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Marathon Strategy: Pacing, Fueling & More

Developing a marathon strategy might sound like something only the pros need to do, but on the contrary. Just about every runner can benefit from developing a marathon strategy – whether it’s your very first or you’re aiming for a new PR.

What is a marathon strategy?

A marathon strategy is exactly what it sounds – a plan for the marathon. For most runners, it includes a pacing strategy and fueling strategy. All runners can benefit from planning ahead of time when they will consume fuel, how much, and exactly what pace range to aim for during each section of the race.

Some runners even include their pre and post-race plan, as well as their gear and outfit changes throughout the weekend. While most runners already know they’ll be running in their favorite women’s running shoes, not many take the time to plan their outfit down to their socks, shorts and sports bra.

Taking the time to plan out all of the details for race day ahead of time will set you up for success and minimal stress when it arrives.

What is a good marathon strategy?

The most important element of any marathon strategy is that it’s realistic. Breaking down the race mile by mile can provide helpful direction on race day – but if you plan to run a pace that is unrealistically fast, you’ll wind up disappointed and unsure what to do.

Here are some important elements of a good marathon strategy:

  • Includes pre and post-race plans
  • Includes fueling and pacing details
  • Breaks down race either mile by mile, or section by section
  • Is realistic and appropriate based on training
  • Allows extra time for beginning congestion
  • Includes a plan for “hitting the wall

Should I run even splits for a marathon?

It is nearly impossible to run even splits throughout a marathon, regardless of how determined you may be. In most marathons, the first few miles can be quite congested, and attempting to run even splits will likely create extra stress.

In addition, it is inevitable that at some point during a marathon runners will need to stop or slow – whether to tie their shoe, adjust their gear, take a bathroom break, throw away a water cup, or another unpredictable event.

Rather than planning specific splits, aim for goal “ranges” that gradually increase throughout each section of the marathon. Planning some extra wiggle room can reduce a great deal of the pressure and stress.

Why is it a better marathon strategy to start slower?

Nearly every marathon, whether it’s a small, local race or internationally famous course, will be congested at the start. The group of runners all crossing the starting line at the same time will take some time and miles to really spread out.

It’s also important to conserve energy for later in the marathon – particularly during those last 6 miles. Starting out too fast will set runners out to “hit the wall” even sooner and more intensely than if pacing had been conservative.

A gradual start to the marathon provides your body with a better opportunity to absorb fuel and fluid. This creates less stress for the digestive system and more energy on which it can rely later on in the race.

This marathon strategy will help runners conquer 26.2 with confidence by staying fueled and nailing a new PR pace.

Marathon Strategy

Many runners find themselves with a goal finish time or goal pace for the marathon, but are unsure how to break it down to create a strategy for race day. Here is an outline of a marathon strategy that can work for any runner – whether it’s your first marathon or you’re aiming for a new goal.


Prepare all of your gear ahead of time – everything needed for each part of race weekend. Whether you’ll be warming up in one of these women’s tracksuits or using the first few miles as a warm up, laying everything out ahead of time will reduce stress and anxiety for race day.

Here is a list of commonly forgotten items that you’ll want to ensure you have packed.

  • Breakfast
  • Water bottles
  • Headphones
  • Fuel
  • Running watch
  • Sports bra
  • Socks
  • Running shoes
  • Shorts
  • Shirt
  • Warm up outfit or throwaway clothes
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses

Miles 1 – 3

The start of the marathon sets the tone for the rest of the race – start off too fast and you’ll be attempting to recover and get your groove back in the second half. To avoid this, begin with a relaxed, confident effort and set yourself up for success.

Here are some important elements to consider in your marathon pacing and fueling strategy for miles 1-3.

  • Plan for about 10-15 seconds slower per mile than goal pace
  • Avoid the temptation to dart in and out of people to stick to your pace
  • Go with the flow until things spread out and open up
  • The beginning should feel slow and easy
  • Fuel early – take in your first fuel around mile 3

Miles 4 – 13

Once you’re out of the initial congestion from the starting corrals, the rest of the first half will set the tone for the marathon. Now is the time to settle into your goal pace, begin taking in fuel at regular intervals, and find a group or pacer to run with if possible.

  • Here is where you settle into your goal pace
  • Continue to fuel every 30 – 45 minutes, according to what your stomach can handle
  • Drink water or Gatorade at every aid station
  • This is a great time to find a pack of runners or pace group to run with

Miles 13 – 20

The start of the second half of the marathon is often when things start to feel a little harder, both mentally and physically. The goal of this portion of the marathon is to focus on consistency – maintaining the same pacing and fueling intervals. In order to stay consistent, effort will need to increase.

If you’re feeling good and still strong, this is a great time to start to push the pace just by 5 or 10 seconds per mile.

  • Continue running with a group or pacer if possible
  • Aim for goal pace or 5 – 10 seconds faster per mile now
  • Continue fueling every 30 – 45 minutes
  • If struggling with fuel, opt for a sports drink at the aid stations
  • Focus on a mantra or positive self-talk
  • Effort will need to increase to maintain the same pace

Miles 20 – 26.2

It is said that the actual marathon takes place during the last 10k, and just about every marathoner will agree with this. This is without a doubt the toughest section of the race, both mentally and physically. Mental strength is just as critical here than physical.

Continue to take in fuel, even though the end is sight. Hydration is even more important during the final 10k, as dehydration can start to set in from the first 20 miles. If the marathon strategy has been followed correctly and conditions are appropriate, this is the time to push the pace by 10 – 15 seconds per mile.

  • If possible, push the pace by 10 – 15 seconds per mile
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
  • Don’t give up on fuel just because the end is in sight
  • Remember your why and recite your mantra

Marathon Pace Strategy

Once you’ve set a goal finish time, you’ll be able to break down each mile into an estimated goal pace. However, running even splits throughout a marathon is difficult – and often not realistic. This pacing strategy shows how goal pace can change slightly throughout the marathon.

  • Miles 1 – 3: 10 – 15 seconds slower per mile than goal pace
  • Miles 4 – 13: At goal pace
  • Miles 13 – 20: 5 – 10 seconds faster per mile than goal pace
  • Miles 20 – 26.2: 10 – 15 seconds faster per mile than goal pace

Marathon Pace Charts

These marathon pace charts take all the math out of determining your goal pace! Simply search for your finish time goal and you’ll see a breakdown of each mile split for the course of the marathon.

>> Find your marathon pace & mile splits here!

Download these running pace charts for free to guide you on race day and during training. Find mile splits and finish times for 5k, 10k, half marathon and marathon distances at all running paces. Plus an interval and treadmill pace chart! #runningpacecharts #runningpace #runningtraining

Having something like this available on race day can help stay on track and adjust your pace as needed to make sure you hit your goals.

While a marathon strategy looks different for each individual runner, having a plan for every section of the marathon is critical. Taking the time to plan your strategy for race day ahead of time will set you up for success at the finish line!

More tips for a marathon strategy: