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Race Strategy: How To Pace A Marathon

Amanda Wendorff

Once you've signed up for a marathon and done the necessary training, the next thing to consider is how to execute on race day. Knowing how to pace a marathon can make the difference between a celebratory finish- knowing you've fulfilled your potential- and a painful slog just to finish.

In this article, we'll discuss various race strategies for a marathon and help you find your best approach to run your fastest marathon time. Specifically, this article will answer these questions:

  • What's the best pacing strategy for the marathon?
  • What should your marathon pace be?
  • What are common mistakes made with pacing in a marathon race?
  • What does marathon race pace feel like?
  • What should your heart rate be in a marathon running race?
MOTTIV app user CG Low running a slow pace as he completes a Zone 2 long run in training prep for his next race, in Singapore!

Pacing Strategies for a Marathon Run

There are generally three approaches to pacing a marathon run:

  • Running the second half faster than the first half (negative splitting).
  • Running the same pace throughout the race (even splits).
  • Starting fast and hanging on (the "Hold on for Dear Life" or positive split approach).

We'll discuss each of these strategies below.

Negative Split: Running Slower the First Half Than The Second

Negative splitting means pacing so that the second half of the race is faster than the first half.

For example, a marathon runner may negative split a four-hour half marathon by running the first half (21 kilometers, or 13.1 miles) in two hours and 5 minutes and the second half in 1 hour and 55 minutes.

The negative split is an advanced technique, and many elite runners have used this strategy to set personal bests and records. For example, at the Chicago Marathon in 2022, Emily Sisson negative split the marathon to finish in 2 hours, 18 minutes, and 29 seconds, setting the United States national record.

For more novice runners, negative splitting can be difficult. To execute it well, you need to have a clear pacing plan and expectations of how you can finish. Creating and executing this plan requires a few skills that new runners need time to develop:

  • Great discipline: It can be very difficult to keep an easier pace at the beginning of the race when adrenaline is high.
  • Sense of pace: While GPS watches can help, a good negative split race requires a runner to have a great internal sense of how fast they are running, especially in the first half of the race. You can use your long runs to practice this, but the more experience, the better.
  • Dialed-in race pace: While many elite runners can accurately predict precisely how fast they'll be able to run in a race based on years of training data, beginner runners often need time to determine their running capabilities.

Even Splits

An even split pacing plan is similar to a negative split race plan, except that instead of getting faster as the race progresses, you hold the same pace throughout. For example, a runner aiming to finish a marathon in four hours should run as close to 9 minutes and 10 seconds per mile (or 5 minutes, 42 seconds per kilometer) as possible.

Like a negative split plan, an even pace requires discipline to lock into your goal pace, an excellent internal sense of pace, and knowledge of your abilities.

The "Hold On for Dear Life" / Positive Split Plan

Finally, the "Hold On for Dear Life" / positive split marathon race strategy is the most common (but ill-advised) approach for new runners.

In this approach, you run fairly hard from the start of the race and then dig deep to hold your pace later in the race.

The positive split plan can be a good pacing strategy at the right time, but it is high risk/high reward. If you start hard when the gun goes and can maintain your pace or limit the decrease in speed, you may be rewarded with a personal best or a finish time that exceeds your expectations. However, if you go out too fast, you may blow up early and struggle with the remainder of the race.

What's the Best Marathon Pacing Strategy?

Studies have shown that for most runners, the best marathon race strategy, leading to the fastest race times, is to execute either an even split or a slight positive split (where the second half is just a bit slower than the first half).

With this approach, you'll need a good sense of your anticipated race pace. To figure out what pace you should aim for in a marathon, consider the paces you've held comfortably in marathon training during some of the more race-specific workouts in your training plan. For example, if you can complete a workout that includes 10 miles of running at a 9-minute-per-mile pace, aiming for a 9-minute mile run pace over 26.2 miles would be reasonable.

Once you have a marathon goal time in mind, you can use our pace calculator to determine your race pace:

Alternatively, if you've recently completed a 5k, 10k, or half marathon race, you can use the same calculator to estimate an equivalent marathon pace.

Once you've determined a goal race pace, aim to run the first few miles of the race just a bit slower than your goal pace, at a very relaxed effort. After the first 3 or 4 miles (or 5 to 6 kilometers), try to settle into your goal pace.

For example, if your goal race pace is 9 minutes per mile (5 minutes, 35 seconds per kilometer), aim to start at that pace just slightly slower (like 9:05 per mile or 5:40 per kilometer). After a few miles, then increase the pace to your goal marathon pace.

