Marathon Race Strategy – How To Run Your Fastest Marathon

Natalie Cecconi
Written by
Last update:

Pace Strategies

Running the marathon requires more than just putting one foot in front of the other. The most important thing is to figure out your pacing strategy.

You need to choose your pace to be as fast as possible without pushing yourself so hard at the start that you end up running out of gas by the end of the race.

I’ve personally suffered from this often. It’s fairly difficult to figure out exactly how to pace yourself but, with constant training, you will eventually get a feel for it.

Pretty much all walking breaks, most aid stations and water stops, and the first drop of adrenaline all trigger different emotions. In each scenario you will react differently.

Your strategy should involve running the first and last few miles as fast as you can. Then run easy for a few miles and allow your body to adjust to the running pace.

Finally, as you feel your body getting used to running, start to pick up the pace so that you are running as fast as possible at the halfway point. At this point, your strategy should no longer include anything but a steady pace that includes some sprinting and some walking.

The idea is to run at a pace that you can keep up for the majority of the race, thus avoiding the 21-mile wall.

Find Your Goal Marathon Time

So you want to run a marathon, but you’re unsure how fast you should run it to achieve your personal best possible time?

There are no easy answers to this question. (And, depending on which resource you consult, you can get very different answers!) This is a complex question that requires some personal consideration by you:

What Kind of Runner Are You?

Your first step is to determine what type of runner you are. Are you more of a sprinter or a distance runner? Do you prefer pushing yourself at a steady pace for as long as possible or do you prefer to keep things fast and fresh?

Age Matters

If you’re over 40, your marathon time will be typically 1 – 2 hours slower than that of a younger runner. If you’re 65 or older, your time will be an hour or more slower.

Other Things to Consider

The course surely plays a significant part in your marathon finishing time. After all, every marathon course will feature significant hills and/or turns and there are only so many feet of road where you can run each mile.

Also, consider your experience level. The more marathons you’ve run, the faster you’ll be able to go.

Practice Your Marathon Pace

The first thing you want to do is practice running your marathon pace and form in training. If you aren’t able to do this, then you might find that the marathon is just too long for you and you will need to slow down significantly in the last few miles to avoid running out of glycogen stores. This will cause your muscles to really hurt when you’re running the marathon and you will not be able to run very fast for the remainder of the race.

Make sure there is a portion of your long runs or marathon preparation runs where you run at your target marathon pace (and the correct marathon form).

The other thing to do is to practice your goal marathon pace on a shorter mileage training run, like a tempo run. That way you’ll get a little more time to recover before the marathon.

You want to reach the finish line with glycogen stores still available in the tank to help you recover quicker. This will allow you to resume training quicker, and start running faster and more comfortably.

If you don’t practice marathon pace and form, then your body may go into survival mode and slow you down in the later miles.

How to Find a Marathon Goal Time and Pace

How do you find the appropriate marathon goal based on your individual strengths and current running abilities?

If you compare yourself to a race, your chances of success are much higher if you choose a race with elites in your age group. However, for most people, doing so may be setting yourself up for too much disappointment.

Another option is to pick a goal that’s attainable which means running a little faster than your personal best or run a little bit faster than the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon.

A less competitive but achievable goal could be to find a marathon that’s a bit faster than your normal long training run. If you consistently run between 5:40 and 6 minutes per mile for most of your long runs, a marathon that’s run at a 7 minute per mile pace is achievable with enough training.

If you’re totally new to running and you have never raced at all, then a marathon goal isn’t necessary the first time around.

Go for a comfortable jog and you’ll come back the next time feeling a little bit stronger. In fact, you may be able to run a marathon the following year!

Run a Half Marathon or 10k

Although the first few miles of a marathon are the most important when it comes to achieving a new personal best, the miles immediately after the beginning are arguably the most important as well.

As you run across the start line, it starts to sink in that you have some serious work to do.

