The moment you begin marathon training you will start getting advice about the race, and the most common pacing tip will be “don’t go off too fast”. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t start a marathon running too fast, and yet it’s the most common mistake runners make.
To help you avoid that fate we asked Puma running athletes Rose Harvey and Jack Rowe for their advice on pacing a marathon. Harvey was the first British woman home at the London Marathon 2022 in a time of 2hr 27min, so we can all agree we should listen to her when she says don’t go off too fast, right?
Why do so many people start too fast during a marathon? Do elites do it too?
“Absolutely elites go out too fast too – we’ve all been guilty of it,” says Harvey. “I think people go out too quickly because you have fresh legs, you’ve done your taper, and your target marathon pace that felt really tough in sessions suddenly feels like a jog. Actually it should feel like a walk in the park until at least halfway.”
“You’ve done all your training run solo,” says Rowe. “So I think when you have the atmosphere, music going, supporters on the sides, people get carried away and forget about the last six miles!”
How do you stop yourself going out too fast?
“It’s really hard not to do it, and the only way to control your pace is to keep an eye on your watch,” says Harvey. “It should feel really slow.”
“In the marathon, understand that the race starts in the last 10K,” says Rowe. “I have the same conversation with my coach about 5K. You have to be chilling at 3km, because if you’re any type of bother then, you’re not going to finish very fast.
“Even the greatest of all time Eliud Kipchoge, trying to break two hours [at the Berlin Marathon 2022], said, ‘I went out in 59min 51sec and that was too fast, and my second half was 61min 20sec’. So reel yourself in, enjoy the fact you feel good early on, be comfy, find a nice rhythm and know that it will be worth it in the last six miles if you’re in a good place.”
What is a negative split and why is it a good approach to the marathon?
“A negative split is when you run the first half slower than the second half,” says Rowe. “You’re able to speed up, you feel good and finish really strong. It’s the fastest way to run a marathon, but even my fastest 5Ks have been when the last mile is the quickest mile.
“It’s killer because you run it like that and immediately think, ‘What if I’d gone off 10 seconds quicker?’ But the ability to pick up and the time you make up in the last few miles is definitely worth it compared with holding on for dear life. Not to mention the pain you get to avoid.”
“First of all it’s just a nice way to run,” says Harvey. “It always feels nicer if you can pick up the pace at the end, rather than fighting to cling on to your target pace. Also if you can conserve that energy you’ll run quicker than if you bomb. If you start too quickly you’ll lose a lot more time in the second half.”
What are the benefits of running in a group?
“Running in a group is huge,” says Rowe. “I remember looking at a study for my dissertation that showed drafting [running behind someone] in 800m or 1,500m events was about 8% to 9% easier. That’s on a track where you’re changing direction all the time, so in a big city marathon with long straights, tuck in when you can.
“Also you concentrate on other people, their footfall. Is there someone who has a similar stride length you can lock in with? Doing it by yourself might feel heroic for the first 10-15 miles, but again you’re just trying to make sure those last five to six miles are as easy as possible. Being able to kick on past a group is also a great feeling. Maybe use a group for the first half or two-thirds, then push on.”
Do you have any tips for pacing in the last few miles of a marathon?
“Listening to my footsteps helps,” says Harvey. “Thinking about leg turnover and keeping it even and consistent, especially in the back end of a marathon when the pace doesn’t feel natural any more. Take your mind off the struggle and think about leg turnover.”
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.