Your Perfect Marathon

If you’re training for a spring marathon, chances are you’ve done most of the hard work by now, so here’s everything you need to know, piece by piece, to maximise your performance on the big day: from the perfect warm-up, pacing and fuelling strategies, to how to physically and mentally handle every part of the race, says Pete Pfitzinger.

Marathon preparation means months of meticulous planning and diligent training to get you in peak condition. But if you don’t also have a precise plan for the race itself, you won’t get the best results from all that hard work. How should you warm up? How should you fuel? How should you handle the first miles, the first half, and the final six miles and 385 yards? Here, you’ll find the answers to all the questions you should be asking about race-day strategy, so you’ll squeeze everything from those long, hard training months and cross the line exhausted but satisfied.

The day before

Many runners find a short run can be useful to loosen muscles and calm nerves the day before a marathon. For most, a gentle three to four miles, including a few minutes at close to race pace, provides enough of a reminder that they’re fit and ready. Eat meals that are relatively high-carb and stay well hydrated. If your race starts early, don’t have your main meal too late. For a 10:00 start, eat your main meal by about 20:00, so you have plenty of time to digest it and get a good night’s sleep.

Race morning

Get up early enough to eat and digest a small meal. The amount of time required varies from runner to runner, so it’s helpful to try your pre-race meal timing in tune-up races. For most people, eating three to four hours in advance is enough to get the benefits and not experience digestive distress on the run. At a major marathon, you need to plan for the time you’ll be hanging around near the start. Staying warm is crucial. If you start shivering, you’ll use your glycogen stores and your muscles will tighten up. Wear old running clothes you’re happy not to see again over your racing gear and, if it’s raining, fashion a plastic bin-bag into a jacket. Try to find somewhere to sit or lie down and relax. The important thing is to stay calm while you wait for the start and not waste energy stressing.

Warming up

A warm-up routine before any race is important. It preps your body to run at race pace by increasing your metabolic rate, body temperature, and circulation of blood and oxygen to your muscles. There’s a downside to warming up for the marathon, though: one of the marathoner’s main challenges is to finish before becoming glycogen-depleted; but during a warm-up, you burn a mixture of carbohydrates and fat, thereby slightly reducing your glycogen stores. So the key is to find the minimum amount of warm-up necessary to prep your body for race pace, while using as little of your precious carb reserves as possible.

Your ideal warm-up depends on your level. For beginners, whose main goal is finishing, no warm-up is necessary. You can warm up during the first couple of miles. For more serious marathoners attempting to run significantly faster than their normal training pace, the optimal warm-up consists of two runs of about five minutes each, with some gentle stretching in between. Start warming up 30-40 minutes before the race, and start your first warm-up run slowly, gradually increasing pace to finish at one minute per mile slower than race pace. Stretch for 10 minutes, then run for another five, this time gradually speeding up to reach race pace for the final 30 seconds. Stretch again, and sip a sports drink to top up your carb stores – but not so much that fluid is sloshing around in your stomach.

Try to finish your warm-up no more than 10 minutes before the race starts. Any longer and you’ll lose some of the benefits, but you’ll have still used up some of your carb stores. Being able to time your warm-up perfectly is an advantage of smaller marathons over ‘mega races’, where you’re herded into starting pens earlier.
Before the Olympic marathon, almost no one does more than 10 minutes of easy running, plus one or two accelerations up to race pace. That’s enough of a warm-up to run the first mile in under five minutes, so a similar routine will prep you for goal pace.

Your pacing strategy

What’s the best way to hit your time goal? Some marathoners go out hard and try to hang on. Others aim for an even pace. A few go easy early on, then run the second half faster (known as a negative split). You need to understand the physiology involved with running the marathon, and its implications for your optimal pacing strategy. Your ideal marathon pace is close to your lactate threshold pace. Run faster, and lactate accumulates in your muscles and blood. Hydrogen ions associated with lactate deactivate enzymes needed for energy production, slowing you down. Plus, exceeding lactate threshold pace also means you use more glycogen, depleting your stores faster. This means your best strategy is even pacing. If you run much faster than your overall race pace for part of it, you’ll use more glycogen and accumulate lactate.

Most runners shouldn’t try to run dead-even splits, however, because during the marathon you’ll gradually fatigue your slow-twitch muscle fibres and recruit more of your fast-twitch fibres. Unfortunately, these fast-twitch fibres use oxygen less efficiently, so your running economy will decrease slightly during the race, along with your lactate threshold pace. The result is that your optimal pace will be slightly slower during the latter stages of the race. The most efficient pacing strategy is to run the second half two to three per cent slower than the first. If you run negative splits, the chances are you ran below optimal pace in the first half and therefore could have clocked a faster finish.

