If you’re a seasoned runner with a few marathons under your belt and a packed race calendar as integral to your year as Christmas and Hannukah, you may find yourself in a unique position. Once you’ve run all your desired distances and achieved your PBs, where does your running go?
Of course you can always run further or faster. But for many of us this is often the moment we switch from ‘runner’ to ‘coach’. I don't mean quitting your day job to become a personal trainer (although I hear it’s a fantastic career move) but as soon as we runners achieve our personal goals, we tend to set about trying to convince all the non-runners around us to do the same.
The problem with this evangelical approach to the cult of running is once you start preaching, you may find yourselves in the position of chief pacer. ‘You should definitely enter the Pinkleton Bottom Spring Marathon,’ you implore your dubious non-running friends. ‘I’ll pace you.’ Those three little words sound simple enough. You’ve run a few races; you’ve achieved a handful of PBs. How hard can it be to pace your newbie friend around their first big event?
In my bid to persuade my sister to run her first half marathon in February, those fateful words slipped from my lips a few weeks ago. Although it seemed like a great idea at the time, I had conveniently forgotten how crap I am at pacing. My PBs? They were thanks to the pacing prowess of my brilliant friends and sod all to do with me. Left to my own devices I would happily waddle round every race chatting to strangers at the back. So how does one successfully pace a friend without losing sleep, slipping up or completely ruining someone else’s race?
Set the pace
As experienced long distance runners will know only too well, even if you’re not aiming for a PB, good pacing is integral to race day. Carefully distributing your effort levels over the given time can be the difference between a fun day out and a DNF.
‘If a race is not paced properly there could be a number of disappointing outcomes,’ says personal trainer Matt Roberts. ‘Your friend might not finish, they might “blow up” or hit the wall by starting off too fast and suffering for it for the remainder of the race, or they could get to the finish and feel like they have lots left in the tank and could have run much faster.’
Know your runner
Pacing is a subtle art and depends on the runner in question as well as your time keeping skills. No matter how on point your pacing may be, it helps if you know your runner. Some lucky people are metronomes who perform like clockwork and run every race on the nose, but the majority of us are a bit more haphazard, so it helps if you identify your runner's strengths and weaknesses before the big day.
‘Understanding the ability level of your friend and the pace most suitable for them to run over the specified distance is essential,’ explains Roberts. ‘This will ensure they have the best race they can run and ultimately leave them feeling satisfied with their performance once they have crossed the finish line.’
Before you start training, sit down and have a chat with your friend. ‘It’s important to find out what their race goals are, what they would like to get out of the race and how is best for you to help them achieve their goals,’ Roberts explains.
‘Do they just want to finish? Or do they have a specific finish time in mind? If it’s their first time racing over that distance, suggest that your runner sets a couple of race day goals. The A goal could be the ideal outcome, e.g. “I want to complete the 10K in sub 60 minutes”. The B goal could be “I will run the whole way” and the C goal could be “I will finish the race”. Having a range of goals, graded in difficulty, is a way of making sure they meet at least one goal and don’t feel like they’ve failed if things don’t go perfectly.’
Know your race
Various factors which you can’t control can affect race day, including weather, nutrition, sleep, crowds and mindset. But one area you can research to give your runner the edge is the race. Is it hilly? How winding are the roads? What’s the weather usually like at this time of year? And how big is the running field? Do your research ahead of race day, as you’re more likely to succeed if you prepare for any eventuality and plan ahead. Once you know a bit more about the course, factor the route into your pacing strategy. For example, advise your runner to save some energy for a monster hill or place yourself in the correct starting pen if it’s a very busy running field.
Put in the training
Efficient pacemaking involves more than just good timing skills. ‘If someone wants to run 6 minutes per km this could be done in a number of ways,’ says sports agent Tom Payn. ‘You could sprint off at 3 minutes per km pace and then walk or you could jog slowly and then sprint to make the time, but both ways are obviously very uneconomical. More important than timing skills is the ability to run a very consistent pace, which comes from a lot of running and practice at hitting specific paces.’
