Marathon Race Strategy – How To Run Your Fastest Marathon

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Planning to run your fastest marathon yet? You need a good marathon race strategy to set yourself up for success. While a training plan is essential, what you do on race day can make or break your race.

There’s no single universal marathon race strategy. Different strategies work better for different people, so rather than give you a single strategy to follow, we’re explaining various strategies and their benefits so you can decide what would work best for you.

Here’s all you need to know to create an effective race day strategy and run your best and fastest marathon ever!

What Is a Marathon Race Strategy?

A marathon race strategy is your race day plan. In most cases, it refers simply to your pacing strategy—how you will pace yourself throughout your marathon to reach your goal time.

However, there’s more to a good marathon strategy than just pace. You should have a clear idea of every step along the way of your race day, from when you arrive to when you cross the finish line.

Why Is It Important to Have a Race Strategy?

You can definitely run a marathon without having a strategy. But having one gives you a clear plan to follow on the day. Not only does this ease some race day pressure, but it helps you to stay focused.

Not having a plan means you’ll be running blind. You won’t know what actions to take at any given time to push forward, and it’s also likely that you might fall short in some of your recovery efforts.

Is Marathon Pacing Hard to Maintain?

A marathon is 26.2 miles long. Maintaining your pace for a 5K race can be hard, never mind 26 miles! Keeping it up for a marathon-length race is not easy regardless of your pace.

This is one of the reasons having a strategy that works for you is so important. Not every strategy works for every runner, so it’s up to you to create a strategy that helps you to run your best race possible.

How to Calculate Your Marathon Pace

The easiest way to find your marathon pace is to run a half-marathon. Take your final time, double it, and add 10 minutes. That’s the best way to get an idea of your marathon time.

You can also use an online race pace calculator like this one to double-check your calculated race pace.

If you haven’t run a half-marathon yet, use your 5K or 10K race pace to calculate your marathon pace. However, we recommend first getting a half-marathon and using that to calculate your pace before running a full marathon.

Race Day Pacing Strategy

Your pacing strategy is key to getting through the race in your goal time. This doesn’t mean you run the same pace the entire race – instead, it gets broken down into smaller chunks.

Types of Pacing Strategies

There are several pacing strategies, and it’s essential to understand that not everyone works for every runner.

It’s wise to try some of these during your long runs in training and see which feels good to you. Alternatively, you could try them in different marathons and see which works best for you.

The 10/10/10 Method

This easy method is straightforward, although its name is somewhat confusing. Technically, it’s based on 10 miles + another 10 miles + 10 kilometers (6 miles).

If that’s a bit much, you can simply think of it as the 10/10/6 method. Or, for the metric users, the 16/16/10 method.

If you choose this strategy, you’ll split your marathon into three sections, each with a slightly altered pacing strategy.

  • First 10 miles: Run at slightly less than your goal race pace.
  • Second 10 miles: Run at your goal race pace.
  • Last 6 miles: Increase your pace and push yourself to the finish line.

Banking Time

“Banking time” means to start off fast and get ahead of your goal pace. The idea is that you’ll “bank time”—save valuable minutes or seconds that will allow you some freedom to slow down later in the race.

The downside—which happens often—is bonking. This might come on as an stomach upset, nausea, dizziness, or generally feeling ill. Or you might just slow down well below your goal pace, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Once you start feeling this way, it’s tough to come back, even if you fuel up. This is because it’s past being a “hunger” thing now—an overall lack of energy causes your body to start damaging its own tissues.

However, while we don’t recommend this for beginners or intermediates, more experienced runners may want to try it. The key is to maintain adequate hydration and fueling while you “bank time,” and continue to do so as you slow down.

Negative Splits

Negative splits are similar to the 10/10/10 strategy. You start your first split fairly slowly—just below your race pace. Your second split aims to be at your race pace or just above. And your third split should be the fastest.

You can split these sections into something more manageable if you want to, like 8 miles, 8 miles, and 10 miles. Or 10, 9, and 7, which works well for the increasing space strategy.

