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Marathon day strategy: dos and don’ts

You’ve trained for weeks, run hundreds of miles and hours, and finally it’s Marathon Day.

While race day strategy isn’t as big of a factor as your actual training and conditioning, having a good game plan can help ensure you do the absolute best you can that day.

So let’s start with the basics of what not to do.

  1. Starting — and staying — too fast, for too long. Most runners run the first mile fast – don’t do this. If you can’t avoid it, don’t try to hold onto that pace. Mile 1 should feel comfortable, even at faster speeds. If you start out too fast, quickly drop it down a gear into your endurance mind. If you don’t, be prepared to hit the wall – hard! – in later miles.
  2. Starting out too slow. Negative splits are an approach where you start slower than goal pace and gradually increase over your race to slightly faster than goal pace with the average right where you want to be. First of all, it’s easy to miscalculate this approach and end up too far behind your goal time later in the race when you need to catch up with no reserves to do so. Second, negative splits work for shorter distances but for endurance runners, you won’t have enough left in you to go faster as your body (and your mind) start to become exhausted.
  3. Hold steady at the wrong pace. If you lock in a pace but it feels like you’re holding on for dear life after 10-12 miles, it’s probably a good idea to back off the pace and accept you’re not as fit as you hoped. The first 10-12 miles of a marathon should feel like a strong training run, where your only concern is staying focused enough to lock in your pace into autopilot so as your mind wanders, your body is taking care of the next 8-10 miles.
  4. Changing things up from your long run preparation. Eat pasta the night before but only if it’s something you’ve practiced in the 20 weeks of training. That way, you get a sense of how much you can eat comfortably without bathroom breaks.

And here are some practical tips to have the strongest marathon yet:

Pace control
If you feel great on race day and your test races predict success, lock in your goal pace and be vigilant over the race. If you drop 10 seconds in one lap, don’t try to make 10 seconds up in the next mile. Figure out how many miles you have left and spread the difference over the rest of the race, rounding up to the nearest second.

For example, you’re shooting for an 8:12 per mile pace and have averaged that over the first 8 miles, however, mile 9 had some hills and you dropped to 8:22 for that mile. Instead of shooting for an 8:02 in mile 10, realize you have 17.2 more miles to go. Just one second faster per mile over 17.2 miles is an overcorrection so try to hit 8:11 per mile for the next 10 miles, and you’ll be back on track and passing the 19 mile marker on target.

The wall
You have probably hit “the wall” on a training run but even if you haven’t, there’s a very good chance you will during a marathon – anywhere from mile 17 to 22, depending on your glycogen stores and metabolism.

What starts as major mental negativity transforms into a strange ache, pain, or cramping. Physically, your body is switching from using glycogen, a fast burning fuel, to fat, a much slower burning fuel.  It’s similar to switching from gas to coal burning. The wall happens when your body cuts over. Fat needs more oxygen to burn, which is why you feel a little more winded at this important point of the race.

Though it can be tough, remember it’s not forever. Once the switch is made – after struggling for a mile or two – you’ll come out on the other side ready to finish the final 10K of the race in style.

The last 10K
The last 10K is where you’ll mentally and physically peak. Your speed won’t be any faster but because of your heart rate gradually rising over the run, you’ll feel like you’re at mile 3 of a 5K.

Your mind will need to fight off the negative thoughts about your body. The distraction of a heart rate monitor can help you reason with yourself that you’re doing anything your body isn’t capable of.

Watch your heart rate glide gradually up towards your theoretical heart rate max by a beat or two per mile. This means at mile 20 you should be about 12 beats per minute shy of your theoretical heart rate max while cruising at goal pace. If it’s higher than that, focus on breathing to get the 1-2-3 out, 1-2-3 in rhythm back. This can also help quiet your mind by getting your breathing back on track.

If you can’t hold your goal pace at that rhythm, the conditions – heat, sleep, etc, — might be to blame.
Try and hold on as long as you can. If you have to slow down, do it in stages. Drop 5 seconds per mile for the next mile and tell yourself it’s just one more mile at that pace. At the end of the mile, those 5 seconds may have been just the break you needed to pick the 5 back up over the remaining distance — or maybe you need to go to 10 slower.

Remember, inside mile 20 you have 6.2 miles at most left so 5 seconds slower per mile for the rest of the race is still only 31 seconds. If that buys you fresher legs, you might be able to put in a really fast quarter mile at the end and reach your goal.

Related Marathon training paces: how to reach your finish time goal