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Marathon Race Strategy – How To Run Your Fastest Marathon

To many runners, casual and serious alike, the marathon is the pinnacle of the sport. To run a marathon shows that you are dedicated, invested, and serious about running. Whether you are shooting for a Boston Qualifier, or are taking a “compete to complete” approach, marathons are a serious business, and require a smart strategy for success. Everyone who toes the line at a marathon needs to have a plan.

In this post, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about different marathon strategies. The major topic is pacing. Without a solid pace strategy, you are more likely to find yourself hitting the fabled and dreaded wall.

In addition, we’ll cover some other tips about how to run an effective race so that your first marathon – or even 100th marathon – is a success!

By the end, you should have the knowledge that you need to run your fastest marathon yet and meet your PR goals.

Pace Strategies

To have a pace strategy means that you have to plan beforehand for how to run your marathon. If you show up race day and haven’t thought about anything, you’re not going to have a pace strategy. If you have trained well, you’ll have a good idea what your finishing time will be. But a strategy is deeper than that. It’s not simply taking your finishing time and dividing by 26.2 for a mile pace.

Marathon race strategy is dependent on knowing yourself and the course well. You’re going to have to stay strong and motivated for 26.2 miles, and that’s a long way.

Depending on how fast of a runner you are, you’re going to be on your feet likely for 3-5 hours. This isn’t something you can just wing. You have to mentally prepare yourself if you’re going to succeed with your pacing strategies.

Find Your Goal Marathon Time

Before you come up with a pace strategy, though, your first step is to figure out your goal marathon time and what your pace needs to be to make that goal.

A common goal for recreational marathoners is to break the 4-hour barrier. To do this, you’ll need to sustain around a 9:00/mile pace. That is fairly fast for most runners at the marathon distance.

Practice Your Marathon Pace

After you figure out your goal marathon time, you’ll need to practice running at that pace. Your body needs to know what to expect, and how a certain pace feels. Use speed workouts to get your body used to running at marathon pace.

You might want to try mile repeats, which you can run faster at the beginning of your training cycle and slow them down as you get closer to race day. This will allow you to practice speed while still having to sustain a longer distance than 400 meters, for example.

How to Find a Marathon Goal Time and Pace

If you don’t have a goal time in mind already, or if you want to know if your marathon goal time is realistic, you can try one of two things.

Run a Half Marathon or 10k

You may think that you can run an 8:00-minute-mile pace for 26.2 miles. But if you’re struggling to sustain a 9:00-minute-mile pace for a half marathon, that goal pace won’t work.

Running a half marathon or 10k as part of your training plan will serve two functions: one, they will be tune-up races, and, two, you can use them to predict a marathon time. Double your half marathon time and add 10 minutes. That should be your goal time.

For example, if you ran just under a 2-hour half marathon, you should be able to run a marathon in less than 4 hours and 10 minutes.

Use a Race Time Predictor Calculator

If you don’t want to do the math yourself, you can always use a race time predictor calculator like the one on Runner’s World.

You can use any race time (or even do two race times), but longer distances are going to be more accurate in predicting a marathon time. You have to have endurance for those races, whereas speed is more of a focus in a 5k, for example.

Remember that you’ll want to put in runs/races where the terrain, weather, and so forth will be most similar to the conditions for your marathon. Additionally, if you have a GPS watch, your watch may also give you race prediction times based on your workouts.

Three (Plus One) Pacing Strategies Based on Your Marathon Goal

Now that you’ve figured out your goal time, you have to figure out how you’re going to reach it. That is the bread and butter of your pacing strategy. You have three (or four) options, depending on how you look at it.

1. Negative Splits

Negative splits mean that you will run the first half of the marathon slower than the second. It seems counter-intuitive, but if you can save some energy for the second half by going slower during the first half, you’ll finish strong.

This is a common marathon strategy. In fact, it is the pacing strategy. Pretty much every world-record setter has run negative splits for their best performances. The approach is promoted by many running coaches, and most runners know that this is the ideal pacing strategy. However, it’s very hard to do, because it requires practice and discipline to avoid running too fast at the beginning of the race.

If you want to run negative splits for your marathon, try out this pacing strategy on some of your long runs and tune-up races. Even though you want to dash off once the gun is fired at the beginning of a race, keep it slow and steady. You’ll be passing all those people later on.

2. Even Splits at Goal Pace

Another popular strategy promoted by running coaches is running even splits at your goal pace. You’ll be running at your goal pace from start to finish. Like negative splits, this is hard because most runners can’t sustain the same pace over the full marathon distance.

This means that if you’re trying to run roughly a 4-hour marathon, you’ll stick right around a 9:00-minute-mile pace for the entire marathon, give or take 5-10 seconds per mile.

If you want to try to do even splits, this is definitely something you need to practice at long distances. I personally find it easier to aim for negative splits because if you start slow enough, you can gradually speed up, but it’s harder to run the same time every mile. This is even more true if the course has flat and hilly sections or other varied terrain.

3. Banking Time

Banking time is also known as positive splits. But it’s not necessarily a good thing. More cynically, you could also call it “fading from the front.” It’s running the first half of the marathon at a faster pace to “bank” time, but then naturally slowing down as the race goes on. At the end, you are holding on for dear life, and pushing to the finish is very hard.

