Pacing Strategies for Popular Running Distances


By Nicole Weidensaul

You can do everything right leading up to an event only to blow it on race day. You can train properly in the months before the race; you can sleep well in the days leading up to the event; you can eat and drink the right things to ensure optimal energy; you can stay off your feet the day before the race.

Still, runners who are diligent in all those areas can still make mistakes when it matters most.

How? Poor pacing.

No matter what distance you’re training for, there’s a pacing strategy to go along with it. Let’s take a look at what that means for the 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon distances, so you can celebrate race-day success.


The 5K (3.1 miles) is one of the shorter race distances. The good news is that because the race is short, there isn’t a lot of time for things to go wrong. Fueling during the race isn’t necessary, but depending on the conditions, hydrating at least once during the event (or up to every mile) can help.

The bad news is that because the race is so short, the effort level required is very high. In fact, the 5K is raced fairly close to maximum effort, or the red zone. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being very easy and 10 being maximum effort, a 5K is raced in the 9 to 10 range.

Even with a shorter race like the 5K, be careful about going out too fast. Pick a goal time and break it down to an average minute/mile pace. Try to run relatively even splits throughout the race. Don’t start any slower than 5 to 10 seconds per mile slower than goal pace; then hit goal pace for the second mile and run as fast or faster than goal pace in the final mile.


The 10K (6.2 miles) is a tough distance. Even though it’s twice as long as the 5K, the 10K is only run about 15 to 20 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace. This means the 10K can be quite a painful race!

Because the 10K is a relatively short distance, fueling is not paramount. However, hydration is important for optimal performance and should be done every mile or every other mile. The 10K is raced below maximum effort and more in the orange/borderline red zone. On a scale of 1 to 10, the 10K is raced in the 8 to 9 range.

Just like the 5K, be careful about going out too fast in the 10K and aim for relatively even splits. Once you determine an average minute/mile pace, start the 10K no more than 5 to 10 seconds per mile slower than goal pace. Gradually pick up the pace to be running at goal pace by miles 3 or 4; then continue to accelerate faster than goal pace in the final mile(s).


Things get a bit more complicated with the half marathon (13.1 miles). If not done properly, fueling and hydrating can have a negative impact on the outcome of the race. Aim for 150 to 250 calories per hour. You’ll have to figure out in training the exact number of calories you need.

These calories can come through a combination of drink—water and/or sports drink—and food including gels, bars and chews. Trial and error during training will help nail down a hydration/nutrition strategy that works best.

Once you know what works, stick to it on race day. Many athletes get so caught up in the excitement of the race they neglect their food and water regimen.

The half marathon is raced below 10K pace, about 15 to 30 seconds slower per mile than 10K pace, in the yellow zone. On a scale of 1 to 10, the half marathon is raced around a 7. Holding back at the start of a half marathon is a smart strategy; it’s very easy to go out too fast.

Calculate the average minute/mile goal pace and then start up to 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than goal pace for up to the first 3 miles of the race. Gradually ease into goal pace for the next 7 miles or so. At mile 10, slowly increase to faster than goal pace for the final 3 miles of the race.


The marathon (26.2 miles) is a tricky distance to race correctly. Because it’s such a long race, there’s a lot of time to make mistakes and for things to go wrong.

Aside from pacing, fueling and hydrating properly will help determine your level of success at the marathon. Pay careful attention to getting this detail right to stack the odds in your favor. Follow the same fueling guidelines outlined for the half marathon distance.

The marathon is raced well below half marathon pace, about 30 to 60 seconds slower in the green zone. On a scale of 1 to 10, the marathon is raced in the 5 to 6 range. Start out no more than 20 seconds per mile slower than goal pace. It’s better to be conservative the first 10 to 13 miles of the race and then slowly pick up the pace to goal pace.

Too often people run the first half of the race too fast and then have nothing left for the second half of the race. Don’t make the same mistake! And know that for every mile you run significantly slower than goal pace, you will have to run faster than goal pace to make that time up. Therefore be cautious about going out too quickly but also be aware that any lost time will need to be made up in order to reach goal pace.

If you find yourself behind, don’t try to make up lost time all at once, gradually spread it out over the second half of the race. The marathon doesn’t really begin until mile 20 or so; thus patience is critical. At mile 20, if you have anything left in the tank increase the pace to faster than goal pace and try to hang on the final 10K.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” The key to racing well is to be prepared both physically and mentally. Have a plan, stick to it as best you can.