Run at an Even Pace

This is pretty straightforward and very easy to keep track of. It involves simply running your entire marathon at your goal race pace. However, it can be mentally challenging as you might feel like your run is getting monotonous.

Many bigger races even provide pacers who will attempt (not always successfully) to run different times at a set pace. It’s often beneficial to run with a pacer group to either prevent you from slowing down or going out too fast.

Know the Course in Advance

Having some knowledge of the course you’ll be running can be invaluable. Are there hills? Where are they? How steep are they? Is there gravel?

Knowing the answers to these kinds of questions can help you not only tailor your gear to the race more strategically but it helps you to be prepared for what’s coming up in the race.

Use a GPS Watch

A GPS watch can be an amazing tool, but it does have one danger—it’s easy for new runners to become fixated on the stats throughout the run, instead of letting go and just running.

It is great for helping you stay on pace. Before the race, set your target pace and make sure the watch has acquired a GPS signal. You can click your timer on as you begin your race.

As you run, monitor your pace every so often. If you’re going slower than your target, you’ll need to speed up or you won’t hit your goal time. If you’re going faster, you’ll need to slow down or risk fatiguing early.

Even if you check your watch periodically, pay more attention to your body. Listen to your breathing, check how you feel, and consider your perceived effort rather than focusing on the pace number alone.

Remember, the GPS watch and pace data are not the be-all and end-all. If you’re on a hill, your pace will drop. If you’re having a rough patch, your pace might cause you to worry. Conversely, if you’re feeling great but your watch says to slow down, you could miss out on a PR.

The watch is great for data. But trust your body more regarding how much energy you’ve left in the tank.

Consider Running With a Pace Group

Joining a pace group can be an easy and even fun way of staying on track. It’s also quite motivating—nobody wants to drop back and fall out of the crowd!

Find the pace group that corresponds with your target pace. Run with them for a little while and double-check how well they’re pacing using your watch. This can be a great strategy for those aiming to hit their target time simply.

But don’t get bogged down by a pacing group. If you feel like they’re holding you back, trust your own feelings and break away.

Start Line Strategies

So, you arrive at your race location on D-day. This is where your marathon race strategy begins. Here’s what you need to do.

Arrive Early

Don’t be late, or you’ll arrive in a stressed state and have less time to dedicate to your strategy. Make sure you leave with time to spare in case you come up against an obstacle that delays you.

Arriving 45 minutes to an hour before your start time is ideal. This should be before the crowds gather, so you can warm up, go to the bathroom, find the starting line, and so on.

Warm-Up Routines and Stretches

About 15 to 20 minutes before the race starts, begin your warm-up. 5 minutes of light cardio and some dynamic stretching should be more than enough.

If it’s hot already, try to warm-up somewhere out of the sun so you’re not sweating before you even start. If it’s cold, stay warm while warming up.

Stay lightly active between your warm-up and when the starting pistol fires. Don’t warm up too far in advance either—your muscles will only stay warm for about 15 minutes!

Know Where You Need to Be

Most marathons start in “pens”—groups of runners with similar skill levels or fitness levels. Make sure you find your pen when you first arrive, so you know exactly where you need to be and how to get there.

Pre-Race Snack

For shorter races, you most likely won’t need a snack. But for a marathon, starting with a bit of fuel is a good idea. Choose something small and simple, like a bagel with cream cheese, a banana, and some nuts.

Try to get some healthy carbs and a touch of protein in. You should eat this around 30 minutes before your run begins. Your muscles will have some ready-made fuel to grab and run with!

Try and Position Yourself Strategically at the Start

Try to get as close to the front of your pen as possible. Don’t push others out of the way, but the closer you can be to the front, the less likely you’ll get stuck in a crowd and frustrated.

Don’t Start Too Fast

It’s tempting to shoot out of the gates, especially when trying to gain places in the field. But resist the temptation—this single mistake can ruin your marathon.

