We largely live in a 'more is better' world. Certainly in the world of endurance sport, athletes are going longer and longer. #Ultralife is the up and coming hashtag it seems.

But not so long ago, the marathon was seen as the king of run races. With millions of people running marathons nowadays, the achievement perhaps doesn’t attract the same awe as it once did, but it’s still one heck of an achievement (not to mention a fantastic feeling) to complete a marathon.

The challenge for most marathon runners is to get the pacing right as many get their strategy wrong and feel the wrath of the old king. So, I've taken a look at what the literature says about how best to pace your race and achieve your goals...

Pacing: It's all in the mind

On paper, the marathon is fairly simple. 4 x 10km, 8 x 5km or even 1 x 30km with a 12km finish. Broken down, it never seems so bad, yet so many people can get it wrong.

The first place to look for blame when a marathon goes wrong is upstairs, in the mind... particularly where the ego lies. The ego could be the reason you end up entering the race, the reason you might overtrain before the race, and the reason you push too hard at the start of the race.

A study by Deaner et al looked at why people who are higher risk-takers slow down more in the marathon. They state that runners who are overconfident have a larger discrepancy between their pre-race pace forecast and their actual performance pace. If you’re someone who takes more care, you’re likely to pace a marathon better due to starting close to your actual performance pace.

With this in mind, it's also not too surprising that the same study showed older and more experienced marathoners have a less variable pace, as do women.

It can be said then that the psychological aspect to the marathon is key, nothing new about that... but it isn't the stereotypical aspect of breaking through 'the wall' with 5km to go, but rather the aspect of pre-race expectations and being less of a risk-taker.

Image Credit: Emma Pallant-Browne ©

How to pace your marathon

What about the practical execution of pacing the marathon? A good place to start is the data.

Ely et al (2008) reported that elite marathon runners had low variability of pace which agrees with the data on elites who run ultra-marathons. The top-10 finishers of a 100km ultra showed less variability in pace than the finishers between 11th and 77th place. This is interesting as we’re not talking about the pace here but a variation (i.e. the difference between minimum, maximum and average).

It's practical to think that a slower runner going at a pace they know they can maintain would hold a steadier pace than the guys at the front who are running against competitors and having to 'race'.

But it seems not. Haney & Mercer (2011) collected 285 marathon GPS data files and developed a way to look at pace variability called a Velcov (velocity curve). This is a strong study as it looks at non-elite runners, aka ‘the weekend warriors’!

They predicted that there would be lower variability in slower runners because they believed they would have less of a capacity to achieve a fast pace and would therefore exhibit less of a drop off if they did slow, but this wasn't to be the case.

It seems that the slower runners had a higher variability in pace because they’re less trained than experienced, faster runners at the front of the field. Slower runners may need to rest or walk after a considerable period of exertion, whereas fitter runners can recover at a higher velocity and their pace is less variable as a result.

Furthermore, the longer you exercise, the higher your body temp rises (regardless of pace), so for the slower marathoners this might have meant more frequent and longer periods of resting or walking in the last quarter of a marathon.

Image Credit: Emma Pallant-Browne ©

Fueling, the long run and accumulative fatigue

Fueling may also play a role. The longer your time spent exercising, the more fuel required to keep glucose levels optimal; which could lead to a higher chance of GI distress if you consume high levels of carb without proper gut training or 'hitting the wall' if you underfuel and don't consume enough carbs per hour.

It’s no coincidence that many of the DNF-causing effects (i.e. cramps, blisters, dehydration, dizziness and vomiting) are more often associated with inexperienced athletes towards the back end of the field rather than the front.

From a coaching perspective, the long run is a cornerstone of most marathon training plans. But, few will recommend for non-elite runners to run a 4-hour long run, even if their predicted finish time is greater than 4 hours.

Is this where the pacing problem lies? How do coaches mimic the second-half conditions of a marathon for 4hr+ runners without them ‘blowing up’ in training? How do coaches keep the ego at bay when a 2-hour long run goes beautifully, but the runner fails to recognise that it’s only 50% of their volume for race day?

As a coach writing this, I have a few ideas and methods but the main focus is building accumulative fatigue through consistency. What does this take? Time...

This leads us back full circle to where I started this article, to run a marathon well we should minimise risk-taking, start training well in advance.

Let the training data do the talking and silence the ego...

Further reading