Marathon preparation occurs over several months. During that time, you meticulously plan and diligently train so that you're in peak condition for the race. To do your best, however, you also need to have a plan for the marathon itself. How much should you warm up and what should that warm-up consist of? How should you fuel? How should you handle the first few miles, the first half of the race, the long stretch up to 20 miles, and the final 6 miles and 385 yards? Let's take a look at race-day strategies that help you get everything out of your months of preparation, so that you cross the finish line exhausted but satisfied.
Much of what follows is based on my book, Advanced Marathoning, here updated and revised to reflect the latest research and developments in elite coaching and racing.
The Day Before
The day before the marathon, most runners find it useful to do a short run to loosen up their muscles and help calm their nerves. Many marathoners choose to rest two days before the race, and then do a short run the day before the race. For most runners, a 3-4 mile gentle run, with a few minutes pickup within it at close to race pace, provides just enough reminder that they're fit and ready to race.
You should eat a relatively high carbohydrate diet and stay well-hydrated during the day. If your race starts early the next morning, avoid having your main meal late in the evening. For example, for an 8 a.m. marathon start, you should eat your main meal by about 7 p.m., so there's plenty of time to digest your meal and have a good night's sleep. Hydration shouldn't be a problem because you won't be training much the last few days before the race, but it's sometimes easy to forget to drink when traveling and staying in a hotel.
If the race is in the morning, you need to get up early enough to eat and digest a small meal. The amount of time required varies between runners, so it's helpful to try your pre-race meal timing in tune-up races prior to the marathon. For most runners, eating three to four hours in advance is enough time to get the benefits of a small meal without experiencing digestive distress out on the course.
At a major marathon like Boston or New York, you need a plan for the several hours when you'll be hanging around near the start. Of primary importance is staying warm during this time. If you get cold and start shivering, you'll start to use up your glycogen stores and your muscles will start to tighten up. Wearing old running clothes that you're happy to never see again, and if it's raining, fashioning a big plastic garbage bag into a rain jacket, can keep you reasonably comfortable.
Try to find a place to lie down and relax to pass the time. The important thing is to stay reasonably calm, even if conditions are not ideal while you wait for the start. Some runners find that an engrossing novel or a movie on an iPod allows them to escape the moment for an hour or two and not waste energy stressing about the impending start. But don't escape so much that you fail to prepare properly for the logistical, mental and physical realities of the race.
Warming up for any race is important. The purpose of a warm-up is to prepare your body to run at race pace. This involves increasing your metabolic rate, your body temperature, and the circulation of blood (and thus oxygen) to your muscles. The warm-up activates your aerobic system to work optimally from the start of the race.
There's a downside, however, to warming up for the marathon. One of the challenges in the marathon is to reach the finish line before becoming glycogen depleted. This is why it's important to carbo-load before the marathon and to take in carbohydrates during the marathon to help ensure that you don't run out of carbohydrates before the finish. But during a warm-up, you burn a mixture of carbohydrates and fat, thereby slightly reducing your glycogen stores. The key, then, is to find the minimum amount of warm-up necessary to prepare your body to handle race pace as soon as the starter's gun is fired, so you save as much of your precious carbohydrate reserves as possible for the 26.2 miles ahead.
The importance of the warm-up varies depending on how fast you plan to start (and hopefully finish) the race. If you'll run the first mile in under 6 minutes, then a warm-up is important to prime your cardiovascular system, to reduce your body's reliance on carbohydrates and to prepare your muscles for battle. If you plan to run the first mile slower than 9 minutes, then a 5-to 10-minute walk and stretch may be a better bet to conserve energy for the race. For those of you in between, how much to warm up depends largely on your personal experience and preference.
The optimal warm-up for the marathon depends on the level of the marathoner. For beginners, whose main goal is to finish, no warm-up is necessary. They can warm up during the first couple of miles of the race. For more serious marathoners, who will attempt to run the distance significantly faster than their normal training pace, the optimal warm-up consists of two runs of about 5 minutes each, with some gentle stretching in between.
You should start warming up about 30 to 40 minutes before the start of the race. Start your first warm-up run slowly, and gradually increase your pace so that you finish at about 1 minute per mile slower than marathon race pace. Next, stretch gently for about 10 minutes, including loosening up your shoulders and neck. Follow that with another 5 minutes of running, this time gradually picking up the pace until you reach marathon pace for the final 30 seconds or so. Then stretch a bit more, and take some sips of a sports drink to top off your carbohydrate stores, but not so much that fluid is sloshing in your stomach at the start.
