Building a Marathon Race Strategy

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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?

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  • Rev. Run

    Very helpful, Greg. Thanks. I’ve run two marathons with (pretty much) a goal of “finish this thing.” I was in the low to mid 4s on them. This time, in Columbus, I have a solid goal (3:34) and I have to have a strategy if I want to hit that.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comment, Brian. Even the “finish this thing” approach (and
    there’s nothing wrong with that) requires a little bit of strategy at least
    (after all, if one could take finishing for granted, then the marathon
    wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment, would it?), even if it just involves
    staying conservative early. But you are right, the need for strategy
    increases as the goal gets more aggressive. With the way your training has
    been going, I have no doubt you will meet your goal at Columbus; I think you
    even have some “wiggle-room” to work with.

  • Vera

    Outstanding analysis Greg. I hadn’t thought of the specifics about the effects of up and downhill grades on pace in this way. Thanks for providing the source! I read somewhere recently that elite athletes post their fastest half marathon times using even splits, but perform better (faster) during full marathons using negative splits. I used even splits during the Disney Half for the first time this year and I loved it. I think I’m going to stick with that strategy for my next Half.

    Sounds like you are primed for this marathon. I would say good luck, but it’s not luck! Have the great race you know you are prepared and ready for!!! Can’t wait to hear about the experience!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comments and faith Vera.I am sure you are right about the
    negative split approach for elite athletes. I am obviously not in that
    category and do fear leaving too much time “out there” that I wouldn’t be
    able to make up on the back half. Even getting to even splits would be a
    huge accomplishment for me; my 2nd half at the most recent Cleveland
    marathon was 4 minutes slower than my first half (and that’s even better
    than normal for me). Good luck in your new coaching and training endeavors!

  • Drew

    You and Joe M. must be reading my mind, because this post is timely. Just the other day I was thinking of asking our opinion on what my race strategy should be. Ideally I’d like to achieve negative splits the entire way, but I’m afraid of running from behind. I’ll be re-reading this a few times over the next eight weeks to put together a plan of attack.

  • Greg Strosaker

    I think it is tough to count on running negative splits – the mental challenge of restraining yourself early and not doubting yourself is a big one, and being that its your first marathon, I would hesitate to recommend such an approach. That being said, having a relatively conservative goal, then finding you have more strength towards the end and can in fact pick up the pace, may be a fair approach – so you’re not “counting on” negative splits but will take them if you can get them. Thanks for your comment, Drew.

  • Fitz

    One tip is to build a small bank of extra time by the 20 mile mark in case you start slowing down. With the hills, and just the nature of the marathon, I don’t think anybody can 100% count on running faster/the same pace for the last 10k.

  • Greg Strosaker

    I have the same concerns regarding the last 10K Fitz. As you well know, the
    challenge is building up enough cushion without going out too fast and
    causing some real issues – my hope is the 6:50 target early (plus my
    tendency to run ahead of plan early anyway) will give the needed cushion to
    meet the goal.

  • RunnersPassion

    I’ve only run one marathon and I tried for even splits. Not sure I was really ready for it though as I slowed down considerably the last 4 or so miles and really struggled. Marathon is such a long run that it is hard to really come up with a strategy for it. I agree that the best thing you can do is go into it fully prepared in training and also in learning about the course as much as you can. Evaluate your fitness and go for it. Personally I believe even splits or negative splits is the way to go. Good luck in Akron!

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comments Daniel. The challenge with even splits is that we
    probably are all capable of doing them – we just don’t want to accept what
    those splits would be! I’m just hoping that the combination of increased
    mileage, hill work, strength training, and strong finishes on long runs is
    the right combination to reach my goals for Akron. There is a good risk
    that it still won’t be enough, but I’ll give it as good of a go as possible.

  • Joe

    The McMillan calculator predicts I can run a way faster marathon than I believe I’m capable of doing even on a good day (says I can run a 3:04 when my optimistic goal is a 3:10). I run fairly low mileage (40-65 per week), so I think that accounts for why my 5k and 10k times predict a much better marathon than my mileage supports. I’ve been doing marathon-specific workouts with mixed results. Anyway, this isn’t a “predict my time” comment. I think you’re right-on about strategizing the race. Most of us probably base our performance off our best race times that are typically done on flatter courses with somewhat ideal weather. It’s important to recognize these differences before showing up on race day and expecting a mathematical equivalent.

    Adapting the day of the race is also key. I remember a lot of Olympians starting the marathon slow in Beijing because of the hot conditions, but Wanjiru punished them all and many after the race said their strategy was too conservative and took them out of the race. Not that I’m encouraging people to start a marathon fast…

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comments Joe. I agree that running calculators can be
    imprecise and should not be overly relied on as predictors; what I find the
    McMillan tool more useful for is setting goals for workout paces. I think
    some runners are inherently better at certain distances than others so skew
    towards faster at one end and slower on the other; this, compounded with
    variation in training, makes any calculator-based approach to predicting
    race times suspect.

    And for the elite, especially, adjusting the race strategy as you go is
    essential (I imagine many of them do have contingencies in mind to cope with
    obvious risks like weather, a rabbit, etc.). Even for us more recreational
    runners, we do need to acknowledge the potential impact of things like high
    wind or temperatures and adjust accordingly. For Akron, for example, there
    is the potential for a windy morning based on current forecasts, so
    instinctively I know that my westbound miles may suffer (which regrettably
    includes a good portion of the uphill portion) and I’ll need to make it up
    on eastbound miles.

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  • Go Poncho

    I realize this is an old post but one that is timeless. Nice job and thank you PreDawn Runner. I came across this post as I was writing a marathon prep blog of my own which goes into detail an aspect of the race day strategy. You can read about it here: