-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Training: Did I go out too slowly in my marathon?

Jen Meller at Mile 11One of my athletes named Jen wrote in the following question about pacing after her race last Sunday — a half-marathon. This is an excellent question that underscores both the concepts of understanding pace and the unique nature of running at a particular speed.

First, here’s the question:

I finished the 1/2 marathon in 1:54. My pace was 8:42. Not bad. I felt pretty tired coming up the Steel Bridge at the end, but still managed to finish in an all out sprint. And when I say all out, I mean ALL out. My question is, if I had that much sprint in me at the end, I obviously didn’t push myself hard enough during the race . . . so how do I figure out how to do that? How do I learn how fast I should be/could be running? I have a feeling I could be a lot faster, but how do I get faster and how do I figure out what fast is for me?

First, Jen can and will get a lot faster by continuing to do speed work and good quality workouts. As we’ve discussed at great length here, running faster is what makes you faster, not running longer. In working with Jen, I’ll encourage her to include track workouts, tempo runs, and other up-tempo running into her workout plans so that she continues to get faster.

Now, on to the question of why the big sprint at the finish and whether that really means she ran too slowly? My answer is that the big sprint finish probably doesn’t tell us that much about whether her pace was too slow in the rest of the race.

First, let’s look at elite athletes — do they sprint at the finish of their races? Certainly. In fact, as Coach Dean often remarks, the job of the elite athlete is to stay in the front pack or with the leaders until the closing sprint and then be able to win in that last quarter mile. The training of the elite athlete is then to get themselves to the point that are in position to win that closing sprint at the finish of the race. They need to be able to stay with the leaders until that point and then have the closing speed to win.

Now let’s look at the rest of us out there. I bet a lot of people have seen someone that is just about falling over at the end of marathon take one look at the finish-line and then break out into a final “Carl Lewis-like” sprint. For the mere mortals in us, what’s happening here is that that final sprint is fueled differently than all of the miles that came before it. In many people, what you’re seeing is a demonstration of adrenaline and the power of the mind that overcome the fatigue to get them to pick it up at the end of the race.

But another way to look at that “where did that come from” sprint is that it is a being powered by a totally different set of muscles — or rather different parts of the muscles that haven’t been driving the bus for the past couple of hours. In part it may be fast-twitch muscle fibers coming into action, or different portions of the muscles because of the larger stride and body position, but it is also partly fueled by the anaerobic rather than aerobic energy system. This means that this amazing sprint is just that: a sprint — and it couldn’t last more than a few seconds or at most a minute.

So, I would look at the final sprint as something quite different than what was going on in the rest of the race. Sure, with some people, they will either have hurt themselves with pace too fast or left so much on the table that the might have nothing or lots left, but for most people the sprint is something that happens at the end without too much regard for what preceded it.
What I would look at is the pace over the course of the rest of the race and see what was going on there. In a typical marathon, the pace should feel relatively easy for the first half or 15 miles, then in the middle miles it should start feeling a bit more challenging, and coming into the last three to four miles, it should be feeling very challenging. The key here is that if you’ve picked the correct pace, you’ll be able to maintain THE SAME SPEED for the entire race. Despite the fact that the pace is feeling harder, you won’t be slowing down.

In this case, I’d tell Jen to look at the last three to four miles of the race and ask how they felt. Was it a breeze in the park or was the pace getting more and more difficult. If the pace was too slow through the race those closing miles of the race probably felt fairly effortless. If the pace was getting tougher — harder and harder to hang onto — then the pace was closer to her capability.

In closing, the question that will come up is how does one know their race pace. Coach Dean and myself wrote a lengthy point/counter-point on the subject of marathon pacing that can answer this question in real detail. For my answer on marathon pacing theory, click here. For Coach Dean’s answer, click here. But to summarize, the way to understand race pace is to race or test yourself at a shorter distance, which allows you to calculate out your maximum pace capabilities and then you need to drill that race pace into your head (and legs) with lots of goal paced work over the course of your preparation. You should come into the race knowing exactly what pace to run and then you won’t have these kind of doubts about whether you picked the right pace or not.

Good question Jen and keep those questions coming folks.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


No responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. coachdeanhebert April 11th, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    You hit it on the head Coach Joe!
    Coach Dean

  2. 2. Greg Johnson April 11th, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    Great information that answered a lot of my questions.



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