So many times I hear runners talk about their goal time for a marathon. Having an end goal for your race is awesome! Something I realized though, is that we talk about our time goals but don’t always talk about what they actually mean. What the heck IS a sub-3:00 marathon? (When I say sub-3:00 you can substitute any goal. It’s just the example we’ve been using the last few weeks.)
I know, I know, you’re thinking “Duh, a sub-3:00 marathon means running at least a 2:59:59!”
Bear with me here though. As runners we often have pretty arbitrary time goals; 4:00, 3:45, 3:35, 3:15, 3:05, 3:00, 2:49. These are all excellent goals, but they are often chosen because they look or sound good, not necessarily because they are what we are capable of. I want to explain how to understand what your goal actually is as well as some important and often neglected steps you need to take to help you achieve that goal.
If you’re looking to break three hours, you can’t expect to just go out at 8:00 miles for a while then all of a sudden bring it home. Likewise, you can’t go out at 6:15’s and expect that it will end even remotely well (unless you were really sandbagging your goal). You also cannot be upset about the goal you didn’t reach when you didn’t even know what you needed to get there.
I say that as someone who has been on both sides of this. There was a time when I said, “I’ll just go BQ, whatever that means!” I learned my lesson, though. A few years later when I began actively trying for a sub-3:00 marathon, you bet I knew exactly what pace that meant. In fact, no matter how many times I plugged the numbers into the pace calculator, it never changed; 2:59:59 meant running 6:51-pace for 26.2 miles. 2:59:59 is not a pace, it’s a time. 6:51 is the pace-per-mile to attain that time.
And this brings me to the first question you need to answer before you start planning to go after a time goal:
What pace do you need to run to hit your goal?
When I finally trained properly and knew I would be gunning for a 3:35 BQ at my 4th marathon, I honestly didn’t know what pace a 3:35 was. I did know that a 3:30 was exactly 8-minute miles on the nose. I knew that because I wanted to set my goal a little higher than “just qualifying” to give myself some breathing room. I took a similar approach when my goal was sub-3:00. I chose a 2:59:00 goal time which meant a 6:49 average pace.
But WAIT! There’s more. Knowing what pace you need to run to reach your goal isn’t enough! You also need to answer this question:
What pace should you train to run to hit your goal?
Again, it’s not as simple as you might think it is. If you need to average 6:51 to run a 2:59:59, you actually need to train to run a little faster than that. That is, because unless you run amazing tangents, you will run a little longer than 26.2 miles. (If you need a refresher on tangents, go here.) The more turns in your race and the more crowded it is, the less likely you are going to be able to run tight tangents. Subtract at least 2 seconds per mile from your goal pace for training to accommodate the tangents.
Oh, but again, we’re not done here. You still have one more question you need to answer before you’re ready to take down that big goal:
What do you need to do to average your target pace to hit your goal?
Chances are you won’t be running a race on a treadmill, so running exactly the same pace for mile after mile is not likely going to happen. You need to do a little thinking about how you can make sure you average your goal pace on race day to hit your time goal.
Study the course map and the elevation chart.
My last goal race was the Erie Marathon where my goal was the sub-3:00. Erie Marathon is a double loop course and is pancake flat. No elevation to account for, so even splits each mile is most suitable. The course has long sight lines, so is pretty easy to run the tangents- but I still wanted to give myself a 2-3 second/mile buffer. Goal pace now 6:46-47.
Know your checkpoints.
Having a pace band or an idea of what time you need to be at certain checkpoints throughout the race is very helpful. If you don’t want to use a mile-split pace band, perhaps think about at least knowing 5k-10k-half-30k-20m splits. When I ran my first BQ, I went into the race knowing EXACTLY what time I needed to be at when I hit mile 5 (40:00), the half (1:45), and mile 20 (2:40) to meet my 3:30 goal. It worked!
Here are some resources you can use to help you get the information you need and make a great race plan so you can nail your goal!
Pace Calculator: Know what you need to do for each of those 26.2 miles.
McMillan calculator: Race time conversions, training paces, etc.
Find My Marathon: This site is amazing for all things marathon. Find race specific details, race specific pace bands, compare marathons, PR scores, you name it and it’s there.
Marathon Guide: Marathon Guide has lots of great information and links to most race websites. Perusing the actual race site itself can give you additional helpful information.
Don’t just say you want to run 3:00 (or whatever time) because some calculator or person tells you that you can. Take that goal time and break it down, make it manageable and train specifically for it. Also, the internet is full of incredible amounts of information, USE IT. Find out what you need to know ahead of time and prepare yourself to be able to average the pace you need to run to hit that goal!
Could you tell us off the top of your head the exact pace per mile YOU need to reach your time goal? Do you train to run a little faster than goal pace or make a race plan?