Pacing Your First Half- or Full Marathon

The key to race-day pacing is to run by how you feel.


Sandra asks: I’m running my first marathon soon, and I’m wondering if you have any tips on pacing. How fast should I start? Should I use the Pace Team?

This is a great question, Sandra. My racing philosophy is a simple one. It doesn’t requite formulas or splits. All it requires is that you run by your body and effort on the given day.

The reason for this is because predicting how you’re going to race in the marathon is a bit like predicting the weather. You can be on or off, and when it’s your first marathon, you don’t have a lot of history to go on in terms of predictions. That is because there are so many variables that can affect your performance, some of which you can’t control. You can control your training, nutrition and sleep, for the most part, but not the weather or illness.

For example, if you plan to race at a 5-minute pace based on a 10K race you ran or your training pace, that can backfire quickly if the weather is hot, you have a headwind or if you’re just not feeling all that great on race day. It’s a little like picking the winning lottery ticket, and going by pace is not the most effective way to train or race.

Because I’m a colourful person, I tend to speak in colours. (Bear with me.) I’ve found in my years of coaching that keeping things simple and pacing by your body and effort level have brought home the most successful and happy performances.

Run by colour and tune into your breathing rate and perceived effort (how you feel on race morning).

Run YELLOW > Run the first 11 or 22 KM for the half or full marathon respectively at an easy, conversational effort (the yellow – a.k.a. “happy” –zone). If you can’t talk to your buddy about how cute the shirt you bought at the expo is, you’re going too fast. Slow down.

Run ORANGE > Dial it up to a moderate effort for kilometres 12-19 and 24-38 for the half and full respectively. This is one level above your happy zone, where you can start to hear your breathing but you’re not out of breath. You can speak in one-word increments. This is when you need to go fishing. Cast out your invisible fishing line and hook a runner ahead of you who went out too fast, like the hare. Reel them in slowly, staying in the Orange Zone, and focus on the next person. There is nothing more empowering than to be able to pass people (nicely) in the second half of a race. It keeps your mind mentally activated and focused on the positive and allows you to run stronger than you could ever imagine.

Run RED > And for the final 1-4km – the grand finale – dial it up to a hard, but controlled, effort and finish strong. This isn’t an all-out gut-busting effort – it’s a notch up from orange and requires your full attention to maintain. You won’t be able to speak in this zone, but that’s okay. You’re almost done, and you’ll be talking about the race all day!

When you devote the early kilometres to running easy and based on your effort in the moment, you can push harder in the later kilometres. You’re not wasted because you went out too fast (the most common mistake). When that happens you run RED >ORANGE >YELLOW > WHITE (crawling). Runners that do this often say, “I was on a four-hour pace until kilometre 25.” (I’ve been there myself!)

It’s important to note that this pacing strategy is geared to first-timers or those coming back from retirement. I’ll modify this strategy for seasoned runners looking to improve performance, and based on their fitness, training and experience, have them progress the time in the orange and red zones when they are ready. But even then, I’ll have them build their base of training and racing gradually so they push it a little more each time.

Running in a pace group is an excellent way to hold yourself back and avoid going out too fast in the early stages. You can guesstimate an easy effort (go conservative) and run with them while you’re in the YELLOW ZONE kilometres. It is important to still tune into your body though, as that pace can feel harder or easier on race day as mentioned above. If all feels well, set them free and carry on to the ORANGE ZONE.

Good luck, keep it simple and tune into your body. Let the race come to you and celebrate your finish. You only get to run your first marathon once!

Endurance running is all about energy management. Pacing yourself from within and on the given day will ensure a strong finish no matter what the clock says.



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