The Key To Marathon Success

If you're training for the Philly Marathon, then most likely you're in the midst of your heaviest training load right now. Putting the hay in the barn, as they say.

In only 2 weeks it really won't matter how much you train because the training window will have shut on your ability to build endurance for the race. At that point it's time to simply maintain intensity while cutting back on mileage and it's usually called “tapering” or “peaking”. This is one test you can't cram for!

Back to the present for a second, though. If you haven't already, it might be a good time to start thinking about your pacing strategy for the race. Most experienced marathoners will agree that this is usually the single biggest mistake made during a marathon. The consequences of poor pacing, which means running too fast in the early miles, include:

  • Cramping
  • Bonking (hitting the wall)
  • Losing Good Running Form
  • Definitely NOT hitting your goal time

Today we know not to blame the following factors on a lousy finish:

  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte Imbalance (not enough salt)

It turns out dehydration and electrolyte imbalance are not the limiting factors they were once thought to be. As long as you drink to thirst you will most likely finish the race strong, given good pacing. Sure, you will finish the race LESS hydrated than when you started, but your performance will not decline because of it until you lose 2% or more of your bodyweight. So stop worrying about drinking at every single water station and start tuning in to your thirst mechanism. It's been refined for about a million years.

So it usually comes down to pacing and the question arises:

How do you know what pace to run?

The answer is that you will usually do well to base your pacing off of a recent race performance. A hard time trial or race within 6 weeks of your marathon will give you the most specific guidance when determining your optimal marathon race pace.

Plug your 5K to Half Marathon time into a running calculator to get the appropriate pace.

This is a pretty accurate way to figure out your pace, BUT... you must be specifically training hard for a marathon in order for this method to work. You can't just train 30 miles or run 5 hours per week and expect to run your best marathon.

Let me re-phrase that. Just because you ran a 5K last weekend in 22 minutes doesn't automatically mean you can go run a marathon in it's equivalent time of 3:34. Nope. 3:34 indicates your potential IF you are training optimally for the marathon.

In my experience, many people don't actually put in enough mileage to be optimally

trained. This is where the problem arises. People overestimate their fitness and go into the marathon with a bad pace strategy from the beginning.

In addition to an all-out race effort, one idea that's proved useful for my clients and I has been to run a 'race simulation'. This session, which tends to give you really valuable information and confidence, should be done about 3-4 weeks out from race day. About two easy days should precede the following session:

  • Run Easy for 3 miles
  • Run Marathon Goal Pace for 13 miles
  • Run Easy for 2 miles

During and after the run you'll gain a sense for how strong you really are and if the pace seems reasonable.

Don't forget to take a gel every 35-40 minutes during the run. It is vital that you do ingest carbohydrate during the race – but that's a post for another day. Suffice it to say, you definitely want to practice this before race day as it appears that one can actually train the gut to absorb more calories than an 'untrained gut'.

So to summarize, the one thing you don't want to screw up is your pacing. Yes, it will take discipline and patience like I've said in the past. Expect it to feel easy – maybe even too easy – in the first 8-10 miles. That's perfect. You'll pass 'em all later!


PS: For those of you who have read this far and are running a marathon soon, you'll definitely want to check out coach Greg McMillan's marathon tips for pre- and post-race.

PPS: For a more comprehensive review on pacing, check out