“Pace yourself”… We’ve all been told this at some point in our running careers…

Pacing is all about how well you can distribute your body’s energy throughout the entire marathon. The main purpose of pacing is to ensure that you preserve enough energy needed to complete the race and finish strong.

Let’s see what this looks like in the bigger picture of a full marathon…

How Hard Is It To Finish a Marathon?

There is no denying it… when you get to wear that medal you receive after completing a marathon, you wear it with pride. 

It is a badge of honor, a sign to the rest of the world that you made it through a grueling long distance of 42.2 km or 26.2 miles!

Everyone’s marathon experience is unique. 

To be honest with you… It is hard to finish a marathon. There’s a reason why you need to follow a training program.

Pheidippides, the first-ever marathoner, raced 150 miles from Athens to Sparta before the Battle of Marathon, declaring “Nike!” (which translates as “Victory”), and then dropped dead from exhaustion.

It’s tough to finish a marathon mostly because of the duration you’re required to be running for. 

Other factors that contribute to making completing a marathon a challenge include dehydration, injuries, hyponatremia (over hydration), and what we will be discussing further… incorrect pacing. 

How Long Does It Take To Finish a marathon?

A marathon is 26.2 miles or 42.19 kilometers.

The global average time for a marathon stands at around 4 hours 21 minutes – with men’s average times at 4 hours 13 minutes, and women at 4 hours 42 minutes.

New runners do worry about not finishing before the time limit. Typically, marathon cutoff times are around six hours. 

For example, athletes who run the Boston Marathon have six hours to complete the course. That means you’d have to average a pace of just under 14 minutes per mile. For the NYC Marathon, the official end of the race is 7:25 p.m. Depending on your start time, this will allow for closer to eight hours to finish the race.

On the race website or registration page, you will be able to see the race cut-off time.

The Importance Of Pacing

There is evidence proving that the best way to pace yourself over any distance longer than 800m is to run an even or negative split – that is, running the second half at the same speed, or slightly faster, than the first.

Getting the pace right is a question of matching your expectations to your level of training.

You need to determine how fast your recovery runs should be, and what pace you can run your harder sessions. This is why following a training plan is so beneficial, the coaches determine your paces for you, therefore taking the guesswork out of your hands and into a professional’s. 

Each run adds an integral element to your week’s training and, when done right, can have serious benefits for your marathon.

Pacing during your marathon is important because if you go out too hard from the start line… which is very easy to do as one gets caught up in all the race excitement… you could injure yourself and have to run in pain for what could be hours. 

A Good Marathon Time For a Beginner

Whether it’s your first and you’ve just decided to take on this monster challenge, or you’re a seasoned marathoner…

According to Marathon Statistics 2019 Worldwide, including 19,614,975 marathon results in 32,335 races worldwide:

  • Participation in marathons grew by 49.43% in the ten years from 2008 to 2018.
  • The average marathon time worldwide is 4:29:53. 

It’s important to remember that a good marathon time for one runner is very different from a good marathon time for another runner…

Based on the marathon statistics study, a good marathon time for a beginner runner across all sexes and ages averages 3:48:20.

How To Calculate Your Marathon Pace

We believe this is something not enough people are asking about…

This is the rule of thumb way to calculating your marathon pace.

Typically to calculate it, I would use a 5km and a 10km and a half marathon time to try and determine if I’m improving as I’m running longer distances or if I’m getting better as I’m running longer and then I’ll make some slight tweaks.

Essentially, if you’re running 5km races fairly hard or you’ve got some decent 5km times, I think from a 5km to a 10km, you can be between 5 seconds (if you’re very conditioned) and 8 or 9 seconds per km slower, you’ll be able to hold for a 10km.

Then you will be in the region of eight to 12-13 seconds per km slower when you then move from that 10km to the 21km and then from the 21km to the marathon, you’re probably also looking around 8-10 minutes in a very conditioned person or somebody who gets relatively better as time goes by, you’re probably looking at about eight seconds per km slower, up to around 15 seconds per km.

Obviously, if you’re someone who struggles and gets slower as you run longer, then you’re probably looking at more along the lines of 16-17-18 seconds per km and you need to work on your aerobic capacity.

