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One of the most frequent questions that I get as a running coach is about marathon pacing.
Runners often wonder which time goal they should shoot for, what type of strategy they should use during the race, whether they should run with a pace group, if they can qualify for Boston during their first marathon, etc.
For example, Jeff sent in this email:
“How do you avoid losing motivation when you get to the point in a marathon where you realize you aren’t going to finish close to your time goal? In my last two marathons, I felt a horrible deflating feeling when I got to the point when I knew I was not going to be happy with my finish time. I get really down on myself, and it is hard to push through those final miles. I feel particularly awful when I get passed by the pace groups. . . I use my time goal as motivation during training, and then when I fall hopelessly off pace in the later miles my motivation leaves me like air out of a popped balloon. It is just hard to press on when you are dealing with that amount of disappointment.
I hate for people to feel awful about their marathon times, so let’s talk about some of the factors related to marathon pacing.
The Truth About Marathon Pacing
It is estimated that more than 90% of marathoners run the second half of their race significantly slower than the first half. 
It’s something that we’ve all probably experienced at one point or another. You have great hopes for the marathon, start out too fast and blow up somewhere after the half-way point. This is very discouraging and something that you can prepare yourself to avoid
Managing Time Expectations
The time that you can achieve during your race is dependent on many things. Some of these include experience level, mental strength, frequency of racing, state of health, weather, type of course and training.
Many people make the mistake of thinking that if they can run a 2:00 half marathon that a 4:00 marathon is a done deal. Some runners choose lofty marathon time goals for their first marathon while they should instead be focusing on going the distance, staying strong and having fun.
While a tiny percentage of marathoners qualify for Boston during their first marathon it takes the rest of us many more tries before we reach that goal. So, after thinking about all these factors, how should you choose a time goal?
I’ve said before that the goal of your first half, full or ultra marathon should be about getting to the starting line healthy, to run strong and enjoy the experience. You should choose a beginner training plan that gives you plenty of time to build up your long runs without throwing you into over-training.
As you train you’ll get a general idea of what your finishing time will be like based on the pace you’ve run during long runs. However, there are so many factors that play into your finishing time so you need to be prepared for anything on race day.
If you’re aiming for a 2:00 finish time during your first half marathon a finish time of 2:05 should not be a cause for devastation. That first half or full marathon is an experiment of sorts. During subsequent races your mind and body have a better idea of what to expect and how to pace yourself appropriately. Previous marathon times are the best indicator of what future time goals you should set for yourself.
Training to Hit your Marathon Goal
After you’ve done a half or full marathon most runners typically focus on hitting a PR (personal record). But if your schedule is packed with things like a 60+ hour work week, you have a family, are involved in multiple volunteer organizations and get 4 hours of sleep per night then it’s not healthy to add the stress of a challenging training schedule to the mix.
Running for you should be more about de-stressing and working to find balance in your life. Reaching a challenging time goal will take serious focus and lots of hard work. A good training plan is going to include focused speed work, marathon specific pacing, and the appropriate number of running days and miles for your experience level.
Many people find it beneficial to hire a running coach or join a running group to help them stay on track and to challenge themselves appropriately.
Developing Mental Strength
Physical strength is important but you won’t get anywhere if you don’t believe you can do it. Fear can keep you from doing the hard thing. You need to believe in yourself, start speaking to yourself positively and have a few key people in your life to encourage you.
On some level everyone wrestles with self-confidence issues. Even the most accomplished and successful runners still struggle with doubt. Those who achieve their goals gain control of their inner thoughts and work on turning fear into confidence.
The process of pushing yourself during a race to a PR will likely be uncomfortable. Will your mind keep you going when your body wants to quit? Developing the mental strength to pace yourself during training is important for a successful race outcome. You should be working on visualizing your pacing strategy, how you’ll overcome difficult moments in the race, and the finishing time you want.
Have some motivating mantras to repeat to keep your mind on track. Something as simple as “I feel good” and smiling as much as possible can keep you moving forward faster.
How to Run Your Own Race
Pacing groups can be wonderful. Ideally there’s someone there to take the thinking out of your running pace and mile splits. You’ll have a group of people focused on the same time goal and helping to push and encourage you along the way. There will be witty banter to make the miles slip away. That’s what would happen in a perfect world and I’ve had a couple great experiences with pace groups.
But there can be a downside to running with a pace group. They will not stop when you need to go the bathroom, they may run through water stations when you’re used to walking, they will not care if you get a blister or need to re-tie your shoe. Some pace groups are filled with negative people who can plant seeds of self-doubt in your mind. Then what happens when the pace group slips farther and farther away? Will you give up mentally and resign yourself to a slog?
I was with a pace group once and things were going great until mile 11 when the pace group leader had to use the bathroom. He handed his balloon to a runner in the group, told us to keep going and was never seen again. We hung together for another few miles, but I wasn’t mentally prepared to pace myself during the marathon and fell apart at mile 18.
I finished in 3:47 but it was several minutes slower than my original goal. The moral of the story is that pace groups are made of people. People who have to use the bathroom, leaders who may not pace correctly and may not get you across the line at your time goal. My advice is to use pace groups as a guide but not place all your hopes in them.
I recommend . . .
- Have a pacing band (found at runner’s world) made up in advance to wear. Know what pace you need to run to accomplish your goal and practice this during key runs while training.
- Pick the kind of race course that is conducive to running fast. Study the course and elevation so that you don’t have any surprises.
- Have a plan to start out conservatively, think about how to tackle any difficult elements in the race, and determine to finish strong. Too much energy expenditure in the early miles will be paid for in the later miles of the marathon. The first few miles should feel easy. Then if you’re feeling strong at mile 20 you can increase the pace a little and if you’ve got energy in the bank at mile 25 then go for it and finish strong.
- Developing a race strategy, sticking with it, pushing yourself through the discomfort, and finishing strong is going to give you an amazing sense of satisfaction.
Dealing with Disappointment
Because we don’t live in a perfect world there are going to be races where things do not go according to plan. Maybe you got sick a few days before the race, maybe the weather turns out too warm, maybe you develop crippling muscle cramps during the race, maybe you get GI upset and end up visiting way too many port-a-pots during the race.
Based on my experience and coaching other runners my advice is to have layered goals. This may seem like an excuse to take the easy route, but it’s not.
I’ll use a personal example here. I’m training for the Chicago Marathon in October and I want to have an amazing race.
- My A goal is to PR with a time of 3:35 or less. I’m all in with my training for this time goal and with my mindset as I develop my race strategy. But there’s no guarantee that I’ll make this goal despite trying my hardest.
If I get to mile 20 and realize that short of rocket propelled shoes I won’t make my time goal, should I just give up and walk? I’ve been tempted with this thought before. NO!
- This is where my B goal kicks in which is to qualify for Boston with a time of 3:39 or better. I will give that my all. But suppose I can’t achieve this goal.
- My C goal is to finish sub-4:00 because I want to do all my marathons sub-4:00 this year. However, suppose I’m suffering from horrible muscle cramps and can only manage a hobble. My goal (short of a medical emergency) is simple to keep going and finish the race as strong as possible. Will I be disappointed at the outcome? YES! But at least I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that I didn’t give up.
When it’s all said and done doing your very best is truly what matters.
marathon pacing photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tabor-roeder/
funny sign holder photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/moriartys/8399465312/
bunny pacing group photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/sangudo/
Also Mentioned in this Episode
Recap of the Rivers Towns Marathon in Danville, PA