General Marathon Racing Guidelines
Updated: Jul 21, 2021
NOTE: These are Coach MK's general guidelines for executing a marathon. Everything from the weather to your attitude will influence how your race shakes out. You are in charge, you know your body...but remember that every step you take, you're making a bet NOW on what your body can do THREE OR FOR HOURS FROM NOW. If the heart rate cap feels too high based on your training/experience/gut, lower it, but the higher your heart rate is from these guidelines over the course of the race, the bigger the bet you are making. Be wary.
FOUR KEY WORDS: CONSERVE, RESERVE, PRESERVE, SERVE
MILES 1-9: CONSERVE
Definition: To protectively manage a resource. It may imply using it, but carefully.
HR Cap: 155
This should be an easy, easy effort. On downhills, lock your cage and let gravity do the work. Sit into the hills and let your glutes absorb the shock; lean too far forward and your knees will be doing that instead, which will overload your IT bands. On uphills, let everyone else charge ahead and away from you. You will stay in your easy effort—walk if necessary—and remember that this is a marathon, not a race who can see who can get to the top of any random hill first.
MILES 9-17: RESERVE
Definition: To set aside, to keep for a later time of use.
HR Cap: 160
Maintaining pace will be hard work, so don't get competitive; run your own race. You may let your heart rate float a bit just to prevent slowing down, but realize that 160 is a very reasonable cap. Focus on YOUR effort levels, saving everything for the next portion. Watch your form, draw your shoulder blades together, lock your cage, engage your glutes. If there is any question about whether or not you are using your glutes, then you probably aren't. BE PATIENT. You should start passing people by this point as we are an hour in and the Bonnevilles are on fire all around you. You will also pass the walking dead: People who didn't train but showed up anyway.
RESIST THE URGE TO PICK UP SPEED. YOU FEEL STRONG BECAUSE THEY ARE WEAK. DO NOT GET GREEDY. Focus on your breathing and your footfalls—and make sure your pace isn’t too aggressive. You’ve still got hours ahead of you. Literally.
MILES 17-22: PRESERVE
Definition: To keep intact without change.
HR Cap: 165
You are starting to get tired. Don't give into that feeling; this is when you need to dig deep and find your strong. Maintaining—or keeping things intact or persevering—is the name of the game. You want to imitate your previous hour, keeping your body and mind intact as we prepare for the final push. If you have run this race correctly, you will not hit a wall, so don’t waste your precious energy worrying about it.
MILES 22-FINISH: SERVE
Definition: To bring notice, deliver, or execute.
HR Cap: None, but increase effort conservatively if you don’t know your peak heart rate.)
Whatever you have left, spread it across the rest of the course. When you hit mile 22, pick it up SLOWLY mile by mile and negative split to the finish. Treat this part of the race like an EAT: harder, harder, and everything you've got in that final 1.25 to the finish. When you see the finish line or the 26-mile marker, SPRINT like you’re being chased with a cattle prod.
A FEW MORE NOTES
1. Set up your GPS so that you cannot see at your average pace for each mile. When it comes to pace, you only want to look at current pace and/or total average pace over the course of the run. (You, of course, also want to see your heart rate.) If you look at average pace in any given minute or at the end of each mile, you're going to do #badrunnermath with no regard for course or effort level. "OMG, Mile 1 was 8:15! I'm in the HOLE! SPEED UP!” you’ll think to yourself if your goal pace is 8:00 miles. Don't do that. That is amateur thinking committed by coachless, unloved runners. You are neither.
Similarly, you can’t bank time in a marathon. It just doesn’t happen. So if you run 7:45’s for the first six miles, thinking you’ll be able “even things out” towards the end, when you’re running 8:15 miles, your logic is flawed. We can make up time at the end if we have energy, we cannot make up energy, ever. Once it is spent, it's gone.
2. The goal of any endurance race is for your first mile to be your slowest mile. Everyone goes out of the gate too fast. EVERYONE. Do NOT do it. Do NOT do it. Do NOT, do NOT, do NOT. We need the first miles to be slow and controlled; we can aim to make up any 'lost' time on the last miles once your 'second wind' kicks in when you realize how close you are to the finish, and to your goal.
3. Feeling good at the start of the race is worthless if you blow your load in the first few miles and hit a wall later in the race. After you hit that wall you will have to walk, losing any gains you made by running those first miles too fast. Always think ahead to those last 2 miles and ask yourself, "Can I run my current speed when I get to those last 2 miles?" If the answer is no, you need to slow down.
Put another way: Remember 3 for 3. A three-minute out-of-your-range gain at the front of the race—I beat that guy in the blue shirt up and down that hill! —will come back and bite you for at least 3 miles at the end of a marathon. Not. worth. it.
4. With very few exceptions, you do not want to set a half-marathon PR in your marathon race.
5. Uphills are run slow and controlled in your prescribed range; there is no prize for getting to the top first. (Unless the finish line is at the top.) Downhills are time to recover—not sprint. Sit into the hill and let gravity do the work and your glutes absorb the shock.
MK Fleming is the founder of Fitness Protection, LLC where she trains runners for $29 per month and gives marathon plans away for free. Click here to download her most popular Marathon plan, Tenacious AF, free!