Race-Day Strategies for Marathoners

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Your marathon preparation occurs over several months. You plan meticulously and train diligently so that you are in peak condition.

To do your best, you also need to have a plan for the marathon itself that anticipates the details--warm up, pacing, first miles, first half, the final six miles and 385 yards.

Having a plan will help you get the most out of your long months of training so that you can finish exhausted but satisfied.

Warming Up

The purpose of a warm-up is to prepare your body to run at race pace. Beginners, whose goal is to finish, can warm up during the first couple of miles of the race. However, if you are a more competitive marathoner, you will attempt to run the marathon faster than your normal training pace and need to find an optimal warm-up that activates your aerobic system while sparing as much glycogen as possible for the race itself.

Plan to warm up with two five-minute runs with some stretching in between. Start warming up about 30 to 40 minutes before the start of the race. Start your first warm up run slowly, and gradually increase your pace so that you finish at about one minute per mile slower than marathon race pace.

Next, stretch for about 10 minutes including your upper body. Follow that with another five minutes of running, this time gradually picking up the pace until you reach marathon pace for the final 30 seconds or so. Then stretch again.

Try to time your warm-up so that you finish no more than 10 minutes before the race starts.

Your Pacing Strategy

Assuming that you have a time goal for the marathon, and have trained accordingly, a pacing strategy will help you achieve your goal.

The basics of marathon physiology indicate that the best strategy for the marathon is relatively even pacing. If you run much faster than your overall race pace for part of the race, then you'll use more glycogen than necessary and will likely start to accumulate lactate.

If you run much slower than your overall race pace for part of the race, then you'll need to make up for this lapse by running faster than the most efficient pace for another portion of the race.

The optimal pacing strategy, then, is to run nearly even splits, taking into account the idiosyncrasies of the course you'll be running.

However, your running economy will tend to decrease slightly during the race, meaning that your lactate threshold pace will decrease slightly as well. The result is that your optimal pace will be slightly slower during the latter stages of the marathon.

A more efficient pacing strategy is to think of the race in two halves, and allow yourself to slow by two percent to three percent during the second half. Although in most cases you should stay with your pacing plan, occasionally the weather or other circumstances may merit slight changes in your strategy.

If you're running into a head wind, there's a substantial advantage to running in a group of runners to block the wind. This may warrant running a little faster or slower than your planned pace. Even on a calm day, you may want to adjust your pace in order to run in a group.

Although drafting behind other runners will give you a small energy advantage, most of the benefit of staying with a group is psychological. You don't have to set the pace, and you can relax and go along with the group.

Most runners find it mentally difficult to run alone for long stretches of the marathon. You can measure the tradeoff between having company and having to compromise your strategy by a simple rule of thumb: If you have to deviate from your goal pace by more than eight to 10 seconds per mile, it will be important to drop away from that pack.

That eight to 10 seconds can be the difference in effort that could put you over the edge. If your breathing is uncomfortable and you can sense that you're working at a higher intensity than you can maintain until the finish, then relax and let the others go. You may find that the group will soon break up and that you'll once again have others to run with.