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Finding Your Marathon Pace

Posted Feb 04 2013 10:17am
Since I am right in the thick of peak training for Shamrock , I wanted to focus on the process of finding your appropriate marathon pace.  I've written before about my thoughts on paces and how to find them , but I want to specifically focus on how you should go about to not only think you have the right pace, but confirm it. 

Now, finding your marathon pace is not some magical calculation that some app is going to spit out for you (although it is used for part of the process), and just because you've found your correct pace doesn't mean that is the pace you'll be able to run on race day.  External factors such as race conditions, course variations, race execution, etc all play into a role.  And unlike most other distances where you can power through to the finish, the marathon doesn't provide much wiggle room for error once you've gone past "the line".  And anyone who has raced (ie pushed your body to the edge) a marathon knows what going to "the line" feels like.  Once you go over, you don't go back.  You merely survive, which in most cases means a combination of slowing down and gritting your teeth till you finally cross the finish.  So my goal here is not to get to the line, but to get right up close and stay there through to the finish. 

This approach only applies to those who are looking to run to their potential.  If you are simply looking to run (but not race) a marathon, then I would recommend running comfortably through 18-20 miles and if you feel like picking it up, go for it.  Your marathon pace is likely to be pretty close to your long run pace.

So with that out of the way, let's get to it!

1) Find a recent race result to get goal paces

Take your most recent race result (must be at least within the last 3 months to be considered recent) as a marker of your current fitness and use one of the many online calculators (The key here is using your most recent RESULTS to determine your paces, not what your GOAL is or what your PR from 2 years ago was.  If it isn't recent, it isn't relevant to your current fitness state.  You can't teach yourself to run faster by running at paces that aren't within your level of fitness.  Otherwise, you risk overuse injuries and the inability to absorb the work from training at the appropriate paces.) From those results, you should have an approximation of your potential, which is exactly that - not necessarily what you will run on race day.  If you run to your potential, you will be right at that line, so my recommendation is to take a little off that time.  If you truly use a race result where you put it all out there, racing a marathon to your potential is a risky endeavor.  However, if you want to test yourself, by all means.  As for me, I'm taking a little off and calling it close.

2) Map your training to progressively build toward implementing more goal pace work

What I mean here is this - using the theory of race specificity, we become more race specific as we get closer to the race.  This means that when you first start your training (assuming you are at least 12 weeks out), you will do very little marathon pace running.  You should be running fairly faster/slower, as marathon pace isn't fast enough to give you significant fitness gains, but isn't slow enough to help you become more efficient at burning fat.  So what this means is spending a lot of your faster workouts at your tempo pace (somewhere around 10k-10 mile pace), or your easy workouts running easy.  But as you begin to get closer toward peak training, you shift those tempo workouts to incorporate more marathon paced miles, and also include chunks of marathon paced running in your long runs.

3) Confirm marathon goal paces through execution of key indicator workouts

Including indicator workouts is a fundamental element of properly training for a given race, regardless of distance.  There is no such thing as "race day magic". You've either put in the hard work to know what you are capable of, or you are racing blind.  Sometimes racing blind can yield great results, but I come from a much more structured school of thought (can you tell?!?!?), so I like to know, rather than hope.  Hope leads to false assumptions, and more commonly failed race execution.  When you know, you have guidelines to work from.

Only about 1-2 times during a given marathon training cycle should you include indicator workouts, but I consider this part of the homework of making sure you won't cross over that line in the actual race.  Better to learn this in training and make corrections as needed.  The reason you don't do this more than a few times is simply because these training sessions create a lot of stress on your body, and while it would be great to be able to knock these workouts out every weekend, most people simply cannot handle a big workout like this AND continue quality training during the week. 

So what are some of these key indicator workouts?  Well there are a couple of options, all of which should be incorporated into a long run, but these depend on experience, weekly mileage, etc.  So I will provide a few examples, but before implementing such a workout, consider your training leading up to it and whether or not the workout will benefit you. For all of these workouts, I would recommend a thorough warm up, nutrition/hydration plan, clothing selection, etc as you would for a race, as these are the closest you'll get to simulating your race.

- 6 miles at 10% of marathon pace, 6 miles at marathon pace, 6 miles at or faster than marathon pace
- 10 miles easy, 10 miles at marathon pace
- 1 mile easy, 3 x 5 miles at marathon pace, each set with a 1 mile easy between

None of these workouts are easy, and they are ordered by degree of difficulty.  They are all between 18-20 miles, but will take a lot more out of you than your standard 18-20 mile easy long run, so heed my warning above regarding whether or not you are ready to tackle one of these workouts.  However, rest assured that by the end of any one of them, you will know whether or not your marathon pace is accurate.

Other key points to note - Simply nailing 1 or 2 indicator workouts is certainly a marker of one's fitness, but if you approach these workouts rested (ie mini taper), then you are defeating the point.  Doing so can lead to false sense of accomplishment of one workout, whereas your total body of work (ie weekly volume and intensity throughout the training cycle) has more of an impact on how race ready you are.  Since these are training workouts, we should treat them the same as all other training runs.  So that when you execute one correctly, it provides that validation.

Now no post on finding marathon pace would be completed without my own story.  On Saturday, I ran a variation of 10 miles easy, 10 miles at marathon pace, where I also added 2 easy miles on the end.  And how did it go?  Well it certainly validated my guidelines of pacing
10 miles easy: 8:10 pace
10 miles marathon pace: 7:06 pace
2 miles easy: 7:40 pace (it was too difficult to slow down to easy pace at that point, so I just ran comfortably)

So does this mean that I'll be able to hold 7:06 at my marathon?  Maybe, maybe not.  It depends on race day conditions.  However one thing is for sure, I know where my potential lies.  And that fact is what I will use to structure my pacing plan.
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