Marathon Pacing Strategies

On race day, running the correct pace during a marathon is the single most important factor in achieving your goal time.  Surprisingly, many marathoners line up at the start on race day without a solid race pace plan or fail to stick to their plan. The difference between hitting your goal or hitting the wall is often very small.  Why put in months of dedicated training only to waste it by not planning your marathon pacing strategy.

Developing a good marathon pacing strategy is often difficult for both new and experienced marathoners.  In this article, we’ll discuss marathon pacing strategies advocated by experts as well as provide solutions for you to stay on pace on race day.


Start Strategy

Many runners ruin their chances to achieve their goal time in the first few miles of the race. It’s very easy to let the excitement of the race dictate your pace. You’re rested, your legs feel fresh, and race pace at this point seems veRunning in the early-morning sunshinery easy.  However, you need to resist the urge to go out too fast. It may seem that other runners are flying by you. Don’t chase them. If you stick to your pacing plan, you’ll end up passing many of them later in the race as they struggle towards the finish in the last few miles.

One of the keys to hitting your goal time is managing your energy expenditure.  Going out faster than goal pace in the first few miles will burn carbohydrates at a faster rate – carbohydrates that will be needed more the last few miles of the race.  You will want to go out at your goal marathon pace or slightly slower in order to conserve carbohydrate utilization.  

If your first couple of miles are slower than planned due to the mass starts at large races, don’t attempt to make up this lost time in the first few miles.  Rather, spread out the time over the entire length of the course.  If you find yourself 30 seconds behind pace after the first mile, you can make up the time by running only about one second per mile faster than the rest of the race.  This is a much better strategy than running 10-15 seconds per mile faster for the next two to three miles to make up the time.

 

Pacing Strategies

Most running experts and coaches advocate an even or close to even pacing strategy.  Keith and Kevin Hanson, founders of the elite Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project and co-authors of Hansons Marathon Method, recommend running the second half slightly faster than the first half.  They assert that going out slow will almost never be detrimental to maintaining your goal pace in the latter miles of the marathon, but going too fast the first half likely will.  In addition, Timothy Noakes (Lore of Running) and Matt Fitzgerald (The Runner’s Edge) also recommend a slightly negative split.  Fitzgerald suggests running the first half 2 to 4 seconds per mile slower than than the second.  That would equate to someone of a goal of four hours to run the first half thirty seconds to a minute faster than the last thirteen miles.


Elite Athlete Marathon Pacing

The recommendation of running a close to even pace is also supported by the pacing strategies of elite marathoners. Each time the men’s World Record in the marathon has been broken in recent years (as well as with the current women’s record), the runner ran relatively even first and second half splits.

Athlete 1st Half 2nd Half + / – seconds
Dennis Kimetto (2014) 1:01:45 1:01:12 – 33
Wilson Kipsang (2013) 1:01:32 1:01:51 +18
Patrick Makau (2011) 1:01:44 1:01:54 +10
Haile Gebrselassie (2008) 1:02:05 1:01:54 -11
Haile Gebrselassie (2007) 1:02:29 1:02:17 -12
Paula Radcliffe (2003) 1:08:02 1:07:23 -39

Comparison of first and second half marathon splits of recent men’s and women’s marathon world records.


Positive Split Strategy

Pete Pfitzinger, two-time Olympic Marathoner and author of the popular book, Advanced Marathoning, advocates a slight positive split strategy.  He states that in order to run even splits (assuming a completely flat course) you would need to “increase your oxygen consumption and lactate level as your fatigue level increases” during the second half of the marathon.  In other words, your effort level will need to increase in order to maintain the same pace throughout the marathon.  

Rather than run even splits, Pfitzinger recommends running the first half of the race between 2 to 3 percent faster than the second half in order to account for the natural slowing. He maintains that if you were able to negative split the marathon (run the second half faster than the first), you likely ran slower than your optimal pace during the first half of the race and could have finished in a faster time.


Pacing Marathons with Hills

Although each time the men’s world record in the marathon has been broken in recent years the runner has run relatively even splits, each oPacing Strategies for Marathons with Hilsf these record races have been run at the Berlin Marathon, a very flat course (elevation chart).  In addition, Paula Radcliffe’s record was also run on a flat course at the London Marathon.  Even pac
ing on flat courses like
Berlin and London results in a relatively even rate of energy expenditure throughout most of the race.  However, even pacing is a less effective pacing strategy on courses where maintaining an even pace requires changes in your rate of energy expenditure.

Hills, of course, are the primary reason for these changes in energy expenditure.  When you’re running uphill you have to expend more energy to hold the same pace you were holding on flat terrain.  And when you’re running downhill you can go faster while expending less energy than you would on flat terrain.  Therefore, the pacing strategy for the hilly San Francisco Marathon would be markedly different than the strategy for the flat Chicago Marathon.

During the marathon you should try to keep your energy expenditure relatively even to minimize carbohydrate depletion.  Therefore, you need to slow down when running uphill and speed up when running downhill. The best way to achieve an even energy expenditure is to develop a race pace plan that is based on the uphill and downhills of the specific course.

Fortunately, we’ve done this for you with our Marathon Pace Bands. We’ve analyzed the course terrain for over 400 marathon and half marathons (more are added daily) and creaMarathon Pace Bandted pacing strategies based on each specific course.  The algorithm used to develop the race-specific paces are derived from peer reviewed research, advice from running experts, and analysis of the actual race
paces from runners who have successfully met their time goals.  In addition to the course-specific pacing strategies, you can modify the start and pacing strategies or create your own paces.  

As four-time Boston and New York City Marathon winner aptly stated, “the marathon can humble you.”  However, by developing a solid race pacing strategy, you will have a better chance at achieving your goal and humbling the marathon.