Hacking Your Marathon Time

Hacking Your Marathon Time

I’m analytical and a big fan of the biohacking movement. Hacking is making simple adjustments to the way we do things, to become more efficient and get the most bang for your buck.

The 2006 Denver Marathon was my first marathon, I ran it in 3:28:55. That next year, I ran a 2:58:47, when you’re simply starting out in the marathon, the fun part is it’s easy to knock off huge chunks of time. From 2007 to 2011, I have managed to get my marathon PR down to a 2:43:50.

I’m at a point now where I am fighting, clawing, doing anything I can to improve a minute here and there. In turn, I’m going to share all the little things that I do or look at it, to try to marginally improve my speed and reduce my time, with the end goal of breaking 2:40:00.

Reduce Shoe Weight

When you run, your leg acts like a pendulum and every time you lift your leg you have to pick up the weight of your shoe. Thus, one of the easiest ways to run faster is to simply wear lighter shoes. According to Jack Daniels, the legendary coach, not the distiller, for every ounce of shoe weight reduced, you’ll run .83 seconds faster per mile.

If you’re currently training in a 12-ounce shoe and moved down to a 9-ounce shoe, that three-ounce reduction per shoe weight can translate to running approximately five seconds per mile faster.

However, at some point the law of diminishing returns becomes applicable. Not everyone can handle a racing flat and racing shoes have gotten ridiculously light. My last few marathons have been run in the Mizuno Universe, and the Mizuno Universe 5 tips the scales at 2.8 ounces. Regardless, try racing in a lighter shoe, there is also the psychological benefit. Putting on a pair of racing flats or lightweight trainers is analogous to swinging a baseball bat with the donuts on, removing the donuts and stepping up to the plate, it simply feels good.

Find Your Racing Weight

Running in high school and in college, I never thought about how weight affects performance. I was a thin runner and in good shape, the odd thing was that at 6’0″, 162lbs, I was still one of the heaviest guys on our cross country team. It wasn’t until I read “Running with the Buffaloes” post-college, in the book, Coach Mark Wetmore tells his runners that “you should look like a skeleton with a condom pulled over your skull.”

Yes, that’s a pretty ridiculous comment, but it got me thinking. If I was just a few pounds lighter, how much would that improve my performance? After reading Matt Fitzgerald’s Racing Weight, I made a point of slimming down for key races and found that my racing weight was 157lbs. In general, for every pound of weight loss, your marathon time will improve by about ~56 seconds. Theoretically, if I run a 3:00:00 marathon at 162lbs, at 158lbs, I could run a 2:56:14. Here is a handy calculator that you can use.

Once again the law of diminishing returns is applicable, but I think it’s safe to say that 99% of runners in a marathon could easily drop a few pounds before they toe the line.

Course Matters

If you’re gunning for a fast time and/or PR, look for a fast course and avoid running at altitude. This Runners World article from 2007, breaks down the numbers.

This is the key takeaway.

In other words, every 100 feet of climbing costs the best athletes a little less than 20 seconds. Marginal Boston qualifiers lose about 30 seconds, and 10-minute milers lose about 40 seconds.That’s uphill. Davies also tested downgrades. Not surprisingly, he found that descents don’t give back as much as ascents take away. In fact, they only speed you up by about 55 percent as much as the corresponding upgrades slow you down.

When looking for a fast course, look at the elevation gain of the course. You can also look for a downhill marathon if you’re wanting an added boost.

Temperature Matters

Running a marathon in October, the weather is the wildcard. A race like the Chicago Marathon can have nice and cool weather like it did in 2013 or it can be 70 degrees at the start like it was in 2007. The optimal marathon running temperature is 41-50 degrees and for every five-degree increase in temperature, times slow by .4 percent.

If you’re looking to run a fast marathon, look for a race that will likely have ideal running temperatures. Generally, races in October can be a crapshoot, but a race like California International Marathon almost always has ideal conditions, with the exception of last year! California, in general, doesn’t have the variability in temperatures that can hit the Rocky Mountain Region or the Midwest.

Negative Split the Marathon

Easier said than done, but be a slave to your Garmin and watch your average pace early in the race. I try to negative split all of my marathons, I’ve accomplished this task more times than not, but it’s hard. You have to have a lot of confidence that you can run the second 13.1 miles faster than your first 13.1 miles, especially when you get to that second half and your legs are tired.

If you think you’re going to bank time by going out too fast, it doesn’t work that way. The Hansons are fond of saying that for every second per mile you go out too fast in the first half of the race, you lose two seconds on the back end.

There is the physiological argument and also the psychological argument. I HATE getting passed in the late stages of a race, it kills my confidence and often times negative thoughts creep into my head, that I’m hurting and only getting slower. However, when you negative split a marathon, there is not a better feeling than blowing by people in the final miles and passing people boost confidence and only helps you to run faster. You have to decide, do you want to be the hunter or the hunted in those final miles?

Set Realistic Expectations

When talking to fellow runners who have a marathon coming up, the inevitable question comes up “What time are you shooting for?” I’m amazed at the answers and am not always sure how they get their expected goal time. I love the McMillan Calculator, use it to help you predict what you are capable of and it’s a great way to compare your 5K time to your 10K time.

I also love running a half marathon 2-4 weeks before my goal marathon, so that I can establish a goal time for my marathon. If you run a 1:30:00 half marathon, that translates into a 3:09:24 marathon. Thus, it’s probably not a bad idea to start off your marathon running 7:14 average pace and if you can run faster, do so in the late stages of the race.

One thing you will come to understand about the McMillan Calculator is that it is skewed for some people, either moving down in distance or moving up. For example, my endurance is more developed than my speed, so my marathon time predicts a 5K time that I can’t even come close to, however for most people it works in the opposite direction, especially if they are new to running.


Research shows that caffeine enhances performance in the marathon, by reducing the perception of pain. One thing that you have to be careful of is that caffeine can also cause GI issues, so self-experiment before the race. I also have switched from drinking caffeinated beverages before racing to taking a few caffeine pills, which some studies have shown to work better. Lastly, if you are a habitual caffeine drinker, Matt Fitzgerald recommends abstaining from caffeine a week or two prior to the race to boost the benefit.

Recent studies have shown that acetaminophen (Tylenol) can boost performance when taken before a race, by reducing the ratings of perceived exertion.

Also, look into Beet Juice, never tried it personally.

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