When it comes to pacing, top runners aren’t just fast – they’re also consistent. Like finely calibrated metronomes, they quickly dial into a target pace and then hold it steady mile after mile. If you race, this skill is essential: slip off the pace and you lose time that you can’t claw back; accelerate too much and you might pay with a late-race fade. If you run simply for fitness, a reliable sense of pace is just as valuable: you will better achieve the purpose of each workout.
But it’s easier said than done. ‘The ability to run by feel is a skill that has to be learned,’ says Steve Magness, an assistant coach at Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project in Portland, US. In a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers found that experienced college athletes could hit their pace to within about 10 seconds per mile, while less seasoned recreational runners were off by an average of more than 40 seconds a mile. But simply relying on a GPS isn’t sufficient, as you’ll never learn how to monitor internal feedback. Here’s how to fine-tune your inner pacemaker.
1 Build awareness
‘Most beginners have very little pace sense when they first start running,’ says Matt Hart, an ultra runner and endurance coach1. To fix that, he suggests paying attention to how your pace relates to your sense of effort. Which paces feel easy, medium and hard? By focusing on cues such as your breathing and the rhythm of your cadence, you’ll ingrain in your body the physical sensations that correspond to different speeds.
Feel it Twice a week, time a mile in the middle of an easy run. Don’t speed up or slow down – the goal is just to gather information to calibrate your internal speedometer. In your training diary, note your time and an effort rating on a scale of one to 10, along with comments on how your breathing and legs felt. After a few weeks, do the same thing during tempo runs to fine-tune your faster pace. Then try timing miles near the beginning and end of workouts to learn the difference between, say, tempo or goal race pace on tired legs and fresh legs. You should spend at least a month in this awareness-building phase.
2 Ditch the gadgets
Some runners depend on the figures on their wrist to tell them their speed. ‘Instead of relying on a sense of pace, they turn to the GPS every 15 seconds and run like they’re in stop-and-go traffic,’ says Jeff Gaudette, head coach of training website RunnersConnect2. Feel it Once you’re familiar with your split times during certain runs, start trying to guess these times – before you look at your watch. Initially, you may be a minute or more off per mile, but you’ll get better. ‘It takes about six months of paying attention to feeling pace to consistently get within 10 seconds per mile of your goal pace,’ Gaudette says.
3 Shift gears
To be able to call up any given pace on demand, the final step is to practise shifting back and forth between paces. ‘Quite often people are great at hitting a certain pace, but only if they can lock into it and stay there,’ Magness says. But in the real world, hills, sharp turns or crowds can break your rhythm. Workouts that call for pace changes will help you quickly resume your desired pace after a disruption.
Feel it The simplest exercise is to shift between two speeds. For example, alternate between half a mile at your tempo run pace and half a mile at one minute per mile slower than tempo pace for two to four miles. To begin with, check your watch every quarter of a mile to ensure you’re hitting your targets. Then check every half a mile. Use this exercise for all your training paces.
It’s all in the timing - fortnightly workouts to build your pace sense
Do the splits
Run 10-15 x 200m at 5K pace or a bit faster with 60-second rests. Try to keep each split within a five-second range.
Start a three- to eight-mile run at your easy pace. After each mile, pick up the pace by 10 seconds per mile until you hit tempo pace or finish the run, whichever comes first. Check your pace only at the end of each mile.
Limit your feedback
Run 3 x 1600m (four laps of a track) at 10K pace with a three-minute rest between each. For the first repeat, check your splits after each lap. For the second, check every other lap. For the final repeat, check your time only at the finish. Aim to get within 10 seconds of your goal time; work up to within five seconds.