Photo credit: Wiesbaden military community runners join in city-wide 25-hour charity run – FMWRC – US Army – 100916 by Flickr user familymwr (US Army), used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 license.
You have set and communicated your goals, planned and executed your training, and are managing your taper – but there is still one marathon preparation step in which you should invest – actually planning your race strategy. I don’t mean the pre-race or post-race elements like parking, where you will meet friends or family, or what you will enjoy a post-race indulgence (all important considerations). I mean the actual running of the race itself. How will you pace yourself, what are the biggest risks to your strategy, and how will you identify and make adjustments as needed?
Assuming you have set and trained towards a stretch goal, every second may matter on race day. Getting caught up in a crowd, misjudging the effort needed to complete a hill, or going out slightly too fast may cause you to fall short of your goal and, while hopefully not ruining the race experience completely, this may leave you a bit disappointed after investing months of effort in training. With that in mind, here are some tips for developing a good race strategy.
- Reconsider your goal – has your training indicated that your goal is still achievable? Were your long runs manageable (meaning you were able to finish them strong), yet within 30 seconds or so of your race goal? Were you able to deliver a few marathon-paced medium runs (or marathon-paced segments of your longer runs)? Were your expectations for speed work met (amount and pace)? If you ran any races, were the results inline with what you are working towards at the marathon? While they are often a little oversimplified, you can use tools such as the McMillan Running Calculator to translate race results to different distances and double-check the paces you should have achieved in various workouts. If necessary, adjust your expectations for the race based on recent performance realities.
- Determine your target pace – again, there are plenty of calculators available to do this. You may already know this number by heart if your goal is the same as that with which you started your training, but it’s always safe to double-check.
- Set your overall approach – will you go for positive splits (go out fast and hope to hold on), even splits, or negative splits (try to finish strong)? I would shy away from the first approach – it usually yields sub-optimal results as you will fade far more quickly than you realize. Even splits are usually the safest approach, though some runners prefer to attempt negative splits and feel strong towards the finish. Note that if you don’t have a Garmin or other device that allows you to watch your splits during the race, you can get a tattoo (from Pacetat) so that you can keep track of your split goals on your arm. Don’t trust yourself to do the math during the race – you have more important things to concentrate on.
- Study your course – I find it important to know the course navigation to be mentally prepared for long stretches of straight running. It can be a real hurdle to expect a milestone like a specific street and find that it is taking a long time to get there. Know a few key mile markers especially around such long straight sections. If possible, you may want to go out and run portions of the course. If that’s not possible, then you can search for race reports on running blogs (just search “race report <name of race>” and you’ll often find at least a few to choose from).
- Know the hills – This is where you will need to make some adjustments to your pace approach. One source suggests that you lose ~20-30 seconds / mile on a 100 foot / mile climb (and 40-70 seconds / mile on a 200 foot / mile climb). You gain 15 – 20 seconds / mile on a 100 foot / mile drop and 20 – 40 seconds / mile on a 200 foot / mile drop. With all this information, you can see how specific splits may be impacted in the race – and make adjustments accordingly. Once you balance out all the pluses and minuses (only focusing on significant hills), adjust the pace for the rest of your miles accordingly.
- Summarize your strategy – I usually find it helpful to write things out as a way of imprinting them in my memory – that’s largely why I blog. If you can’t simply explain your race strategy, then you really can’t count on remembering and executing it on race day. This forces you to keep it simple.
As an example, let me take this approach in preparing my Akron Marathon race strategy. First, I had originally set a goal of around 3:04 – roughly halfway from my PR of 3:08:48 to my goal of 3:00 for Boston in the spring. However, as I reevaluated my training shortly after the mid-point of the cycle, it seemed pretty clear that a 3:00 time should be within reach at Akron, so I am adjusting my goal accordingly (my training workout paces have been largely inline with a 3:00 goal, and in particular I have put in some half-marathons at that pace without much effort). Checking the McMillan calculator, this gives splits of 6:53 / mile. My intention is to do even splits. I know that I have a tendency to go out too fast so forcing myself into a negative splits approach is difficult; even splits is at least “conceivable.”
Fortunately, since Akron is only 45 minutes away (and I had some spare time on my hands the first week of the taper), I did have the opportunity to try out the course. I had also chatted with others who had run the race previously and the common thread was to be careful about the hills on miles 15 – 19. I could tell from the hill profile that miles 19-24 were no picnic either, and since mile 24 is actually pretty close to mile 11 on the route, I was able to do a loop of just over a half-marathon (just a bit longer than the 12 miles my plan had called for), specifically testing out the most challenging hills. This was a big help in building a strategy, as I discovered that I was able to maintain a sub-6:50 pace on the hills without too much effort. I also discovered that miles 19.5 to 22 will be a major mental challenge, as it’s largely straight, slightly uphill, and seemed to go on longer than expected.
Studying the elevation charts, I can see that the first 11 miles are roughly flat (give or take a bit around mile 8). I’m not going to worry too much about adjusting my pace there. Mile 12 involves a 200’ drop – I should gain maybe 30 seconds on that split. Miles 18 and 19 make up for that drop with an equivalent climb – I should count on losing maybe 40 seconds spread over those two splits (I’ve done a lot of hill work so will keep my estimate on the low end). I’ll lose another 20 seconds on the 100 foot climb at the beginning of mile 23, and make up that amount in mile 25.
Thus, my plan is to go out at a 6:50 pace for the first 11 miles (and not get concerned if mile 8 is a bit slow, or mile 9 a bit fast). Mile 12 should come in around 6:30, and then level out again around 6:50 through mile 17. Miles 18 and 19 can be around 7:10 each, and I’ll push to get back to 6:50 for miles 20-22. Mile 23 may slip to 7:10, mile 24 at 6:50, and mile 25 at 6:30 (should start “emptying the tank” here). If I assume a 6:50 on the last mile, this puts my overall time at around 2:59:20, giving me just a little time to spare on the back end or the more challenging hills. I think this is achievable and easy to remember, with just a little study.
Does anyone have any good race strategy advice to add, or suggestions on my own approach?