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Boston Marathon Strategy

03 March

The Boston Marathon is considered by most runners to be the crown jewel in the US marathon circuit. There are certainly bigger, faster, and more scenic races on the calendar, but none test the physical and mental mettle of a marathoner like Boston. If you are fortunate enough to qualify, then you have to prepare for another high-quality effort during the winter months — no small task. But preparation and fitness aside, you can still have a great day in Boston if you execute your race well.

What Is Race Execution?
Race execution is the understanding that, while each of us may have our own strategy on race day, there is a generally accepted way of running that will create the conditions for your success. It’s a framework, a starting point. Whether or not you achieve your goals is then a function of your personal strategy, your fitness, how you handle race day challenges, etc. As experienced marathoners can attest, there’s a right way and a wrong way to run on marathon race day. Here’s how we break it down inside Marathon Nation:

Train To Race — From day one in our training, we are focused on what we will ask our bodies to do on race day. There are no junk miles, there are no recovery workouts. We run with intent to build the requisite fitness to achieve our best on race day.

While your training is almost all done, take a moment to reflect on those critical workouts you have banked. The long run with the tempo finish; that breakthrough track workout, the hill workout where you were flying. Each of these are an essential part of your race day mental and physical preparation.

Run to the Line — The line (Aka the “wall”) is the part of your race day where your body begins to push back. In general this happens between miles 18 and 22 on race day, depending on the course, your pacing, your fitness, etc. Of course, most runners go out fast putting time in to “the bank” for when they slow down — I am here to tell you there is no such bank, and that time you saved will mostly likely be nowhere near sufficient to staunch the bleeding at the end of your day.

Until you hit the “line” you aren’t racing, you are running. You ignore the other runners and do your best to flatten out the course through smart pacing. Nutritionally you are fueling in anticipation of the last 8 miles.

Race to the Finish — The last 8 miles on race day are were dreams are made (or broken). Inside Marathon Nation we don’t dread the end of the race; it’s where our day begins. If you have paced yourself properly, you’ll just be starting to pick up the pace as everyone around you is slowing down. This is not only a judicious application of your fitness, it’s a powerful mental strategy that helps you stay focused just as your body is trying to check out.

A Delayed Start & Nutrition
While everyone thinks about the hills of Newton, few actually consider the logistical hurdles of race day and how that will impact their ability to race well. The Boston Marathon is a point-to-point affair, requiring an early morning transfer via school bus (yes, the big yellow ones). Depending on your wave start, you could be boarding buses as early as 6am for a 10:00am start. That means a 4am wake up call for a 10am start time…or six full hours between the time you wake up and eat breakfast and then start running.

The Solution:
* Eat A Solid Breakfast — You have a full 6 hours until the race starts, so don’t hold back on breakfast. Be too conservative here and you could find yourself quite hungry very close to race start with minimal food options. I suggest a regular breakfast, with coffee if that’s your thing, somewhere between 500-750 calories.

* Bring A Second Breakfast — Something simple, like a bagel or an apple with some peanut butter. Chances are you’ll get a little hungry while you are out there, better to be prepared!

* Stay Hydrated — Have sports drink and water to sip while you are in the Village. Sports drink up until an hour before is okay, then switch over to very light sips of water. Depending on your nutritional situation, you may choose to have one last gel about 15 minutes prior to race start (with water!) to top off your glycogen.

* Stay Occupied — It’s a long trip out to Hopkinton and you’ll have time in the Village. I suggest bringing some music and something to read or do while you are there. Last thing you want to do is be wandering aimlessly for a few hours before you need to be running.

* Warm Up Well — About an hour before race start you want to begin thinking about your day. How you want to execute, how you will handle any challenges / issues / the weather. About 40 minutes before you’ll want to start jogging; this could be as simple as running your bag down to the drop off point. Then include about 15 to 20 minutes of nice marathon pace running with a few pick ups at 10k pace. Stretch as needed, then seed yourself.

The Boston Marathon Elevation Dynamic
Part of what sets Boston apart from other marathons is the one-two punch of a net downhill for the first 16 miles and then the hills of Newton. What this means is that the halfway point in Wellesley (just after those screaming co-eds), almost everyone is beaming with PR potential after checking their watches. But look more closely at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, only 6 miles later, and those smiles will have turned to grimaces.

The Solution:
* Focus on Your Cadence — A nice high cadence, or quick turnover, will allow you to keep some speed without pounding your quads. Somewhere between 90-94 foot strikes per minute should be more than adequate; this could require some testing in your training to see how it feels.

* Run the First Six Miles Conservatively — As the race execution section above notes, there’s nothing really to be gained by putting time in the bank here in Boston. The hills of Newton and the under-rated rolling terrain of Brookline will make you pay dearly. Instead, take the first six miles to run a slightly slower than goal pace effort; approximately 10 to 15 seconds slower. Take the immediate pressure off yourself and take in the sights. You have twenty miles to make up the minute you have lost, but you’ll never get the chance to “cruise” again.

* Baby Steps — By the time the hills arrive, you’ll be ready to just dominate them…but you can’t. Remember the transition your legs have to make from running down to up, and help them out by keeping your stride compact and “spinning” your way up the hills. Do your best to maintain a steady effort, letting the pace drop a bit as you can make it up on the other side. If you force the issue too early, you could pay dearly when you need it most: the last 5.2 miles from the top of Heartbreak Hill to the finish line.