That's it. Try to time your warm-up so you finish no more than 10 minutes before the race starts. If you warm up too long before the race, you'll lose some of the benefits, yet will have still used up some of your carbohydrate stores. The ability to time your warm-up like this is an advantage of running a smaller marathon, as compared to a megarace, where you're more likely to be herded to your starting position long before the race begins.
Before the start of the Olympic marathon, the athletes do a bit of nervous jogging around, but almost no one does more than 10 minutes of easy running, plus one or two accelerations up to race pace. This is enough of a warm-up for these runners to handle a sub-5:00 pace for the first mile. A similar routine will get you to the starting line prepared to handle your goal marathon race pace.
Your Pacing Strategy
Assuming that you have a time goal for the marathon, how should you go about trying to achieve that time? Some marathoners go out hard and then try to hang on as well as possible in the second half. Others try to run an even pace throughout. A few take it easy early on and then run the second half faster. Let's consider the physiology of the marathon and the implications for your optimal pacing strategy.
Your marathon pace is very close to your lactate-threshold pace, which is determined by your oxygen consumption at your lactate threshold and your running economy. If you run faster than your lactate threshold pace, then lactate accumulates in your muscles and blood. It is believed the hydrogen ions associated with the lactate deactivate the enzymes for energy production and make you slow down. When you exceed your lactate threshold pace, you also use more glycogen, so your limited glycogen stores are depleted more quickly than necessary.
These basics of marathon physiology indicate that the best strategy for the marathon is relatively even pacing. If you run much faster than your overall race pace for part of the race, then you'll use more glycogen than necessary and will likely start to accumulate lactate. If you run much slower than your overall race pace for part of the race, then you'll need to make up for this lapse by running faster than the most efficient pace for another portion of the race. The optimal pacing strategy, then, is to run nearly even splits, taking into account the idiosyncrasies of the course you'll be running.
Most runners shouldn't try to run dead-even splits, however, because during the marathon you'll gradually fatigue your slow-twitch muscle fibers and will start to recruit more of your fast-twitch A fibers to maintain your pace. Unfortunately, these fast-twitch fibers tend to be less economical than your slow-twitch fibers in their use of oxygen. Therefore, your running economy will tend to decrease slightly during the race, meaning that your lactate threshold pace will decrease slightly as well. The result is that your optimal pace will be slightly reduced during the latter stages of the marathon.
For example, if your goal is to run 2:39 for the marathon, then even splits would require you to run 1:19:30 for each half of the race. To run even splits, you would have to increase your oxygen consumption and lactate level as your fatigue level increases during the second half of the race. A more efficient pacing strategy would be to go through halfway in 1:18 to 1:19, because doing so would allow you to slow by 2 to 3 percent during the second half and still achieve your goal. If you ran negative splits for the marathon (i.e., the second half faster than the first half), chances are that you ran more slowly than optimal during the first half of the race and could have had a faster finishing time.
For world-class marathoners, whose genetics and training put them on a higher plane, the optimal pacing strategy is likely a bit different. These select few are so highly trained that they have a lower tendency to recruit less-economical muscle fibers as the race progresses. In addition, they can pick up the pace over the last several miles and gradually accumulate lactate to the finish. For the best marathoners in the world, therefore, the most effective pacing strategy is to run the second half of the marathon at the same pace as, or even slightly faster than, the first half.
Most of the recent world records have followed this model of slightly faster second halves. In setting the world best of 2:03:59 at the 2008 Berlin Marathon, Haile Gebrselassie ran the first half in 62:05 and the second half in 61:54. In setting his first world record at this distance, Gebrselassie ran 2:04:26 at the 2007 Berlin Marathon, with half times of 62:29 and 61:57. Similarly, in her first world record at the 2002 Chicago Marathon, Paula Radcliffe ran 2:17:18 by running the first half in 69:03 and the second half in 68:15. When she set her current world record of 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon, her first half took 68:02, and she ran the second half in 67:23. During Kenyan Patrick Makau's 2011 Berlin Marathon, where he set the current marathon world record of 2:03:38, he went through halfway in 61:44 and ran the second half just 10 seconds slower--almost perfectly even. In examples of record-breaking elite races, typically the second half is only 15 to 60 seconds faster than the first half (1 to 4 seconds per mile), so the negative split is minimal.
