Marathon Race Strategy

*Contributed by Jeff Henderson

Whether you are racing a half or full marathon it is critical that you have a plan for race day. As you gear up for your big day there are several important topics that will help you prepare for race day. You’ll need to think about fueling and resting the week/weeks prior to your race. What all will you take with you to the race on the big day? What will you eat and drink before, during and after your race. What time will you wake up for your race? Where will your friends and family need to be to cheer you on and then meet you after the finish? What will you think about during your race to help you reach your goals?

Warming up/Stretching   
Most of you will be racing on cool damp mornings. It will be important for you to do some semblance of a warm-up after getting out of your car or hotel room. A warm-up will help you adjust to the elements, increase your body temperature and help you loosen up before the task ahead. Be cautious not to do too much of a warm-up as your will burn off some of your glycogen stores that you will be depending on later in the race. Follow up your warm-up with some light stretching. Again, don’t overdo the stretching. Over the course of 13.1 or 26.2 miles you’ll be putting all sorts of stress on your body. Warming up and stretching beforehand should be done in a manner that feels comfortable from the get go. Often times, people prefer to warm-up during the first couple of miles, which is ok. I however, prefer to get any stiffness out of my legs before the start. Once the gun goes off there is no turning back, so I’d just assume feel good from the start.

Pacing for your half or full marathon will make or break you experience. There are certainly a couple different approaches you can choose. By now, you should have a pretty good idea of the ideal pace you should hope to average for your race (hopefully about a minute faster than your Saturday pace). Now you must decide whether your goal is to begin at your desired average pace from the start to begin slower and ease in to your desired average pace. The biggest mistake anyone can make is to start off too fast. Whether done intentionally or not, a pace that is too fast from the start can lead to disaster. Maintaining the same pace for the entire race can be very difficult both physically and mentally. For most, starting off 10-15 seconds/mile slower than your desired pace is ideal. Through the course of your race gradually drop a couple seconds/mile. Ideally, you should be in a good spot to finish at a pace that is faster than your goal pace, which will lead to you achieving your goal!  Psychologically you will get a boost if you hold back at the start because when you get to the last 1/4 of the race, you will pass runners all the way to the end, as you begin to pick up your pace and others fall off. Physically you will get a boost as well because you burn less fuel early in the race and will have more left for a strong finish.

Overall Strategy   
With pacing and race goals in mind, you may want to think about breaking your race down in to segments. You may choose to segment your race in half, thirds or fourths. Whichever way you choose to segment your race you should have goals for each segment. This will help keep you focused on your task at hand. In any race, regardless of distance, I like to break it down into three segments.

Phase 1: Find your rhythm   From the gun I like to get myself mentally focused on the miles ahead. I stay relaxed and settle into a good rhythm. My goal here is to take a bit of a mental inventory. Are my shoulders & face relaxed? Eyes up? Are my arms loose and driving straight, or am I crossing my torso wasting precious energy? Note that everything I am mentioning here is above the waist. You’ve put in months of work. Trust that your legs will respond. If you can focus on everything from the waist up, the legs are sure to follow.

Phase 2: Cruise   For a half marathon this is typically miles three through 8 for me, in a marathon it is ideally miles four through 18 or 20. Making any unnecessary pushes in this phase is sure to set you up for disappointment. In half marathons I am very good at this. However, in my marathon in June I got impatient and pushed too hard around miles 15 through 17. This is a common mistake for many. You feel good after the half-way point and think, “why not, let’s go for it!?” Don’t do this. Hold in your cruise mode until you have less than a third or fourth of your race left. Stay relaxed. Remember that whether you’re running a half or full, you still have a lot of miles to go. Sing a song to yourself. Count backwards. Enjoy the scenery around you. Whatever it takes to keep yourself relaxed and not pushing the needle any further than necessary. At this point, the key is to avoid burning up too much fuel. Go too fast and the fuel will run out too quickly. Slow down and you’ll be forcing your body to continue providing fuel for a longer period of time.

Phase 3: Push to the finish   With about a quarter of the race to go I like to get myself geared up for the finish. I certainly don’t start kicking into the finish with several miles to go, but I am taking another mental inventory. Ask yourself some of the same questions as earlier… Are my shoulders & face relaxed? Eyes up? Are my arms loose and driving straight, or am I crossing my torso wasting precious energy? At this point I will also take my legs into consideration. My level of fatigue determines if I feel capable of pushing for two, three, five or however many miles. This is typically a conclusion that is easy to come to. If you’re feeling strong, begin a gradual acceleration to the finish. Feeling a little worse for wear, simply maintain. Listen to your body and be smart. A push too soon will leave you struggling to the finish. Pushing the needle just a bit though can lead you to the best race of your life. One you see the finish and the clock ahead of you, it’s full speed ahead. At this point, find every ounce of energy you have left and finish strong. Whether that is a speedy walk or a fast as lightning sprint to the finish you won’t want to disappoint the thousands of spectators who have come to see YOU finish!

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