Of all the technical aspects of running, pacing is probably the easiest to understand, but one of the hardest to put into practice. Here we take a look at the art and science of staying on pace ...
What is pacing?
Simply put pacing is the distribution of energy use during exercise. It’s not the same as ‘pace’ (which is the length of time it takes a runner to cover a certain distance), but the concepts are related. Someone who wants to run a 10k in 45 minutes needs to run each kilometer in around 4 minutes and 30 seconds. How they achieve that is where ‘pacing’ comes in.
Basic pacing strategies
According to sport scientist Kevin G. Thomson, PhD., athletes make use of several different pacing strategies: all-out (maximum effort throughout), positive pacing (a quick start and slower finish), even pacing, negative pacing (starting slowly but building up speed over the race) and variable pacing (changing pace throughout).
Which of the strategies a runner employs depends on several factors, including race distance, route profile, wind speed, fuelling, temperature, hydration and whether they’re running tactically to tire out an opponent.
A 100m race requires an all-out effort, all the time; a half-marathon generally benefits from an even pace and an economical running style. Most recreational runners find aiming for an even pace the best approach.
What happens when we get pacing wrong?
That depends. Spend too much energy in the early stages of a race - or beyond what conditions and fitness allow - and you’ll burn out long before the finish due to depleted glycogen stores, reduced anaerobic capacity and reaching VO2 Max too soon.
Of course, the opposite is also possible: spend too little energy and you’ll miss your target time by a barn door.
Proper pacing is also important in training. Doing all your practice runs at one pace is not only dull, it also won’t help you maximise your potential. Long, slow runs are essential in endurance training to help train your body to use fat effectively and conserve your glycogen for as long as possible. Speedwork like fartleks and intervals, or sustained efforts like tempo runs, help improve running economy and leg turnover for race readiness.
To determine your ideal training and racing paces, use an online calculator. Type in your target race distance and time - or a recent race result - and these handy tools provide breakdowns for each type of training run you build into your plan. Expect your long-run target pace to come out around 90 seconds slower per mile than your target race pace, and your speedwork (depending on the length of the interval) up to two minutes faster.
Practice makes perfect
There are no shortcuts to getting to know how different paces feel. The only way to do it is by regular practice, in training and racing.
Most amateur runners don’t have an inner sense of pace - yet - so they rely on technology. Modern GPS watches offer some combination of current or average pace, with various signals if the pace drops below or exceeds a set pace.
It’s important to note that constantly glancing at your watch can have a disruptive effect on your pace, not to mention your morale, if your run isn’t going to plan. Listen to your body instead, and think of pacing as a ‘feeling’ as well as a speed.
Your breathing, leg turnover, stride and heart rate monitor can provide useful data that become easier to read with experience. Being in touch with how your body feels at a particular point or in certain conditions also lets you build up a mental database to draw on in future races. That’s why training on similar terrain or conditions to the target race (or even the course itself if possible) is so useful.
If you find practising pacing difficult in training, enter a few races before your ‘main event’ to practise in race conditions. Learn from your experience - whatever the outcome.
Running with someone experienced to help keep you on pace, whether it’s a friend, clubmate or official pacemaker, can be effective too. Studies show that people running with others believe themselves to be running faster, or the running easier, in the company of another - even if, in reality, their performance is much the same. Beware, though, this strategy doesn’t work so well when runners are mismatched in terms of experience or expectations.
We've all heard the advice ‘Pace yourself. Save energy and finish strong.’ It sounds simple enough, so why is it so hard? Why do even supremely conditioned elite athletes mismanage their energy supplies and fail to finish strong? Pacing: Individual Strategies for OptimalPerformance examines the latest science, research, and application in search of answers. SRP: £16.99 visit www.humankinetics.com for more details.