Coach Debate: Marathon Pacing Counter-point by Coach Dean

Editor’s note: This is part two in a series. Below is Coach Dean’s response to the points I made in part I of the Great Coach Debate 2007. We hope that you enjoy reading our respective views and that this illustrates some of the variety in approaches to this topic. Part I is located here. Coach Joe

Coach Joe is at it again: throwing my words right back at me. He lists what we agree on very nicely.

I’ll offer one insight on the negative split pacing. The usual spread is 51% of your time in the first half of the race and 49% in the last half – making the last half faster. But, the actual pace is pretty even until the last portion of the race. Let’s say the last 3 miles of the marathon – or the last mile of a 10k – in which they really turn it on and actually manifest that negative split.

Selecting your marathon goal pace/time is step one. It must be reasonable. To me that not only means that you have the capabilities to do it but that you are also willing to put in the time and effort to make it come to fruition. I like formulas and time trials or races to establish a goal time. The simplest formula is Horwill’s doubling formula. Every time you double a distance with a known time, add 4 seconds per 400 meters (17 seconds per mile) to estimate the longer distance pace. In actuality it’s as low as 2.7 seconds for some elite runners. My experience indicates that it is closer to 5 seconds for novice runners. Overall I find it accurate and easy to use. Again for simplicity let’s just say it’s about 18 seconds per mile slower every time you double the distance. These calculations do not have to be precise because we are trying to establish a goal pace when we have nothing else to go on other than a shorter distance race.

The failing of formula methods is that some runners are naturally better at much shorter distances. Formulas are derived from groups of people – thousands of data points. It normalizes the data. Of course an individual may not fit that data. It may in fact be due to fast-twitch-to-slow-twitch muscle fiber ratios. But remember, those projections assume full and appropriate training for that second distance and I find this to be more the issue for lack of performing to projections.

Certainly, if you have completed a marathon then we can use that as the starting point and of course assume the runner wants to go faster than that previous marathon. Using real race times is problematic for the reasons mentioned by Coach Joe. But the number one reason is that no two courses are the same nor are the conditions. And of course, by reviewing workout logs, indeed you can diagnose any training flaws that impacted the race times. If all races were run on a track, we could make better correlations. But, to know how much faster is still important and that is where formulas or time trials can narrow things down. These are tools.

I prefer a vVO2max time trial. It’s a good predictor as well as great workout. A time trial is an all out run for 6:00-8:00 minutes. A well trained marathoner should be able to run 80% of his or her vVO2max for the marathon. {A 6:00 miler is projected to run 7:20-7:30 pace for a marathon using either Horwill or vVO2max methods.}

Ok, training and pacing for the big one. Coach Joe’s approach has a couple of very strong factors going for it.
1. Overall training pace is the strongest predictor of final marathon race times. Therefore by training 10 seconds per mile faster than goal pace your overall average training pace is indeed faster. This is a good use of science.

2. The mental aspect of being able to run harder than necessary gives a big psychological boost to the runner. Since we now know that fatigue is more than a physiological construct – it has a very strong psychological component – this will be beneficial to the marathoner. This is a good use of psychology.

What about the fact that you never run a full marathon in training so you won’t be prepared to continue on for the full marathon at goal pace having run “only” 20-22 miles? The problem with that analogy is that the 20-22 mile run is being taken out of context. That run is performed in the context of a full training week; that’s week-after-week training without taper. Three things reduce or eliminate this as an issue.
1. The “long” run which gets up to 20 or more miles is usually performed at a pace 1:00-1:30 per mile slower than goal pace. Therefore you are running for almost as much time as you will on race day.

2. Your goal long runs (12-15 miles) on alternate weeks plus in-week goal paced runs will cumulatively make you efficient at that pace.

3. After your taper of 2-3 weeks you will finally be fully recovered from training (it takes up to 4 weeks to recover at the cellular level from a 20 mile run) and have plenty of reserves to complete the full marathon.

Now, for my approach; it does differ. I do favor actual goal paced running. As Coach Joe said, the objective is to run as many of those goal miles as possible as training progresses. These runs do not have to be during your weekly long run either. I integrate them into at least one or two shorter daily runs during the week.

And here are the reasons I prefer this approach:
1. The key is in the science behind efficiency. Beyond just “internalizing” the pace as Coach Joe mentions – you actually become physiologically more efficient! One critical way you become more efficient is race-specific goal paced training. Your body becomes more efficient at that pace by doing that pace… not something slightly faster or slower.

2. On race day the most important variable within your control is pacing (with hydration a close second). As little as a 2% difference (going out too fast) in pacing has been shown to have a negative effect on final times. 2% for a 7:00 per mile runner is only 9 seconds; and for the 8:00 miler it’s only 10 seconds. Knowing this, I do not want my runners to “learn” a pace that is 10 seconds too fast. On race day you will be fresh, full of energy and even on the most controlled days, you will have a tendency to start out faster than you should. I don’t want to reinforce that by training it.

I’ll offer one more slant to goal pace running and the 51:49 time ratio which covers the psychological aspect that Joe’s 10-seconds-faster approach addresses. Depending on the runner I assign goal miles differently. If they have a difficult time “finding” their goal pace, I will more often have early miles (i.e. the first 10 of a 20 miler) run at goal pace in long runs – while they are fresh. If their problem is maintaining the target pace as runs go on, then I assign the latter miles to be run at goal pace (i.e. easy 10 then, miles 11-20 @ goal). And one final training tactic I use to mimic that 51:49 ratio as it happens in reality. I will have runners finish the last mile or two much faster than goal pace. This serves both physiological and psychological purposes.

In the end, what is critical is that a coach knows his/her athletes; the science of performance improvement; and the psychology of performance improvement. Then the coach applies multiple strategies in order to attain that final goal. No two runners are alike… so no single approach will work for everyone!

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona


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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16 Responses to Coach Debate: Marathon Pacing Counter-point by Coach Dean

  1. Joe Garland says:

    Putting aside all the back and forth about determining “goal pace,” or “marathon pace,” what is the frequency? Herbert says they are 12-15 miles on alternative weekends, with straight long runs on the alternate weekends, plus somewhere a 20 miler with half at MP.

    English has a number of MP runs, but gets to 18 miles. Does anyone really do 18 @ (MP-10)? Ryan Hall’s last killer workout was 15 @ (MP+10).)

    So I think a little context would be useful.

    As to figuring MP, English says add 20%/mile for every doubling of distance — “Typically they use a calculation in which your pace is slowing by about 20% every time you double the distance being raced” — and “double” twice from half-marathon to a full. Although he uses caveats, that can’t be right.

    Why not just use: ? It comes up with the same 6:00 mile to 7:28 marathon pace Herbert mentions.

  2. Joe,
    Good observations. There isn’t a “perfect” ratio or percentatge of goal miles in any literature or research. The basic premise is that you infuse as many goal paced miles as part of any workout, without over training and injury. Efficiency in running is gained in two primary ways – true speed work and race-specific goal-paced training. Efficiency is pace specific. Every runner is vastly different in what they can handle in training. So there is not formula to say that you do them 2 or 3 days a week. My 12-15 milers on alternate weekends, other than the first mile of warm-up is all run at goal pace. This is MORE than enough in a single dose. You do NOT want to be running 18 or 20 (or more) at goal pace… that would be like running a training run that is in fact your race. Remember context is critical. You are running these goal paced runs in the context of a full training week; and not rested as you will be in the taper before the marathon. There is no way you can run allyour runs at goal pace without just beating yourself up… and over-training.

    Since you mentioned Ryan Hall I do want to say do not confuse what elite Olympic level runners do with what age-groupers should be doing. Remember, they will be reaching for anything whatsover… research based or not… supported or not… to gain even one second at the end of a marathon which can mean the difference in gold and silver…. making a team and not. Age-groupers will benefit from so many other adjustments to their training (i.e. goal paced miles & speed work). The error often made is when someone sees what an elite runner does… and they run well… they erroneously make a cause and effect analysis between “a workout” and “race results”.
    Coach Dean

  3. Joe Garland says:

    Don’t worry. I have no intention of doing 18-20 at MP.

    I don’t know that efficiency is only gained at goal pace. I do lots of repeats — I tend to follow Daniels’ Running Formula — at paces much faster than I race (all with full recovery). But the form efficiency I get is useful in races and at stressful points in a training run. So I agree that you get a mix of the two, i.e., speedwork and pace-specific training.

    As to Ryan Hall, I only mention him for the point that if he maxes out at 15 — and Ritz got up to 16 — going farther doesn’t sound right.

    But how do you define an “age-groper”? My view is that, excepting the elites and especially their super high mileage and support systems, the fundamental building blocks for training are the same, only paces are different, ubject to the caveat about what an individual athlete can handle. Of course you run into the long-run issue of someone running, say, a 9:00 pace for 20 miles is out there for 3 hours and is that too much. But otherwise, a particular tempo workout with a specific purpose applies to someone for whom the appropriate pace is 6, 7 or 8.

  4. You’re right… the research is very clear that efficiency is gained in two primary ways: race pace specific training and high quality training. And better yet is to use BOTH types of workouts. So you are indeed maximizing your training to be the most efficient you can be.

    Age-grouper is anyone who is not elite. The fundamentals are indeed the same as well as the building blocks. The application is unique to the individual however. Most age-groupers do not know how to apply what we might learn from an elite training program. Instead they take the approach “if so-and-so ran 40×400 @ 5k pace and they run this fast for a marathon then that must be the secret”. Beyond paces being different, and of course the total mileage, the percentage of quality work is higher with elite runners.

