How to Execute a Flawless Marathon Race

New York MarathonGuest post by Jason Fitzgerald.

Training for a marathon is no walk in the park. Planning – and actually doing – months of long runs, high mileage weeks, and tempo runs is just as challenging as the marathon itself.

And if all goes well, you’ll be ready to run a new personal best on race day.

But what about the other things that contribute to a successful marathon? How do you execute a flawless race once you’re already trained?

There are many sound principles to follow and today I want to highlight three strategies to help you execute a successful marathon. Instead of the common “double-knot your shoelaces” advice, I want to dive deeper into the tactics that make marathoning as low-stress as possible.

(Keep reading to find out about our giveaway…)

No Surprises!

Many coaches advise marathoners to run about 18-22 miles during training so the sheer distance of the marathon isn’t a surprise to your body. This is common practice – and a very good one.

But there are far more details that you should practice before race day so there are absolutely no surprises. During your long runs, you should mimic exactly what you’ll do on race day:

  • Wake up at the same time as you would the day of the marathon
  • Practice the same carbo-loading strategy – both your breakfast and during the long run
  • Wear the same shoes, shorts, and top – make sure there is no friction or blisters
  • Run a similar surface (i.e., if your marathon is on the road, don’t do all of your long runs on trails)

Experimenting with new shoes or a fancy new gel is fun – but those experiments should be reserved for training, not race day. The race itself is a logical extension of your training, so make sure your preparation is well planned as well.

This goes not only for the execution of the race, but also the logistics of being in a marathon. Make sure your bag is packed the night before. Plan all transportation to the starting area and back to your hotel ahead of time. Lay out your clothes and breakfast before you go to bed. Bring extra clothes in case it’s cold. Set two alarm clocks the night before just in case.

Leave nothing to chance – you’ve trained too hard for this day to miss the start because you can’t get a cab.

Study the Course like a Cartographer

Every marathon has a unique course and it’s your job to know it well. Without knowing the course, you’re doomed to make mistakes in your strategy that could lead to a much slower time than you’re capable of running.

Each course has certain characteristics that you should ask yourself about:

  • Where are the major hills and downhill sections?
  • Does the course lend itself to going out faster or slower?
  • Are there hairpin turns? How many water stops?
  • Are there long stretches of lonely roads with no spectators?

Some courses – like the Boston Marathon – have hills late in the race and require a more conservative race strategy. Others are flat and fast, like Chicago, and can be run more aggressively.

Other courses have constant turns and you’ll need to ensure you run the tangents as best as possible. And of course, try to avoid the camber (the slope toward the curb) of one side of the road for too long. Otherwise, you’re essentially running like you have a leg length discrepancy!

Be Confident (but not foolish)

Many races have been wasted because runners haven’t believed in their training. If you’ve done the work, you’re ready. It’s worthy of repeating: the race is just a logical extension of your training.

Have you completed your long runs and goal workouts? Did you stay healthy and prevent overuse injuries? Are you tapered and feeling good? Well then, there’s nothing to fear! Believe in your abilities – you’ve already proven them during weeks and months of training.

While I appreciate a confident (dare I say, cocky?) runner, you can’t be foolish on race day and throw away your chances of marathon success. Because while a race – particularly a marathon – can’t be won in the first few minutes, it can be lost.

Running your first mile significantly faster than your goal pace is a sure recipe for disaster, especially if the beginning of the race is extremely hilly. You’ll burn through extra fuel that your body will desperately need later and subject your legs to excess pounding from an aggressive early pace.

A conservative marathon start is usually always a good idea. It will help you warm up properly and ease into the right pace.

Like the old saying goes, “If you feel good during a marathon, just wait.

These strategies are about more than just training – this detailed preparation is how committed runners stay focused on their marathon. I’ve been guilty of under-planning myself and it always resulted in more stress than is reasonable on marathon day.

Do yourself a favor – execute the details so you can relax and let the training carry you to a new personal best.

Jason Fitzgerald HeadshotJason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner, USATF-certified coach, and the founder of Strength Running. Get his latest coaching advice and free injury prevention course here.


Kindle Book Giveaway!

Leave a comment below with your best marathon-day racing strategy or tip, you you will be eligible to win 1 of 5 copies of Jason’s Kindle book, 101 Simple Ways to be a Better Runner: A Short Guide to Running Faster, Preventing Injuries, and Feeling Great. If you have never run a marathon, tell us what your ultimate running goal is!

You must leave your comment by Monday, May 6, 3013 to be eligible to win. Good luck!

  • James Clissold

    Run your race! Best advice I have been given. You are going to want to run faster because someone passes you. You are going to want to speed up at mile 5 because you feel great. Just run your own race and the one that you prepared for and planned!

  • Dana

    One thing I try to remember and put into practice for marathons is to not get caught up in the excitement during the early miles of the race. It’s easy to get fooled by all the adrenaline and start out faster than than you can realistically maintain.

    • Mark Kennedy

      Thanks for your comment, Dana. I agree with your advice….and James. Run the run you trained for!

  • mel

    Run in a huge marathon (like NYC) where the last 10km you are surrounded by so many people egging you on (and telling you “quitting is NOT an option”) that you have no choice but to finish and finish strong! Worked well for me!

  • Hrefna Pálsdóttir

    My ultimate running goal today is the Laugavegur ultra marathon, a 55 km mountain race located in the southern highlands of Iceland :)

  • Julie Johnson

    Find a group and have a LONG conversation…then Oops! it’s over:)

  • Monica

    I just ran one marathon so not sure how much my tip is valuable but during my long run training I ate and drank exactly what I was going to eat and drink on marathon day. I found a 5 mile loop and used my car as aid station with gatorade/gu and carried water with me. My breakfast was the same (brought my own stuff to hotel), even my wake up time and routine was the same so I found out in training how my body reacted to it and faced the marathon as another long run. It worked well and no surprise potty desperation mid- race! 😉

    • Mark Kennedy

      Hi Monica – congrats! You’re a winner of a copy of Jason’s book. Please email me at with your contact details.

  • Anya Grechka

    I’m currently training for my first marathon – so no tips yet, just reading as much as I can in preperation. My ultimate goal for my first one is to start and finish on my own two feet (been off for the last 3 weeks with a swollen knee, so getting to the race will be a big deal in itself) and to enjoy the 26.2 mile journey.

  • Nicole Galdamez

    I need to work on #3, being confident and not starting out too fast. Banking time never works. I have run 4 marathons, and time and time again, I run ahead of the pace group and watch them pass me one by one in the last 6 miles. So, my goal for #5 is pacing.
    One tip I have.. use the bathroom before the start, then get in line and use it again.

    • Mark Kennedy

      Hi Nicole.

      Congrats, you’re one of the winners of a copy of Jason’s book!

      Please email me at with your contact details.

  • Erica Agran

    I agree with all of your points. I would add relax and have fun. Smiling helps, too! People cheer louder when you smile. I have run 35 marathons. Other than not starting too fast or trying anything new, this is my most frequent and valuable advice!


    I did my first marathon a week and a bit ago and my top tip is do not book a hotel next to a nightclub because you definitely won’t get any sleep! Also, I would advise to take a gel or two of your own with you to take at around 10 miles and don’t rely on race organised gels as there were none until quite late on in the run and too late for me! Oh yes and one more:-) make sure you put your name on your running top so that people can shout for you.