Find Your Marathon Race Pace

The marathon is a different sort of beast than any other race distance. Its uniqueness makes it difficult to train for, and even trickier to know what to expect on the day of the event. Setting good times at the 26.2-mile distance is a matter of both fitness and durability. You can be in the best shape in the world from an aerobic and cardiovascular standpoint, but if you lack the musculoskeletal durability the race will chew you up and spit you out.

How long does it take to train for a marathon?

A standard marathon training cycle is between 16-20 weeks, but it’s not uncommon to see training blocks of 24 weeks or even more.

What does it feel like to race a marathon?

Using our effort-based scale, your marathon should feel like 65-75% of maximum effort (6.5-7.5 RPE) which corresponds to a “conversational” environment.

This seems like a low effort level to maximize performance, but you must account for the phenomena of “cardiac drift.” Cardiac drift is the fact that the same level of output will start to require exponentially greater efforts the longer you are on your feet.

Starting at 75% of maximum effort will give you the wiggle room you need to maintain pace as the race unfolds.

A pack of runners run along the road.

What is the best strategy to race a marathon?

Because the marathon is so long, there are literally hundreds of “best” ways to go about completing one. All approaches are conservative, and embrace negative splits, while splitting up the mileage into more manageable chunks.

As mentioned, the first section of your race should be fairly conservative. This could be the first 5K, or you could spend the first 10K just getting loose, fueling appropriately and setting the stage for what’s to come.

The “middle mileage” begins after you’ve loosened up, slowly crept up to goal race pace and settled in with a pack of runners who can all help push each other. While you’ll still want to be getting calories and hydration into your system, this becomes less frequent as you go (provided you’ve fueled appropriately during the “warm-up”).

Most runners hit the wall somewhere between 18-23 miles. It’s different for everyone, and critically depends on glycogen stores. If you were conservative to start, didn’t burn through your glycogen stores and were diligent about fueling during the race you will hit the wall much later than some of your counterparts.

That is, in essence, the basic strategy behind successfully racing a marathon: do everything you can to push “the wall” back as far as it will go so once you run into it you are that much closer to the finish line. A popular quote is “run the first ten miles with your head, the next ten miles with your training and the last 10K with your heart.”

How do I determine my marathon race pace?

Two runners smile while looking at their watches.

Here’s a bit of good news, if this is your second marathon you can almost be guaranteed to knock 5-10% off of the time of your first one based on experience alone. The longer you are on your feet, the more variables come into play. Therefore, expect to deal with twice the amount of ambiguity as the half-marathon.

Although not the most scientifically-validated approach, Yasso 800’s have been the go-to marathon race pace prediction workout for years and years. To perform a Yasso 800, take your expected marathon pace in hours and minutes and convert it to minutes and seconds.

For example, if your goal pace is three hours and forty-five minutes your 800 time would be three minutes and forty-five seconds. To begin, you will perform three to four repetitions at this pace with an equivalent recovery period.

As you progress through the training cycle, you can add one 800 interval every week or two. You will want to aim to get to 10 repetitions of an 800 distance using this conversion before beginning to taper for your race.

What is a good workout to practice my marathon race pace?

Mixed long runs are the best way to practice marathon-specific tune-up workouts. “Mixed runs” consists of long runs, parts of which are done at an easy pace, others are your race-specific pace and even parts done faster than your goal pace.

By implementing mixed long runs, the training stimulus replicates what you might experience on race day without taking the physical toll that the actual race will take. A good example of a mixed long run of twenty miles might consist of five miles performed at an easy, relaxed pace, followed by ten miles at goal race pace and another five as a relaxed cool down.

Another example would be a 5K easy to warm up, five miles at 15-30 seconds faster than goal pace, another 5K easy to recover, five at 10K at goal pace, then a 5K relaxed as a cool down.

Side view of a man running.