Race-Day Strategies for Marathoners

The First Half

It's easy to get carried away and run the first mile too fast. A better approach is to run the first mile at, or a bit slower than, your goal pace.

Avoid the temptation to head out too fast. Once the first mile is out of the way, settle into a good rhythm. Try to run fast but relaxed. Establishing a relaxed running style early in the race will go a long way toward helping you avoid tightening up so that you can maintain your goal pace to the finish.

It's important to drink right from the start rather than waiting until you're running low on energy or fluid. If you wait until you're tired and light-headed, it will be too late.

Take a carbohydrate drink at the first aid station. The longer you can postpone dehydration and carbohydrate depletion, the longer you will be able to maintain your goal pace.

Mentally, the first half is the time to cruise. Save your mental and emotional energy for the second half of the race. Just try to get the first half behind you at the correct pace without using any more mental energy than necessary.

On to 20 Miles

From the halfway mark to 20 miles is the no man's land of the marathon. You're already fairly tired and still have a long way to go. This is where the mental discipline of training will help you to maintain a strong effort and a positive attitude.

It's easy to let your pace slip. Use your splits to know exactly how you're progressing. Concentrate and maintain your goal pace during these miles. Slowing during this portion of the marathon is often more a matter of not concentrating than of not being able to maintain the pace physically.

Focusing on your splits gives you an immediate goal to concentrate on. If you find yourself flagging, don't try to make up the lost seconds, just focus on your target pace to get back on track. Focusing on these incremental goals along the way prevents a large drift in your pace.

It's not unusual to have a few miles when you just don't feel good. These bad patches are a test of mental resolve. These stretches may last a while and then mysteriously go away. The key is to have the confidence that you'll eventually overcome this bad patch.

The only fuel for your brain is glucose (carbohydrate), and when you become carbohydrate-depleted, the amount of glucose reaching the brain starts to decrease. Taking in carbohydrate as often as possible during the second half of the race can help you maintain your mental focus.

The Final 6 Miles and 385 Yards

At mile 20, you've made it to the most rewarding stage of the marathon. Up to this point, every mile required the patience to hold back. Now you're free to see what you've got.

During these final few miles you get to dig down and use up any energy you have left. This is what the marathon is all about. It's the stretch that poorly prepared marathoners fear and well-prepared marathoners relish.

The key from 20 miles to the finish is to push as hard as you can without having disaster strike in the form of a cramp or very tight muscles. You need to use your body's feedback to determine just how hard you can push.

Your legs will probably be on the edge and will limit how fast you can go. You need to test the waters a bit and push to the limit of what your muscles will tolerate. It is a process of taking progressively greater risks as the finish line nears.

You will know you have mastered the marathon if you can give it a little more effort and finish strong.

When Not to Finish

Most of the time you should try to finish even if you have disappointed your expectations. The marathon is a test of endurance. If you casually drop out, it will be easy to drop out again.

However, there are circumstances that are important to recognize when dropping out is the only wise thing to do.

  • If you're limping, then your running mechanics are off. You will aggravate your injury by continuing.
  • If you have a specific pain that is increasing progressively during the race, then you're doing yourself harm and should stop.
  • If you're light-headed and unable to concentrate, you should stop.
  • If you're overcome by muscle cramps, a torn muscle, or heat exhaustion, then stop.

(Adapted from Advanced Marathoning by Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas, 2001, Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL, $18.95, 237 pp.) American Running Association Editorial Board Member Pete Pfitzinger, the top American finisher in the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Marathons, is a distance running coach, exercise physiologist, regular columnist for Running Times, and author. Scott Douglas is the former editor of Running & FitNews, and a former editor-in-chief of Running Times. He has co-authored two books with Bill Rodgers: 'Bill Rodgers' Lifetime Running Plan" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jogging and Running," as well as "Road Racing for Serious Runners" with Pete Pfitzinger.

Running & FitNews, Vol. 20, No. 8

Copyright American Running Association.

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