These examples of successful world-record attempts, in which the weather is typically close to ideal, are rare, however. Even world-class marathoners (sub-2:10 for men, sub-2:25 for women) often run the second half from 30 to 90 seconds slower than the first half. My experience is that most marathoners in the 2:40 to 4:30 range will run optimally by gradually increasing their effort over the second half of the race in the attempt to run close to even splits, which often results in a second half from 2 to 3 percent slower than the first half (e.g., 2-3 minutes for a 3:00 to 3:20 marathoner).
You're finally at the starting line, warmed up and ready for the task ahead. It's all too easy to get carried away and run the first mile too fast. A better approach is to run the first mile at, or a bit slower than, your goal pace. Because you won't have done much of a warm-up before the start, your body won't be prepared to go faster than race pace. Also, if you run too fast at the beginning of the race, your body will burn off extra glycogen and start to accumulate lactate that could negatively affect the rest of your race.
After the first mile is out of the way, the best strategy during the next few miles is to settle into a good rhythm. Try to run fast but relaxed. Establishing a relaxed running style early in the race will go a long way toward helping you avoid tightening up, so you can maintain your goal pace to the finish. Go through a mental checklist periodically to make sure your shoulders are relaxed, your body is upright, your breathing is steady, you are maintaining your stride rate and any other personal cues you use to help maintain good running style throughout the race.
Take a carbohydrate drink at the first aid station, or, if you're carrying your own, within the first mile or two. It's useful to take in carbs right from the start rather than waiting until you think you need them. If you wait until you feel tired and light-headed to take in carbohydrates, it will be too little too late. The longer you can postpone carbohydrate depletion, the longer you will be able to maintain your goal pace. It's also useful to drink a few ounces of fluid at each 5K aid station during the marathon to minimize dehydration, using thirst as your guide on how much, and how frequently, to drink. A few seconds lost at each aid station can translate into several minutes gained toward the end of the marathon.
Mentally, the first half of the marathon is the time to cruise. Try to save your mental and emotional energy for the second half of the race. All other factors being equal, if there's a group of runners in the lead pack at halfway, the winner will be the one who has cruised along at the back of the pack, saving his or her energy for the demands of the second half of the race. Regardless of your ultimate finishing place in the marathon, you should realize that the second half is much harder than the first half; just try to get the first half out of the way at the correct pace without using any more mental energy than necessary.
To Group or Not to Group
Although in most cases you should stay with your pacing plan, the weather or the tactics of other runners may merit slightly altering your strategy. If you're running into a headwind, there's a substantial advantage to running in a group of runners and letting others block the wind. Though you may need to do your share in leading the group, you'll still save considerable energy compared to running by yourself into the wind. On a windy day, therefore, you may need to run faster or slower than planned to stay with a group.
Even on a calm day, the best strategy is to deviate slightly from your goal pace, rather than running most of the way by yourself. In big-city marathons such as Boston, New York, or Chicago, being stuck by yourself isn't a problem. At almost any pace, you'll be among a number of runners, and you can work with them to reach your goal time. In a smaller marathon, however, you have a reasonably high chance of running by yourself for many miles. In that situation, you must make a judgment call as to whether to go a few seconds per mile faster or slower than planned to stay with a group. Although drafting behind other runners will give you a small energy advantage, most of the benefit of staying with a group is psychological. You don't have to set the pace, and you can relax and go along with the group.
Most runners find it quite difficult mentally to run by themselves for long stretches of the marathon. So what's the trade-off between having company and having to compromise your strategy? A rule of thumb is to deviate from your goal pace by no more than 8 to 10 seconds per mile if you would otherwise be running by yourself during the first 20 miles of the race. Running 8 to 10 seconds per mile faster than planned may not sound like much over 1 mile, but this difference in effort can put you over the edge after a couple of miles.
The best way to judge whether to pick it up to latch on to a group is by how you feel at the time. If you feel as though you can handle it--you aren't accumulating fatigue, or working noticeably harder and less efficiently than at the slower pace--then go for it. If your breathing is uncomfortable and you can sense that you're working at a higher intensity than you can maintain until the finish, then relax and let the others go. The group won't carry you the whole way beyond your level of conditioning. You may find that the group will soon break up and that you'll once again have others to run with.
During the final 6 miles and 385 yards, you can afford to be more independent. If no one else is running at the correct pace for you after you've passed the 20-mile mark, you need to muster the courage to go it alone. Chances are that forging out will work well psychologically, because if you've prepared well and run a fairly even pace, you'll be passing other runners throughout the final miles. Nothing lifts the spirits quite like passing another runner late in the marathon.
