sort of experiment. Pace yourself cautiously but not fearfully and see what happens, knowing that, no matter what happens, you will pace yourself better in the next marathon for having done the first.

Set Appropriate Time Goals
Because the marathon distance is so extreme, few runners are able to effectively pace their way through a marathon entirely by feel, however, as they do in shorter races. You have to hold so much back when running a marathon that the early miles necessarily feel very easy — so easy that you could run five or 10 seconds per mile faster or slower and it would not feel noticeably harder or easier. But a pace difference of just five or 10 seconds per mile in the first half of a marathon could make the difference between hanging on and falling apart in the second half. So choosing an appropriate time goal, which in turn gives you an appropriate target pace, is very important.

Past marathon performances are the best source of information to use in setting future marathon time goals. In many cases, the most sensible goal is to beat your previous best time by a slight margin. How much of an improvement is realistic depends on how much better your fitness is during your current marathon ramp-up than it was in previous ones. Comparing your performance in recent workouts against your performance in similar workouts done at the same point in past marathon training cycles will give you a good feel for how high to reach.

Another good source of information to use in setting marathon time/pace goals is performances in shorter races. A race time equivalence table or calculator can be used to generate a predicted marathon time based on a finish time in a shorter event—for example a 10K. There’s a good race time equivalence table in Daniels’ Running Formula and a good calculator at mcmillanrunning.com.

Be forewarned, however, that these tables and calculators assume optimal training for each race distance. Optimal training for a marathon includes a lot more mileage than optimal training for, say, a 10K. However, most runners train far closer to optimally for shorter races than they do for the marathon. They are unwilling or unable to increase their mileage enough to make their marathon training truly equivalent to their training for shorter races. Thus, I have found that the race performance equivalence calculators tend to be very accurate from the 5K to the half marathon but overestimate performance for the marathon. Keep this in mind when using them.

RELATED: 10K Pacing Is An Art

Train Hard
Like marathons themselves, but to a slightly lesser degree, hard workouts serve to calibrate the teleoanticipation mechanism. Hard workouts expose your body to fatigue in ways that are similar to how marathons do, so they teach your body how fast and how far you can go before fatigue will occur. This internalized feel for your limits will help you pace yourself more effectively on race day.

The more marathon-specific a workout is, the more it will help you in this regard. Therefore, in the final weeks of training for a marathon you should do a handful of very challenging workouts that mimic both the speed and the endurance demands of your coming marathon. Here are three peak marathon workout formats that I recommend:

Long, Hard Run

1 mile easy

20 miles @ marathon pace + 20-30 seconds per mile

Marathon-Pace Run

1 mile easy

14 miles at marathon pace

Pre-Fatigued Time Trial

10 miles easy

10K maximum effort

Run The First Half By Time, The Last By Feel
There are many runners who have completed 50 marathons, 100 marathons, and more. There are also many runners who routinely complete ultramarathons ranging from 50K to 100 miles in distance. For these runners, the 26.2-mile distance may be so familiar or manageable that they can effectively pace themselves exclusively by feel in a marathon. The rest of us cannot.

The rest of us need to pace ourselves initially by paying attention to actual pace data. Only after passing the halfway mark can we then safely go by feel, running the remaining distance at the fastest pace possible and using pace data only to monitor our pace rather than to actually control it.

If you have chosen an appropriate finish time goal and pace target and you accept that it is best to aim to run an even pace throughout a marathon, then it’s obvious how you need to handle your pacing after the starting horn sounds. Do your very best to run the first mile at exactly your goal pace time. Don’t run slower to “save energy” for the final miles, because it’s very unlikely that you will be able to make up time at that point, and don’t run faster to “put time in the bank,” as this usually results in a precipitous decline in pace after 20 miles.

At the one-mile mark, check your split and adjust your pace accordingly in the next mile. Continue trying to nail your target pace perfectly throughout the first half of the race. At that point, you will be able to rely on your teleoanticipation mechanism to guide your pacing the rest of the way.

If you own a speed and distance device, you can use it to show your real-time average pace throughout the race, so you don’t have to wait for mile marks to check whether you’re on pace. Just be sure to account for any known degree of inaccuracy in your device’s readings. I ran my last marathon with a speed and distance device that consistently tells me I’m running three seconds per mile faster than I really am. My target pace for the race was 6:05, so I tried to keep the average pace reading at 6:02.

RELATED: How Fast Should You Run?

Know The Course
Even pacing is not the same thing as an even distribution of energy. Even pacing becomes a very poor pacing strategy for the marathon when keeping an even pace requires sharp fluctuations in your rate of energy expenditure. Hills, of course, are the complicating factor here. When you’re running uphill you have to expend much more energy to hold the same pace you were holding on the level terrain that preceded the hill, and when you’re running downhill you can go faster with less energy than you can on level terrain.

You should try to keep your energy expenditure relatively even throughout a marathon, which means you have to slow down when running uphill and speed up when running downhill. This is something you will tend to do naturally, but instead of just taking the hills as they come, you should study the marathon course beforehand so you can factor the placement of hills into your pacing strategy.

For example, almost the entire first half of the Boston Marathon is downhill, while the second half is not. Therefore you should plan to run the first half at a pace that’s slightly faster than your target pace for the whole event. By contrast, the San Francisco Marathon is much hillier in the first half than in the second, so a planned negative split is definitely the way to go in this event.

Naturally, the hillier a marathon course, the slower you should expect your finish time to be. So if your main interest is running a fast time, choose the flattest marathon you can find, and then run it like a metronome!

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.

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