Secrets of Successful Pacing (Preview)

We've got all the answers on how to set - and maintain - your pace over your next race distance


Posted: 17 April 2012
by Christine Aschwanden and Nicole Falcone

His start hardly foreshadowed history. On February 19 this year, Mo Farah went out conservatively in the indoor 5000m at the Aviva Grand Prix in Birmingham, hanging as far as 20m off the leaders during the early laps of the 200m track.

But, as pacemaker Scott Overall bowed out after 2000m, Farah edged up on to the shoulder of American rival Galen Rupp for the next five laps. Rupp surged ahead at the bell but, roared on by the home crowd, Farah got back into pole position with barely 100m left to go. He won, clocking a British and European indoor 5000m record of 13:10.60 in the process. 

Plan ahead

According to Farah, it was his adherence to a pacing plan that put him in a position to make history: "We had a plan going into the race. We wanted to start off steady and work our way through," he said.

Whether you're a world-class runner like Farah or out there simply to cross the line, finding the optimal pace can mean the difference between success and suffering.

Determining such a pace seems pretty straightforward: if you want to run a 3:40 marathon, say, it's a simple calculation to figure out that you need to run 8:23-minute miles to meet your goal. But, just like in other life situations, on the race route, surprises can shred your best pacing plan to pieces.

"We would like to be robots who can turn the dial to goal pace and just run, but we're human," says Greg McMillan (mcmillanrunning.com), who has coached elite runners, including several Olympians. "When we encounter a slight hill or turn, it makes all the difference."

To run your best in your next race, consider the following questions, and then put the answers towards a new and improved pacing strategy.

Q. What is the secret to successful pacing?

Pacing isn't something most of us are born knowing how to do. Instead, like many skills, it takes practice. Learn what your goal pace feels like in your legs, in your gut and in your head prior to race day.

The best way to prepare for any distance is to find your rhythm in the months before the race. Training at the right pace can provide the repetition needed to sustain your goal pace - and build confidence.

Pace Plan

Before your next race, McMillan suggests measuring a loop that's half to three-quarters of the distance of your event and practise running it at your goal pace.

"Time how long it takes you to get round your loop," says McMillan. "Every other week, repeat this run at the same pace and take note of how your body responds." Over time, you'll learn how  your breathing, heart rate and overall effort feel at this level.

Q. Will my mental state affect my pace?

When you run, your brain receives dozens of physiological signals from the rest of your body: how hard your muscles are working, the temperature of your body, how fast your heart is beating and so on. Your brain then processes the signals into sensations that you experience as perception of effort.
But it's not just physiological signals that determine how hard your pace feels.

"Expectation is just as crucial," says Ross Tucker, an exercise physiologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Here's what he means: if you're in the midst of a PB attempt, you expect to be working hard, so your brain will interpret the physiological signals and effort perception as signs that you're on pace. As a result, your effort level may feel quite manageable.

But if you're out for an easy run and your training partner goads you into finishing at race-day pace, then you're likely to feel exhausted. That's because "your expectations and physiological feedback are completely mismatched", says Tucker.

Pace Plan

Make sure you set realistic expectations about how you'll feel during your race, erring towards discomfort. Then, to offset the expected pain, use positive stimuli - such as family members cheering you on at designated points along the course - to keep you on pace.

Discover the perfect tools to help you keep pace on race day.

Find out why you should join one of our Runner's World pacing groups.

Subscribers can view the rest of the tips in the full article. Not a magazine subscriber? Subscribe online now to make a significant saving on the newsstand price.


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