How to Pace the First Half of a Race (to Feel Good for the Second)

I have talked many times about how I am a metronome when it comes to pacing. Steve can set me at a pace, and I can either stick to it for miles and miles, each within a few seconds of one another, or he can tell me to progress, and I can do that with ease.

I wanted to offer my advice to help you pace yourself a little better. I know that is something many runners want to work on, and hopefully this post gives you something to think about.

I am hoping this post does not come across as arrogant. I am not saying that I am some better than anyone else because I know how to pace, after all, I have lost out on many Top 10 finishes in big races because I sat back and just did not have enough time to catch people up. Sometimes this method backfires, and I have often wondered how I would fare if I did go for broke one day, just trying to hold on to the fast pace.

Going out slow. Why would you want to go out slowly on race day? Surely that is the day you have prepared for, the day you want to go for it, and as that gun goes, you feel SO good, why on earth would you not want to just roll with it?

Well, because it is probably going to be a decision you regret.

Standing in any finishing area, you are likely to hear people talking about how they went off too fast, they knew they were going too fast, but just could not bring themselves to slow down, and they paid for it BIG time.

Studies have shown that the “time in the bank” theory does not work, especially for the marathon. For those who have not heard of that, time in the bank is where a runner will go out faster, “banking” the time, so they have a cushion when they start to hurt later in the week. Runners Connect wrote a great article on this, focusing on Mary Keitany who was 6 minutes ahead of her goal at the NYC marathon at the halfway point, but ended up falling apart so bad, that she went from 2:15 pace, to finish in a 2:23.

I often wonder about what would happen if I did try to just hang with the leaders….

However, I cannot bring myself to do it, and this is what I have found works best for me.

When I ran the London marathon a few years ago, I passed 91 people in the final 6 miles. That felt AMAZING, and by holding back at the start, when it came to that final 6 miles, I felt so strong, and I imagined myself as a fishing pole, reeling in those fish one at a time, using each person I passed to give me more energy to keep chasing down the next person.

Before I begin, I just want to say that this is not necessarily the right way. I have plenty of friends much faster than me who go out fast, and hold on, hoping they lose as little time as possible by the end.

But, I do think it is something everyone should try. If you do not like it, then by all means go back to your previous racing style, but you have nothing to lose in trying….and you may just find you prefer it!

5 helpful tips from an elite runner- how to pace yourself in the first half of a race, so you feel good the second half!

Here are my 5 reasons that starting a race slower than you think you should is a good idea.

Pass rather than be passed

I am sure each person reading this (if you are a runner) has experienced the run or race where you went out too fast and you paid for it dearly. You felt like you were barely moving, and it took every ounce of willpower not to just stop and quit…..or maybe you had that moment of weakness and did, and then severely regretted it. I have been there too.

Either way, its not fun is it?

Now, think about how good it feels when you pass someone in a race or while out training. It gives you confidence, and you feel strong (well, stronger than they are anyway).

It is always more fun to be the person passing, than the one being passed, and with each person who you pass, you start to believe in yourself even more, you believe you are getting stronger, even though sometimes the person is just slowing down. BUT think about it the other way, if you are the one being passed, it feels horrible, you feel like you are getting slower and slower, and everyone around you is zooming past.

I know which one I would rather experience 🙂

Copy the best in the world

Almost every world record ever set was run either through a negative split, or a slightly positive split. I am not saying that we are all going to break a world record, but most of us look to the best of the best to see what they do, and that is something they do; ration their energy correctly to maximize their running.

If they know how to race the absolute fastest they possibly can, why can’t you?

You are able to keep the self doubt at bay

We all know that those mental demons that scream at you to stop can be hard to resist, and the longer you have to deal with them, the easier it becomes to listen and back off.

If you start out conservatively, then you will be able to enjoy the run more, and then knuckle down when you get to the part that really matters. You can take in the beautiful scenery, wave to friends, and have fun with it, rather than spending the whole time miserable considering dropping out. If you start conservative, when you do get to the dig deep part, you will know how far you have already come, so will be less likely to give in.

It builds excitement and gives you free energy to use later in the race

You will feel ready to go, and “chomping at the bit” as we say, to go after it. The anticipation that you are holding back will build excitement in you that the time where you can really test yourself is almost here. You know you are trained for this day, you know you have put in the work, and when the time comes (when the other runners start significantly slowing down), THAT is when you can really go for it.

