Marathon Pacing

There are three primary factors that determine a rewarding marathon experience:  a balanced training program, running it at near one’s optimal marathon race pace, and pacing.  I’m using the word “rewarding” here to mean that the marathoner is very pleased with his or her finish time, did not have to walk at any time, and did not wish  that he or she had pushed a bit harder.  The goal of this article is to help the marathoner achieve a rewarding marathon experience.

This article describes a simple and effective technique for determining one’s optimal marathon race pace and how to effectively use that pace.  It is most applicable for:  first-timers, novices, folks whose running speed has materially changed [e.g., they’ve participated in the RR interval program], folks who haven’t run a marathon in some years, and perhaps those disappointed with their experience in a previous marathon.  Experienced marathoners, “anonymous,” and competitive racers may find the information useful for fine tuning their marathon performance.

A well balanced training program is a prerequisite for the technique, described in this article, to be effective.  By well balanced, I mean a good combination of speed workouts [to enhance running economy] and long-slow-distance {LSD} workouts [to build physical and mental stamina], etc.

The procedure for establishing your optimal marathon race pace is based on using your 10K time and translating it to a predicted marathon time.  This procedure is well established and based on sound, scientific principles.

The key is to accurately determine one’s 10K race time.  In the period of about one to two months before your marathon, run about three 10Ks.  Incidently, running 10K races is an excellent training workout for the marathon.  Pick flat courses and cool days, if possible; if not, use your judgment and fudge your time to account for hills, the heat, whatever.  The goal is to find a good, solid consistent 10K time.  You should feel that your times were about the best you could have done those days.  Hopefully, your times will be within 20 seconds or so.

Now translate the time to minutes, decimals [e.g., 47:18 = 47.3] and use the appropriate table entry below to find your predicted marathon time, in minutes.  For example, assume your 10K time is 47.3 and you are a 35-year-old woman.  Your predicted marathon time will be 47.3 x 4.63 = 219 minutes, or 3:39.  Incidently while writing this article, I tried the table on my own 10K / marathon results of some years ago.  10Ks were about 39:45.  The table predicts 3:04; my time was in fact 3:05.  That’s within 0.5% and that doesn’t take into account the hill at the end.

AGE MEN WOMEN
20 4.70 4.64
30 4.70 4.64
35 4.63 4.63
40 4.63 4.57
50 4.62 4.56
60 4.62 4.55

[This table was derived from data in the WAVA “Age Graded Tables of Performance.”  These tables are the standards of performance for track and field, and road racing.]

Finally, convert your total time to average pace; don’t forget to convert the decimals to seconds [e.g., as above, 219 ÷ 26.2 = 8.359 minutes/mile, or 8:21].

Running a perfectly even pace the whole distance is the optimal strategy for running marathons [and, all races longer than 5k].   As most experienced marathoners will tell you, this is a lot easier said than done.  The first five or ten miles will seem so easy; you’re in peak condition and running 20 to 30 seconds slower than your 10K race pace. It requires extraordinary willpower to hold back.  There is an old axiom that is applicable: “for every second per mile you run to fast the first half, you’ll pay for by 2 seconds the last half.”

There is a simple explanation for running marathons at an even pace.  A marathon is essentially an exercise in the efficient utilization of energy and conservation of fuel [i.e., glycogen, etc.].  It requires a disproportionate amount of energy to run faster.  For example, it requires considerably more energy to run a mile at 10 mph than it does at 5 mph.  However, it is well worth the effort to attempt it; even if you don’t fully succeed.

Having said this, recent studies have shown [according to Owen Anderson, editor of Running Research News] that the optimal marathon strategy is to run 51%/49%, negative spits.  Ronaldo Da Costa used this strategy when he took the marathon world record last year, at 2:06:05.  He ran the first half in 1:04:42 and the second half in 1:01:23.  This is a 51.3/48.7 split.  His last two 10K sections were at 29:00 minutes.  However, I doubt whether anyone except the most elite of the elites can run with such precision.  I suggest that a good strategy for amateurs would be to purposely run the first few miles at about 5 seconds below their optimal pace, then run at the optimal pace till about mile 20.  Then, depending on how you feel, try to pick it up about 5 seconds per mile.

You will have a very rewarding marathon if you train properly, use a pace based on your 10K times, and run an even pace [or slight negative split].  It is unlikely you will “hit the wall” at mile 20 or will have to walk anytime during the last few miles.  Incidently, you will also find that your post marathon recovery is much faster.

Al Rider           28 June 1999
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