Expend too much energy now and you won’t have enough left for later, no matter how much you eat. Aside from fuel, your leg muscles will likely fatigue much faster if you push them hard early in the race.

Fueling and Hydration Strategies

How you fuel yourself is as important as sticking to your pace. In fact, it can greatly affect your pace, so don’t neglect this!

Pre-Race Nutrition

The night before your race, you want to enjoy a high-carb meal. This mini carbo-load will ensure that your muscles are loaded with glycogen, ready to be converted to energy when you step up to the finish line.

A light, simple meal with a few healthy carbs and some protein on race day morning will set you up right.

Hydration

You should stay well-hydrated every day, not just on race day. Your urine should be very light yellow, almost clear—a sign of adequate hydration.

The most important tip here is don’t skip your first water station! If you’re feeling strong, you might be tempted to run right by, but you’ll regret it later.

It’s a good idea to opt for sports drinks over plain water as they typically contain some electrolytes and possibly even some carbohydrates for extra fuel. Don’t gulp. Sip slowly and regularly.

Energy Gels or Chews

One energy gel or chew for every 45 minutes of running is a good rule of thumb. Thankfully, they’re easy to carry in a running belt or even a pocket. Calculate how many you’ll need beforehand so you don’t run out.

You must stick to a gel or chew you’ve tried before. Nothing new on race day… Because it can easily cause stomach problems on race day.

Electrolyte Replacement

It’s also a good idea to carry an electrolyte tablet or two with you. You can simply slip one into your water and stay hydrated while replenishing lost electrolytes.

Alternatively, choose a sports drink. These often include electrolytes as well as some carbohydrates for an extra energy boost.

Aid Stations

Make sure you know where the aid stations are along the route. Plan your fueling strategy accordingly and take advantage of what’s offered at aid stations.

You may also be able to find out ahead of time what fueling options will be provided so you can plan more specifically, especially if you have a fussy stomach.

Maintaining a Positive Mindset

It’s also a great idea to plan some strategies for staying positive. A marathon is a long race; thinking about this in advance can make a big difference.

Mindful Running

Mindful running simply means being aware of your body as you’re running. You can choose to focus on your breathing, and your cadence, or do a mental “body sweep” and assess how each muscle feels.

This can help to lower stress, strengthen the mind-muscle connection, and keep you mentally strong when the race becomes hard.

Break It Down Into Smaller Distances or Landmarks

26 miles is long, which is why it works to break it down into smaller sections. You’ll already have done that if you’re doing a 10/10/6 pacing strategy. But if you’re focusing on an even-pace strategy, you might want to break it up into smaller goals mentally.

Focus on hitting the first 5 miles, and then congratulate yourself. At 10 miles, spend some time thinking about how you will reward yourself.

At 15 miles, remind yourself that you’re more than halfway. For each small milestone, celebrate like you’ve achieved something big.

Choose a Short, Powerful Phrase or Mantra

A short, powerful phrase that you can repeat is a great tool. Choose something that’s meaningful and resonates with you. “I am strong”, “One step closer”, or “Go Bob Go” are all good examples.

Repeat it in sync with the pattern of your foot falls to drive it home. You don’t have to stick to one, either. You can opt for 3 to 4 that motivate you.

Draw On Past Successes

If you’ve run a marathon before, remember your success. Even if you haven’t, you’re bound to have certain moments in which you overcame obstacles and pushed through difficulty. Remember them now and draw upon that feeling of determination.

External Distractions

You may want to listen to music, audiobooks, or podcast while running. It can provide a great distraction from your aching legs, but it doesn’t distract you from your racing strategy.

Adapt to Changing Conditions

Plan for the potential for the weather to change. What will you do if it begins to rain? How will you handle it if the course is modified, or if you slip and fall?

The key is to remain flexible. Things change, and there will be things you need to adapt to along the way. Don’t let it stress you out—keep calm and handle them like a pro!

