Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 13 Sep 2012 05:47:07 -0400

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RUNNING COMMENTARY 954

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the May 2010 issue.)

For the first time on any stage, I had a speaking coach at Dick Beardsley Marathon Running Camp. Jenny Stinson, the assistant camp director, didn’t assign my topic or edit my script. She simply instructed me to give the campers something they could take away and use.

This was her gentle way of saying: They didn’t pay to be entertained here but to be informed on how to become better marathoners. They didn’t want to hear my life story except in ways that might enhance their own. They came for information supported by inspiration.

Jenny asked me, along with the other speakers, to help the campers write their own “SMART” goals. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable and Time-bound. I chose to talk about setting a marathon goal, since nothing is more specific, measurable and time-bound than this – or more slippery to pin down in attainable and reasonable numbers.

I started by asking these runners what I now ask you readers: “What time can you expect to run in your next marathon? I don’t mean what you’d like to run, or plan or expect to run, or dream of running. What are you really and truly TRAINED to run?”

The target is too seldom based on fact, too often on hope. It could be a round-number time (3:00, 4:00, 5:00), while your result is far more likely numerically to fall between the zeros. It could be a Boston qualifying time that’s currently far beyond your reach. Or it could be a doubling of your latest half-marathon time, as if you could carry that pace 13.1 miles farther.

So what works more reasonably and attainably as a marathon predictor? The Yasso 800s, for one. Their creator, Bart Yasso, happened to be a guest at the Beardsley camp and reviewed his 800-meter session there: 10 of these with 400 meters of recovery after each. The average pace of the 800s, in minutes and seconds, predicts marathon potential, in hours and minutes. A interval session of four minutes, for instance, forecasts a four-hour marathon.

I never came close to running 10 half-miles in a row, even while training for track. But you can trust Bart on this. He has ample proof, both personally and through feedback, that the formula works.

Meanwhile I place trust in other formulas that have passed my own tests and those of runners I’ve coached. All use paces at shorter distances to project results in the marathon. From shortest up, those are:

– Jeff Galloway’s magic mile. Run a single fast mile in training, then multiply the time by 1.3 to predict marathon pace. Shortly before my best marathon I could run a 5:00 time-trial mile. By Jeff’s formula this converts to 6:30 marathon pace. My best race averaged 6:29s.

– Ten-kilometer test. Multiply the most recent 10K race time by 4.8. Mine nearest to the PR marathon was 35 minutes, which predicted a 2:47 marathon. I might have been capable of that but imagined myself no better than a three-hour marathoner, started that way and finished in 2:49.

– Half-marathon plus five percent. Don’t just double the “half” time but multiply it by 2.1. This race hadn’t been invented in 1967, but events both slightly shorter (20K) and longer (15 miles) suggested that I was about a 1:20 half-marathoner at the time. That multiplied to a 2:48 marathon, which I missed by little more than a minute.

All three formulas worked remarkably well for me, and not because they programmed me to expect the result achieved. This happened decades before anyone knew that any such numerical comparisons existed.

What I did know back then, more than 40 years ago, turned out not to be true for me later on – or for many of today’s marathoners. I used to think that a marathoner could run the race at least a minute per mile faster than the pace of the longest training run. This was how my early marathons played out, when I still had higher “gears” available from running shorter and much faster races almost weekly, and simply from being young.

Today’s runners who speed-train can still kick into faster gears on race day and can get away with taking their long runs slower than race pace. But the great majority of runners I now write for and coach can’t count on racing any faster than they train. For them (and for me today) the single best predictor of the final result is the pace of their longest training run.

The runners on my Marathon Teams have totaled more than 300 finishes. Nearly all of the times have fallen within a half-minute per mile, 15 seconds on either side, of their pace from the 21-mile run where our training peaks.

A runner who trained at 9:00 per mile, for instance, could expect to finish the marathon at 8:45 to 9:15 pace… for a total time between 3:49 and 4:02. This presents a wide range of possibilities for a final result, I know.

But the gap shrinks when viewed in terms of intermediate distances. Here’s where knowing your potential does the most good – not by telling you how fast you MIGHT finish but by warning how fast you can safely start. At five miles, say, the difference between just-right pace (45:00 in this example) and too-fast on one side and too-slow on the other is only about a minute either way (43:45 and 46:15).

As a coach, I don’t tell our runners before the race about my predicted finish time for them. I only tell them the opening pace that will serve them best. Beyond the training, which is already in the bank on race day, and the weather that day, which no one can control, nothing has more to do with the final result than how well the opening miles are paced.

Smart pacing arises from setting a SMART goal – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable and Time-bound. Start SMART, and the finish you’re trained to have right now will take care of itself.

UPDATE: This main mistake I still see runners of my Marathon Team making is running too fast in training, especially early in the program when distances are short. I ask them, “Will you eventually be able to hold that pace for 26 miles?” The answer, whether they voice it or not, usually is no.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. The other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting with the September issue.]
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