Coach Debate: Marathon pacing by Coach Joe

Coach Dean Hebert and I agree on many things related to marathon pacing, but we have different approaches on how to select a final goal pace. This article is my initial entry in our Great Coach Debate 2007 point-counter point series. His response is posted just below this one. Then, either we will take each other to task in a series of rebuttals, or we’ll just let all of you comment and try out our theories in the field.

Both Dean and I have worked with hundreds of runners who we’ve observed in marathons, so we’ll try to infuse this discussion with the pitfalls that we see made by differing levels of runners. We both agree that solid science and analysis are key to understanding the capabilities of runners.


Before we start, there are few things upon which Dean and I agree, so we’ll take those off the table:
– First, we agree that even pacing is the best approach to marathon pacing. This means that the first half and second half splits should be equal to one another (e.g. 2:00:00 hours in the first half / 2:00:00 in the second half = 4:00:00 overall time). A slightly negative split, meaning running the back half a bit faster than the first, is actually preferred for elite athletes, but for most runners even pacing is best.
– Second, a steady diet of runs at or above goal pace is required to learn your marathon goal pace. This target pace should be determined at the start of your training for a particular marathon and then learned through repeated practice.
– Third, there should be no guessing about what speed at which you do each of your runs throughout the week. In order to build a proper foundation, you must run a combination of runs, some of which are slower and some of which are faster than goal pace, to properly train yourself as well as to avoid over-training.
– Fourth, your pace capability is a function of your body, your training and the distance that you are running. Your pace must slow as the distance you’re running increases. In other words, if you are capable of running one mile at a maximum speed of X, then your speed is going to be progressively lower than X at every distance beyond one mile.

With those assumptions out of the way, let me make my case for an approach to marathon pacing.

Selecting your goal marathon pace is tough. In the best case scenario, what you’re attempting to do is to make an educated guess as to how fast you’ll be able to run a marathon at the end of three to four months of training. You’re trying to nail the pace at which you think you’ll be able to run 26.2 miles, when you’ll only run 20-22 miles as your longest run – and perhaps only 18-20 miles at that goal pace. And you’re trying to nail your pace to a certainty that you’ll run almost every mile at the same pace, meaning that you’ll arrive at the starting line when you say you’re going to get there.

Sound impossible? It’s not. And it’s not only in the province of the elite athlete either. Take a look at some splits from my last marathon in Sacramento. My goal pace in the race was 3:00:00. I ran 3:00:49 (1:29:38 first half/ 1:31:11 second half). And make no mistake, this was a difficult effort that required me to hang on in the last six miles. I could not have gone any faster without blowing up. Any slower and I would have left time on the table. That’s exactly what you should be aiming for.

Marathon pacing, when done correctly, has a very narrow margin of error. If your pace is too fast by more than about 2% you’re most likely going to explode in the second half of the race. If you run too slowly, then you leave precious time on the table. The best goal pace is then to run exactly the pace in which you’ll run out of gas right at the finish line. Not before it nor after it.

In my practice, I feel that there are two ways to arrive at a goal pace for the marathon. First, is to use real data from a previous race and build on that time. But in order to do this, you need to figure in several factors: 1) did you train properly for the race, 2) how hard was the effort (could you have gone faster or did you go too fast?), 3) over what kind of terrain did you run the race and 4) what was the weather like on race day? All of these could lead a previous time to be wildly slower than your capabilities.

The second method of determining goal pace is to run a time trial (or vV02 Max test) at a short distance and mathematically calculate out what your maximum time could be. There is a great deal of science that goes into these calculations and for the most part they are reasonably accurate. Typically they use a calculation in which your pace is slowing by about 20% every time you double the distance being raced. The one caveat with using pace predictors is that you really have to have the endurance training to back up the predictions. I have often observed runners that are extremely fast at short distance, who would be predicted to be very fast in the marathon, but they don’t have enough training at their goal pace to carry off their predicted pace over the course of the whole marathon.

So in my practice, I use a combination of these two methods in addition to some common sense to arrive at an initial pace goal. The better trained and more experienced the runner, the more information that we can use to pick that initial goal pace.

Goal pace needs to be chosen then at the start of the training cycle for the particular race. Whatever the goal time is (let’s just use 3:00:00 for easy math) that becomes goal pace in the race. If the training cycle is on average 3-4 months, then the runner should be comfortable running anywhere from 6-8 miles at goal pace at the start of the season. If that’s the case, then his or her workout schedule needs to incorporate a great deal of miles run at, or faster than, this goal pace. The underlying reason for this: the runner needs to learn and internalize what it feels like at that goal pace.

With that said, here is an area where I believe that Dean and I will disagree. My philosophy is that the runner needs to increase the pace for their longest goal pace runs by about 10 seconds per mile in order to off-set the impact of the additional miles that will be run in the race. In other words, if goal pace on race day is 6:52/mile (3:00:00) then I would have my runners do their 18 mile goal pace runs at 6:42/mile pace.

My theory here comes from one primary concern: pace prediction techniques tend to use an increase afterevery doubling of the distance raced. So this would presume that a runner would be X% slower running a 5K than a 10K race. That same math is then applied to doubling the distance from the half-marathon (13.1 miles) to full-marathon (26.2 miles) distances. In my estimation, the reduction in pace capability is simply a bit greater when you jump from 13.1 miles to 26.2 miles. In other words, I would advocate for adding another threshold distance in-between the two distances 19.6 miles (half way between the two distances). The ten seconds quicker that I have people run in training is intended to off-set the additional decline in capability to go those extra miles.

There is a draw-back to this approach. On race day, although the runner will have practiced extensively running a slightly faster pace, they will actually be expected to back off the pace by those 10 seconds per mile. This can be hard if you’ve internalized that pace. But my experience has been that this makes the pace feel easier on race day and thus makes the runner feel more confident in the first half of the race. But the runner does need to be mindful about “picking it up”, because even that easier pace will feel much harder in the second half. It also should be said that the pace often feels “easier” on race day anyway, due to the anxiety and excitement of the race atmosphere. So runners need to be exceptionally mindful of their pace on race day and stick to their pre-game plan, no matter how good they feel in the early miles.

As Coach Dean has pointed out in one of his articles on pacing, world class runners often run their races at slower paces than their maximum pace, letting the competition unfold early in the race, and then retaining their explosive speed for the end. As he points out, it is the faster runner in the last half (or even last few miles) that usually wins the race. So by training runners to run slightly quicker than goal pace on their runs, they are emulating these elite runners in a sense, by having just a slight reserve when they get into the final miles.

With that, I’ll turn it over to my friend Coach Dean to outline response.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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