With input from M Rameshon & G Elangovan
Having worked hard during the preparation phase to prime your body for peak performance, the next step is to perform well during the race itself. Often, you hear of runners who put in a whole year of sweat, only to pull out of the marathon race at the 35 km mark because of severe cramps, or running out of steam towards the end of the race, and finishing in a time that is worse than that during training because they started out too fast.
Compared to most other sports, race strategy in marathon running is simple — the challenge is in sticking to it. In this chapter, we will learn how to draw up and execute a sound race plan, so that all your preparation translates to results that you will be pleased with.
The crux of the marathon race strategy is the race pace. There is an optimal pace for each runner. Too conservative a pace, and you finish the race with too much in reserve and kick yourself for not pushing harder. More commonly, runners aim for too fast a pace and run out of steam, finishing badly or not even finishing at all. Picking the right race pace is a gamble — do you go for a faster pace than your previous marathon, and if you do, how much faster? What we want to do is to take a calculated risk, rather than arbitrarily coming up with a figure.
Determining the race pace
Your targeted finishing time, and hence your average race pace, can be determined from:
- Previous marathon time. Naturally, every runner wants to be faster, so assuming the course is of similar difficulty, aim to be slightly faster. Cutting 15 mins off your previous marathon time of four hours flat is reasonable, but to cut 15 mins off a previous time of 3:15 hrs is a stretch.
- Time trials. If you do not have a recent marathon time to go by, then do some time trials to determine what your race pace should be. A convenient guide to go by is to double your half marathon time plus 10 min, e.g. if your half marathon time is two hours flat, then your targeted marathon time should be (2 x 2 hr) + 10 min = 4:10 hrs.
From the projected time, make adjustments for the course, weather, and crowd conditions. Often, the difference between a tropical and a temperate marathon is around five to 10 minutes.
Once you have set a targeted finishing time, work out the average race pace that you have to maintain. For example, if you are aiming to finish the marathon in four hoursflat, then your race pace should be (4 x 60) ÷ 42.195 = 5:41 min/km.
Pacing within the race
During the marathon, the pace may vary at different stretches of the course. Assuming a flat course with a constant temperature throughout, there are two pacing strategies that you can adopt:
- Even pace. This is the safest and best-accepted strategy.
- Negative split. You can split the marathon into four 10 km stretches or two 21 km stretches. The latter is more common. A negative split is when the later stretch is run in a shorter time than the earlier stretch.
Aiming and planning to run the first half much faster than the second half of a marathon is suicidal — during the race, your second half will likely be much slower than you had planned for, so do not do this unless there are exceptional reasons. Many inexperienced runners make this mistake inadvertently.
Marathon world records are set using an even pace or with a very slight negative split. The best runners in the world run their races with the time for each kilometre within an extremely tight range that is only a few seconds apart.
Sticking to the race pace
During the race, there will be many factors that will throw the runner off his pace, including crowded conditions, hills, congested drink stations, dehydration, the urge to go to the toilet, weather conditions, niggling injuries (e.g. abrasions, blisters), stitches, hitting the wall, and loss of concentration. Most of these factors slow the runner down, but there are occasionally factors that make the runner go too fast, e.g. feeling strong, downhill course (the Boston Marathon, for instance, starts with a long downhill stretch that tires out the hamstrings of unwary runners), sticking with neighbouring runners that are going too fast.
Every runner will feel good at the start of the race, as he or she is undoubtedly feeling fresh. But the real race does not start till the last 10 km, and the runner needs to have enough in reserve for this last stretch, when his or her carbohydrate stores are near empty. To stick to the race pace, here is what you need to do:
- Decide on your average race pace, preferably in minutes per kilometre.
- Work out the expected elapsed time at each kilometre (or at intervals where there are distance markers, depending on the race organisation), if you were to hold an even pace. There are ‘pace calculators’ on the Internet that will make this task easier.
