5 Tips for Marathon Pacing

More than 90 percent of marathoners run the second half of the marathon significantly slower than the first. This is not ideal. You'll get your best marathon results if you pace yourself so that you run the second half at the same pace as the first. Here are five tips to help you pace yourself better in your next marathon.

More: Your Guide to Perfect Pacing

1. Run More Than One Marathon

New research shows that pacing in running races is controlled primarily by the subconscious brain. Throughout each race, your brain calculates the fastest pace you can sustain without endangering your life and uses feelings of fatigue and reduced electrical output to your muscles to ensure that you run no faster. The more experience you have as a runner, the more reliable these calculations become.

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.

More: 11 Keys to a Successful Marathon Journey

2. 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, as they do in shorter races. You have to hold so much back when running a marathon that the early miles feel very easy--so easy that you could run five or ten 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 for setting marathon time/pace goals is performance in shorter races. A race time equivalence table or pace calculator can be used to generate a predicted marathon time based on a finish time in a shorter event, for example a 10K.

More: 14 Tips to Reach Your Race Goal

3. 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


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