Marathon Pacing: How to Run Your Best Race

After months of training and countless miles, your race is here. Hundreds of hours of hard work all come down to one day and 26.2 miles. Yet after juggling workouts and recovery, managing your commitments, and making nuanced adjustments to your nutrition, the most common race strategy for runners is little strategy at all.

Many runners follow these three simple steps:

1 — Determine your goal finishing time
2 — Divide by 26.2 to get a per mile split.
3 — Run that even pace until you blow up, burn out, or hit the finish line?whichever comes first.

But any veteran marathon runner will tell you that their race day splits look nothing at all like that neat little pace band they picked up in the expo. There are countless factors to contend with on race day: crowding, weather and terrain just to name a few. And let's not forget the biggest factor of all: YOU.

Simple vs Strategic

The pace band strategy is appealing because it's so simple. All you have to worry about is running one simple split, over and over again, to meet the benchmarks and make your goal. Simple on paper, however, is not simple in reality.

At the start of the race you are excited and well-tapered; you have lots of energy. Contrast that with the end of the marathon, where most of us are on the ropes both physically and mentally. Somewhere between these two points is a happy middle ground that allows us to run well without making massive assumptions about our day and our fitness.

Instead, a strategic approach can map out how your body operates across the day. A good strategy allows you to conserve critical energy early, settle into a sustainable pace for the body of your race, and ideally sets you up to run the last few critical miles well.

More: 5 Tips for Marathon Pacing

That Which Doesn't Kill Us?Makes Us Smarter

We can learn a great deal about what we should do to by observing what we did that didn't work.

These two images show what happens when a runner picks an overly aggressive pace for the full marathon distance.

As you can see from the blue chart, the overall pace degrades over time. The real decline starts just before the three hour mark. The runner regroups to run what might be a better pace for about 35 minutes (the 3:40 to 4:15 mark), but at this point even that's too much. He chooses to use a run/walk strategy to keep moving forward, and by the end he's buoyed by the finish line to finish with an effort that matches exactly how he started. In other words, his final "kick" was only as fast as he chose to run those first easy miles.

More: How to Beat the Wall During Your Marathon

The Heart of the Matter

As this chart shows above, this marathon runner's real race isn't against the clock, it's against himself. The early aggressive pace he picked didn't "show up" on his heart rate monitor as he was well-rested and tapered. Before long, however, he had gone from the low 140s to cracking 170 beats per minute?a 30-beat swing in under three hours on steady pacing! This is yet another indicator that the initial pacing goal was simply too ambitious.

More: The Power of Pace and Heart-Rate Training

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