When you're racing a marathon in which your specific finishing place is an important consideration (e.g., the Olympic trials, or a small race where you have a chance of winning or placing high), then your pacing strategy will be somewhat determined by the actions of others in the race. If a group of 10 runners breaks away, then you'd better go after them, even if it means running faster than planned. In general, though, it's best to stick close to your race plan and your goal marathon pace. Even in these situations, physiology can't be thwarted, and often running an appropriate pace will leave you stronger at the end than runners who tried to hang with a group beyond their ability on a given day. (Recall Meb Keflezighi in Athens and London.)
13.1 to 20 Miles
Slowing during this portion of the marathon is often more a matter of not concentrating than of not being able to physically maintain the pace. Focusing on your splits gives you an immediate goal to concentrate on. The ability to do a bit of adding in your head while running is a helpful skill and gives you a mental task to keep your mind sharp. If you're 5 seconds too slow when you calculate your split, don't try to make up the lost 5 seconds during the next mile; aim to run your goal mile pace again as your target to get yourself back on track. By focusing on these incremental goals along the way, you'll prevent a large drift in your pace and should be able to stay very close to your goal.
It's not unusual to have a few miles when you just don't feel good. These bad patches are a test of mental resolve. Often these stretches will last a while and then mysteriously go away. For example, you might feel tight and uncomfortable from miles 15 to 17, but then get back in the groove again and feel good to the finish. The key is to have the confidence that you'll eventually overcome this bad patch.
I learned this lesson during the 1983 San Francisco Marathon. After working quite hard from 13 to 16 miles, I had a stretch of about 3 miles when my breathing felt out of sync, and I struggled to stay with the other two leaders. I kept telling myself to relax and that the other guys might be hurting, too. Fortunately, I settled back into a comfortable rhythm by 19 miles, felt strong enough to drop the other two runners by the 20-mile mark, and cruised home to victory. If I had let myself think negatively during the bad patch and let the other two runners get away, I wouldn't have won that race.
Taking in carbohydrates every 5K during the second half of the race can help you maintain your mental focus. The only fuel for your brain is glucose (carbohydrate), and when you become carbohydrate-depleted, the amount of glucose reaching the brain starts to decrease. If you've carbo-loaded, this shouldn't start to affect you until well past the 20-mile mark. Taking in carbohydrates during the race, and particularly between miles 13 and 20, however, will help ensure that you stay alert and think clearly throughout the race.
The Final 6 Miles and 385 Yards
Having made it to 20 miles, you're at the most rewarding stage of the marathon. This is the part that you've prepared for during your long months of training. This is when your long runs, during which you worked hard over the last stages, will really pay off. Until now, everything required the patience to hold back. Now, you're free to see what you've got. During this final 10K, you get to dig deep and use up any energy that you have left. This is what the marathon is all about. This is the stretch that poorly prepared marathoners fear and well-prepared marathoners relish.
The key from 20 miles to the finish is to push as hard as you can without having disaster strike in the form of a cramp or muscles so tight you lose your stride effectiveness. You will have prepared yourself for this during your long runs, your marathon-pace runs, and, to a lesser extent, your tempo runs. You need to use your body's feedback to determine just how hard you can push. Chances are, by now your calf muscles, hamstrings, quads or some combination of these are on edge and will limit how fast you can go. You need to test the waters a bit and push to what you perceive to be the limit that your muscles will tolerate. Try to pick it up a bit and see how your muscles react. There's a risk that in trying to increase your pace you'll end up with a cramp, so the safe option is to just try to maintain to the finish. But competitive marathoners will take the risk to get a slightly faster finishing time. The more marathons you run, the more you'll know your body's reaction to these stresses and how hard you can push your muscles. You can take progressively greater risks as the finish line nears.
Although figuring out "how many miles to go" can be daunting early on in the marathon, in this final stage it can be comforting and help keep you focused. As the finish approaches, telling yourself, "Less than 3 miles to go," or "Just 15 minutes more," can be motivating. If you're struggling a bit toward the end, picture yourself finishing a run on your favorite training loop so the remaining distance seems more manageable.
If you've been drinking according to your thirst and taking in carbohydrates throughout the race, your muscles should be able to maintain the pace to the finish line. Continue drinking until the last few miles. Keeping up your blood sugar level will help you stay alert so you can concentrate well to the end. When you see the finish line approaching, give a little more effort so that you run strongly over the line--but not so much that you cramp and have to stop within sight of the line and limp across. Show yourself that you have mastered the marathon and are able to kick it in a bit to the finish. Then enjoy the fruits of your labor.