During the first part of a race, I like to listen to the crowds, the energy all around and imagine putting it in my pocket to use later in the race. That is all free energy, and you can use it to keep yourself going later.

I know that is the most difficult part to resist the urge to go off fast, especially if there are big crowds near the start, but if you fight it, and stay conservative, you can use the energy of the crowds towards the end to keep you going, rather than just trying not to die (I have had those thoughts many times!!).

Be Smug

When you see other runners zooming by you, getting caught up in the excitement (and downhills) of the day, you can smile to yourself knowing that you are running a smarter race, and the finish line is not at the halfway point, but instead at the actual finish line. So much can happen throughout the course of a race, and if you smile to yourself knowing that you are giving your body the best opportunity to succeed by easing into it, and being smart, you are going to get the rewards.

In running the Boston marathon, one of the most common complaints I hear is that runners get carried away on those down hills and pay for it in the rest of the race when their quads were shot. Imagine how good it would feel when you get to the latter part of the race and you are still feeling good. That is a time it is okay to feel smug, and you earned it!

You are stronger than you realize, especially if you give your body the best chance to succeed!

If you need more convincing, read Allie’s experience when I paced her through her half marathon. That might convince you if this doesn’t 🙂 It will also give you some mental tricks of what to tell yourself!


Do you tend to go out fast or slow? What was your most painful “too fast” experience?

Wonder why you get slower rather than faster?

I'll show you how to practice pacing to run faster (and feel better) in your next race.

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  • This is exactly what I needed to read as I stare down 4 races in 3 days! Great, great post!!!

  • I need to read all of this over and over going into my marathon in 2 weeks! Pacing is always a challenge, and all this advice is really appreciated 🙂

  • Great reasons! Now, where are the 5 tips on how to pace?

  • This is just about how I approach all of my races, both on purpose and by proxy! It takes me a bit to get warmed up, but then I end up with a great race (that still kicked my ass) on Sunday with negative splits and just enough to get me through to the finish!

  • Great tips Tina! I have been struggling with pacing myself during my training runs and am really trying to improve on it before race day next month. Will definitely keep these tips in mind 🙂

  • I’ve already had trouble with pacing and I often start too fast and have nothing left. Interesting to read about your strategies now I have to figure out how to do it!

  • Great tips!! I’m still mastering this practice! Pinned!

  • Great tips – and I don’t think anyone would call you arrogant, Tina! You’re a rock star runner and we’ll all happily listen to your advice 🙂
    Someone once told me that for a marathon for the first part you need to be like a rock in a riverbed, just let the water (i.e. the other runners) pass you by, for the middle bit let the water take you along, and then for the end be the water and pass all the other rocks. Start slow, get faster.

  • The only time I have ever ran a negative split was in the marathon I ran a few weeks ago in 3:06! Holding back in the first half is KEY. Testify!!!

  • Pacing is the one thing I really struggle with in races. I’m going to REALLY try to follow this approach when I race a half in a few weeks and see how it works. I wish I had listened to all of the advice for the marathon last weekend because the end would have been a lot more enjoyable!

  • Typically, I do hold back at the beginning and it is nice to know that I am not alone. My past two races have left me with little energy at the end and, yes, I did have to walk part. Despite hating it, it was the right decision. Passing people is so much fun and I am going to remember this in the upcoming weeks and during future races for sure.

  • This is such a great post, Tina; you’re getting me excited for my upcoming race (it’s about 8 weeks away) and I need to start working on mental fitness. I can’t wait to see what else you have for us; thank you so much for sharing these tips and your own experience, as it is very helpful.

  • I can’t wait to out this to the test when I’m racing again. I’m one of those who always always goes out to fast. And I know I shouldn’t but it just happens. One of my goals for my running comeback is to work in becoming a metronome and leaving my Garmin at home more often.

  • Great tips! There really is something amazing about passing people at the end of a race. Granted, I passed people in my marathon because my middle miles were a bust since I was feeling sick, but I fed off of that energy so much in the last 10K. I need to work on not going out so fast, so I’m saving this to re-read for future races – thank you!

