How to Boss Your Race

Martin Yelling

Training for a marathon isn’t done in the final weeks; the previous weeks and months of consistent running that all add up will soon all come together to see you arrive at Race Day ready to tackle the streets of London.

Stride, shuffle or crawl, it’ll be worth it

Trust me, even if you’re starting to feel the pressure, even if you are having a few doubts about the miles you’ve run, or the miles you haven’t run, even if some Race Day anxieties and worries are starting to creep in, at this time it’s vital to keep your focus, to remain headstrong, motivated, committed and determined to finish what you’ve set out to accomplish. All the effort, anxieties, aches and pains will be worth it when you stride, shuffle or crawl down The Mall. So, now you’re all gee’d up to get this run done, let’s look at a really important feature of getting Race Day right – pacing.

Who needs pacing?

Before you stand up and holler at me because you’ve no idea of your pacing or have zero desire to understand it because you just want to ‘get around, survive and finish’ then you need to listen up, read on and think again. Marathons are physically and mentally tough – especially during the latter stages. Runners can ‘hit the wall’ as a result of poor pacing, insufficient training and inadequate nutrition. You’ll certainly be witness to this as those speedy types that jetted off at the start risk detonating (the technical term for a full-scale slow down after about mile 20). Having an understanding, awareness and control of your pace (and so your effort level) can make the difference between you having a great day and hitting your personal marathon finish aspirations, or having a total shocker, a miserable sufferfest and even jeopardizing your ability to bag a finish at all.

What’s your window of happiness?

Knowing your target pace and your target finish time (or a window of happiness for this: for example, 4hrs 45mins to 4hrs 59mins, an average of 10mins 52sec – 11mins 24sec per mile) will help you guide your effort and spread it out over the entire race. Knowing this will also give you confidence that you are in control in the early stages of your race and are on track to reach your goals throughout the race.

One of the biggest mistakes marathon runners make is getting their pace wrong – namely starting too fast and running out of steam in the second half. Incidentally, running an even paced (similar times per mile for each mile) race is the best approach to pacing and women have been shown to be less likely to start too fast and are better at even paced running than men! Establishing a target pace strategy now in training that matches your Race Day aspirations and motivation really helps you have a much better race experience.

Top marathon pacing tips

Know your pace

Knowing your pace is about understanding what effort you can sustain for the duration of the marathon and thus having a finish target time in mind. You will probably have an idea of this at the moment from your training runs, any racing you’ve done, your personal experiences and your marathon day aspirations. Nailing your pace is about having the patience at the start, feeling in control, feeling confident and the master of your race and being ready to face the demands of the final stages of your race fresher, stronger, more focused and bang on target.

Working out a strategy that matches your race aspirations and motivation (for example, do you plan to try and run the whole way, do you plan to have walking breaks, and if so, when?) really helps you have a much better marathon experience. Start by establishing a target finish time (for example 4hrs 30mins) then work out what pace (or mile split) you need to run at to achieve that time (for example, a 4hrs 30mins marathon is 10mins 18sec per mile).

Although you are more likely to succeed and achieve your marathon target running at an ‘even pace’, that can be very hard to achieve as it can be very busy at the start and there will be some inevitable second half slow down. Your goal is to try and minimize the rate of slow down with a sensible strategy, especially at the start. Staying calm, being disciplined, controlled and thoughtful at the start really helps. If it feels too slow for those early miles it’s probably about right!

Practise your target race pace

To really understand what it feels like to run at your race pace you need to practice it in training. This doesn’t mean you have to go and run the full race distance at race pace but it does mean that you should include sections of training runs at or close to race pace. On routes you know are accurate distances – a 400m track or a measured one mile – practice running at target race pace. Great pacing is learned.

Understand how this pace feels. Start using your watch or GPS to guide you then try pacing without it. Progress to dialing into your target pace on longer sustained 'paced runs'. For example, try and include a 10-mile section of one of your long runs in the next three weeks at bang on your target marathon pace (run the rest of the distance slower than your target marathon pace).

Listen to your body

When you run at different intensities your body sends you different signals to let you know how it’s feeling. For example, your heart rate, how hot you feel, your breathing rate, how much your muscles ache. How you interpret these feelings during exercise is known as your ‘perception of effort’ (or RPE – rating of perceived effort) and mastering your sensory signals will help you master your own race pace. Use your perception of effort to gauge and monitor intensity and pace. Don't be reliant on your GPS. Ditch the distractions and dial into how you feel, your rhythm, heart rate, cadence and effort. As a guide, the faster you are breathing the harder you are trying!

Race it

Try your pacing strategy in a practice race. A race presents real challenges to overcome. Other participants, weather conditions and nerves. Calm down! It's easy to start off too fast and be pulled along by other runners. Be patient and be disciplined at the start and in the first few miles. Don’t get sucked in by the pace and speed of other runners and be drawn into blasting off too quickly. You won’t thank yourself in the later stages of the race.

Be consistent

Even paced splits typically bring about the best results – especially in marathon races. When practicing pacing aim for consistency. Give yourself a parameter either side of your target time to aim at that keeps your pace on track. For example, if your target pace is 10-minute miling you might allow yourself a range of 9mins 50sec to 10mins 10sec per mile – if you’re within that you’re on track. Avoid ‘yo-yo’ running and speeding up then slowing down to hit target paces. Aim for smoothness, control and consistency in your effort to pacing your race for marathon success.  At the same time, expect your target pace to feel much easier in the first part of the marathon than the second. Your effort will increase but your pace will stay the same. Your goal is to not slow down!

Be positive

Pacing your race right is a positive and motivational way to approach your race. Feeling strong and coming through the field in the second half is better than blowing up, going backwards and shuffling to the finish. Practice your pacing mindset in training. It won’t always feel easy or straightforward to get your pace spot on. Just relax, bring your pace back on track, start to develop mental strategies in your long training runs to help you dig deep and keep going at your desired pace. Rehearse and refine these strategies during training so your mental armory is varied and strong, ready for you to draw on what you know works for you on Race Day. When your pace starts to drop and your strength and spirit falters (which it inevitably will) you need to know exactly what to think about to keep moving, to keep running, to drive yourself to the finish.

Play with pace

Play with pace in your training. Dial into and experience different paces. This not only helps you avoid being a 'one-paced plodder’ but really boosts your marathon fitness. Explore running faster than your target pace (this helps race pace feel easier), but also running slower than race pace (this helps you recover). A mix of varied paced workouts helps you understand the spectrum of running speed, broadens your experience of training, keeps you motivated and develops your fitness, efficiency and running economy.

Pace in harmony

The best pacing comes from experience, practice and training. Effective pacing works in harmony with many other factors that make up a great race. When working on your pace strategy remember that keeping your pace where you want it for the entire duration of the race is a balancing act. Training status, fitness, motivation, Race Day nutrition and hydration, the course, the weather and your concentration all play a part in pacing your race to perfection.

You’ve got this.