Six Long Course Marathon Secrets Revealed

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iron man triathlon 2011

The phrase “racing Ironman” is essentially an oxymoron. Within any given Ironman, there are maybe fifty athletes who will be racing to the peak of their fitness. There are another 250-ish athletes who think that they are racing, but they will most likely end up with a slower-than-desired finish.

The rest of us? Well, we are focused on getting to the finish line as fast as we possibly can.

One hundred and forty point six miles has a way of filtering out the best within the field of competition, but also within each individual. Having a great Ironman® is less about what you bring to the table in terms of your fitness, and more what you do with that fitness on race day.

Years of coaching and racing Ironman® has taught me that the race really comes down to the marathon. And running the Ironman® marathon, 26.2 miles after having swam 2.4 miles and biked 112 miles, is an execution problem first, a fitness problem a distant second. That is to say, no amount of fitness can overcome a poor race execution strategy.

With that in mind, we like to share with you our six Ironman® marathon race execution secrets, helping you to “out execute” your competition and your not-so-smart self.


It’s Not About Pace, It’s About Not Slowing Down

It’s easy to get caught up in planning your race out long before the gun goes off. You tell your family when they can expect to see you based on what you think your paces will be…but odds are you won’t be there when you said. That’s because race day pacing has very little to do with that one great run you had six weeks ago and are basing your entire performance upon.

Instead, a great Ironman® marathon is simply about not slowing down. If you look at the detailed results of any Ironman® event, you’ll see that the splits for the majority of the field over the second half of the race are significantly slower than the first half. Usually a minute or more slower per mile.

Your goal when racing isn’t to find new speed, but to find a sustainable speed that you can hold across your entire day while the competition takes off too fast…and then blows up as you run steadily by.

Incorporate Walking as a Strategy, Not as Failure

If anyone tells you that they aren’t going to walk a single step in an Ironman® they are either Criag Alexander (so fit!) or a total newbie (so unaware!).  Based on our experience coaching thousands of Ironman® finishers through Endurance Nation, we have learned that walking is actually an important part of your overall strategy.

We encourage our athletes to walk 30-45 steps at every single aid station, which is roughly once a mile. This will allow you to get your nutrition in, assess your current status, drop your heart rate and refocus on the next mile. In this manner, walking at an aid station becomes your reward for running between aid stations. We give you a hard number like 30 so you can’t fudge it and sneak in extra walking…30-45 steps and get back to work!

Six Miles of Conservative Pacing Is the Key to a Strong Finish

In 2008 we had over twenty Endurance Nation athletes, from 10-hour to 15-hour finishers, wear their GPS units on the run and report back their data. From this grand experiment we learned two things. First, that every single person ran too fast in the first six miles of the day relative to their overall run performance. Second, that the athletes closest to an overall equal split actually performed the best within their respective age group.

In other words, if you want to have a great race, your job is to focus on slowing down over the first six miles. We recommend you aim for a target pace of approximately 30″ slower per mile for these first six miles. After that point, you can bump it up to your target run pace and go from there. Since 2008 thousands of Endurance Nation athletes have applied this 30 second per mile strategy to dozens of Ironman® PR marathons. It works! Just give us three minutes (30 seconds x 6 miles) and we’ll make your day. Your last 10k will thank us for sure!

Have Three Physical Running Cues for Your Day

Since our goal is to not slow down, a huge part of that “steady” running lies in maintaining proper form.

Good form requires less effort to move down the road; how many of you have watch an Ironman® only to see some of the fittest people you can imagine doubled over at the waist or leaning terribly to one side?

Instead of following a pace into a brick wall, identify three running form cues that will allow you to maintain good form and proper pace. My personal favorites are Chin Up to promote good posture; Elbows Back to keep my stride open and Loose Fingers to reduce tension in hands, arms, shoulders and the neck area.

Build A Repeatable Nutrition Schedule by Mile Marker

Having a food plan is better than not having one. Just because there’s a ton of free food on the course doesn’t mean that your body will be able to process it all. Instead of relying on a plan based on time (i.e., a gel every 30 minutes) build these into the existing support structure on the course.

Since aid stations on the run are located about every mile, use your calculator to do some fancy math. If you plan on running 8:00/miles and you need a gel around 30 minutes, then you are eating at miles 4, 8, 12, and so on. You can then fill in the other miles with water and sports drink.

This four-mile routine is not only infinitely repeatable on your day, it’s easy to remember and execute…both of which are critical components of success on your IM race day.

Be Equal Parts Mentally and Physically Ready

Fitness alone won’t get you across the full 140.6 miles. In fact, the reason why we pick such a compelling event as the ironman is precisely because we want to push our bodies to the point where we are truly tested.

While many Ironman® competitors have hit the “wall” when running a stand alone marathon, that struggle pales in comparison to what happens at the end of the Ironman. With your body pushed beyond its limits, running on fumes of gels and sports drink, you have to find a way to will yourself to the finishline despite the pain and/or discomfort you are experiencing.

It is precisely at this point that the mental component of your race day toolkit becomes so important. Given the strength of the argument you can expect your body will have with your head, you must set the terms of this conversation early. Prepare your notes, burn it into your subconscious. Know that your body will try to sneak up on you. It’ll throw a cramp at you; it might even make you see crazy visions or disrupt your ability to do math.