    I’m glad you mention tempo runs; this is perhaps the most misused workout by runners and is a good example of what I just mentioned. Ideally a “tempo” run is not just a harder effort middle distance (4-9 miles) run. It is a quality workout that should be run between your 10k and 15k race pace for periods of 20-25 minutes. However, for less experienced runners it has to err on a faster side because their 15k times are far too slow… in fact often no faster than they run a half-marathon. The “tempo” workout itself can be good… but again, age-groupers way too often simply apply it all wrong and it becomes garbage miles – or as I put it – “tweener” miles.

    Another tidbit, a tempo run is virtually useless physiologically for anyone who races under 10k distance.

  5. Joe Garland says:

    To me, the ideal tempo run is 20 minutes at the pace you could race for an hour. So whether it’s 10K, 15K or even HM depends on how fast one is.

    I find the mental stress of getting through minutes 13 to 17 to be the toughest. But in marathon training I’ll do 2 X 20 mins. with a 4 minute break. I try to do every lap at precisely the same pace, and I also find that if I do that 2 X 20 the second tempo is a bit easier than the first. I’ve also done 4 X 5 with a minute break, 40 minutes on the road, 4 X 5 with a minute. All of those would be at the same pace. But if I go over 20 minutes, I’d slow them down. Part of the variance is to avoid the stress of always doing the same tempo run, a run I probably do every other week. I also try to go off-site; I have a trail where a loop of a lake at tempo pace is about 10 minutes, so I’ll do 2 laps (although I have to stop if I run into a horse).

    I also agree about looking to elite workouts. Frequently one sees a response on-line to the “how can I run an X in Y” and people start chiming in with their favorite workouts. (Not to mention the idea that if running A is good, running faster must be better.) It’s all part of the big picture, and in part I started this in response to the implication that the “race pace” workout is the way to go. Hence my suggestion that there be “a little context.”

    The more I read, the more I think that the three legs of the marathon-prep stool are long runs, tempo runs, and MP runs.

  6. Good points and nice workout variety. By definition some of those are not “tempo” however. Since that is well defined. They are good workouts.

    I’d add a critical and most commonly overlooked leg to your stool for marathoners… and that is speed work. The resreach is absolutely definitive in its value. Beyond the actual physiological benefits what is sooooo cool.. is that on LESS miles you get equal or better beneifts. This is absolutely critical since other than past history of injuries the number one predictor of injury is total miles.

    The fourth leg makes for truly a balanced program.

  7. Joe Garland says:


    Just so we understand each other, how would you define “tempo” run and “speedwork”? As to the latter, I do do stuff that might or might not count, so I’m interested in your view on it.

  8. Another good clarification…
    Tempo runs are steady state runs at a pace of one’s 10k to 15k… or about a one hour race. It is a “quality” workout.

    “Speed” work could be a variable paced workout (i.e. Fartlek – if done appropriately; and many variations) or reps typically on a track. The ideal conditioning pace (for anyone racing 5k and longer) is about your 5k pace. The goal is to run longer reps and reduce rest periods between these as teh season moves on. This is also a “quality” workout.

    Now, TRUE speed work is very fast paced workouts which near max speeds or for some – 400-800 meter race pace; for very brief reps and full recoveries. These enhance max speed and contribute greatly to enhance efficiency in running (for all paces). Of course, this is a quality workout.

    Your total quality miles should gradually grow to 20% of your total miles… even 25% for some runners.

    There are more details but at the risk of not getting too nitty gritty, and not playing semantics with labeling variations on these themes, this is the gist of “quality” workouts.

  9. Joe Garland says:

    Actually, for me a tempo pace is a little bit slower than a 15K since I do that in about 54 minutes nowadays. So it’s the 1 hour that I go by. And with a 1 minute break between 5 minute stretches at that pace, I count them as Tempos, as I would 10 mins., always taking no more than 1 minute break per 5 minute tempo. One point is to avoid the mental strain of the ideal 20 minute tempo.

    As to other speed, I tend not to alter the break as a season progresses. My pace will pick up as I get into better shape. The break would be the same. As I said earlier, I do a fair chunk of repeats, maintaining the same pace whether for 200 or 800 and always getting full recovery. Pace would be close to my mile pace. I count hill work as repeats because the nature of the terrain — you have to jog down — means you get a decent break and too long to be an interval.

    Intervals, to me, mean 3-5 minutes at VO2max, or shorter intervals with a brief rest. Something like 16 X 400 @ 78-80 with 40 seconds or 8 X 800 at the same pace with 80 seconds. Pace is about 5K – 10 secs.