When To Make Your Move
With the basic Marathon Race Execution framework in mind, you have to evaluate how you want to approach your own personal race day. Many of the runners had to set a personal best just to earn the right to race Boston, and it’s only human nature to want to do better. Yet Boston has a history of chewing up the ambitions of all but the fittest of runners; so where can you realistically make something happen on the big day? Here are some basic tips based on ability level:

Beginner @ Top of Heartbreak (Mile 21) — Whether you are a beginner athlete or just a first-timer in Boston, there’s no point in trying to dominate the race from the start. You only get one shot to run Boston for the first time; it’s all too easy to miss out on an amazing marathon experience by getting too caught up in the race itself. Instead, be patient until mile 21, just at the top of Heartbreak Hill. You’ll have seen all there is to see and felt the power of the crowds. Now get to work and pour your energy into making it to Kenmore Square, where the energy of rabid Sox fans can help carry you to the finish line.

Intermediate @ Rte 128 (Mile 15-ish) — You have been patient for the first half of your race, and Rte 128 presents the first real hill of your day. This is where you can begin to pay attention to your pacing and try to tighten things up. You’ll know by the time you make it to the Fire station at mile 17 if this is going to be your day or not, so focus on running well in a controlled manner. There will be plenty of runner carnage on the hills of Newton to keep you motivated and focused on passing the competition.

Advanced (Miles 7 to 9) — Somewhere in this range the course flattens out and you will have found your stride. You need to bring your A-game if you are going to race to your potential, and you start here — not in the first mile. We still start slightly conservatively as it allows us to set the stage for a strong finish. You’ll need all your energy (and focus!) to run the Newton hills well. Once you hit Beacon St, it’s time to really let things rip and give it your all.

Boston is a one of a kind event; but you need to approach it with the same discipline and fitness that got you to the starting line in Hopkinton. Regardless of the outcome, you are going to have a spectacular experience that should bring memories to last a lifetime — or at least longer than the pain in your legs!

Don’t get psyched out by the hills; enjoy the day and the crowds. Race smart and you might even surprise yourself with the results!


This article includes an excerpt from the Marathon Race Execution Guide, a free download from Marathon Nation. Head Coach Patrick McCrann has created a free resource outlining exactly how to pace the optimal marathon, including a video and a free pace calculation spreadsheet. Please download your FREE copy here.

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5 Responses to “Boston Marathon Strategy”

  1. Patrick April 15, 2010 at 6:09 pm #

    Bob –

    Thanks for the candid reply. Sounds like you and I both have equal Boston experience as both participants and coaches. I would agree that for a slower runner or someone with minimal goals on the day aside from finishing, that walking to the start line is enough. From my experience, however, folks looking to be fast on the day will need to warm up; even marathon pace for a well tapered athletes is very easy as a warm up pace (it only gets hard after 18 miles!). I think this is critical for Boston as the trip out to Hopkinton in the buses, and then sitting in the village are both incredibly sedentary situations…and very different from 99% of other marathons out there. Shaking things out / warming up becomes more important. At the end of the day, however, I guess it’s whatever works for you, the runner. Anyone else have their own preferred warm up strategy?

  2. Bob Dannegger April 14, 2010 at 11:10 pm #

    You said:
    “About 40 minutes before you’ll want to start jogging; this could be as simple as running your bag down to the drop off point. Then include about 15 to 20 minutes of nice marathon pace running with a few pick ups at 10k pace. Stretch as needed, then seed yourself.”

    IMHO, and I’ve run Boston 4 times besides many other marathons as well as coach quite a few Boston qualifiers and runners over the last 10 years, that is possibly the worst advice I have ever heard. First of all, logistically, unless you are an elite runner, you would have a hard time finding a place to run 15-20 minutes at marathon pace. Secondly, you’d best get in the corral while you can and then you’re going to stand there for awhile until the race starts so all the warm-up you did was essentially for nothing because you cooled back down very close to when you started. And finally, preserving fuel for 26.2 is challenge enough for most people and you want to blow 2-3 miles worth of it in a warm-up?

    Instead, I firmly believe that walking to the starting line is warm-up enough. You will be starting at a slow pace just because of the crowds and that which is better than starting too fast anyway. You will preserve some of that glycogen and circulating glucose while you burn more of those free fatty acids. Not only that, the first mile is mostly down hill and doesn’t require that much effort so not being “warmed-up” is no big deal. If you are running at your theoretical marathon pace limit, marathon pace burns about 90% carbohydrate and 10% fat while 10k pace is all carbohydrate. So save those carbohydrates for the actual marathon.

  3. Patrick March 24, 2010 at 3:38 pm #

    I think your really captured the spirit of what makes Boston so special…it really does stand alone in the marathon space. Once you do get here, though, don’t geek out. If you made it once, you’ll be able to make it again…so enjoy your time, the city, and the sights!

  4. Russ Chavey March 24, 2010 at 1:48 am #

    If you can qualify, do it. The pre race Boston environment is like no other pre race scene I’ve ever been to. The whole city, it seems, is drawn into the race. The race is amazing, but the whole weekend is a spiritual experience. I was as emotional crossing the finish line as I was with my first marathon finish.


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