Anna asks: I always go out too fast in races, and I know I need to start slower. I am doing my first marathon in a few weeks and am really worried. Is there a strategy that you recommend I can follow on race day?
While it is hard to hold yourself back given all the enthusiasm that surrounds the race start, for the best race results starting slower and easing into your goal race pace is the best strategy.
It’s important to use the first few miles of the marathon to find a running rhythm and allow the pace to come to you rather than forcing a pace right off the line. Your goal should be running the second half of the race faster than the first—a “negative split”—even if it’s only faster by a few seconds.
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Part of your training process should be learning to intuit your goal race pace. Knowing your breathing pattern, foot falls, and rhythm at a specific pace is very helpful. During a race, relying on that “feel,” or gut instinct, can let you know right away if you are on or off pace. For your next training cycle, practice running some mile repeats at your goal race pace by feel, not looking at your watch until the very end to see how well you are reading your body’s signals. (Need more help? Check out how to master the negative split for your training and races.)
Here are a few other race day strategies runners can try:
Race placement: Avoid toeing the starting line, unless you expect to win the race. This should be true even at smaller races. Line up according to where you think you will finish. For example, top one-third; mid-pack; or at the back of the pack, and place yourself in that area with the crowd of runners.
Pace signs: Most races often set up pace signs with the minute-per-mile pace posted so runners can place themselves in the appropriate area. Know going into the race your target race pace, and stick with that position in the corral—or even go a section back so you know you’ll start a little slower.
Pace groups: Some marathons will offer pace groups with a leader setting the appropriate pace for the designated time goal. You may be able to align yourself with one of these groups and pace off them. However, double-check your splits with theirs to make sure they are running the correct pace for you because they may go out too fast as well.
Harness GPS: Run with a GPS system that shows your constant pace so you know by looking at your watch if you are running too fast or too slow early on. If you see the first mile is going to be 30 seconds faster than your target pace, the advice is simple: pump the breaks and reserve your energy for the last half of the marathon.