- Carry this with you during the race, either by
(a) writing it down on your forearm with indelible ink on the morning of the race,
(b) printing it out on paper, laminating it, and loosely strapping it onto your wrist as a wrist band, or
(c) laminating it and carrying it in your pocket.
- You will need a light watch with a clear digital display, as you will be checking the time on the run.
You might think it would be easier to do the math along the way or to memorise elapsed times, but during a long race, your mind will not be as dependable as you expect.
Here are more tips on keeping to your race pace:
- Include pace runs during training to get a feel of the race pace — experienced runners can keep accurately to the race pace even without looking at their watches.
- Pre-arrange to run the race together with an experienced runner whom you know will be running at your desired pace. Preferably, train together prior to the race so that you are familiar with each other’s pacing abilities and habits. Start together and during the race, cooperate and help each other maintain pace.
- Practice drinking on the run — do not slow down more than necessary.
- Start the race in the corral that corresponds to your planned finishing time. In some races, organisers do not strictly enforce this and slower runners may crowd the corrals nearer the starting line. Arrive at your corral early in order not to be displaced by these runners.
- During the race, the natural tendency is to go with the flow and keep pace with the runners around you. If those around you were aiming for the same pace, then that would help. But if their plan is different from yours, they will throw you off your pace. Hence, I like to go for marathon races with running buddies who are of the same pace as me, so we can help one another keep pace.
- Some marathon organisers provide pacers — these are usually experienced runners who can accurately hold pace. Follow them if their pace is the same as yours.
- Hold back for at least the first 10 – 21 km; do not get too far ahead of the planned pace. Do not be too pleased if you see yourself 20 minutes ahead of schedule early on in the race — it only spells trouble later on.
- The last 10 or more kilometres is where your race plan is likely to fall apart. To maintain your concentration for the last 10 km, hydrate and refuel along the way, rather than waiting till the last 10 km to do this.
The toughest part of the race is the last 10 km — often, your body will move only at its own pace and will not listen to you when you will it to move faster. Apart from training harder to become fitter, mental strength is critical. It certainly helps to use positive imagery (e.g. visualising yourself successfully crossing the finishing line) and process thinking (using key phrases to focus your mind and body on the task at hand) to keep you on track and focused. For example, to prevent the deterioration of my running form, and hence running economy that occurs with fatigue, I repeat the keyword ‘rebound’ (to remind myself to generate and take advantage of the rebound) to myself and visualise Samuel Wanjiru’s (2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon men’s gold medallist) running style, to get my body to conform to the optimal running gait.
It is natural for negative thoughts to creep into your mind, for example, “Why don’t I just give up?” or, “I hate this!” Displace such thoughts with positive imagery and positive self-talk, such as, “Wow, what a ride!” or “This is what I’ve been waiting for!” Avoid using negative terms during self-talk, such as “Don’t slow down.” Instead, tell yourself, “Keep it up.” Both have the same meaning, but by using the phrase “slow down,” the image is brought up in your mind and you may actually do it, even if it is preceded by the term “don’t.” Here’s an illustration: “Don’t think about how sour a lemon is.” Did the thought of a sour lemon cause you to salivate?
Race cars do it, road bikes do it, and runners can do it too! Runners encounter air resistance as they run, and this expends energy. Air resistance increases with running speed, headwind, and air density (air is denser in colder environments). By running closely behind another runner and using the front runner as a shield, we can save some energy. This is termed drafting.
Drafting is certainly beneficial in race cars and road bikes, but less so in running. The energy saved is thought to be significant only when running above an estimated threshold speed of 18 km/h or in a strong headwind. There is also a beneficial psychological effect — it is mentally easier to ‘hang on’ to the runner in front than to be the breakaway runner. But do weigh the benefits against the disadvantages, such as the risk of running into the runner in front and the feeling of being closed-in when running inside a pack.
To take advantage of the front runner’s slipstream, run directly behind, as close as you can comfortably get. If there the wind is blowing from the side, then run behind and to the downwind side to stay in the person’s wind shadow.
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