Marathon Test Set
If you think it’s tricky to figure out how fast to take out your 200 Breast, try figuring out how fast to run the first mile of your next marathon! Sheesh. If you miscalculate your pace for a 200 Breast, the worst that can happen is you die on the final 25 or 50 from too much lactic acid in your bloodstream. You’ll have 45 to 60 seconds of PAIN, but you’ll probably be able to finish the race. And you’ll be able to race again fairly quickly.
In a marathon, however, the stakes are different. You need to run at a pace that you can sustain for 26.2 miles, and for anywhere from 2 hours (world-class males) to 3 or more hours (the rest of us). If you miscalculate, and run your first few miles at too fast a pace, you can die (hit the wall) at 6 or 10 miles. If that happens, you’re facing HOURS of pain, and you may not be able to finish the race. You’ll have blown MONTHS of grueling training. And, because marathons are so exhausting and marathon training is what it is, you may not be able to race again for several months or even a year.
In swimming, we all know that it’s fairly easy to swim your race — in practice — several times before the ACTUAL race. You can hone your sense of pace for the 200 by doing time trials in practice, or perhaps broken 200s (see Test Set #3). Now imagine doing this for the marathon. No way! If you ran a "practice" marathon once or twice before your actual race, you’d never make it to the starting line. So, marathon runners have had to figure out other ways to pre-determine the pace they’re capable of sustaining in an actual race — WITHOUT doing the actual race.
Here’s a Marathon Test Set that has worked for countless runners, and that has worked for me in the ten or so marathons that I’ve run. For this set to be a good predictor of your marathon pace, it’s important that you already have a solid marathon-training base. That means you should be up to around 13 or 15 miles on your long runs. I usually did the set twice before a marathon — the first time around 6 weeks before the race; the next time about 3 weeks before the race (just at the beginning of taper). You can do the set on a measured track, but I always liked to do it on a measured loop so that I encountered some hills.
The set is nine half-mile efforts, with a 200-yard walk/jog recovery between each half. Record your time on each of the efforts (that’s what your fancy wristwatch is for). It’s important to keep moving throughout the entire set, so DON’T STOP after the recoveries; just go right into the next half-mile effort. You want to run at a pace that you think you can sustain for all nine of the efforts. That is, you want your time on each half mile to be about the same. You will probably be running at a pace that is FASTER than your marathon pace. That’s OK. The test is to find your sustainable pace on these nine half-mile efforts.
After you finish the test, you’ll have a list of 9 times that might look something like
Take the average time (3 minutes and 23 seconds) and this is approximately the time (IN HOURS) that you’ll see on the finish clock at the end of your marathon. Believe it or not, this works.
Now, to calculate the pace that you should be able to maintain in your marathon, convert 3 hours 23 minutes into minutes (203). Then divide 203 minutes by 26.2 miles (7.75 minutes or 7:45). So, 7:45 is the pace that you can hope to sustain for your marathon, assuming the weather isn’t extreme and you are smart in managing your fluids and nutrition.
All test sets are approximate, but this one is a pretty good predictor. It can take a lot of the guesswork and anxiety out of your race preparation. When you try it, don’t forget to GO SWIM the next day!