You fight the negative thoughts and mental exhaustion that come with the realization that you have another 26.2 miles of running ahead of you.

Getting through the first few miles strong will determine your pace for the rest of the race. If you start fast, you will likely continue running fast during and after the early miles.

If you start slow and drag yourself around the first two or three miles, then you are not going to be able to make any big time gains.

Therefore, running a test half marathon or 10k before your marathon is a great way to practice running strong.

It is important to note that you shouldn’t run your test races too fast. You should be focused on how to run consistently and efficiently, with a few short but fast bursts dispersed throughout the race.

Use a Race Time Predictor Calculator

To achieve your personal best marathon time, you need to accumulate a certain amount of training.

But there’s an optimal amount of training. Too much or too little and your performance suffers.

Training is most effective when it’s work-like. Work-like training means that you push through the mental and physical fatigue and discomfort. Training at an intensity level above your comfort zone is what causes physiological adaptations that optimizes your ability to perform in a race.

Knowing the number of workouts you need for optimal performance is something that can be determined by a calculator. One of the best and most advanced training time predictors out there is Jim Vance’s TT3 software. It has a huge variety of different inputs that it uses to help you predict your time.

The most important inputs are your race results. By using your times from races of different distances, the calculator can estimate how long it will take you to run your marathon without sacrificing your training or performance.

Equally important is your fitness level. An accurate read-out of your fitness level helps the calculator to match your training plan to your ability at any point during the training period.

Three (Plus One) Pacing Strategies Based on Your Marathon Goal

With over 35 years of coaching experience, I have seen thousands and thousands of unhappy marathon runners who are frustrated because they cannot reach a personal goal, or because they feel bad during the race. I have also seen happy runners feeling content and fulfilled after achieving the goals they had set themselves, finishing the marathon feeling that the race went according to plan, and even better than expected.

Negative Splits

You feel invincible when you are on that last mile of the race. No marathoner would refuse ghee the opportunity to push the pace on that final mile. ick towards the finish line is a natural instinct among most runners, but remember to use a bit of common sense. A negative split, also referred to as going out too fast, is a mistake that can easily ruin your race.

Our bodies have two speeds: negative and positive. Your body is like a car. Negative splits are the equivalent of accelerating from 0 to 100 mph at the start of the race. This equates to burning too much fuel too early on in the race.

Positive splits are the equivalent of accelerating from 100 to 0 mph at the start of the race. It is very easy to give in to that temptation of accelerating when you see the finish line. But again, it is burned fuel. You end up slowing too much and too early because you’ve used up your glycogen stores too quickly.

The right strategy is to apply a consistent, moderate pace (negative splits) in your marathon. A negative split is where you start off slow, but progressively and gradually build your pace to faster and faster throughout the race. It is your body’s way of saving fuel. Save fuel for the latter part of the race, especially on the last miles.

Even Splits at Goal Pace

The key to a fast marathon is keeping up your goal pace for the whole run. In order to do that, you have to run short segments at goal pace and make sure that you are not running either too fast or too slow at any point during the run. This is what we call keeping your splits at goal pace.

You may wonder if going by splits at marathon goal pace is as simple as it sounds.

The answer is yes and no. Yes, it’s simple, but it surely isn’t easy.

Yes, because it’s just a matter of calculating the length of each segment, and no, because calculating your marathon goal pace for a certain distance and sticking to it requires you use a mix of strategies and tactics.

Approaching the race, you’ll need to take into account your race strategy, your form, your competition, and the course. For example, if you are in a good condition and have a reputable pace group or pacer in your race, you can set your goal pace a little closer to your predicted PB. If meanwhile you will be running unsupported and you have a poor race strategy, you will have to settle for a slower goal pace.

Pace Table

These are the most important splits and the time you can afford to lose at each distance, to achieve a PB.

Banking Time

The first strategy that is going to make a huge difference in your marathon race is banking time. Now, I don’t mean that you should run side-by-side with the bank!

But what I do mean is that you should run with a plan.