Keep in mind that if heavy weather arises or you come across unstable ground, you may need to modify our pacing strategy a little. It’s not the end of the world if you have to go slower—safety over performance!

Crossing The Finish Line

It’s a great feeling when you see that finish line approaching. Now is the time to dig deep and push harder for that last stretch! When you begin those last few miles, it can be tough to feel motivated. Here are some tips.

  • Visualize: Imagine yourself crossing the line with energy, strength, and pride. Literally picture it in your mind… This can motivate you to push on!
  • Keep Your Pace: Don’t let your pace drop off… But also, resist the urge to start sprinting! Upping the pace will still cost you time, so stick to your pacing strategy and you’ll be thankful.
  • Get Energy from the Crowd: The noise and energy increase the closer you get to the finish line. Feed off the crowd’s energy, and remember that they’re there to cheer for every runner—that means you too.
  • Use That Mantra: You’re going to need it more than ever in the final moments of the race. Stay mentally strong, and keep cheering for yourself too!
  • Give It a Speed Boost: Only on the final stretch with the finish line in sight, and only if you have the extra energy for it.
  • Celebrate: Be pleased with yourself! You might be feeling knackered, but you’ve just completed something amazing. Give yourself some credit—you’re awesome.

Recovery and Post-Race Strategies

Your strategy doesn’t end when you cross the finish line! What you do now is as important as everything else you’ve already done.

When You Cross the Finish Line

Taking steps just after you finish can set you up for a more effective recovery. Here’s what you should do once your race is finished.

Walk for a Few Minutes

Don’t forget to cool down! It may be tempting to flop to the ground, but do yourself a favor and walk for a few minutes instead. This will give your heart rate time to come down and your muscles time to relax.

Stretch Your Muscles

Do some static stretching once you’ve walked for a few minutes. There’s no need for dynamic stretches, as your muscles are already warm. But this will go a long way towards flushing out metabolic waste and reducing DOMS later.

Rehydrate Your Body

Get a head start on post-run hydration by rehydrating immediately. Now is a good time to take an electrolyte solution, so you can balance out any potential imbalances before they become a problem.

Eat a Snack

By the time you cross the line of a marathon, there’s no glycogen left in your muscles. Eat something to replenish some of your lost energy, but don’t go overboard. An energy bar or a piece of fruit will be enough.

Slip Into Comfortable Shoes

Take your shoes off as soon as you can and ease your feet into a pair of recovery sandals, like the Oofos or Hoka. Not only does this give your foot muscles some room to breathe, but it also helps to bring your body temperature down.

When You Get Home

When you get home, the recovery part of your strategy begins. Make sure you keep the rest of your day open to take these actions and get in some chill time.

Massage Your Legs

You can do this by hand or with a foam roller or ask someone to help you. Massaging your legs will help stimulate circulation, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the tissues to accelerate healing.

Take a Warm Epsom Salt Bath

This isn’t just comforting but can help lower inflammation and ease muscle pain. Run a bath and add about 2 cups of Epsom salts under the stream of water. Make sure it’s all dissolved and soak for 10 to 15 minutes.

Elevate Your Legs

When you’re home, elevate your legs as soon as you can. The best way to do this is to lie on your back and raise your legs against the wall.

Make sure this doesn’t cause you pain, but it should significantly reduce swelling as fluid drains easel from the tissues rather than accumulating.

Eat a Good Meal

Eat a healthy, hearty meal within an hour or two after your run. Make sure it’s got healthy protein, healthy carbohydrates, and good fats—all in all, it should be a healthy meal, not a fatty cheat meal.

Something like a pasta dish—with wholewheat pasta—and some protein is an excellent post-run meal choice.

Sleep

Your body heals while you’re asleep, which means you need to sleep even more after a hard race. You don’t have to go home and go straight to sleep, but aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep, especially the night after your race.

Do your best to stick to your regular sleep times in the days following your marathon. This will keep you in good habits and increase the effectiveness of your sleep.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.