An important key to running your best possible marathon performance comes right at the very start of the race. How you pace your first couple of miles can set the tone metabolically for the rest of the race.
Recent scientific studies and analysis suggest that how we pace the first couple of miles in a marathon can play a large role in what rate our body’s burn energy during much of the race.
The following example best illustrates this point:
Scenario 1: Runner Bob starts of his marathon exactly on his goal marathon pace for each of the first 3 miles, and his body settles in to a burn rate of 100 units of energy per mile at that goal pace.
Scenario 2: Runner Bob had gotten a little too excited and caught up in the start, and ran :20 seconds faster than goal pace for the first mile and :10 faster for the second mile before settling into his goal pace starting with the third mile. Runner Bob’s body burned 105 units of energy in that first mile of the race, and 103 units of energy in the second mile, and then when he settled into goal pace in the 3rd mile his body settled into a burn rate of 101 units of energy per mile.
Scenario 3: Runner Bob eases into the race, running his first mile at :20 seconds slower than goal pace and his second mile at :10 seconds slower before settling into his goal pace on his 3rd mile. Runner Bob’s body burned 95 units of energy on that first mile of the race, 97 units in the second mile of the race, and then when he settled into goal pace he was burning just 99 units of energy per mile.
While the energy units in these examples are made up, it is used to illustrate the principle of the findings of the study.
What scenarios 1 and 2 in this example illustrates for us is that by starting slightly quicker than goal pace our bodies get locked into a higher energy burn rate than if we start out right at goal pace.
What scenarios 1 and 3 illustrates for us is that by starting slightly slower than goal pace and easing into it over the first few miles we can actually lock into a slightly lower energy burn rate than if we immediately started at goal pace.
Further what this study suggests is that there is stickiness to energy burn rates. While energy burn rates change with paces and conditions, the correlation between changes in those paces and conditions and energy burn rates is not completely 1 to 1. There is a stickiness to the metabolic system which makes the correlation less than 1:1 so that when conditions/paces change the burn rate has a tendency to stay closer to the previous burn rate than one might originally expect (i.e. in scenario 3 we go to 99 rather than 100 at goal pace).
So how do we use this information to our advantage in our marathon plans? A large part of successful marathon running is about the management of available energy. In order to maximize our efficiency in this area I suggest that, based on this information, we should slightly reduce our warm-ups before the start of the marathon (allowing us to conserve energy) and use the first 2 miles of the marathon to ease into marathon goal pace allowing us to settle into as efficient an energy burn rate as possible at goal race pace. This approach should help us get the biggest bang for our energy buck.
More specifically, I would suggest planning on running the first mile of your race at about 3% slower than goal pace and then about 1% slower the second mile before settling into goal pace with the 3rd mile. For a 6:00 goal pace that means a 6:11 first mile and 6:04 second mile before settling into 6:00 for the 3rd mile.
Our warm-up would therefore be some dynamic stretching/drills and enough light running so that we can start off within 3% of goal pace comfortably. This slightly reduced warm-up will save us energy we can use and will need later in the race. This energy savings, accompanied savings gained by the easing into a lower burn rate during the first 2 miles of the race, will more than allow us to make-up, later in the race, the 15 seconds (or whatever your amount is) we lose at the start.
One additional advantage I find to this starting method is that most people aren’t able to or don’t intend to execute this approach. This means that while you will be slightly behind your pace peers during the first 2 miles, you will spend the majority of the race gaining ground on and passing those people who started too quickly, and the positive psychological benefits of this (as opposed to being passed) can be significant and keep can your spirits high throughout much of the race.
Good luck and happy racing in your fall marathons.