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Race Pacing: Marathon & Half Marathon

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

Fall race season is here! You’ve trained for months, you’ve run the miles, put in the strength training, done the stretching, eaten all the carbs, and now it’s time to race. Seems simple enough right?

Or not. Racing seems simple enough, run as hard as you can for as long as you can. But when you’re talking about 13.1 or 26.2 miles, it’s not that simple. There is a lot more strategy that’s involved, whether you want to get a BQ (Boston Marathon qualifying time) or you are running your first marathon and just want to finish in the course time of 6 hours.

Race Pacing Philosophies

Depending on who you ask, there are a lot of varying philosophies on the best way to pace a race. My suggestions below are based on the idea of a slight negative split, where you run the second half of the race faster than the first. This comes from studies of the best Olympic and World Major Marathon winners, who usually negative split the race. This is also based on physiology–if you go out too fast in the beginning of the race, you can’t get that expended energy back at the end of the race.

Another note on race pacing philosophies: each race is going to have a slightly different strategy, and that’s because each course has it’s own unique variations. On a course that is very flat, like the Chicago Marathon, you will be able to more perfectly predict what your paces for each mile should be. On a course like the New York Marathon, with more hills in the second half of the race, the actual mile paces will be different and you’ll want to race based more on effort.

Hills & Race Pacing

The following recommendations are based on the *effort* of each mile pace for you, rather than an *actual* mile pace. What this means in practice is that running up hill should feel like the effort of whatever your goal pace is, rather than the pace on your watch. The same applies to the downhill. The downhill effort should feel the same as goal race pace, rather than the actual pace on your watch. The matching effort should help even out. Again, if your race is a large net incline or decline, this will affect overall pace and should be considered in your training and race strategy.

If any of this is overwhelming or you’re not sure what it should look like for you and your race goals, let’s chat. Send me an email and I’d be happy to help you figure out the right race strategy for you.

Half Marathon Pacing

For the half marathon, you want to warm-up for the first 3 miles, so keep the pace 15-20 seconds per mile slower than your goal race pace. After those first 3 miles, you want to settle in to your goal race pace. This isn’t a speed workout, so you don’t need to get there immediately, but work your way down to race pace and settle in for the majority of the miles. Once you hit the final 5k at 10 miles in, you’re going to give the race what you have left. Don’t start sprinting because you have 3.1 miles left, but this is the time to really think about what you have left in the tank and how hard you can push it.

Marathon Pacing

In pacing a marathon, you want to be even more cautious than a half marathon. The first 4 miles should be 20 seconds slower than race pace and should feel relatively easy. There are lots of miles to come. Don’t let the start line get your heart rate up too much. After you hit mile 4, settle into your goal race pace. Similar to the half marathon, don’t rush to race pace, but work your way there in a doable way. You’re going to be here for the majority of the race, so embrace it. Miles 5-17 are sitting at race pace. Once you hit mile 18, start to pick up the pace a tiny bit - just 5-10 seconds per mile, nothing drastic here. Just like with a half marathon, once you hit 5k left at mile 23.1, give it what you have left in the tank. Not sprinting, just evaluating the energy you have left and using it to finish strong.

Trust your training & finish strong

If you have questions on what your race pacing should look like, please reach out and ask! I would love to help you figure out your plan for your next race.

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