Whatever the challenge, that your top goal is to continue making forward progress; this momentum is your best friend and one of the most important elements towards creating a great Ironman® marathon experience.

What else do you have to add about the IM marathon, please add it in the comments below!!!

photo credit: koadmunkee



Coach P

All stories by: Coach P
  • Paul Mooter

    I would also add that you need to be flexible in your plan.  Don't be so focused that you put off dealing with something that appears to be a small issue at mile 3 only to have it turn into a huge issue at mile 20.  Take the 1 or 2 minutes it might require to fix that nagging sock, blister, or pain in the side then get back to work. Love your stuff, Thanks for sharing!

  • guest

    Great Article!  Regarding a food plan, don't force it and be willing to deviate from your plan.  Unless a really seasoned IM racer it's usually a crap shoot (hopefully not literally!).  If you're not processing the gels, switch to something different.  I find the number of calories consumed is more important than where they come from.  However be mindful,  if you're only eating solid foods early in the run, that could leave you full and unable to take in more in the end when it really counts.

  • Al Truscott

    Regarding points # 1, 3, & 6 – another way to think about “not slowing down” and maintaining mental focus while those around you are clearly suffering: “Success in the IM marathon is not about doing what others can't, but about doing what others won't.” Another phrase I like, regarding points # 1, 3, & 5: “Pay attention to your nutrition and pace, and your time and place will take care of themselves.”

  • Rich Strauss

    Miles 0-6 = easy pace + 30″ per mile. Miles 6-18: run comfortably, steady, getting what you need at the aid station, use walking aid stations as a reward for running between aid stations. You are NOT racing, you're NOT trying to make anything happen…you're just running, playing defense, taking care of your body and keeping your head in reserve for… Mile 18-22: it will become exponentially harder, your focus is to just not slow down. Only now do you have permission to “make things happen,” playing offense. Count people that you pass, develop a sense of urgency and in general maintain forward momentum…running…as much as you can at all costs. Miles 22-24: if you didn't hit a rough patch at 18, you'll get it here. Expect it. Tell yourself things like “it hurts to walk, it hurts the run, but it only stops hurting at the finishline. The more I run the sooner it stops hurting so…RUN!!” Mile 24-26: look at the gas tank, see what you have left, and ration in out so that the last running step you're able to take is the one that breaks the tape. As Al Truscott said below (btw, M60-65 AG winner at IMAZx2 and IMCDA (x2?) = he knows his stuff!), most athletes have an additional 5-10' run PR as a function of what they are willing/not willing to do to themselves in the last 8 miles.

  • Mike Aldrich

    I followed your simple strategy at CdA this year and it worked like a charm.  My only thought was, “I want to feel like Chrissy looks”.  That meant that if I couldn't smile or talk, I was going too fast.  I finished 45 minutes faster than my goal and was back at work 3 days later, working 3 – 12 hour days in a row.  Thanks!

  • Jimsims99

    I followed this plan at AZ this year to an age group win (67). My first 6 miles I thought I was running easy, but they were still my fastest by a minute. I walked at each aid station long enough to drink and discard the paper cup, otherwise I was always running. Holding back the first 6 set me up great for the last 20. It really helps motivation to pass so many young buff people in the last 8 miles. (my time: 13:18).

  • Astroross

    I started my run feeling great ( but was expecting that to change), i covered the first 2 miles quickly, taking in the course, as I didn’t know the run. It was exciting as I had just been surprised by my family at the end of the bike (I wasn’t expecting to see them until the end of the run, well that was the plan) so I was on a bit of a high.

    The run course headed away from transition and away from my family, I was sad that I wouldn’t see them or talk to them as you don’t really talk when surprised and finishing the bike fast.

    I was hopeful as the run course turned back that I might see them, and sure enough I did, 3 times! The run course at Ironman Melbourne was great in that it looped around so family and friends could see you more than once at the start of the run.

    After that I ran how I felt, trying to hold a comfortable pace. Running with other at the same pace until I felt it was too fast. I would pull back, I knew it could be a long day but the idea was to hold something back for later. I kept doing this and toward the 20mile mark started to see a few of the earlier runners that had gone out faster and were slowing down.

    After mile 17 was in the books, I was relieved that was where my leg failed me in my previous Ironman. So as I approached and passed that ‘number’ I was happy to run on and start to tap into the reserves. The final 5 miles I was pushing a high pace (which was about the same pace as earlier but now it felt fast) and I started to pass people, not just 1 or 2 but a person or two every few mins and I felt good. I started to chase down the runners in front of me.

    I received comments about my speed, my form, and my effort – this just propelled me to try harder and run faster. I almost wish the run was longer as I was on fire. But I crossed the finish line feeling good, with a massive 2 hour improvement from my only other Ironman 18 months earlier.

    I agree that it’s important to have a plan, to learn the plan but to be ready to adapt. In the race it can be an emotional struggle some times more than a physical one. Stay strong, look long, and ‘race’ your race.

    • patrick

      Congrats on your PR and on making the adjustments that made a big difference for you…sounds like you’ll really dominate your next race now that you can EXECUTE!! 🙂 Enjoy the recovery.

  • WannabeIronman

    This is a really useful article. I am right at the start of my IM training (39 year old bloke from the UK) and have given myself two years to get ready for IM Austria – I think I need to after 20 years of not moving much.

    Rest assured this will be bookmarked for future reference!

    Thanks for sharing.

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