In a recent study, Barry Smyth and Aonghus Lawlor at University College Dublin found that, on average, male runners took 4 minutes and 29 seconds longer to complete a marathon than female runners of equal fitness. The reason? Poor pacing. Specifically, the male runners tended to start too fast and fade.
You couldn’t ask for a better scientific illustration of why pacing is important. Simply put, poor pacing is wasteful. When you arrive at the starting line of a race, you have the potential to perform at a certain level, determined mainly by the fitness you’ve accumulated through your training. How close you come to realizing your full potential on a given day is largely determined by how well you pace. If you start too fast, you’ll wear out and have to run some slow, ineffective miles later in the race. Pace too slowly and you leave some potential in the tank. If your effort is erratic throughout the race, you will waste a certain percentage of your hard-earned potential.
Not surprisingly, elite runners take pacing skill quite seriously. In his book Out of Thin Air: Running Magic and Wisdom from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia, Michael Crawley quotes the head of an elite running club, Coach Meseret, saying of his athletes, “If they run on the track and I tell them 66 seconds and they come around in 65 that is a yellow card. But if they run 64 then that is a red card for me, they will not lead again.”
One second per lap equals five seconds per mile, which isn’t much. If you were held to this same standard in your training, how long would you survive before earning a red card? Judging by my experience coaching recreational runners, not very long. The problem isn’t lack of aptitude. It’s that most recreational runners have never had a Coach Meseret help them learn how to pace effectively.
Until now! I’ve spent the past few years honing a systematic approach to developing pacing skill that is fully described in my forthcoming book, On Pace: Discover How to Run Every Race at Your Real Limit. Here are three of my favorite methods to cultivate pacing mastery.
Pacing is done mainly by feel. Throughout each race, runners are conscious of their perceived effort, or how hard they’re working in relation to their limit. As they make their way through the race, they continuously assess whether their present effort is sustainable for the remainder of the distance and fine-tune their pace accordingly.
In our tech-obsessed modern reality, we tend to assume we need to rely on fancy wearable devices to regulate our pace effectively, but this is not the case. One study found that supplying experienced athletes with inaccurate performance data during a time trial—that is, deceiving them into believing they’re going faster or slower than they really are—didn’t significantly affect their performance. Why? Because they trust their effort perceptions—and rightly so.
In fact, overreliance on device data thwarts pacing skill development by distracting runners from their perceptions of effort and slowing the process of learning how they should be feeling at various points in a race. A straightforward way to counteract data overreliance and facilitate perceptual self-trust is to run by feel, learning to regulate intensity without consulting any type of wearable device.
It’s OK and even helpful to record workout data in the usual way in these effort-based runs, but, importantly, you should wait until you’ve completed the session to study the numbers. This post-workout analysis will allow you to assess how well you did in controlling your running intensity by feel.
For example, suppose your training schedule calls for a workout featuring six two-minute intervals at 5K pace. To make this an effort-based run, run the two-minute segments at a pace you feel you could maintain for three times longer if going all-out. Capture your workout data on your watch, but don’t consult it during the run. When you get home, look to see how evenly you paced the six intervals and how close you were to your actual 5K pace.
You don’t have to make every run effort-based to improve your pacing skill, but do feature them regularly in your training.
Like any other skill, pacing requires repetition. No runner gets their pacing right the first time. But getting it wrong supplies the aspiring pacing master with information they can use to get closer to the mark the next time. Specific repetition is a technique that accelerates this learning process by simplifying it. Doing the same workout (or variations of the same workout) over and over until you’re able to pace it perfectly every time provides a foundation for pacing other workouts and races with confidence.
The workouts you choose to use for specific repetition should be relevant to your goals. For example, if you’re training for a 10K race, a good choice would be long intervals performed at lactate threshold intensity, or the fastest pace you could sustain for about one hour. During this workout, you’ll want to look at your watch and work to maintain a consistent pace for each repeat while you monitor how the effort feels at each stage of the workout.
Your sessions should not be identical every time, but instead should become gradually more challenging with each iteration so they boost your fitness level at the same time that they develop pacing skill. Here’s an example of a sensible sequence for a runner in 10K training:
Six Weeks Before a Race
4 x 1 mile at lactate threshold pace (LTP) with a quarter-mile jog between each mile.
Four Weeks Before a Race
5 x 1 mile at LTP with a quarter-mile jog between each mile.
Two Weeks Before a Race
6 x 1 mile @ LTP with a quarter-mile jog between each mile.
As you work your way through a sequence like this one, a subtle evolution will occur in how you experience it. You’ll gain a richer and more nuanced sense of your effort and pace, when to push and when to relax, and what the workout is telling you about your current levels of fitness and fatigue. You’ll feel more and more in control of your execution of the workouts, and this feeling of control will begin to spill over into your other runs.
When you’ve gotten the hang of specific repetition, you’re ready for novel pacing challenges, a more advanced pacing skill development tool that works in almost the opposite way. Whereas specific repetition develops pacing skill through familiarization, novel pacing challenges do so by testing your ability to adapt to unfamiliar twists on pacing.
An example is long accelerations, which entail speeding up continuously from an easy jog to a full sprint over a period of several minutes without consulting your watch. This is doable, as acceleration is something every runner can feel, and in fact, accelerating continuously for much shorter periods—say, ten to 20 seconds—is quite easy. But drawing out a continuous acceleration over several minutes demands a high degree of body awareness and a fine-tuned ability to control pace, which is what makes long accelerations a terrific novel pacing challenge.
Begin with a three-minute acceleration. From there, you can advance to six minutes, then 11 minutes. Then stack multiple accelerations (3:00 and 6:00, 3:00 and 11:00, 6:00 and 11:00, and ultimately 3:00, 6:00, and 11:00) in a single run. As you will discover, long accelerations are quite taxing, which makes them excellent fitness builders as well as effective pacing skill developers. But this also means that in workouts featuring multiple accelerations, you’ll want to separate them with a minute or two of passive rest followed by five to ten minutes of jogging.
Although you are forbidden from monitoring your pace during a long acceleration, you should record your workout data so you can look at it later and judge your performance. Focus on the pace curve. It should be gently upward-sloping from end to end, particularly if you run your accelerations on a flat route.
This is just one example. Other novel pacing challenges include precision splitting, where you try to complete each interval in a set of intervals in exactly the same time, and stretch intervals, where you try to cover a tiny bit more distance in each interval in a set, finishing with an all-out effort.
Don’t Forget to Have Fun
The biggest misstep I made when I started to teach pacing skill to runners in a programmatic way was unintentionally making some of them feel like every run was a test of some kind. That’s no fun, and it had a negative effect on the overall motivation and enjoyment for some athletes.
Never allow your pacing work to spoil the fun of training. As important as it is to be conscious of pace in certain runs that are earmarked for pacing skill development, it’s equally important to relegate pacing to the back of your mind for other runs. Pacing skill development is meant to be a project, not an obsession. And the overall process should be rewarding, not frustrating. Focus on the progress you’ve made rather than on how far away pacing mastery seems.