For world-class marathoners, optimal pacing is different. They’re so highly trained they have a lower tendency to recruit fewer economical muscle fibres so, for them, the most effective strategy is running the second half at the same pace as, or even slightly faster than, the first. Most recent world records have followed this: Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon split into 68:02 and 67:23; Wilson Kipsang’s current world record 2:03:23, set in 2013 in Berlin, saw him hit halfway in 61:34 and run the second half just 15 seconds slower – almost perfectly even.

Even world-class marathoners often run the second half 30 to 90 seconds slower than the first, though. And most marathoners will run optimally by gradually increasing their effort over the second half in an attempt to run close to even splits, which often results in a second half a few minutes slower than the first 13 miles.

The first half

It’s easy to get carried away with a fast first mile, but control yourself and run at, or even a bit slower than, your goal pace. You won’t have done much of a warm-up, so your body won’t be prepared to go faster than race pace. Also, as mentioned earlier, going out too fast will burn extra glycogen and produce lactate. After the first mile, relax and try to settle into a rhythm. Establishing a comfortable style early on helps you avoid tightening up later. Go through a mental checklist: shoulders relaxed; body upright; breathing steady; stride rate even; and any other cues you use to maintain your form.

Have a sports drink at the first station. It’s good to take in carbs from the start rather than waiting until you feel tired and light-headed, when it’ll be a case of too little too late. The longer you can postpone glycogen depletion, the longer you’ll be able to hold your pace. Be guided by your thirst. Mentally, the first half is the time to cruise. Save your mental and emotional energy for the much tougher second half; try to get the first half out of the way at the correct pace using the minimum mental energy.

To group or not to group?

If you’re running into a headwind, there’s a substantial advantage to running in a group and letting others block the wind. You may need to do your share at the front, but you’ll still save considerable energy compared with running on your own. Even on a calm day, it’s better to deviate slightly from goal pace rather than run long stretches by yourself. In big city marathons, you’ll be among runners at any pace, but in smaller races, you have a reasonably high chance of running miles alone. In that situation, it may be worth running a few seconds per mile faster or slower than planned to stay with a group. Drafting behind other runners gives you a small energy advantage, but the key benefit of staying with a group is psychological. It means you don’t have to worry about setting the pace; you can simply relax and go along with the group.

As a rule of thumb, don’t deviate from your goal pace by more than eight to 10 seconds per mile during the first 20 miles. The best way to judge whether to speed up in order to latch on to a group or not is by how you feel. If your breathing is uncomfortable and you sense you can’t maintain that intensity to the finish, relax and let them go. The group won’t carry you the whole way beyond your level of conditioning. During the final six miles and 385 yards, be more independent. If no one else is running at your pace, go it alone. The chances are this will work well for you psychologically, because if you’ve prepared well and run a fairly even pace, you’ll be passing other runners throughout the final miles. And nothing lifts the spirits quite like overtaking late in the marathon.

13.1-20 miles

This is the no-man’s-land of the marathon. You’re already fairly tired and still have a long way to go. It’s easy to let your pace slip during this stretch, but slowing is often more a matter of not concentrating than of not being able to physically maintain the pace. So, use all the available feedback on your pace and concentrate on your splits. This gives you an immediate goal to focus on and a bit of on-the-run mental arithmetic keeps your mind sharp. If you’re five seconds too slow when you calculate your split, don’t try to make up the lost seconds in the next mile; just run at goal pace again to get back on track. Focusing on these incremental goals stops a large drift in your pace. It’s common to have a few miles when you just don’t feel good. These bad patches are a test of mental resolve. Often they will just last a while, and then mysteriously disappear. The key is having confidence that you’ll eventually overcome the bad patch. Taking in carbs also helps you maintain mental focus. The only fuel for your brain is glucose (carbohydrate) and when you become carb-depleted, the amount reaching your brain decreases. Getting carbs in, particularly between miles 13 and 20, helps ensure that you stay alert and clear-headed.

The final six miles and 385 yards

You’re at the hardest, but also the most rewarding, stage of the marathon. This is the part you’ve prepared for during your long months of training; where those long runs will really pay off. Until now, everything has required the patience to hold back. Now, you’re free to see what you’ve got. During this final 10K, you can dig deep and use up any energy you have left. This is what the marathon is all about – the stretch that poorly prepared marathoners fear and well prepared marathoners relish.

