How to Nail Your Goal Marathon Pace on Race Day!

Pacing isn’t easy girls!

If you’re like me, with your fall marathon is fast approaching and you’re naturally thinking more and more about your time goal and how you are going to reach it.  Come race day all of your hard work will be in the books, you’ll be nice and rested after a two or three week taper and you will have carb loaded and fueled your muscles.  You will be ready to run the goal marathon pace you have been dreaming about all season.

But how can we ensure that we run the correct pace?

It sure isn’t easy.  There is certainly art and science mixed with a bit of good luck in ensuring everything comes together on race day to keep your pace.  I learned my lesson the hard way during the Wisconsin Marathon this spring.  While I thought I was right on target, the course ended up measuring a lot longer on my GPS than I had prepared for so I was a good 70 seconds off my “A” goal.  I sincerely believe if I had prepared a little differently, I would have ended up with a different result (read: a PR!).

With that in mind I have been doing some serious research and planning so I can position myself as best I can for the Chicago Marathon.  Hopefully what I’ve learned about race day pacing will help you Salty readers too, so we can all nail our marathon goals this fall!

The first place to start is setting the right goals.  If you are targeting something faster than your fitness level the race course will make you pay for it.  Of course, you don’t want to have a ton left in the tank at the end of the race either or you will finish feeling you could have done a lot better.  Within the fine line between the extremes you can find your realistic goals. Figure out what those are by reviewing your training (if you aren’t keeping a training log, you should be! Here’s mine).  You can also plug in recent race times into special calculators to find the right ballpark. The McMillan calculator is a popular choice. You might also like this calculator, which uses several metrics to provide a goal pace range. If you’re a smartphone app user, Cinnamon recommends the Runner’s Ally Pace Calc app.

I also like setting multiple goals for myself: my “A” goal which I will achieve if everything comes together for me; my “B” goal which is usually a bit short of A, but something I’ll be really happy with; my “C” goal which for me in marathoning is typically NOT to run slower than my first marathon; and my “D” goal which is almost always to finish.  Your goals may vary, but set them realistically.  Then figure out how you can execute to hit your “A” or “B” race, which no doubt is a very specific pace.

Practice and get accustomed to your race pace.  Typically, we train much slower than our goal race pace on easy runs and run much faster during tempo runs and intervals.  This is where race pace miles are key.  Do they have a great fitness benefit?  Maybe not, but they do allow us to become more comfortable with the pace we want to run.  So incorporate race pace miles (or intervals) in your training.  Become familiar with the pace you want to run.  Last season I ran a half at my goal race pace and it was a great experience.  It was also nice to feel race pace for 13.1 miles.

Sign up to run with a pace group.  If you are running in a mid-size to large marathon or half marathon (sometimes even shorter distances), you can usually find pace groups.  Pacers can be great to keep you on track without you having to think about it much, if at all.  However, I warn anyone using a pace group to be cautious with this approach, and if possible to keep track of your pace on your own.  Why?  Even though some pacers are fabulous, they are always running much slower than their own race pace and, in my experience, can go out way too fast or pace erratically.  Going out too fast or going too fast at any point in any long-distance event can kill your race in an instant.  So if you line up with the 9:00 minute mile group and see that mile 1 is done at an 8:30 pace – let them go – ASAP.  If they are right on track – lucky you!

Calculate your pace.  Most races have markers at each mile.  If you are mathematically inclined, calculate away!  If you are like me, however, you are incapable of math after mile 15.  Or maybe you don’t trust yourself – if you rushed out 30 seconds per mile too fast in the early miles it may be too late to salvage your race by the time you realize it.  Or maybe you are like Clove and simply detest math during races.  If so, please skip on to the next recommendation.  :)

Use a GPS watch.  I am a big fan of this approach, but it is not fool-proof either, so you need to be careful and you need to plan carefully.  GPSes and footpods are very accurate these days and are wonderful tools.  HOWEVER, they always (unless the course is short) measure race courses long.  Why?  Are the race directors messing with you?  Nope.  However, most of us always run longer than the certified course because the certified course takes the very shortest possible distance on the course.  That means hitting the corners right on the edges and running the shortest possible tangent.  We do not run the shortest possible distance because we pass others, hit water stops and frankly aren’t always focusing on the shortest tangent – particularly when we are running in a full road with 40,000 other runners!  (For overly detailed info on how courses are measured, check out the USATF website.)  The more turns, also the more variance.

Mint’s Garmin Forerunner

The tough part of relying on a GPS for pacing comes when from figuring out how to compensate for the extra mileage you will no doubt run.  I have run 13 marathons so far and my general experience is that marathons typically measure out at 26.5 miles.  So that is what I usually plan for.  For my pace that usually means I need my GPS to tell me I’m running 5 seconds per mile faster than my goal pace.

For example, my goal for the Wisconsin Marathon was 3:25.  That is an average pace of 7:50.  I hoped that I could average around 7:45 pace according to my handy-dandy Garmin.   I set my watch so I could manually lap each mile, and I kept the unit on lap pace so I could see the pace I was running every mile.  I finished my race with an average pace of 7:47 – SCORE!  Nope, not so much.  The course measured 26.67, so my official pace was more like 7:55 (my time was 3:27:09).

On top of the course measuring long you may lose your signal (always happens at Chicago when we run under the bridge) or you may inadvertently turn off your watch when you intend to hit lap (yup, I’ve done that several times)…

So what’s a girl (or guy) to do with the GPS watch?  Here are my recommended tips:

  1. Research your race course to see how far most people run it.  You can do this by searching online.  You’d be surprised at how easy it can be.  The simplest way is to go to Garmin.Connect and search for the race. There you can view many runners’ Garmin measurements of the course.  You can also do a Google search. For example, I just searched the Chicago Marathon and found lots of interesting details, including this.  If you have run the course before, even better!  Go back and look at your data to see how far it measured.
  2. If you can’t find specific info, plan the race to be at least 5 seconds per mile slower according to your GPS (may be a little shorter for a short race).  I readily admit I have no science behind this strategy, but it tends to work for me.
  3. Play with your watch in advance.  Turn off autolap and hit lap each mile marker so you can see where you are on the course.
  4. Also set your GPS so you can see your average pace and/or your lap pace.  If you set it for actual pace, it is likely to jump all over and drive you crazy.  I personally like seeing both lap pace (particularly so you can see if you slow down) and average pace so you can see where you are at generally.
For my fall marathon, Chicago, I am planning to try to run a 7:40 pace this time (rather than 7:45).  I’ve run it before and know I probably don’t need to do that to hit my 3:25, but I am also choosing to be a bit more aggressive this go round.  (For what it’s worth, it measured 26.46 miles for me in 2009).
Do you have any other tried and true tips for nailing your goal marathon pace?  If so, please share them.  Racing season is coming up fast!!

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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20 comments

  1. This is on my mind DAILY! I’m glad you posted this!! I ran 3:36 at Cleveland this year, and I hope to run 3:30 at Akron. However, I know this course is hilly, so I would honestly just be happy with a 3:35. I have just been kind of bummed out lately because I am not hitting the race times that I want. I know that I need to incorporate more tempo runs into my training.

    1. Cut yourself a little slack on race times if they aren’t lining up perfectly. Keep in mind they are considered equivalents (if you train and taper for a marathon, you could reach x if you trained as well for the 13.1 you ran). However, often we go into tune-up races early in the season and/or during peak training load. So if you are in the ballpark, don’t lose faith. But if you are no where near your goal, you should probably revise it.

  2. I agree with the pace group warnings! I think they’re great if they’re pro-pacers like those on Clove’s Clif Pace team and of course Pepper is an excellent pacer! But if the race isn’t using experienced pacers I’d say skip it and trust yourself.

    Besides that I’d like to add that if you practice pacing in training and go into the marathon with confidence you shouldn’t need to micromanage your pace. I’ve run my best when I’ve just run and trusted myself. When I’ve micromanaged and stared at my watch I’ve almost always fallen short of my goals. I would even go as far to say skip the GPS and avoid the micromanaging and the complications from the watch pace being off because of the discrepancy between the GPS and course measurements and just run each mile assuming it’s an actual mile and use a regular old watch or none at all! Most marathons are certified courses and the RDs do a good job of placing accurate mile markers.

    As my friend Chelle once said (maybe a quote from her coach?) “don’t go out like a maniac” and you’ll be fine. Just have it in your head to ease into pace and correct it at the mile markers as necessary and you’ll be ok. That’s what seems to work better for me, but Mint tends to be better able to use her watch and the data responsibly and I tend to have trouble not obsessing with it, so take it for what it’s worth!

    1. Yeah, one day I may run without it, but for now that scares me. :) The main reason I like using it is (1) ensuring I don’t go out like a maniac; and (2) making sure I don’t drop pace in those mid miles (when I always do).

      I guess whether it is a good idea to use one a GPS (or even concern yourself with exact pace) depends on how much it will help you versus how much you’ll become a slave to your watch. I am pretty good about checking mine only at the mile markers or main points (half way mark). If I were checking it incessantly and focusing on that only rather than feel too (and I’ve seen people do that a lot), it may be a good idea to toss it.

  3. Instead of doing calculations each mile wear a pace band. You can make them easily at marathonguide.com, print, put clear tape on both sides and either tape or use Velcro to wrap onto your wrist. Unless your goal is something easy like 6:00 pace or 7:00 pace it is much easier to use a wrist band. It’s easy to check each mile though I usually target being on at miles 5, 10, 15, and 20. Most courses aren’t completely flat so a variance each mile is expected.

    I always assume that when using a Garmin the 26.2 will actually be 26.4+. No one is that good at running tangents, and courses are designed to be at least 0.01% long to be legit/certified. I try not to worry about that much in training, but if you plan to use your garmin on race day you do need to realize average pace has to be 1-3 seconds faster than your goal time’s pace for 26.2, maybe more if you are slower and take turns wide.

    1. Agree with the pace band suggestion! My math gets fuzzier the longer I’ve been running. I have also used the pace temporary tattoos before, although obviously may not work if you’re wearing lots of heavy layers.

      1. Sassy, I remember my first marathon running with another lady as we tried to run 3:40. I believe I had a pace band, and each mile I was checking it. Every time we hit a marker she would comment on if we were on etc. Seeing no pace band I had no idea how she could know that! I asked and rather than doing math she had just been hitting splits, and knew that because every mile we were faster than the goal pace that we were ahead. This actually works great, up until you get behind :) But I have used this method before too when not wanting to micromanage. As long as every mile is at or below target I don’t modify pace. If I get a slow split or two I focus and try to up the effort, if possible.

    2. Ha – I actually find the GPS is much easier than the pace bands because pace bands still require me to do more work. :) Also, I have found that unless you are in a big race like Chicago or Boston, the mile markers are often significantly off. For example, at Wisconsin Marathon, I hit the 6 mile marker at about 5.5 miles. I obviously knew it was wrong so I didn’t concern myself with it, but it would have been harder for me to gauge if I had to wait several more miles (and then would have less of an idea as to whether it was way off again or right) to get back to an idea of my actual pace.

      Also, as I mentioned, I usually have about a 5 second per mile discrepancy in the marathon with the GPS. They almost always come out around 26.5 for me. Maybe I need to pay attention to the tangents better!

      1. What I have found is a pace band with only a few goals on it leads to less micromanagement. In my case usually miles 5,10,15,20, and then maybe throw in 10k and half for backups. I like putting total time on there, that way I don’t worry about one individual mile. Though as a pacer I use every mile and I do tweak if a mile is off more than a few seconds.

        I guess I also am at a stage where I inherently trust my pace. So maybe it is easier for me to just assume when a mile marker is off than use my watch to tell me. In general if I don’t see a marker within 45 seconds of my goal I just assume the race is wrong :)

        It’s funny how we all have our own preferred method for pacing! Like Greg if I use the Garmin and I am actually concerned about each mile I will also hit splits manually rather than trusting the garmin split.

  4. I too set the GPS a little faster than goal to compensate for the extra distance it will measure – but I manually hit the splits at each mile to better keep track of actual split times (instead of relying on the automatic splits of the watch, which will deviate further and further from actual distance as the race progresses).
    The one piece of advice I disagree with is having multiple goals. Your goal is your goal, and the rest is hedging. If you aren’t feeling it on race day, then you can reconsider that goal, but if you set an A goal, you need to go out at that A goal pace or just a hair slower if you feel confident you can negative split. Otherwise, there is no point in having the A goal.

    1. That’s a good point, Greg. In a moment of weakness during a race it’s so easy to start bargaining with yourself especially if you have more than one goal. If you have one aggressive, but not too aggressive goal it’s a lot harder to do that. Although, the one thing having multiple goals can help with is taking an all or nothing approach: if it feels like you’re falling short of your A goal it can be tempting to give up rather than scrapping for the best you can do. I like Camille Herron’s approach of making the goal “the best I can do with this race.” (Those aren’t the exact words, but something along those lines.) It’s a bit too mushy for comfort for a type-A like me, but I think if you can mentally accept a goal of “your best” rather xx:xx:xx time most will run better!

    2. Greg, I do the multiple goal thing, but a little differently than what Mint described. I tend to keep my A+ goal to myself and maybe my husband and a few friends. That’s if everything goes perfectly and the stars align and I just run my butt off. Then my A goal, B goal, etc. At my last half, I had to drop down to the C goal due to extreme temps. Having that goal time set ahead of time kind of helped me make the shift mentally, if that makes sense, rather than if I’d just been surprised by the conditions and feeling like I’d fallen way short.

    3. Re multiple goals: I guess this one also depends on your personality. If you are more likely to easily throw in the towel to goal 2 when the going gets tough (which it almost always does in a marathon), maybe it is a bad idea. It also probably depends on whether additional goals make sense. For example, this spring, I wanted to hit 3:25. But I also REALLY wanted to qualify for Corral B for the Chicago Marathon, which was 3:35. I liked having the backup goal because if I hit mile 7 and could simply tell it was not my day and I would not be able to maintain the pace (this unfortunately happens once in a while), I liked the idea of having a back up so I could salvage my race anyway. I knew if I could talk myself into slowing down 30 secs per mile, I would be more likely to have a decent race/outcome than if I simply allowed myself to get frustrated because I can’t reach my big goal, continue pushing myself anyway, then hit the inevitable death march during the last 10k (that really, really sucks by the way and I have been there more than once). So – multiple goals keeps me focused and frankly happy at the end of the day. At least in theory. :) YMMV.

      1. I think if I was less hell-bent on meeting my A goal last fall I should have had no problem PRing if I backed it off when I first felt like I wasn’t having an “on” day. But at the time I really wanted to be gutsy and push myself no matter what – knowing the marathon is a long race and knowing I could at least hold goal pace to 16 as I did in training I was determined to try despite how I felt. I made this plan because I had been bargaining with myself on all my longer tune-up races during the summer and letting myself run slower than my goals. It was a mental breakthrough for me to go for it and realize that I could survive if I blew up. I believe that the big breakthroughs are more likely to happen by being gutsy and going for it and at this point in my “career” it seems a risk worth taking! I’d only be marginally happier with a 3:0x than my 3:10 PR knowing my fitness dictates (well, dictated!) sub-3. I agree that the range assures a more contented feeling about the race afterwards and in theory it seems like going for one goal and falling short would be horribly disappointing, but that in itself was a big goal for me (going for broke and pushing past my fear of blowing up) so in that regard I am much more content with my 3:11 last fall than I would have been if I backed off and “settled” for the 3:0x. Hope that makes sense :)

        1. Definitely makes sense and it also depends on where each of us are at. The Wisconsin Marathon was my 13th marathon – and it fell right after having 3 really crappy ones in a row. I needed a strong, successful marathon – not necessarily a PR. The moral of the story is to know what it is you really want on race day – it will vary from person to person and race to race. I can tell you unequivocally that I will be more gutsy in Chicago this fall after a strong spring race. Probably would not be the case if WI was a blow-up.