Most running coaches will tell you that this doesn’t work. It’s very hard to bank time and keep up a decent pace later for such a long distance. There are many names for what happens when you start to fall off the pace, and none of them are compliments. Cracking. The Wheels Coming Off. Hitting the Wall. Bonking. Whatever you call it, it’s not pretty. Unfortunately, it’s probably the most common, but unintentional, race strategy used by runners. Even if they know it doesn’t work, it’s easy to be optimistic/greedy in the opening miles, assuming fatigue will not set in today.

If you haven’t given much thought to your pacing strategy or if this is your first marathon, you might end up accidentally running faster at the beginning than you intended and tiring out too soon. Practicing long runs with negative or even splits will help to avoid this tendency.

4. Smart Banking Time

If you have to or want to employ the race strategy of banking time, you need to do it wisely. Wise in this case means small increments of time. This is recommended by marathon coach Pete Pfitzinger.

Run the first half 1-2% faster than your goal time, and then when your body naturally slows in the second half by 1-2%, you should still be able to finish in your goal time with this strategy.

You’re banking some time, but you’re not overdoing it, so you shouldn’t tire yourself out as much as if you just dash off in the first couple miles.

Other Marathon Strategy Tips

Once you’ve figured out what pacing strategy you plan to use, you should keep these other strategies in mind to run your fastest marathon.

Use the First Mile or Two to Warm-Up

Unless you’re an elite runner or you plan to run the race very fast (and you know that you can run it very fast), don’t worry about a warm-up jog or light run. Instead, do some dynamic stretching and save the first mile or two to warm-up.

This will encourage you to go slower during those first two miles and you won’t be wasting energy on a warm-up jog or run. Win-win!

Don’t Run the First Mile or Two Too Fast

As we hinted at above, you really need to be careful about your speed for the first mile or two. Remember you have another 24-25 miles to go. You need to conserve energy for the later stages of the race.

If this is your first marathon, you’re apt to be very excited and eager to go, but calm your nerves and don’t get caught up in the early race excitement. Let everyone dash past you and know that at miles 24 and 25, you’ll be dashing past them.

Put Yourself in the Right Corral

When I ran my first half marathon, one of my running friends recommended putting myself in the faster corral near the back if I was on the edge of two running corrals based on my goal time.

She said that the last thing you want to do at the beginning of a race is have to dart around people. You too should be smart about your corral placement, as it is hard to maneuver between runners at the start of a marathon, especially larger marathons.

Don’t put yourself in a corral where you will be slowing people down, so make sure you’re in a place where runners will be going the same pace as you. But, as a tip, runners often exaggerate their race time, meaning slower runners will put themselves in faster corrals.

You may also want to account for corral placement based on pacing strategy. If you’re going to run negative splits, you might want to be a little bit farther back. Everyone in your corral is likely going to dash off faster than you.

Incorporate Short Bursts of Speed

As your legs start to tire, you can change things up by incorporating fartleks of a sort into the race. Speed up your pace for short bursts to change up your leg muscle use.

You may even want to do this before you see a water stop, especially if you plan to stop and take the three seconds it takes to drink the water/Gatorade. Then your legs (and your mind) will know that you can push through because there will be a break after.

Run with Other Runners

Running with other people always makes it easier. Ideally, you’ll have a friend or family member who will run the entire race with you at your pace. But that’s pretty unlikely, especially given the distance of a marathon.

So, find runners on race day who are running at your same pace. Your race might even have official pace groups for specific time goals. It’s easier mentally to run with a group. You can help push each other along and provide encouragement when things get tough. It’s always easier with a friend!

While those official pace groups can be good too, don’t expect even splits all the time. Start with a pace group for a while, and then go faster or slower as you need.

You may find yourself running with different groups of runners as the race progresses, which can help provide some variety to a long race!

Take Fluids at First Water Stop

You might want to blow past the first water stop, but to run your fastest marathon, you need to make sure that you’re properly hydrated. Being dehydrated can slow you down substantially.

Make sure you continue taking fluids every 20 minutes or so, which works out to about every other mile depending on your pace. You need to stay hydrated, but too much fluid can also be harmful.

Prepare to Begin the Race at Mile 20

Finally, the real race begins at mile 20, when you have a 10k left to finish. Your legs and body are tired. This is the hardest part of the race, and is when some runners hit the wall. Figure out strategies for how you’re going to handle this.

Are you listening to music? Do you have a power playlist you can turn on as you hit mile 20? Will you start thinking of things that you’re grateful for? Will you make sure that you have family and friends cheering you on sometime during that last 10k?

Knowing how you’re going to handle the toughest part of the race ahead of time should help you out come race day.

Concluding Thoughts

You have so many options for pacing strategies and the marathon in general. Thinking ahead and being prepared for anything that you might experience on race day will help you run a faster marathon.

As they say, a change of thinking always leads to a change of action. If you know that you really want to run negative splits, maybe that will push you to train harder to do this in your practice runs, and then you’ll definitely run your fastest marathon yet! Good luck!

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner