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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.