I’m sure that you have heard of pace groups before. There are pace groups for all distances from the 5k to the ultramarathon. And marathon pace groups are no different … with the only difference being those pace groups tend to be a bit larger since many people are in the 21-mile event.

Pace groups are a great way to run your marathon. In fact, they are the most important aspect of your marathon strategy. Why?

The answer is simple: Many people start the race way faster than they should. This leads to understandable difficulties throughout the entire race.

By choosing a pace group and sticking with it, you’ll be on target for a faster finish. You’ll also run the race in less time and find that it was actually easier than you thought.

The second strategy for running your fastest marathon is fuel your body. Your goal is to have your body’s energy needs met by the time you cross the finish line.

Smart Banking Time

Timing is key to running your fastest marathon. Perhaps even more important than planning your workouts before the race.

The best marathon runners are both really smart and really lucky. They know exactly how hard to push themselves in training to prep their bodies for peak marathon performance. And they know when to relax and take it a bit easier in the final days before the race.

The body is very smart at adapting to different demands. So if you train hard and then suddenly stop, your body needs time to adjust to the new demand.

Let’s say you ramp up your workouts two weeks before a marathon. That’s fine. But in the final two weeks before the race, it’s best to keep things as similar as possible to your training. That way, your body is already used to the increased load.

When it’s time to taper, it’s important to decrease your training intensity and duration. Don’t just take it easy or go for long walks. If possible, substitute less intense workouts for your intense ones.

For example, run easy miles on the days you might usually do intervals. And do intervals on the days you normally do easy miles.

This keeps your heart rate elevated but makes it easier for your body to adapt to the new training intensity.

Other Marathon Strategy Tips

I’ve been running marathons for 15 years and 5 years ago I trained for and ran my first ultra marathon. I love running and racing. It gives me a goal to work towards, some sense of accomplishment and it keeps me mentally sharp. Whether you are planning on running a marathon or want to try something new, here are some tips to make the experience even better.

Buy a good pair of running shoes. You should not run a marathon in a pair of sneakers that you wear at the gym. It’s a common misconception that running shoes are all about cushioning and support. Shoes that are too soft or too hard won’t protect you as you go over all the road bumps and increase the chances of injury. The correct shoe will be similar to the one you already use. You can also get a recommendation from a professional.

Use the First Mile or Two to Warm-Up

This little detail about how to run your fastest marathon is so simple, yet so important. Each race course is different and some courses allow the runners to have a nice easy start, but many other courses offer no such luxury. You may have to run your first mile or two on a course with very elevated sidewalks and a brisk headwind. That means, you will have to use one of these miles to warm up.

Some strategies that work well in minimizing the first mile affect are to:– Develop a plan for your warm-up.

‑ Stretch each major muscle group in your body at least once for three to five minutes before lining up to start the race.

‑ Instead of full-out sprinting, you can start the race with some light jogging to warm-up those muscles.

‑ While you are running, include some light warming up by increasing your pace slightly or by increasing your stride length if you are normally an arm-swinger, or an increase stride length and a reduction in arm-swinging if you normally concentrate on getting your arms to move as much as you can.

Don’t Run the First Mile or Two Too Fast

You want to run the first couple of miles at a very easy pace so you can give yourself plenty of time to catch your breath. Start out a bit slower than you would run a 10K or an easy marathon pace and then try to even out your pace to match your desired marathon pace.

Put Yourself in the Right Corral

Though most marathons allow entrants to choose their own starting corral, I recommend choosing a faster corral that’s suitable for your goal race time. If your goal is to run a sub-three-hour marathon, I highly recommend seeking out a corral that’s open to runners who plan to finish in less than three hours. The front half of the elite corrals are typically open to runners who plan to finish in less than two hours.

