How to Get Through the Last 10K of a Marathon

nyc marthon central park
New York City marathoners in the final miles of the race. Rudi Von Briel/Getty

Veteran marathon runners say that the race really begins at the 20-mile mark, when you buckle up for a grueling 10K run to the finish line. Indeed, the final 6.2 miles of a marathon is often where dreams are lost or accomplished and runners figure out if their training and race strategy were good enough to reach their goal.

To help you perform your absolute best during the last 10K of a marathon, here’s some advice for what to do during training and on race day:

BEFORE THE RACE
 

  • Pick up the pace at the end of your long runs. During training, most of your long runs should be done at an easy conversational pace. However, picking up the pace for the final third for some of your long runs will help you feel more mentally and physically prepared for the marathon. Try running at your goal marathon pace (GMP) or about 10 seconds faster than GMP. Running at GMP towards the end of your run is a good test because you'll be picking up the pace when your legs are already fatigued. And if you can run at your MP (or faster) in those last few miles, that's a good indication that your goal time is realistic.
     
  • Practice running on the last 6.2 miles of the course.  It’s not always logistically possible, but if you’re running a local marathon or you have the opportunity to visit the destination before the race, running the actual course before your race will help you feel immensely more prepared for the race.
     
  • Work some mile repeats into your training. Mile repeats are one of the best speed workouts you can do to sharpen your speed, strength, and mental toughness. Try doing mile repeats once a week, starting with 2-3 repeats and working your way up to 6 repeats. You should run them at about 10-15 seconds faster than your realistic goal marathon pace and recover (at an easy pace) for a half-mile in between repeats.
     
  • Do hill repeats during training. Even if there aren’t any hills in the final 10K of your marathon, hill repeats are a great way to practice pushing through fatigue and discomfort. The key is to push your effort up the hill – you should run the uphill at a 5K-race effort. And then recover on the way down. Choose a hill that’s about 400 meters long and start with 4 to 5 hill repeats and work your way up to 8.

DURING THE RACE

When you hit that 20 mile mark (which some marathoners refer to as “the wall”), you’ll need an arsenal of strategies to get through that last 6.2 miles. Here are some things to try:

  • Be smart in the first 20 miles.  Some runners suffer in the final 10K of a marathon because they went out too fast. You need to hold back in the beginning, especially in the first 10 miles. Don’t push the pace because you feel good and think you can “put time in the bank.” This strategy will catch up to you later, and you’ll end up losing more time than you “saved” by slowing down in the final six miles.
     
  • Use the spectators.  Focusing on others outside of the race can help take your mind off of any pain or discomfort you’re feeling. Look at the spectators as you’re running. Read their signs, listen to their cheers, focus on their faces or their hands clapping.  It’ll be a good distraction, and an important reminder of why you’re doing it.
     
  • Talk to yourself.  Whether you’re using mantras or giving yourself a pep talk, an inner dialogue is a good distraction and can really help you put mind over matter.  “I repeat to myself ‘Stay strong’ and ‘You've got this,’” says Sandy Allen-Bard, a Team in Training coach and nurse practitioner, who has run 25 marathons. “I think of what my patients go through, which gives me the inner strength to get through the tough miles at the end.”
     
  • Get energy from fellow runners. If you’re racing, it can be discouraging if someone passes you or if you see a lot of runners ahead of you. In her book, Kara Goucher’s Running for Women, Olympic marathoner Kara Goucher recommends that you try to see other competitors as your friends. “The idea is to beat the distance, not the person next to you,” she writes. “So hang in there, stay positive, and take positive energy from everyone around you.”
     
  • Forget about your legs.  “As you approach the last 10k of the marathon it's important that you focus on everything but your legs, since they tend to be slightly tired at this point,” says Michael Conlon, a Team for Kids coach, physical therapist, and the owner of Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York City.  “Think about your breathing and your posture. Ensure your breathing is controlled. Inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth. Keep your head up, your shoulders relaxed, elbows bent at 90 degrees, gently swinging your arms back and forth. Let your arms take you to the finish line.”
     
  • Break the race down into small chunks. Once you hit the 20-mile mark, focus on a short-term goal, like getting to mile 21 or to the next water stop. When you reach that point, pick another close target so you can zero in on that. The race will go a lot faster using that strategy. 

Continue Reading