How to Pace for a Marathon - Training and in the Race
So you've sealed your marathon place and started chalking up the training miles. But have you set yourself a race target and how do you start training towards this goal? For those running their first marathon, this can be a tough proposition. I would always recommend asking for advice from a coach, but here's some simple advice when that isn't possible on how to approach pacing for a marathon both in training and during the race itself.
1. Setting a target.
Many of you will already have a clear race goal, but even those who are just aiming to get round would benefit from having a rough time target. You can get a reasonable idea of your capabilities by throwing yourself into a 10k race or time trial, and using an online race time predictor or calculator to get an estimated marathon time (Runners World is a good place to start - check out their pace calculators here). It will never be 100% accurate, but it’s better than a blind stab in the dark.
2. Training with the goal in mind.
Once you have found a time goal how do you then go about training for it?
There are many different approaches to training for the marathon but, at a simple level, once you have established a goal, you need to focus training on 2 areas to be successful over 26.2 miles. Firstly, you need to improve strength and endurance to enable you to keep running for a set number of hours, and secondly, you need to become as efficient as possible running at goal race pace.
We should view these as two separate training requirements, particularly for those training for times at the faster end of the scale.
Improve strength and endurance
To tackle requirement 1, you need to establish a good consistent routine of steady running. This includes everyone's favourite; the weekend long slow distance run. There are various rules and algorithms for establishing your pace on these runs but the truth is there is no one size fits all approach. The most important thing is that it is a steady aerobic effort. Breathing should be under control, and you should be able to chat with a partner if you have one. Remember your training goal is simply preparing your body to exercise for long periods!
How to train for your goal race pace
The second requirement requires some thought. To become efficient at goal marathon pace you need to spend sustained periods 'in and around' this effort. This can be really tough (particularly for those aiming for fast times) so I wouldn't recommend long 20 mile runs at this pace, but you should be confident that you can sustain this pace for a significant period.
There are various ways to approach this:
- mid-length long runs
- fartlek runs mixing up the pace
- or even using a Half Marathon race to practise goal race pace
Goal pace runs are a great opportunity to practise your nutrition strategy too, even if it's just to practise opening those annoying gel wrappers at pace!
3. Putting it all into practice.
Now, the question is how do you fit both into your training regime? Highly trained Kenyan athletes do not tend to run many long slow distance runs. They do run slow at times but long runs are all about practising race specific efforts, running for up to 30k at 95% of goal pace. This is incredibly punishing for us mere mortals so I would recommend mixing up your weekend long run each week; long aerobic runs one week, goal race pace practise the next. The amount of time you spend at race pace depends on your goal time. The faster you are the harder it is, but a good target to build towards would be roughly 10-13 miles at close to your goal race pace.
4. Pacing your race.
Statistically the most successful strategy for pacing the marathon is to aim to run an even pace. In reality you will always run the first few miles a little quicker but remember those who manage to control this instinct are more likely to end up meeting their goals. Running with a pacer can be a good strategy. 9 times out of 10 they do a great job, but it's worth running just behind the group where it's less crowded. This allows you to assess how even their effort is over the first few miles without tripping over someone's heels. Avoid changes in pace or weaving and overtaking moves, and aim for a consistent rhythm.
Pace bands can be helpful, but don't stick too rigidly to the mile targets. The course topography will vary (the first 3 miles are slightly downhill at London for example) so you're better off assessing your progress after each 5k to get a more settled idea of your pace. I firmly believe that too much thinking should be avoided and so worrying about numbers is a total waste of energy. Switch off and get into a zone, slowly adapting your pace over the course of the next 5k if you need to.
I always believe, regardless of distance, that the race doesn't really start until the final third. Being able to raise or maintain your pace in the final 6-8 miles will give you a huge mental flip. Just imagine how great you'll feel as you overtake those runners who passed you back at mile 4. Good things come to those that wait.
So get out there and experiment on your weekend run. I can't guarantee a marathon PB, but it will enliven your training.
Written by: Shaun Dixon is an elite runner and coach at Let's Get Running. He has represented England and Great Britain as a long distance runner.