Find Your Ideal Marathon Pace

Proper marathon pace management does take some planning, but the investment can lead to great marathon performances!

There are many variables that can affect your marathon potential including your individual training effect, recovery and nutrition leading up to the run. Add to this the external uncontrollable factors such as course elevation (if you’ve picked a course that is not flat) and weather on marathon day. Maybe you are less than completely healthy at the start since you’re still nursing a nagging injury. One thing you can control is your intention to develop a good marathon pace plan to run your next marathon to the best of your ability.

Probably the most popular question about marathon pace is:

'What is my ideal marathon pace?'

The short and technical answer to this question is the pace which is comfortably below your lactate balance point or otherwise known as your ‘anaerobic threshold’. Knowing exactly what that pace and corresponding heart rate is however, requires a blood lactate analyzer.

The good news is there is a much cheaper and less technical way to determine your ideal marathon pace. To start, if you are looking to determine your ideal marathon pace, you need to establish a good time goal for your next marathon.

Determine a Good Time Goal

Make sure your time goal is realistic – one way you can do this is by looking at some of your recent race performances for other race distances. Refer to the chart on the running goal setting page. Another way to approach it is if you have a recent marathon time, look at shaving 5%-10% off that time for your next goal. I.e. 12 to 24 minutes off a 4 hour marathon. The faster you get however, the harder it will be to shave time off. This is far from an exact science since there are so many factors that are implied such as adequate recovery and training time allotted since your last marathon, however it should give you a realistic, progressive and challenging time goal for your next marathon.

Find Your Average Pace

Once you’ve determined that your marathon time goal is a good fit for you, next you can look at what average pace (per km or mile) will be required for you to achieve this goal in your desired time. You can use this pace calculator to easily figure this out. Punch in your goal time i.e. 3:45:00, select ‘Marathon’ as your event, then hit ‘Calculate Pace’ and voila!

Create A Marathon Pace Plan

Finally, take the time to develop a marathon pace ‘execution’ plan. Having a pace plan is an extremely valuable and effective tool to help you prepare physically and mentally for your marathon. With your time goal in mind, break down the 42.2 kilometers into small manageable chunks. This will give you short term goals to focus on during your run, and keep you disciplined within your physiological limits to minimize the chances for any ‘surprises’ late in the race.

Now is the time to decide how you want to execute your marathon pace plan rather than wait until after the gun goes off! Is it better to run positive, even or negative splits?

All have pros and cons and it’s up to you to decide which is best. If you don’t have enough experience to know, here are some considerations.

A positive split is a faster marathon pace and therefore time for the first half of the marathon than the second half. So, a 1:40:00 first half and 1:47 second half to give you a total marathon time of 3:27:00

Positive splits are easier to execute since early in the race when you are fresh you are not required to ‘hold back’ as you would be if you were running a negative second half. Most people run their marathons this way, simply because it’s easiest to do physically and even mentally…at least for the first half. In fact, a positive split is usually the way runners run their race when they don’t have a race plan.

Running a positive split basically demonstrates a lack of fuel conservation which is what smart marathoning is all about! When you run strong then progressively fade because you are running out of ‘gas’ it does not feel good physically. Add to that the discouraging experience of other runners (who are running even or negative splits) briskly passing by!

Even splits then means running the first half of the marathon in the same amount of time as the second. So, two halves in 1:45:00 for a 3:30:00 time goal. Some would argue that an even split race is the perfect race plan. Then again, even splits don’t really allow time to warm up and settle into your ideal marathon pace. A race plan with even splits is easy enough to figure out, since the pace calculator does all of the work for you. You may only have to figure out your cumulative milestone times such as your 10k, half and 20 mile splits.

Negative splits, then, means running the second half quicker than the first. This can be the most challenging way to marathon pace because it requires discipline to hold back during the early stages of the run when you are feeling your strongest and freshest. It also requires faith and a strong confidence in your abilities. Particularly when runners of equivalent fitness may be so much further ahead at the half way mark. However, this can be the most rewarding way to pace your marathon. Since, running a negative split has you running your second half faster than your first, you will be passing many runners who are fading and progressively slowing.

So whichever is your strategy, plug your projected milestone times (at the 5k mark I expect to be 23:00, at 10k I expect to be 45:00, etc.) Then memorize your plan during the weeks leading up to marathon day. Once your marathon is done, decide whether the goal and plan you developed was just right for you, or perhaps requires some tweaking for your next marathon goal!

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