How to Pace Your First Half or Full Marathon

Posted by Beth Hartman

Ok I’m running my first marathon this summer as one of my bucket lists. How fast should I start? Should I use the Pace Team?

This is a great question!  A lot depends on just what kind of shape your in right now. For our purposes we are going to assume that you have worked youself up to a pretty sound runners gate, with plenty of mile, 5 mile and such so that you can get yourself ready to tackle that marathon. It doesn’t require formulas or splits. All it requires is that you run by your bodies feedback 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 r any run for that matter, in the beginning, , 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 10-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 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.

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.

Here are some race pacing strategies for a first time half or full marathoner.

Think about running like using a child'd color wheel, ( we've all had them as kids)

Run YELLOW -  Run the first 7 or 14 miles 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 where your going to place your participation medal that you get after the race, then you’re going too fast. Slow down.

Run ORANGE -  Dial it up to a moderate effort for miles 8-12 and 15-24 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 rabbit racing against the tortoise. 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 1.1 or 2.2 miles—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 the rest of the day!

When you devote the early miles to running easy and based on your effort in the moment, you can push harder in the later miles. 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 mile 16.” This is why you have to stay focused on your initial pace that you set.  It's human nature to want to start out strong, but after you've run a few, you will be able to get over that common mistake.

It’s important to note that this pacing strategy is geared to first-timers or those coming back to running from taking some time away for any particular reason. Seasoned runners looking to improve performance, and based on their fitness, training, and experience, can still use the base of this formula, but again, everyone is different and so are their bodies strengths and weaknesses.  But even then, everyone needs to build up 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 miles. 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 individual mark goals, and migrate 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!


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