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6 Key Factors to Achieving Your Marathon Goal

Coach Greg McMillan shares a few critical, controllable factors that contribute to whether or not you will run well race day.

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“Will I achieve my marathon goal?” If I had a dollar for every time I get asked this question, I’d be retired and living on my own private island! As race day approaches, marathoners get antsy. They wonder and worry if they can hit their goal time. Having coached thousands of marathoners, I’ve come up with a few critical, controllable factors that contribute to whether or not you will run well race day.

1. Stable Mileage

Look at your last 10-12 weeks of training. Was your weekly mileage consistent and stable? In other words, did you have large swings in weekly mileage or were your highest and lowest weeks within 10-25 percent of one another? If you averaged 45 miles per week but had several weeks at 20 miles and a few at 55, you had wide swings in mileage; if, however, you averaged 45 miles with a couple of “down” weeks at 35 miles and a couple of high weeks at 55, then your mileage was more stable.

I’ve found that athletes who were very consistent in their mileage across the last few weeks before the marathon have a certain amount of strength they can pull from in the later miles of the race.

2. Long Runs

In predicting marathon success, I’ve found that it’s not quite as simple as just getting in your long runs. I evaluate marathoners on two types of long runs—and not just that they complete them, but how they complete them.

First, if you built up to a 20-mile long run—common for faster marathoners—but were really fatigued and sore for 2-3 days afterward, that’s not a good sign. Successful marathoners are usually the ones that not only get in the long, steady runs, but they’re the ones that recover well in the few days that follow.

Second, the marathoners who include 2-3 fast finish long runs in their programs—long runs where you really push it over the last few miles when you are physically and mentally tired—have a leg up on race day. It’s one thing to run for a long time but it’s an entirely different experience to run hard when tired—something a time-goal oriented marathoner will always face in the final few miles of the race.

3. Grooving Goal Pace

Hitting your goal race pace during training is one thing—running goal pace while being very relaxed mentally and physically is quite another ordeal. Marathoners who feel very comfortable and smooth while running goal pace workouts are race-ready. After all, running your goal pace continuously for hours—not minutes, so learning to run as easily as possible at race pace—will ensure you’re fresher later in the race when fatigue sets in.

4. Leg Durability

Early in a marathon training cycle, it’s very common for your legs to be sore after long runs or marathon-specific workouts. Later in the training cycle, however, successful marathoners notice that their legs feel stronger and don’t get sore anymore, even though their long runs are longer, their mileage is high and their other workouts are of higher quality. This is a very good sign for marathon day. Strong, fatigue-resistant legs won’t let you down on race day.

5. Fueling

Fueling is a black hole for many marathoners. There are no hard and fast methods to guarantee success, so it requires some trial and error to find what works for you. Marathoners who have their nutrition dialed in (usually after some mishaps in training and lead-up races) have a great chance at success on race day. You must have a robust fueling plan for race day where you get enough fuel to carry you through the entire race. Many marathoners fuel too little throughout the race and try to make it up as “the wall” nears—only to find that they can’t.

Whether you use a traditional fueling strategy (fast-acting sugars taken frequently) or an alternative fueling strategy (slower-acting carbohydrates or a fat-adapted, low carbohydrate/high fat diet), practice it beforehand in race conditions so you know how much to take across the race and how your gut will react when it is also working under duress in the later miles. It cannot be emphasized enough that nutrition plays an enormous roll in success on marathon day.

6. Mental Toughness

Out of all the marathons I’ve run, the ones I’m most disappointed in are the ones where I had a pity party. I just lacked the mental toughness to deal with the high level of fatigue and mental challenges that the marathon brings. When looking at my athletes’ preparation, I try to remind them how they dealt with challenging runs over the course of their training cycle. Did they have a firm resolve? Or did they get easily overwhelmed when things didn’t go as planned or were harder than expected? Successful marathoners know how to deal with big mental challenges.

Prediction Time

If you’ve been keeping score, you probably passed the test on a few factors but didn’t quite hit the mark on others. What does this mean? Obviously, if you hit all the factors, you are in great shape and well equipped to go after your goal. If you are lacking on 1-2 factors, you should still go for your goal, but know that you are going to have to bring your “A” game in the final 10K to power to the finish line.

Fail on 2-3 factors and you need to be very open to adjusting your goal on race day, or even beforehand. Don’t go out faster than your goal race pace and be very observant of how you are feeling. If you coast through 15-16 miles and feel good, stick to your plan; if, however, if you find that the first 10-13 miles feel harder than you would like and your body naturally wants to run 5-10 seconds slower per mile, you should slow down to that more comfortable pace. This is the only way to get to the finish line without totally falling apart.

There is nothing wrong with slowing down to ensure a positive marathon experience. You may not hit your goal time, but it’s a lot better than bonking and doing the dreaded survival walk/jog over the last few miles.

Finally, failing on 3 or more of the aforementioned factors means you must adjust your goal. Be smart, adjust to a slower goal pace (usually 5-15 seconds per mile slower than your planned goal pace) and set yourself up for a positive race experience. Shore up these missing factors before your next marathon so you can really nail your goal.

Over the years, this evaluation has served me—as a marathon coach and marathoner myself—very well. It has allowed me to better help marathoners set their goals and improve the likelihood of a positive experience.

Greg McMillan, M.S., provides training plans and online coaching for runners of all abilities through his website.