The horn blows and we all take off running! Everyone is pumped and adrenaline is flowing. Soon, many people will "hit the wall" and begin to slow down for the remainder of the marathon. How do we avoid this problem? There are many solutions, but this post will focus on pacing.
While training for my last marathon, I got a lot of great advice from a great friend and fellow runner. Some of the greatest advice she gave me was that it is essential to start your marathon slow and build up your speed over time. We call this "negative-splits". For example, if your first mile was at a 9 min/mile pace and your second mile was an 8:50 min/mile pace, your split would be -10 seconds.
Hopefully, with ample training, your body will become more efficient at burning fat for fuel as the marathon progresses. However, you will still need plenty of glycogen in order to avoid hitting the wall. Running at a faster pace causes your body to use a higher percentage of glycogen versus fat. Therefore, starting your marathon around 6% slower than your goal pace will help to conserve energy for the miles to come.
I used this strategy at my last marathon and it was very difficult. Although I finished the marathon slightly under the predicted time of my coral, people were passing me like crazy in the beginning. With all of the excitement and energy I had to use, I wanted to just take off. I had to keep reminding myself of the great advice in order to hold myself back. After a while, the crowd thinned out and not as many people were passing me. At the half-way point, I was able to pick up the pace a little. I kept picking the pace up more and more as the miles increased. By mile 20, I knew the advice was solid! Granted, I did a lot of things better in this marathon. I fueled better, replaced electrolytes more efficiently, and ran more during my training (thanks to some encouragement from my helpful husband!). However, it seems like pacing myself had a huge impact on my time. I crossed the finish line with a new personal record.
It is so hard to pace at the beginning of the marathon, but it really pays off. So the next time you're out for a long race, remember that slow and steady wins the race!