Pacing a Marathon

Pacing a Marathon

Marathon pacing is an art and a science, and most of the mechanisms that take place in the brain during this process are happen on a subconscious level. The mind-body connection that determines how far the body has yet to run, and how best to distribute the resources required to cover this distance without risking injury or death, are mostly invisible to the conscious mind. These functions are often referred to as “teleopathic” and they’re based on the body’s own records of previous runs, their cost, and their outcomes. Before running a marathon, the most effective strategies a runner can adopt are based on meeting these subconscious processes half way, and finding ways to partially control them without ignoring their dictates and demands.

Most marathon runners, especially beginners, tend to complete the first half of the race (the first 13 miles) at a faster pace than the second half. This is perfectly natural, but it isn’t recommended. A truly effective marathon pacing plan is one that allows the runner to complete the first half with an overall time that matches the timing of the second half. Not every mile will be completed in exactly the same number of seconds, but the first 13 and the last 13 should match.

So if this is the goal, what are the best ways to make this happen? Runners should consider the marathon pacing tips below, and adjust these recommendations based on their own times, marathon experience, physical condition, and personal ambitions.

Marathon Pacing: Consider the First Run a Practice

No words can adequately describe the feeling of exhaustion that takes place during the final miles of a runner’s first full length marathon. Since the body hasn’t yet been able to calculate the resources needed to cover this distance, the end of an initial race usually involves a confused teleopathic mechanism sending out waves of fatigue feelings and reducing electrical impulses to the muscles, all designed to command and/or force the body to stop running. No matter how rigorous the training process leading up to this day, runners are often surprised by the intensity of these feelings.

It may be a bit much to ask, but the best way to pace future marathons is to consider the first one a learning experience and an opportunity to allow the brain to record, process, and calibrate the demands of a 26 mile race. Running a marathon is never easy of course, but the marathon pacing process becomes easier after the first run is under an athlete’s belt.

Marathon Pacing: Use the Clock

Long before running a marathon, during the early part of the training process, a runner should measure and establish an appropriate marathon pace. This is usually the pace at which a runner can complete a mile without ever getting out of breath or becoming unable to hold a conversation. This is the runner’s marathon pace, and the pace of long training runs should be built around this. Early in the training process, the runner might complete a long run at marathon pace plus 40 seconds. Later runs can speed up to marathon pace plus 30 and then marathon pace plus 20 seconds.

With these numbers clearly in mind, and the feel of each of these paces established in the subconscious brain, a runner can have a better sense of how to distribute speed during the first and second half of the actual race.

Some runners decide to complete the first half of a marathon with time strongly in mind, and then allow the second half be controlled by feel. This helps prevent two of the more common mistakes runners tend to make, which include going too fast to “bank time” at the beginning and running too slow to “save energy” at the beginning. Neither of these tend to bring the desired results. Running ability isn’t quite like money; Banked time comes at a cost, and saved energy can’t usually be withdrawn and expended during the second half.

It’s also a good idea for runners to explore the course beforehand so they have some idea of the terrain that lies ahead during each section of the race. Anticipating an uphill or down-hill mile around the bend can help the marathon pacing mechanisms of the brain decide how to distribute energy over the short term.

Marathon Pacing: Don’t Cut Corners on Training

It’s hard to put a price on adequate training and nutrition during the days leading up to a marathon. Every missed rest day, skipped long run, and junk food meal make successful marathon pacing on the day of the race that much harder. Runners should not expect the race to be easier than the hardest training run, but the entire process will result in faster times and better memories if runners follow a careful, well-planned training regimen.

During the training process prior to running a marathon, the hardest hard runs should add up to 1 easy mile followed by about 20 at marathon training pace plus 20, 30, or 40 seconds per mile. Easy days should involve 1 relaxed mile followed by 10 to 14 miles at marathon pace.

Appropriate warm-up and stretching habits will play a role in the success of a training plan as well. Stretching should happen only after the easy training mile is complete, and the muscles have had a chance to loosen and heat up. Stretches should be dynamic and complete, meaning the range of motion behind the stretch should be full and the stretch should happen while the muscle is active, not static.

It’s also important not to neglect strength training during the months before running a marathon. Runners often overemphasize cardio fitness and neglect the upper body and core muscles during this time, but this can have an undermining effect on a runner’s ability to pace properly. Runners should work both resistance and suspension training into their long term training plans with a session of at least 20 minutes three times a week. Visit Kbands for information about resistance training, resistance training equipment like the Kbands and KB Duo, and appropriate strength-building moves and techniques for endurance athletes.


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