The key from 20 miles to the finish is to push as hard as you can without having disaster strike in the form of a cramp or muscles tightening so much that you lose your stride effectiveness. You will have prepared yourself for this during your long runs, your marathon-pace runs and, to a lesser extent, your tempo runs. Now you need to use your body’s feedback to determine just how hard you can push.

By now, your calf muscles, hamstrings or quads, or some combination of these, are probably on the edge and will limit how fast you can go. Test the waters by trying to pick it up a bit and push to what you perceive to be the limit of what your muscles will tolerate. See how they react. There’s a risk that in trying to increase your pace you’ll end up with a cramp, so the safe option is to just try to maintain your pace to the finish. Competitive marathoners will take the risk, and the more marathons you run, the more you’ll know your body’s reaction to these stresses and how hard you can push your muscles. Also, you can take progressively greater risks as the finish line nears.

Although working out ‘how many miles to go’ can be daunting early on in the race, in this final stage it can be comforting and help keep you focused. Telling yourself, ‘less than three miles to go’, or ‘just 20 minutes more’, can be motivating. If you’re struggling, picture yourself finishing a run on your favourite training loop so the remaining distance seems more manageable.

Continue taking in fluid and carbs until the last few miles. Keeping up your blood sugar level will help you stay alert until the end. When you see the finish approaching, put in a little more effort so that you run strongly over the line – but not so much that you cramp and have to limp across it. Show yourself that you have mastered the marathon and are able to kick to the finish. Then you can bask in the hard-earned glory that lies beyond a marathon finish line.

FILLING YOUR TANK: Your fuelling plan plays a big part in your performance – so get it right


If you’ve carb-loaded properly in the days before and topped up pre-start, you’ll have 2,000-2,400kcal of stored glycogen. During the marathon, you’ll burn roughly 100kcal per mile, about 80kcal of which comes from carbs, and the rest from fat (though this varies depending on fitness and how hard you race). So you need about 2,100kcal of carbs, which doesn’t give you much of a buffer against glycogen depletion. So sports drinks and energy gels deliver the extra carbs needed to get you through the race.


How much you need to drink depends on your size and pace, the heat and humidity, and your sweat rate. But you shouldn’t drink more than the maximum amount you can empty from your stomach. Research shows runners’ stomachs can only empty 180-210ml of fluid every 15 minutes, so roughly 720-840ml per hour. Drink more and the extra fluid will just slosh around in your stomach with no additional benefit. Experiment with how much your stomach will tolerate during training at marathon pace.


Let’s assume you take in 480ml of fluid per hour during the race – 480ml of a typical sports drink supplies 29g of carbs, which amounts to approximately 120kcal. Gels are another way to take in carbs. They contain 80-150kcal of carbs. This will increase your chances of reaching the end without running out of glycogen. You’ll need fluid to wash them down and absorb them, so the best time to take them is just before an aid station. Make sure you stop at these – it may cost you a minute or two, but the benefits can repay you with 10-20 minutes by the end.


It’s a marathon, of course it’s going to test you. The key is to be prepared…


Early on in the race, if you begin to pick up on signs of effort or you start to experience fatigue, these are are warning signals that you should control your pace.


In the last 10K, when everything is on the line, you have to be mentally and emotionally prepared to fight it out, or all the training in the world will count for nothing.

Setting Your Goal Pace

Most marathoners-in-training start with a time goal, often ambitious, that motivates them. But smart marathoners adjust their goals according to their fitness: marathons are run on finely tuned physiological systems, not courage. But how do you assess your fitness and make a good prediction, particularly if you’ve never run a marathon before? And how should you adjust your pace to account for all the variables on the day?

Find – and test – your pace  

Resources such as the Race Time Predictor at help you translate your recent performances at shorter distances to what you can expect in the marathon, while your long runs and tempos tell you how wired you are for long, grinding efforts. Once you select a target pace, you can structure sessions around it with long workouts that mirror the demands of the marathon. These will give you a clear idea of what you can do.

PREPARE to adjust

Finding your perfect goal pace requires trial and error, but if you find it exceedingly difficult to maintain in longer workouts, you’ve overestimated your fitness, so be prepared to re-think. Or, if you’re totally married to your target, start slowly for the first third of the race, then gradually up the tempo if your body allows. Listen to your body: if your perceived effort is too high too early, back off and save the hardest running for the end.

This feature was originally published by Discover more great features on every aspect of running and kick start your marathon training with a subscription to Runner’s World magazine. Virgin Money London Marathon participants can click here for an exclusive offer.