How to Race Your Way to the Marathon


I love the marathon but there is one big problem with it. It’s an “all your eggs in one basket” undertaking. What if things don’t go well in the marathon? (And, as we all know, A LOT can go wrong despite near perfect training.) I have seen this scenario so many times. A runner devotes a few months to preparing, makes all the sacrifices that training for a marathon requires (and requires of your loved ones) and then something goes awry on race day. She’s left feeling deflated like all the hard work was for nothing.

But what if you can get to marathon day without all your eggs in one basket? One approach to preparing for a marathon is to run a series of races as part of training, so you have several chances to “get something” from the training cycle even in marathon day doesn’t go your way.

Racing your way to a marathon PR is fun and confidence building. It gets you connected with other runners and your community. Plus, the excitement of a great performance can carry you through on those days it can be tough to motivate because you’re tired from all the months of heavy training. Here are three reasons you’ll benefit from this approach to getting marathon-ready and how to put this strategy into practice.


For many years I did the USATF Minnesota Team Circuit. The circuit was a collection of races at a variety of distances in the spring leading into Grandma’s Marathon in June. The circuit races begin with the Irish Run 8k the third weekend in March, exactly 12 weeks out from Grandma’s. The races are nicely spaced 2-3 weeks apart. They’re on fast, certified courses, and have great competition. For being a cold, wet, and sloppy place to train six or more months out of the year, Minnesota has a lot of fast runners per capita from high school all the way to masters and grandmasters participants. There are some intense, life-long rivalries among individuals and the various teams. After the long winter of primarily base training, the tension on the starting line at the Irish Run is palpable. We wait for the crack of the gun in quiet contemplation. In 30 minutes or so, we’ll know a lot about how the next three months will unfold. ‘Who put in the big miles over the winter? Did I do enough? Too much? Are those Christmas cookies hanging over the band of my shorts?’

Doing a circuit of races leading into my goal marathon helped me become a better racer. When you race every few weeks, your body becomes accustomed to the physical effort and mental stress racing requires. Also, a racing circuit took the pressure off once marathon day arrived. Racing was routine. The body thrives on routine.


Up next in April were 5k and 10k races. In May, I raced a mile, 10 mile and 25k. If I’d done the right amount of work over the winter months, I could plug each of these performances into the McMillan Calculator and have some hard evidence of my progress toward my marathon goal. I’m an “Endurance Monster” through and through, but even the mile race signaled something important about my fitness and speed improvements since the beginning of the race season. I “trained through” all of these races with the exception of the 25k. I would do a “mini peak,” the week before this race as the penultimate event of the training cycle. Although I was doing fewer miles, I kept the intensity high during the mini-peak so as not to let my body think I was done for the season.


Most of us train primarily alone. We need something periodically to help us push into the red zone. As you get older, maintaining speed and intensity in your workouts is particularly important because these systems are rapidly deteriorating unless you’re working hard to maintain them. I’d run the speed or fartlek session race week on Tuesday or Wednesday, and use the race as my tempo effort. I’d fit in my weekly long run either by doing a very long warm up and cool down pre and post race or by adding a short run second run on in the evening. If the race was Saturday, considering I was racing 10k or under, I’d just keep to my normal Sunday long run.


A race coming up on the calendar will keep you honest and focused on your ultimate goal. Also, worst-case scenario does happen marathon day. Despite all you’ve done. It’s 75 degrees and 95% humidity at the start of your race. You got food poisoning at the pasta feed, or you caught a nasty upper respiratory bug the week of the race. The marathon ends up being a sufferfest, and you finish feeling like all the work was a waste of time. Hey, wait a minute… you had that amazing season of races where you improved every time you stepped on the start line. You even set new personal bests at 10k and half-marathon this season. You proved you could hit your goal under better circumstances, and next time you will. Racing your way to a marathon best is a win-win situation. You get that perfect day where everything clicks, and you run with total confidence you can hit your goal. OR… Say you don’t because of “unforseeables.” Oh well. You can live with having a bad day. This time you had other eggs in other baskets.

Next, I suggest you read Greg McMillan’s 8 tips for shaving seconds off a PR in Simple Tactics for Successful Racing.


Katie McGee is a McMillan Running Coach. Learn more about our Personal Coaching where you can train with a coach like Katie by your side to plan your training and talk about race strategy, performance nutrition, injury prevention, stretching, and much more.

“I have achieved my goals for 5K, 10K, and now a Half Marathon – thanks McMillan Running!”
-James W

Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

Read Greg’s Bio




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