  • perfect post Tina!! Thank you for sharing these awesome tips 🙂

  • First, congratulations on winning the Army 10-Miler! I just read your recap and loved all the details. This post couldn’t have come at a better time, as my goal race is tomorrow morning. I am planning on easing into my goal pace over the first few miles, so I’m thrilled to read that this is what you suggest. Also, I just read Allie’s recap of you pacing her and…wow. While I had the best training cycle using the Hansons method for this race, being confident is still so hard for me. I’m going to read Allie’s recap a few times again and try to remember some of the motivational things you said to her and think of them during my race. Allie’s recap reminds me that I trained to push hard when it gets tough, and I know I can do it, so I need to believe that I can tomorrow and keep pushing and dig deep when the time comes. Thank you!!!

  • This is great advice. I have always had the tendency to go out too fast because the excitement and adrenaline get me going. I am going to start training soon for my first full marathon and I know I can not afford to blast out of the chute like I’m on fire or I’ll never finish. I can’t wait to read your tips on how to do this!

  • Martina Di Marco
    October 16, 2015 5:57 pm

    Thank you for the tips! Looking forward to reading the “how to pace” post. I also wanted to ask you… What if you have hills in the second half of a race while the first half is mostly flat? In most of the races that I ran and I’ll be running (for example, NYCM), this is the case. I know that banking=bonking, but I sometimes felt that, no matter how much I held back during the first half, the second half could’t be as faster as I wanted to becuase of the hills… Thanks!

  • Thank you for this…I was just thinking about my strategy for MCM next week. Pacing has definitely always been a challenge for me and I can definitely go out too fast. I toyed with not wearing my watch, but it helps reel me in if I am going to fast…..I hope I can utilize some of these strategies!!

  • It is so hard not to start fast, but I have run my best races when I start slow. This is something that I really want to keep working on and get better at!

  • Really helpful Tina, particularly at the moment as I’m 8 days out from running the Dublin marathon. I’m taking all of this in! 🙂

  • Blonde Kenyan
    October 18, 2015 9:59 am

    I have a tendency to go out too fast, no matter how many races I do. I love the tip about “being smug” though. I’m gonna try that for my 10k today!

  • This is a very good article. Smart pacing is very difficult on a big day when adrenaline and all the excitement kicks in, but it is well worth to stick to it, and as mentioned above, the feeling of passing by runners who went out too fast on those final miles is better than crossing the finish line. Waiting for more, cheers.

  • Great advice, I appreciate it, I’ll be reading over this every day for the next week- till my first marathon (Dubiln) . Thank you!

  • I thought of this a lot this weekend at the RW festival and am happy to say that I had a negative split on every one. 🙂 This is typically my race plan as well as I know I feel better if I start a bit conservatively but I love hearing it from you and knowing that the best athletes are very careful not to start too fast!

  • I really love this post and everything you share is so true. Sometimes it is hard for me to keep the self-doubt at bay, and I’m still working on trying to not bank time in the marathon (even though I don’t do it on purpose). The Maine Half Marathon was a great example of following all of these tips. Thanks for continuing to share your insights and wisdom with us mere mortal runners. LOL! Excited for your upcoming race where you will crush all of this. xo

  • Such a timely post with Marine Corps Marathon this weekend! When I ran it 2 years ago (my first), I listened to everyone who told me to start “slower than slow” and it worked. I ended up with a huge negative split (perhaps too much, but it was a great feeling for my first 26.2). I keep telling myself to hang loose those first few miles and let people fly by me. I’ll look forward to passing them in the final mile! 🙂

  • thank you for yet another great post! I am so thankful for runners like you who truly love what their doing and are just as happy helping other’s find their love for running too!

  • YES!!! I need this so much. I feel like the only time I have really done this is when I have raced triathlons. I start slow, the swim is the weakest for me, the bike I am okay. Then the run comes and as I whiz past everyone because they are dying and I am starting to feel awesome. I just want to do this in the marathon. I always feel like I am running it the right way – I don’t feel like I am going out too fast, and I do finish strong, but somewhere in there (20-23 miles or even 18 – 23 miles!) I lose it. Ugh. I know I am well trained, I know I worked hard, but my hard work is not being demonstrated on the marathon course. I am going to reread this and keep in my brain. Thanks Tina!!

  • this post is perfect for me right now. i just PRed in my last two half marathons over the past 6 weeks…unknowingly each mile was faster than the one before…for both half marathons! my plan was to get faster every 3 miles, but i was completely blown away that i could start at 8:45, and finish with a 7:17! i have another half next sunday and we will see if that can happen again.

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