How to optimise your marathon pacing: the 10-10-10 approach

Whether you're chasing a personal best, or simply want to finish strong, getting your marathon pacing right is critical to success.

If you’re a fan of symmetry, or the rule of three (and not afraid to switch between the imperial and metric systems), the 10-10-10 approach might be a good option to help you optimise your marathon pacing.

And if you want to finish with confidence, rather than running headfirst into the dreaded wall and struggling over the line, getting your marathon pacing right is crucial!

If you adopt the 10-10-10 approach, you’ll effectively deconstruct your race into three distinct stages, each with a different marathon pacing target.

The general strategy is this: keep your pace deliberately conservative in the early stages, find your target marathon pace in the middle, and then exceed that pace (and get to racing hard) in the latter stages.

That last part is only possible, in theory, if you’ve managed to stay fresh.

The 10-10-10 approach is not a shortcut. You still have to run 42.2 km. But breaking the race into segments can make that gargantuan distance seem less daunting, and for some runners, it might have a positive psychological effect.

And if you pull it off, you’ll be guaranteed a negative split.

What is the 10-10-10?

The marathon distance isn’t easily divisible by three, so the 10-10-10 approach gets a bit crafty.

The breakdown looks like this: two 10 mile stages, followed by a 10 km stages. Or 10 miles + 10 miles + 10 km.

For those of us who like round numbers, it’s a pretty satisfying breakdown.

(If you’re less fussed about balance, and prefer to think in one mode of measurement, it becomes the 16-16-10 km approach, or the 10-10-6 mile approach.)

It’s important to get your marathon pacing right. Stage one is about warming into the run. Credit: Sporlab/Unsplash

Stage one: the first 10 miles

It’s hard to not go out like a rocket at the start of a road race. We’ve all been there!

There’s so much nervous energy and excitement, and the mass of moving humans can certainly drag you along, Peloton-style — usually much faster than you ever intended to go.

But if the goal is to optimise your marathon pacing, you need to be conscious of your speed from the moment the starting gun fires.

With this particular approach, the objective is to run your first 10 miles slightly slower than your target pace.

Sounds easy, right? Well, it actually takes some serious concentration, discipline, and a whole lot of trust (in yourself and your game plan) to get your marathon pacing right.

With all the training you’ve banked, marathon pace should feel relatively easy, and possibly even slow (at the start of the race). Going deliberately slower will feel strange, especially as you notice other, comparably-skilled runners sprinting ahead of you and out of sight.

If you’re tempted to fly after those runners, in hot pursuit, do so at your own peril. The dividends of the 10-10-10 approach only pay-off in the later stages of the race, when it matters most.

This is where you warm into the run, conserve some energy, allow your body to better re-fuel, and remember you’re in it for the long haul.

Stage one is about patience, and deliberately running slower than target pace. Photo by Mārtiņš Zemlickis on Unsplash

Stage two: the next 10 miles

Congratulations! You’ve successfully passed level one. Your prize? A slight increase in speed.

It’s here, in the middle section of the race, that you want your marathon pacing to align with the pre-race target; the pace you spent months (or at least several weeks) training to hit.

You’ve already run more than a third of the race. It’s not going to feel easy, but if you were disciplined in stage one, it shouldn’t feel terribly hard, either.

Your training has prepared you for this effort. This is the stage where you need to really lock-into a rhythm and focus on maintaining good form, and consistent speed.

And the nice thing about finishing this stage? The last section is significantly shorter.

Stage three: the final 10 km

It’s often said, about the marathon, that the racing doesn’t really begin until about mile 20 (or the last 10 km).

The 10-10-10 approach is designed with this mantra in mind.

Assuming everything else has gone to plan through the first 32 km, you should — in theory — be in a position to run this final stage slightly faster than your goal pace.

In other words, it’s time to kick down and race.

If stage one was about trusting your game plan and being patient; and stage two about trusting your training; this stage is all about trusting your grit, determination and heart.

You may be close to running on fumes, fatigue will have surely kicked-in, your form might even be suffering somewhat, but the finish line is oh so close. The question now is: how badly do you want it?

The nice thing about this stage (hopefully) is the rabbits. Remember those runners who went darting-off in the early stages? You can have fun, and keep yourself mentally locked-in, as you methodically reel them in.

Stage three is about kicking down and racing. Photo by Ben Stern on Unsplash

Practicing this marathon pacing approach

If you’re serious about optimising your marathon pacing on race day, the 10-10-10 approach could be a good choice. But if you want it to work for you, make it a focus in training.

Like anything, it helps to practice. When you’re doing your long runs, consider backloading them — starting easier, and picking-up the pace toward the end.

You can also run some progressive tempos, where you focus on getting incrementally faster over the course of a given workout or run.

The goal is to simulate, not only the increase in speed late, but the discipline it takes to run easy early on.

What will my marathon look like?

If you’ve been following my marathon training, you’ll know I’m targeting a sub-2:20 marathon. I’m hoping that will come later this year, possibly in Melbourne.

In Canberra next month, I’m planning on being slightly more conservative. The goal is to run around 2:23.00.

I’ve been training with the target pace of 3:20/km in my mind. This has been my so-called ‘marathon pace’ in workouts.

I’m not firmly decided on my marathon pacing strategy just yet, but if I employed the 10-10-10 strategy, my pacing might look something like this:

  • Stage one (10 miles/16 km) at 3:25/km (or 17:05 5km pace). That equals 55 minutes.
  • Stage two (10 miles/16 km) at 3:20/km (or 16:40 5km pace). That equals 53:39 minutes.
  • Stage three (10 km/6 miles) at 3:17/km (or 16:25 5km pace). That equals 32:50 minutes.
  • Outcome: a marathon time of approximately 2:22:29 (+ 200 metres).
Like anything, it helps to practice. Try simulating the 10-10-10 approach principles in training. Photo by Fitsum Admasu on Unsplash

The caveats of the approach

Of course, there are some caveats. The approach is best suited to a flat course, where you can accurately predict relative paces.

If you’re running a hilly marathon, you could apply similar principles, but you’d likely need to modify the approach to the elevation profile.

It’s suitability also depends on your goals, your running ability and experience, as well as your appetite for risk.

If you’re planning on running the race of your life, or chasing a massive PB, there’s probably not much room for running conservatively early on.

You can bet Kipchoge didn’t employ this approach during the INEOS 1:59 challenge. He kept his marathon pacing steady as a metronome for the entirety of the race (save for the the final, super-human kilometre, which he sprinted).

There’s less margin for error, but if you’re happy to gamble (and possibly blow-up), more power to you! Maybe you bank time early, manage to hold on, and the outcome is truly special. Or maybe not.

If you do settle on the 10-10-10 method, however, remember three things for each corresponding stage: be patient, trust your training, fight to the finish. Good luck whenever you next line up for the marathon.

Want more? Check out all of RunCreature’s long-form features and interviews.

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