Last week I wrote about how to prepare for, run, and recover from your marathon. This week I would like to write a few articles that focuses a little more upon decisions that you need to make about your marathon.

One decision that you need to make is what sort of strategy you are going to use to attack your race. Deciding how to run your race will determine how you train for your marathon. There is also the small matter of following your strategy and not adopting a different strategy on race day. You will find that your results will not always be what you expected when you train to run your marathon using one strategy but then change that strategy on race day.

So without further introduction, here are 9 ways to run a marathon:

  1. Just try to finish: The first strategy that I ever hear people using is that they just want to finish. In my opinion, this is one of the worst strategies that you can adopt. It does not really say anything about how you plan on racing, because you really do not have a plan. You just want to go out there and see what happens and try to cross the line. You do not have anything to actually shoot for, so other than a pass/fail attempt, you can not grade yourself on your experience. I prefer to have some numbers that I can work with and improve upon. It may work for some people, but in my experience it is just going to lead to your putting yourself in more pain than you have to, and it can quite easily turn into the second race strategy just below.
  2. Drop out when you hit the wall: This is not really a viable strategy, but I do know a few people that have used it on more than one occasion. It is especially prevelant amongst people that are just trying to finish. If you are hurt or injured, or have some sort of illness such as dehydration or heat stroke, then you should always stop running and visit the nearest aid station. A marathon is rarely worth dying over. However, if you are only hurting, then you should keep going. It takes a lot less time and effort to get yourself through a marathon than it does to train yourself to never hit the wall. Working through it is what makes the marathon such an achievement for so many people. If you drop out every time you hit it, then you are going to be very disappointed in yourself.
  3. Mix walking and running: The next step up and a very viable solution for running your first marathon is to mix running with walking. This strategy may range from having you run a mile, walk a mile to run 9 minutes and walk 1 minute. The important thing is to have a plan for what you want to do. I recommend against starting the run/walk alternation until you are half way through the race, however. You are much better off deciding how you will want to tackle the marathon, to train using that method, and to then follow it through your entire race. Your legs will thank you for it. Especially in your first few marathons, you will probably use this method towards the end of your race after you hit the wall. It can get you to the finish line, but waiting until the latter stages of the race to start walking can make the wall that much worse when you do start running again.
  4. Pace off of others: A very effective strategy can be to let somebody else do the work for you. Pacing off of people that are faster than you or that have more experience or that have a better sense of pace can make it much easier to finish your marathon. If it is somebody that you know, then having the social pressure to do well will go a long way towards keeping your legs moving and your arms pumping. If you are just following a stranger, then you can still take advantage of letting them break the wind for you so that you physically have less work to do. Be aware, however, that it is rude to let somebody else do all of the work over a long distance. If they notice, they may get a little upset with you. You will want to be very careful not to pace off of somebody that is too fast or too slow. You still want to run within the bounds of what your training has prepared you for.
  5. Run at a set pace: The easiest way to figure out what pace you should run at is to just decide on a finishing time that you would like to achieve. Once you have the finishing time, you can calculate what your average pace per mile needs to be. You can make yourself a wrist band with each split to help remind yourself while you are running, or else use a sports watch with a lap timer that will let you know how long you have been running for each mile. If you run a mile too fast or too slow, you will be able to make adjustments if you know what pace you are supposed to be running at. That way you will not run at the wrong pace for as long of a stretch, which can really hurt your race performance.
  6. Run positive splits: A related strategy to running a set pace is to recognize that you will probably slow down as you get tired and as your body breaks down near the end of the race. You can then decide what pace you want to run near the beginning of the race, and what pace you will want to slow down to as you get further along. Treating the race as two half marathons and using a set pace for each half makes this easy, although you can also set a range and then try to be near the bottom end early on and stay within the top end as you get tired. Chances are pretty good that if you plan on running at a set pace that you are going to end up running positive splits anyway. If you plan ahead, it might not take you so by surprise.
  7. Run negative splits: Negative splits are the oppositive of positive splits, not surprisingly. You run the early parts of the race at a pace slower than what will get you to your goal time, and then pick up speed as you run the latter stages of the race. This is the strategy that you will find most of the more competitive amateurs using. I usually find myself using this strategy or one of the next two strategies for everything from a 5k up to my marathon. I do not always succeed in running the negative splits that I want, but I usually have pretty good times even if the splits come out even or in the positive direction. The important part of this strategy is being realistic and sticking to your early pace. If you run too fast early on, or you have unrealistic expectations about how fast you can run when you are tired, then you are not going to be able to run negative splits successfully.
  8. Planned splits by distance: Very closely related to running even, positive, or negative splits is planning your splits throughout the race. In fact, those are actually just simplified versions of this strategy. This could be broken up by any distance; for a marathon, you might want to plan what pace you want to run at for each mile split, or for each 5k split, or for each half split. By planning your splits a little more closely, you can account for different factors you expect to encounter on the race and you can tailor your training to mimic what your race plan is so that you will have an idea of what to expect. Having a race strategy like this for every race will leave you very confident on the starting line, because you will have spent a lot of time planning everything out and mentally preparing for the race. Having confidence that you can accomplish what you set out to do is a very large part of racing well, especially in a long race such as the marathon.
  9. Planned splits by course: This is probably the most effective strategy that you can adopt without merging different strategies together. If you know the course well enough to plan how fast you want to run each of your splits, you will be just as confident if not more than if you just planned it based on the distance. As long as your knowledge of the course is accurate, you will also have a more realistic pace that can not be skewed by things like large starting crowds or steep hills. You should consider the course elevation of each split, how many people you expect to have running with you and around you at any given time, where water stops and other aid stations are, where traffic is likely to pose a problem, and even how much crowd support you might have at any given point. These factors can all have an affect on how fast or how slow you run, and it helps to anticipate everything that can influence your race. Just be careful not to get distracted by anything that you did not anticipate.

It is not at all uncommon to go into a marathon with one of these strategies, and to even be following through on it, only to realize late in the race or afterwards that your strategy has turned into a different one. Accept it when it happens, and try to still perform to the best of your abilities.

Mixing and matching strategies when you go into the race can also be very effective. Most elite athletes will plan their strategy from the start of the race to the finish, taking into account the course and other environmental factors, but also their competitors. The mark of a great runner is somebody that can deviate from their plan based on the people they are racing and still come out with a solid performance. For most of us, the closest we will get is if we have a friendly rivalry with somebody we know or somebody that we meet along the way.

What is your favorite race strategy? I hope it is not collecting DNFs. Do you have any strategies that you would like to add to this list?