That’s kind of how you can set on, if for example, you only had a 5km time, you could kind of progress it along.

Bearing in mind that the shorter the distance you’re using to predict, the more guessing is going on in-between steps.

The best place to guess from is your best half marathon and then somewhere in the region of 8K’s if you’re extremely fit and get better with distance and about 15 seconds per km would be your normal drift off.

Having these calculations on what you should be running your marathon is important. Yes, there’s a bit of variation if you don’t have a 21km time if you’re working it on your 5km time, but having these things and making sure that you stick to them is important if you’re going to achieve the marathon goal you set out to achieve.

What you need to do is, if the two halves of the race are fairly similar in terms of profile and if you’re not dealing with extreme environments, like very cold or extremely hot, then you want to approach a marathon in a fairly even-paced time.

Aiming to be at halfway no more than one and a half to two minutes faster in the first half than you intend to run the entire race and that is why it’s important to stick to your plan because at the beginning of the marathon you can feel extremely fresh and feel like it’s your day and you push it hard and then all of a sudden somewhere between 21km or 13 miles and 16 miles or 25km, that’s when you start to feel, oh-oh, I’ve overdone it and you’ve still got quite a lot of race left to go.

The thing with a marathon is that there is always going to be a part where you “hit the wall”. For most people that tends to be at 24-26kms and so the goal is to train the aerobic system well enough to keep pushing that “wall” later in the race…

In a marathon, the last three miles or 5km are telling and we can lose 30 seconds to a minute per km easily if our legs have taken a hammering.

You can never put enough time in the bag by going out too hard to save more than you’ll lose in the second half.

You’ll always lose more in the second half than intended if you go out with that sort of strategy.

That’s why It’s important to get the pacing right.

Marathon Pacing Strategy

Marathon pacing is probably one of the hardest things to get right. But when you do nail it, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

So, what’s the secret to a perfectly paced marathon?

A marathon is not just a matter of doubling your 21km time…

First and foremost, the word patience, realistic goal setting, and pacing – are the things that play a role in the day.

It doesn’t help that you can run a 90-minute 21-kilometer, and then aim to achieve a sub-3-hour marathon… you will slow down as you progress.

Or your starting speed will have to be slower as well. So set a realistic goal, that’s the first box that you need to be ticking.

The second one is to work out an accurate pacing chart. Those on the Coach Parry platform get personalized help to calculate their pacing strategy. For the bigger races, we can make this race/route specific too.

… and then be patient, stick to that pacing chart.

It’s like a roadmap, if you’re going to follow the directions, you’re eventually going to get to your destination. And that’s what’s most important. People are impatient, they feel great, but they make the mistake of feeling great in the beginning, they overpower it a bit and then they pay for it in the end.

Once you realize that you’ve gone out too hard, it’s too late!

Positive Splits, Negative Splits, Even Splits

We’re big fans of negative splits. More often than not, if your training was good, you had a good taper leading up to the event, and you have a realistic goal in place, the chances of you doing an even split and possibly going negative towards the end are quite high. 

A negative split would be a cherry on the top, and an even split would be a perfectly executed race plan.

This is because if you start a race too hard and you lose speed towards the end, that’s when the process starts to control you. 

But if you start slightly slower, more conservative and you control the process all the way, I can guarantee you, the time lost by starting a slight bit slower compared to starting a bit too fast and then losing control of that process usually from about 36 kilometers, depending on how hard you went out. 

EVERYTHING You Need To Run A Sub 4 Hour Marathon


Shona is the former Head of Sport Science at the High-Performance Centre, University of Pretoria. She returned from Madrid, Spain, in 2013 where she completed her MBA in Sport Management with Universidad Europea de Madrid (Real Madrid FC). Shona’s current work and interest lies in endurance sport (running/triathlon) conditioning and sport science working with elite ultra-endurance athletes such as Caroline Wostmann (2015 Comrades & 2Oceans winner). Aside from football strength & conditioning, Shona’s other passion and expertise lies in endurance sport (running/triathlon) as well as Women in Sport. She has competed in 4 Half IronMan distance events and three 2Oceans Ultramarathons herself. She has also worked with other elite female athletes such as London 2012 bronze medallist in canoeing, Bridgitte Hartley.

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