The winner of the 2015 Boston Marathon crossed the finish line of the epic 26.2-mile race in 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 17 seconds, which is a pace of sub-five minute miles — or a pace most of us consider “really, really fast.”
While this kind of speed isn’t exactly attainable for non-elite athletes, it highlights an important question for any wannabe marathoner: What is the ideal pace for a marathon?
There’s no universal answer. Your individual pace should largely be determined by running experience and skill level. Everyone is different, so we shouldn’t all aspire to finish a marathon in the same amount of time.
But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t have goals. Use these tips to find the speed that works for you.
Pick up the Pace: Finding the Right Speed
Marathon training done right begins with having a realistic and attainable goal. But choosing the right pace that corresponds to your abilities and fitness levels can be tricky for any runner. While many runners choose a goal finish time based on what they think is “good” or something their friend did, they are completely missing the opportunity to run at their own pace and challenge themselves.
When it comes to choosing the right pace, the trick is to find a pace you can consistently stick to. Research suggests that faster marathoners tend to run at a more consistent pace compared to slower runners. Think solid, 8-minute miles throughout the race, as compared to starting off with an 8-minute mile and dipping to 11-minute miles towards the finish.
Finding a happy medium is key. Choose a pace that’s too fast, and you’ll burn out too quickly. Pick a speed that’s too slow and you’ll fail to challenge yourself. To find your own personal happy medium, there are several exercises you can do.
The Magic Mile
A favorite of U.S. Olympian and running coach Jeff Galloway, the Magic Mile is a method for calculating a predicted marathon finish time based on a 1-mile time trial. Galloway suggests warming up considerably before running a timed mile as hard as you can (well, without puking!).
To predict an educated goal time for your marathon, just multiply your results by 1.3. That means if you run a 7-minute mile, you can aim to run a 9:01-mile pace during your actual marathon, making your predicted finish time a respectable 3:56:24.
The Magic Mile can be a good indicator of predicted finish times for shorter races, too. Keep that in mind if you are using organized races as part of your training plan. As you continue marathon training, run a Magic Mile every two weeks to gauge progress. You may shave seconds off of your mile time, thus making your predicted finish time faster, too. Don’t get nervous or balk at the idea of a quicker finish! Trust your training and dare to challenge yourself.
Dreamt up by Runner’s World hero Bart Yasso, this workout consisting of back-to-back (to back) half-mile (800 meter) repeats has been used by experts and novices alike to estimate marathon finish times. The theory behind Yasso 800s is that your time in minutes and seconds for a workout of 800-meter repeats times 10 (with a recovery time only as long as it takes to finish each interval), will equate to your predicted marathon time in hours and minutes.
Still don’t get it? Here’s the jist in simpler terms: If you run each of the 800-meter intervals in 3 minutes and 30 seconds (with a 3 minute, 30 second rest in between), then your marathon time will equate to roughly 3 hours and 30 minutes. If you need 4 minutes to run each 800 with a 4-minute rest, then your marathon finish time will be closer to 4 hours. This can be slightly confusing; you can learn more about this workout — and see how it’s worked for others! — at Runner’s World.
Jack Daniels' VDOT Running Calculator
For a super simple system that will crunch numbers for you, the Jack Daniels’ VDOT Running Calculator will quickly calculate the appropriate training paces for various workouts and runs to help you reach your goals. It also provides equivalent race performance times given your finish times, so you’ll have to do your homework (run a timed 5K, 10K, or another shorter race) in order to determine your predicted marathon time. For runners who average a 24-minute 5K finish, the calculator predicts a 3:48:46 marathon time, with an 8-minute, 44-second pace per mile.
Getting to the Finish Line
The Magic Mile, Yasso 800s, and running calculators are all widely accepted and tested marathon finish time predictors, but they aren’t end-all, be-all solutions. These strategies are merely guidelines to help you as you train for your first endurance race. If you find yourself questioning one method’s results, try all three, and track your progress along the way! That way, you can increase (or decrease) your goal time accordingly.
Erin Kelly is a writer, marathoner, and triathlete living in New York City. She can regularly be found running the Williamsburg Bridge with The Rise NYC, or cycling laps of Central Park with the NYC Trihards, New York City's first free triathlon team. When she isn't running, biking, or swimming, Erin enjoys writing and blogging, exploring new media trends, and drinking lots of coffee.