Why do this? Because you’ll have a better chance of running your best time if you’re surrounded by fast people, rather than runners who are going to run much slower than you will. Sure, there will still be slower runners in your corral, and you might even pass some of them during the race, but you’ll also be passed by faster runners, which will keep you on your toes. This is a fun way to make running a longer distance all the more exciting.

Incorporate Short Bursts of Speed

In the marathon, you need to think long and think fast.

The marathon is among the most popular running events, where the athletes will experience the full spectrum of training and racing.

There’s the months of training to prepare, then the high-intensity workouts to hone your speed, pacing strategies to master, nutrition for energy, and more.

But there is no simple recipe for running a marathon.

Everyone’s strategy is different.

Some athletes will want to use the marathon as part of their training to complement a faster and shorter event, such as the 5k, 10k, or half-marathon.

Others may want to use the marathon as a longer distance training run.

For those athletes, the goal would be to finish the race before having to “hit the wall” where your body simply gives in.

Either way, you need to power through the 26 mile distance and incorporate a few tried-and-true strategies to help make your marathon run a success.

First, you can increase your speed for short bursts, or even across the majority of your race.

Run with Other Runners

First, let’s talk about running your best race. That is, a sub-4 hour marathon.

If you are looking to run a sub-4 hour marathon, you have to run fast starting at the very beginning of the marathon. You want to run with other faster runners (no matter how fast they are) and even go off ahead of them for a while. Pick up the pace quickly and push yourself to feel uncomfortable. This is the best way to run your fastest marathon. But you have to start this strategy from the very beginning. Don’t start out too fast and then try to catch up to the leaders later.

When you run in the group of other faster runners and move to the front, you won’t feel like you’re working hard and can focus on running your best. You’ll notice how the other guys are powering through the hills while you power through the flats. And you’ll pick off the runners in the pack as you power through the flats.

Take Fluids at First Water Stop

One of the most crucial parts of a marathon is making sure you hydrate throughout the race. Heat and exercise disrupt the body’s ability to sweat, which is what cools us down when we’re hot and influence how efficiently we take in fluids.

Drinking water at first water stop and at every subsequent stop and every few miles will help offset this. But it’s not enough to just drink and move on. It’s also essential to practice taking fluids during training.

If you can’t quite muster the courage to practice drinking fluid during training (this is a pretty tough thing to do), at the very least make sure you take some water at the first stop. This way, you’ll be able to get a feel for how much water you’ll need during the race, and you will feel more confident as you run.

Also, make sure to hydrate properly the day before and the morning of the race.

Prepare to Begin the Race at Mile 20

We heard from the experts. We read from the experts. We even believe that sometimes we are experts, but as far as marathons are concerned, the advice changes when it comes to race day.

There is no doubt that you need to start out each and every marathon according to plan.

You are checking your equipment, listening to your body, eating and drinking the right stuff. Everything is in order, right? Now is the time to take on the marathon, right? Wrong!

From the start, the marathon has the potential to be a very long day. Unfortunately, your race strategy can shift at the last moment putting you in a race that is not your own.

Instead, you should start your marathon sub-optimally at 20 miles.

If you want to finish with a smile on your face, pick a pace that is in sync with your current condition, whether you are ahead or behind on your training-bible-normal.

Racing in a marathon is nerve-wracking. When you’re under too much anxiety, your body starts to send out signals that are not your own – and you start to think your own race is a lot closer than it really is. That’s why beginners feel a lot less anxiety than usual.

Concluding Thoughts

Right from the beginning, set realistic goals for yourself. For example, don’t aim to run a 4-hour marathon when you have never run a marathon before. It is better to take it slow.

If you’re a first-time marathon runner, use the above routine for your training and then aim to complete your next marathon in under 4 hours.

Once you know your marathon finishing time, do some research on local races to find one that gives your desired time a realistic chance.

Once you have selected the race that’s giving you the desired finishing time, do your research on the course to know its topography and the weather at the time of the race.

Create your own personal race strategy based on your own experience and the course topography. Be sure to practice your plan at the training ground and use your race plan for the final race.