Marathon Race Pacing Strategy

By Rick Morris

Your marathon training may be done but your race day preparation is just beginning. Now it’s time to determine your marathon race pacing strategy. Marathon race strategy ranges from the sublimely simple to the outrageously complex. A running acquaintance of mine coined what I think is the perfect description of the most simple marathon race strategy – “run till you’re done”. The most simple marathon pacing strategy is really that simple. You just run at a pace you feel you can maintain for 26.2 miles and keep on going till you cross the finish line. The polar opposite of that very simple marathon pacing strategy is one in which you carefully plan your precise pace for each and every mile during your race. There are few runners that fall into those extremes. Most are somewhere on the sliding scale in between. What is your perfect marathon race strategy? That depends upon your goal, your training technique and the race conditions.

Marathon Strategy

There are a number of possible marathon pacing strategies including negative splits, positive splits, even pacing, even effort, front running, strong start/middle float, middle push/strong finish and surging. Negative splits is the most commonly recommended pacing method for shorter races, but do negative splits really work well for the marathon? In some cases yes, but in most cases no. It’s very difficult for most marathon runners to increase their pace in those late miles when the big fatigue gorilla jumps on your back. For that majority of runners, either even pacing or even effort are the best bet. If you are very highly trained and have incorporated multi pace training, goal pace long runs, surging and negative splitting in your training routine you are a good candidate for negative splitting in the marathon. It’s difficult but brutally effective if you are properly trained both physically and mentally for the effort required.

How about positive splits or running the first half of your marathon faster than the last half? It’s been drummed into our heads that running faster in the early miles is a really bad idea. I agree that in most cases, using up your precious supplies of carbohydrates with a fast early pace is not wise. But, there are times when positive splits can come in handy. Rising ambient temperatures in the last half of your marathon can wreak havoc with your marathon pace. Hot temperatures force even the most highly trained runners to slow down. If you expect high temperatures on race day you may want to go against conventional wisdom and run slightly faster in the early miles when temperatures are still moderate. When the temperatures rise and you are forced to slow down you will have some time and miles “in the bank” and will still be able to meet your marathon goal. The key here is to only increase your pace slightly. A pace that is too fast will burn excessive carbohydrates and you will pay a big price in the final 10K.

The first step in developing your marathon pacing strategy recognizing your goal, which you hopefully developed before your even started training. If your marathon goal is simply to finish, your marathon strategy will also be relatively simple. If you are a competitive runner (racer) or are trying to finish in a specific time (pacer), your marathon strategy is just a bit more complex.

The second component of marathon pacing is your training technique. This component comes down to specificity of training. Your marathon pace strategy should closely match the way you trained. If you trained using walking breaks your best race strategy would also include walking breaks. On the other hand, if you did a lot of multi pace training you would be well prepared for a marathon pacing strategy that includes pushes, floats, surging and a fast finish.

The final part of your marathon strategy is expected race conditions. If your race day temperature is expected to be high your race strategy should include some faster paced running early in the race while temperatures are at their lowest levels. If temperature are mild or cool, a more conventional marathon pacing strategy with slower pacing or even pacing in the early miles would probably be more appropriate.

Here are my marathon pacing strategy suggestions for a variety of marathon goals, training techniques and race day conditions.

Marathon GoalTraining TechniqueExpected Race Day TemperatureRecommended Pacing Strategy
Just FinishWalking BreaksCold to ModerateEven Effort with Walking Breaks
Just FinishWalking BreaksHotPositive Splits with Walking Breaks
Just FinishAll Endurance TrainingCold to ModerateEven Effort
Just FinishAll Endurance TrainingHotPositive Splits
PacerAll Endurance TrainingCold to ModerateEven Pace
PacerAll Endurance TrainingHotStrong Start in Early Miles/Even Pacing in Middle and Late Miles
PacerMulti Pace TrainingCold to ModerateEven Pace with Surging
PacerMulti Pace TrainingHotStrong Start/Middle Float with Fast Finish
RacerMulti Pace TrainingCold to ModerateMiddle Push/Strong Finish with Surging and Fast Finish
RacerMulti Pace TrainingHotStrong Start/Middle Float/Surging/Fast Finish