    But for a marathon, I would do a tempo at least every other week. Some intervals 12-7 weeks out, and hills and repeats. For my speedwork.

    So putting it all together, I think we’re fairly close on these things, although we may disagree on some of the stuff at the margins. I follow a mix of Daniels and Pfitz/Douglas. But I want to get my mileage up for NY 2008; I was relatively low for 2006. I’ll be 52 for 2008 with a goal of 2:45 so I am being careful about overdoing it.

  10. You’re doing good stuff! I think we are very close indeed. Overall the point it infusing quality… it’s not quantity that will make the most difference. Just remember, in the 40-50 mile per week range, the research is definitive on WHAT you do with those miles being far more important than adding MORE miles. I’ve run 2:36 on less than 40 miles per week average over the last 16 weeks.
    I tracked down your results online… you’re doing well. Gotta be doing something right, right?
    Keep me up on how you progress…

  11. Joe Garland says:

    Thanks. Agree again on the quality over quantity. Last year I maxed out at 60, and that meant that those had to be “quality” miles. For 2008, I am trying to see if I can have my cake and eat it too.

    One other thing I thought of during my run tonight. Well, two actually. First, I’m not so sure about over-doing marathon pace runs. The problem is time. If you do your speedwork at MP, it’s too slow. If you do your easy runs at MP, it’s too fast. So my idea is doing MP every other week. But it’s a while before I even get there.

    Second is the benefit of grooving form. It not only helps in races but in all types of workouts. It helped me tonight as I struggled in what was an easy run that was too fast. I’ve done so many repeats that I can weather storms that happen late in runs.

  12. The pattern of every other week goal paced runs is exactly what I schedule. One week is progressively longer “long” runs… 15, 17, 19, 20…
    And between those “long” runs is a goal paced long run… 8, 10, 12, 14…
    The first mile or so is warm-up and even the last mile sometimes… then all the middle miles are at goal.
    Taht way, you don’t pound yourself with long runs every weekend and yet get a higher percentage of goal miles in.
    For some runners the “long” long run is every thrid week instead of every other.
    I’ve had some good results with this blend.
    I’ve run 2:36 averaging 38 miles per week for the 16 weeks leading up to the race. But, I sure did pound the pace!!!

  13. Adam says:

    Fascinating stuff, Dean. Regarding the 2% rule: can I assume there are exceptions for terrain? I’m getting set for a marathon in San Diego that begins with a mostly downhill section, lasting at least 3 miles, heading into a 2-mile uphill section beginning at mile 9, followed by another mile-long descent. The second half is more consistent, but has some small inclines. I am in the midst of a “minor” debate with another runner about the concept of banking time on the early downhills, which he is prepared to do whereas I am wary of getting a head of steam that will sap my energy. I am prepared to go 2% faster than my normative race pace downhill, which actually involves a sort of holding back (not braking, though) with short, relaxed strides.


  14. Adam says:

    p.s. Point of clarification: by terrain, of course I mean elevation changes as opposed to road vs. trail considerations.

  15. Adam,
    First know yourself as a runner. If you are strong on hills then you may be able to do well the last half. If not, you will probably suffer more. Effort is an important consideration. If you run comfortable in the first half and “bank” a SMALL amount of time it may be ok. However, if you run on pace through 15 and it is predominantly downhill and therefore “easier” by effort standards, you actually have “banked more ENERGY for the last half which in my experience is FAR more important than time banked. Guidelines, research and plenty of anecdotal evidence simply indicates even pace… save energy. Remember – your goal pacing to this point has made you efficient AT THAT PACE not faster. Even under those circumstances the last miles of a marathon are challenging. Dilute your energy reserves for the last 10k or so… and the odds are simply against you.

    The evidence just shows that to gain let’s say 10 seconds per mile in the first 15 miles will most likely yield such great fatigue that MINUTES per mile are lost late in the race. This will wipe out any gain you had in the first half in short order. And mind over matter won’t get you to pick up the pace once you’re depleted.

    Case in point just last weekend: One of my runners trained for BAA qualifying pace (8:20/mile) for Ogden. She ran at 8:00-8:15 (against our plan) because it was “downhill and effortless” for the first 13 miles (2% would be about 9 seconds per mile for 8:20 pace); by 17 she was already falling off pace; by 23 she was exactly on OVERALL pace (she lost all she had gained); so she only had to do 3.2 miles @ 8:20/mile and she would have qualified. Instead of 3:40… she virtually collapsed and ran 4:00. Dramatic but true.

    I do not want to say categorically someone couldn’t use the banking approach in some VERY modest way and get away with it on some courses. But it is a gamble. Please drop me a line to tell me how it goes.
    Coach Dean

  16. Adam says:

    This is precisely where the debate lies between me and the other runner: he wants to bank time while I want to bank energy. Thanks again for your advice, and the useful anecdote.

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