The Wall

Everything you need to be a smarter, faster runner.

The Lost Art of the Marathon Race Analysis

12 January
All-Army runners take top trophy from Brazilians at 26th Army Ten-Miler
Fast? Yes! Best possible? TBD!
Creative Commons License photo credit: familymwr


A well-executed marathon is the intersection of three key variables: fitness, strategy, and race execution. You could also argue that a solid dose of good fortune can also help, but experience has shown that even perfect temps and a slight tailwind can’t compensate for not being in shape, having no plan, and making poor in-race decisions. Being able to improve from race to race is about more than just training more or running faster — actually learning from your performance is a critical step towards realizing your marathon potential.


There’s what you read in the magazines, and then there’s what your body actually does on race day. And as I have written before, if left to our own devices we will even make up what happened on race day to help make sense of what we experienced.  More often than not there are subtle differences between what we remember we did and what we actually did, and discerning between the two can highlight areas for racing and training improvements.


As an illustration of this process, let’s consider the following note I received from Gina Creek, the author of “Running: The Dawn Blog.” A frequent reader of Marathon Nation, Gina had some questions as to how the Marathon Nation race review process could help. Her note is below in italics, followed by my video analysis.


[Start Gina’s Email]
Hey, I’m Gina Creek, author of running: the dawn blog.  Last Friday I linked to your coaching tip about doing objective post-race analysis of your fall marathon.  I LOVED the idea and wanted to do it for the Grand Rapids marathon that I ran on October 17 and got my first BQ.  However, I don’t exactly know what to make of my information.  From a “story line” point of view the race was extremely challenging for me mentally.  From mile 20-25 I was so scared that I would miss my BQ goal by just a few seconds, which made me want to give up.  I had some friends that were around me and helped talk me through this rough patch but it was literally the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I don’t feel like that’s reflected in my analysis sheet.  From a numbers point of view I feel like I stuck to my race plan and everything clicked along just fine.  I feel like it wasn’t my strongest race (even though it was my fastest), but I’m not seeing where I went wrong or how I could tweak things going into the next race.
Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share with me and/or my readers?

Thanks for your time and thanks for stopping by the blog!
[End Dawn’s Email]


First, huge congratulations to Gina on getting a BQ performance…that’s no small feat. Note how she felt the difference between a “strong” race and a “fast” race, and that while her time was great she wasn’t really in control of her day. This perception is what separates Gina from the average runner — and she is right. Even a fast race can be run better, and this is where execution comes into play.


Without a doubt, Gina would have benefitted from a little more discipline over the first few miles. Even a few innocently fast miles can compound the eventual fatigue and mental struggles that you will face after mile 20…and you can never get that time back.


Contrary to what you read, the concept of putting time “in the bank” to account for the late race fade is a strategy that rarely works. In fact, it’s more of a post-hoc strategy — what someone who has gone out too fast but manages to hold on for their desired result will tell you was their “plan.”  In an event the length of a marathon, proper pacing can mean the difference between breaking through and breaking down.


Based on her performance, Gina would do well to practice proper early pacing by building a negative split approach into her longer runs. This means purposely going out slowly enough so that the second half of the run is faster (not starting the same as always and praying you can run harder at the end). This is both a physical and mental exercise; you are essentially training your body (and mind) to be steady and strong when most of your peers are suffering and fading badly.


Other issues consistent with poor pacing include:
  • Late Race mMuscle Cramps — This is your body’s way of saying you have done too much, and putting a halt to your efforts.
  • Inexplicable Nutrition Issues — If what’s worked for you all year suddenly blows up (literally) on race day, odds are you tweaked the mix with some race day speed.
  • Early “Wall” Onset — The dreaded point of your marathon day where your body begins to push back on what your mind is asking; ideally this happens after mile 20 but can happen as soon as mile 16 if you are too aggressive.
  • Elevated Heart Rate — Starting too fast means pegging a slightly higher heart rate than normal; continuing to run the full marathon will result in the eventual ascension of your heart rate to a level more indicative of a Half Marathon performance. For most runners this effort is simply not sustainable. The solution? The only way to get your heart rate to substantially drop on race day is to stop running — also not high on runner’s race day to do lists.


Before you toe the line of your next race — before you even begin training – take a few minutes to review how you really race. It’s a fun exercise and can mean the difference between racing your next marathon or just trying to reach the finish line.


Do you have a recent race result you’d like to have analyzed? As long as you have the data (splits per mile), feel free to send them in an MS Excel spreadsheet to patrick [at] marathonnation [dot] us and I’ll do my best to consider it!


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