A 400m running track is the perfect training ground to learn how to perfect your pace. ‘Find a running track with an exact distance measured out where you can practice running a consistent pace, checking the time every quarter of a mile,’ explains Payn. ‘I would recommend running 10 x 400m with 1 or 2 minutes recovery and try to run each 400m in the same time. Once you can do it without thinking, you are ready to pace!’
Don’t start too fast
Come race day, you will be tempted to zoom off with the front of the pack, but to efficiently set the pace the first mile of the race is often the most important.
‘Start off conservatively,’ says Payn. ‘It’s better to lose a few seconds in the earlier part of the race, you will only pay for it later on if you go out too fast. Then keep the pace consistent – there’s nothing worse than being paced by someone who keeps surging and slowing, you can never find a rhythm and will just end up getting annoyed.’
‘25 years of running and racing experience tells me that the first mile everyone always goes off too fast,’ adds Payn. ‘I try and get the athlete to hold back a bit but still expect to be a few seconds ahead of time. The race then settles down and we quickly get on to a nice consistent rhythm.’
‘Make sure you have an agreed plan for pacing on race day and stick to it!’ agrees Roberts. ‘Pace is the key to performing well in a race and helping your friend achieve their goals. Maintaining the pace allows your friend to run to their full potential through the different parts of the race, even if sometimes other runners are passing them. Don’t let them get caught up in the moment and get carried away with themselves. Remember to run the agreed race, sticking to your planned pacing strategy and not get swept along with runners faster than yourself.’
Keep one eye on the clock
For efficient pacing, it’s worth investing in a reliable timepiece. ‘A good watch helps to perfect the art of pacing,’ says Payn. ‘But GPS watches can often be slightly different than the exact race distance and can be misleading. A stopwatch or countdown timer are a useful tool to keep a check on pace during races.’
It’s also worth utilising the mile markers to maintain your pace. ‘When I’m pacing I use a countdown timer on my watch to give me a reminder every 3 minutes 33 seconds (or whatever the km pace)’ explains Payn. ‘If I am on pace then this will beep at exactly the time I pass the km marker, doing this gives me a reminder every 3.5 minutes (you can use mile splits if there aren’t km markers). The athlete will run directly behind me, just looking at my heels and following the pace, trying to stay as relaxed as possible and conserve as much energy as they can. They will also get a small streamline effect, which helps.’
Encourage your runner
While it may be tempting to bark orders at your runner should they start to flag, be mindful of their preferred approach. Running long distance can be an emotional rollercoaster and any negativity could affect their mood and in turn slow them down. Discuss what works best for your runner before the race and then apply this strategy on the day.
‘Motivation is always tailored to the athlete,’ says Payn. ‘Some prefer the tough love approach and some a more gentle approach. Generally I like to remind an athlete of all the hard work they have put in during training and that this is the fun bit.’
‘Being tough can have an adverse effect on the wrong person,’ agrees endurance athlete Darren Grigas. ‘The gentle approach and focusing on the positives usually does the trick.’
‘I will also often try and break the race distance down into smaller segments,’ adds Payn. ‘For instance if there are three miles to go I tell the athlete to focus on the next mile - “it’s only four laps of the track”. Once they get through that we work on the next mile and then it’s only a mile to go. You can focus on landmarks or other athletes in front. Trying to distract the athlete from the pain with positive reinforcement does wonders.’
Don’t forget to have fun
Unless you’re dead set on a career as an elite sports coach, chances are your runner is an amateur. After months of gruelling training, race day can feel like a serious business. But it’s important to remember - and to remind your runner - that this is a hobby and it’s supposed to be fun!
‘Enjoy it,’ says Payn. ‘It’s a rewarding experience pacing a friend to a PB or a new challenge, so make sure you are fit enough to do the job and run with a smile!’
The good news is once your runner has finished the race you're guaranteed to feel the same post-race buzz that usually only comes from completing a new challenge. And if your runner achieved their goal thanks to your canny pacing, then it's definitely their turn to get the beers in.