How to Pace a Marathon

26.2 miles is one of the most challenging race distances. Not only do you have to cover the entire course, but you have to do so while managing your nutrition, staying hydrated and pacing yourself.

Sticking to your goal pace during a marathon is key to ensure you avoid hitting the wall too early in the race. While it’s inevitable that you’ll start to fatigue, the goal is to delay it as much as possible so you can finish strong.

Because the marathon is a uniquely challenging distance, your pacing strategy for the marathon will depend on your running history, your racing experience and, of course, your goals.

Runners who are new to the marathon might take a more conservative approach, while experienced marathoners may feel comfortable with an aggressive race strategy. No matter your experience level, starting slower and finishing slightly faster (negative splits) is always a good idea. This allows you to run strong over the entire distance, instead of going out fast and slowing down at the end.

Miles 1-5

Runners stand on the start line of a marathon.

You’ll likely have some butterflies in your stomach at the start on race day. Standing on the start line surrounded by other runners will give you a huge adrenaline rush, but don’t get carried away. The first few miles should feel easy and relaxed. You should be running slower than your marathon goal race pace.

If the marathon has pace groups, start out slightly behind the pace you want to run at. Let people pass you. You can catch them later on in the race.

If you’re running a large marathon, it will be crowded for the first few miles. Relax and don’t try to weave around people - this is a waste of energy and can cause you to run much longer than the race distance. Be patient. The crowds will eventually thin out and you can get into your groove.

Miles 6 - 10

You’ve probably (hopefully) taken a gel by now and gotten some water. You should still be feeling relaxed, but now it’s time to speed up slightly and settle into your goal race pace.

It’s also a good time to take a look around. Is there a pace group near you? A pack of other runners? It can be extremely helpful to find a group to run with. They can help pull you along when things start to get challenging later on in the race.

Miles 11 - 15

Two runners race during a marathon.

You’re at the halfway point of the race, so now is a good time to assess how you’re feeling. You’ll likely be tired at this point, but your pace should feel sustainable. If it doesn’t, slow down for a couple of minutes and regroup. You might need to reassess your goal.

If you’re feeling good, try to pick up the pace ever so slightly. You should still be gradually working your pace down so that your average splits are getting closer to goal race pace.

Miles 16 - 20

You’re ALMOST to the last part of the race. This is where things will start to feel tough...but you’re tougher! Try to latch on to another runner or a pack of runners and stick with them.

Your splits should be getting very close to goal race pace if they aren’t already there. If they’re not, don’t panic and try to surge. You still have plenty of miles to gradually pick things up. Don’t forget to keep taking your gels and sipping water.

Miles 21 - 26

Many runners say that the last 10K of a marathon is when the real race begins. Once you reach this point, there’s no holding back anymore. Don’t stress out about your pace or splits, just run.

This is the most painful part of the race, but it’s also the most exciting. As you get closer and closer to the finish line, think about all the hours of training you put in. All the early alarms and the early bedtimes. This is the part where you’ll make it all worth it.

Look ahead to the runners in front of you and try to slowly reel them in. And, of course, you should take a gel at this point and a sip of water, too. Even though you’re almost done, your body still needs fuel to make it across the finish line.

Last .2

The finish line is in sight! You might be tempted to check your watch to see if you’ll meet your goal. Don’t look at it for too long, though, because it will slow you down. Focus on quickening your stride and pumping your arms.

If you have headphones in, the last .2 is a good time to pause your music and take in the sounds around you. Spectators cheering, runners celebrating and the sound of your labored breathing is something you’ll want to remember as you cross the finish line and savor your accomplishment.

Runners cross the finish line of a marathon