If you get to the halfway point of the marathon and are feeling good, try to run faster by a few seconds per mile.

Common Mistakes Runners Make in Pacing a Marathon

Starting Too Fast

By far, the most common pacing mistake many runners (including experienced runners) make is starting the marathon too hard.

Starting a marathon too fast can often lead to a challenging second half of the race, a phenomenon commonly known as "hitting the wall." When you begin the race at a pace that's faster than what you've trained for, your body burns through its stored energy, primarily carbohydrates, much quicker than intended.

As these energy stores deplete, your muscles receive less fuel, and you might experience a significant drop in both energy and pace. This often leads to increased muscle fatigue, cramps, and sometimes even dizziness or disorientation, making the remaining miles much more difficult than if the race had been paced evenly from the start.

To avoid this outcome, it's always a good idea to hold back a bit at the beginning of the race. A good way to think of a marathon is to break it into three segments:

  • Start through Mile 6 (or Start to Kilometer 10): Hold back a bit, gradually building effort, getting warmed up, and finding a good rhythm. This part of the race should feel very comfortable, with controlled breathing and little strain. You should be confident that you can increase your pace and, in fact, feel like you are actively holding back. Relax, take in a gel or some sports drink, and prepare for the later miles.
  • Mile 6 to Mile 20 (or Kilometer 10-32): Hold your race pace. You should be running at a steady pace and finding a rhythm but still feeling under control.
  • Mile 20 (or Kilometer 32) to finish / Mile 26.2: Increase the effort again, really digging in to stay strong. The last 6 miles (or 10 kilometers) will feel tough - that's part of the game when running a marathon! Lean into your training, maintain good running form, focus on turning the legs over quickly, and power all the way through the last mile.

Starting Too Slow

A less common pacing mistake is starting too slow. This may happen if you're faster than you thought, nervous about the distance, or just got caught up in crowds of slower runners.

If you start a marathon too slow, you may finish wondering if you could have had a faster time. No worries! Find another marathon to enter, and see if you can start the race a touch faster and still finish strong.

The best way to avoid the pacing error of starting too slow is to know and trust your abilities before the race. Incorporate plenty of training runs that include miles at your target pace. By the time you get to a race, you should have practiced your race pace so often that it feels almost automatic.

What Does Marathon Pace Feel Like?

There's no way to sugarcoat it: marathons, done right, will be painful at the end! But up until the last six miles, they should be "comfortably uncomfortable."

For a marathon, you should run at a controlled pace, gradually building your effort as you go.

More specifically, a  marathon effort should:

  • Feel very easy for the first 6 miles (or 10k), like you're holding back.
  • Be a moderate but controlled effort for the next 14 miles (or 22k). The effort should feel like a slow burn, gradually getting tougher but always in control.
  • Be difficult for the last 10k, or 6 miles, as your muscles burn and you work through your glycogen stores. Hang tough!

What Should Your Heart Rate Be During a Marathon?

If you watch your heart rate during a marathon race, you should see it rise gradually early in the race. Once you reach about 30 minutes into the race, your heart rate should settle mostly in low Zone 3. In the last few miles, you'll likely see your heart rate rise to within ten to fifteen beats of your maximum heart rate.


A marathon is a challenging endeavor, no doubt. But if you nail the pacing, you'll be able to finish knowing that you maximized your potential. That's a great way to feel on race day!

In this article, we discussed:

  • A few different pacing approaches
  • The smartest pacing strategy for most amateur runners: starting at or a bit slower than your goal pace and holding on
  • How to find your race goal marathon pace
  • Some of the most common marathon pacing errors
  • What your heart rate should be during a marathon as the race goes on

Before lining up for your first marathon, it's a great idea to sit down and plan out your race. Then, use your discipline, experience, and technology to follow that plan. Trust us, there's nothing better than crossing a marathon finish line knowing you executed the race to the best of your ability! If you need help with a training plan that's personalized to your fitness and goals, check out our app!

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Amanda Wendorff

| Author

Amanda Wendorff is a professional triathlete, focusing on the 70.3 and 140.6 Ironman distances. In the last several years she’s competed in multiple gravel bike races. Top Achievements: Top 3 Ironman Ireland and Ironman 70.3 Coquimbo, Multiple time top-5 finisher, 3rd Overall at Moran 166 Gravel Race in Michigan, Age group podium at Gravel Worlds, Big Sugar, and Ned Gravel in first year of gravel racing.

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